Things Aren’t Always How They Seem…That Goes For Writing, Too

It’s cold here in the desert right now.  My toes are still elongated ice cubes, even though they are encased in fuzzy double-layer socks.  I’m not going to give a temperature because the Midwesterners buried in snow may take this as bragging.  They may call me a wimp and send me hate emails.  It is true that it’s colder elsewhere, and maybe I am a wimp.  But I’m a freezing cold wimp…in the frigid, windy desert.

My four-legged kids appear to feel the chill, too.  I came upon my unmade bed this afternoon and found a surprise.  (Just so you know – I can’t make it in the morning because Cybil is in it.  Remember, what I had to go through just to change the sheets?)

Here’s a glimpse into how my sometimes-scary mind works:  Finding my cat hidden inside the folds of rumpled covers triggered the vague thought that sometimes, things aren’t as they seem.  This made me think of situations where things look different from reality.  Then, as I often do, I realized that this goes for writing, too.  See, it’s kind of like a toppling line of dominos, only not nearly as cool!

Just like friends aren’t always friends, the “free” gift with purchase isn’t free, or low-calorie fudge cake doesn’t taste like its rich cousin, I’ve realized that what I thought I had figured out about novel writing isn’t much at all.  If my writing journey was a trek up Mount Everest, I’d still be loading my pack with supplies right now 🙂

I have to say that not having a clue made starting a project simpler.  All I had when I wrote my first novel was a goal to actually finish (for once), a rough story outline and several characters with descriptions that I could reference.  The vague idea of what should happen in each chapter and my cast of characters was enough for me.  I didn’t know the rules, so I wasn’t bothered by them.  The lack of discipline showed in the editing, but I think my novel of “don’ts” still has promise.  Someday.

After reading “The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction” by Jeff Gerke, I understand that plot and character both have to be spot-on for the story to be memorable.  I have to strengthen my weaknesses, remember to show, not tell, fight predictability, and write interesting dialogue.  Oddly enough, the dialogue doesn’t worry me as much as the other aspects, which worries me 😛 Such pressure!

Deep breath.  Exhale.  I have to start somewhere.  Is it going to be plotting out the story?  Or is it going to be character development?  Both are vital to the story and somewhat depend on the other.  Oh, I can’t decide.  <groan> Wait!  I know how to choose…

Eenie, meenie, miney, moe…

Which came first – the chicken or the egg?  Do you plot your story or develop characters first?


26 thoughts on “Things Aren’t Always How They Seem…That Goes For Writing, Too

  1. Bill Greeves February 3, 2011 / 6:18 AM

    I have only done one full manuscript so far and honestly I think the plot and characters evolved at the same time. I remember jumping back and forth between the story itself and jotting notes on the back story of each character. Over time, both evolved drastically. As the story became more intricate, the characters lives got deeper. The story itself was a complete product of my mind, but the characters became a mix of snippets of people I know or had met with a touch of idiosyncrasy built in to make them more alive. I worked recently on a short story/poem experiment and it was all story first and the character, but even then the character is much lighter in this one…not sure if that is because of the brevity of the story or the format (poem vs prose). I am right now debating on which story I want to work on next, but I’ll let you know if I start to see a trend in my own writing!

    • jannatwrites February 3, 2011 / 7:26 PM

      Working on both at once may happen, but I’m leaning toward writing down a loose plot first, then starting some of the character notes. It makes sense that you’d have to have more intricate storylines and deeper characters in a novel-length work vs. a short story. Please do let me know if you see a trend in your writing. I’ll pay closer attention to mine, also 🙂 Thanks for the info on your writing process, Bill – it does help!

  2. duke1959 February 3, 2011 / 6:56 AM

    Cold is a matter of perception. Bundle up and remember many of those folks who are freezing now in about 4 months they will be toasting.

    • jannatwrites February 3, 2011 / 7:28 PM

      We are bundled, that’s for sure! In four months we’ll be well into the triple-digits, so I can’t think about that right now 🙂

  3. nrhatch February 3, 2011 / 8:25 AM

    Loved this: “Just like friends aren’t always friends, the “free” gift with purchase isn’t free, or low-calorie fudge cake doesn’t taste like its rich cousin, I’ve realized that what I thought I had figured out about novel writing isn’t much at all.”

    If we fully understood how daunting the trek would be, would we begin the climb?

    • jannatwrites February 3, 2011 / 7:31 PM

      That’s a good question, Nancy. I may have still done it if I understood the difficulty, but I may have prepared better 🙂 In my case, each writing is preparation for the next, so eventually, I’ll get to a point where I’m not halted by the thought of a beginning!

  4. Richard W Scott February 3, 2011 / 8:37 AM

    I have never had a moment’s doubt that I would end as a writer–although I’m hoping the end is still a long way off!

    Your question about what comes first is a good one, but the answer, for me at least, is tricky. See, sometimes it’s the characters, sometimes it’s the plot. Quite often it is a title that inspires the whole thing.

    Years ago there was a game being sold called “Pente”. I loved the word, and started thinking about various “fives”. A story–one I believe to be unique–came out of those thoughts, and while it started with the word, the title, “Pente”, and much of the work was done under that title, it eventually metamorphed into “FIVE”, a more accessible title for most readers.

    So, toss it all up in the air and see how and where it lands. Inspiration is where you find it, I think. ))

    Oh, and speaking of cold–we’re freezing out here, too, for the rest of the week. They say it won’t get above 67.


    • jannatwrites February 3, 2011 / 8:02 PM

      I hope the end is a long way off, too 🙂 The Pente/Five story sounds interesting. It’s funny where the inspiration comes from sometimes. Once I get started writing, I’m sure I’ll find my direction…it’s just the getting started part that’s getting in the way 😉

      Since you tossed a temperature out that’s warmer than we are, I’ll say that our highs are in the forties. 110 degrees, I can handle. 49 degrees? Not so much…

      Thanks for sharing your writing process. I’ll sit back and see what wants to be written first 🙂

  5. Melissa February 3, 2011 / 8:58 AM

    Wonderful post, Janna! I’m right there with you – my first novel was invigorating; it flew from my fingers with only a vague end destination in mind. Things would happen that I didn’t anticipate. I gave up my conscious mind and said, “Ok, Muse – just run with it!”

    Then I couldn’t edit it or fix it. My novice novel is shelved with only a promise of reincarnation at a much later date.

    NOW, though, I have learned so much more and stumbled upon the full blown realization of how much work is needed to create something both memorable and good. And that scares the ever loving pants off of my behind. Thus, it has taken me 5 months to complete 40k, which were scrapped anyway in an attempt to regain control of the story to make it “good”.

    For me, books were more than they seem – I thought it would be a simple task to write down the stories in my head. Wrong.

    • jannatwrites February 3, 2011 / 8:28 PM

      Aw, I hope you are able to come back to the first novel at some point. I know about reworking novels, too: my second project is on-hold because it got kind of boring by chapter 6, so I don’t think I came at it right. I think that’s part of the reason I’m staring at #3 wondering where to start 🙂

      I have to look at the bright side, though: all of this practice has to be making us better…right?

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Melissa. It’s strange how similar it is to mine.

  6. Carol Ann Hoel February 3, 2011 / 10:05 AM

    Great write, Janna. Thank you for sharing such words of wisdom.

    I am still working on my first novel. The characters came alive in my mind before I started writing. The dastardly deed committed against my characters came next, and the end, which I knew, was my goal. The journey developed as I went along. It was such fun to write the first draft!

    I’ve learned a lot about writing, little by little, and my editing journey has been long and arduous and isn’t over yet. I possibly may be 1/3 to 1/2 way up Mount Everest, sitting on a ledge, deciding whether I should call for a helicopter or go on. Are there cell phone towers up here? Oops! Blessings to you…

    • jannatwrites February 3, 2011 / 8:34 PM

      Thanks, Carol. I’m glad your first draft was fun to write – that’s the whole point of writing it! I’m not sure about the cell phone towers, so I think you’re just going to have to make it up to the top (finish the edits). You’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’ll finish 🙂 I wish you the best.

  7. SAS Fiction Girl February 3, 2011 / 1:27 PM

    I’ve tried devoting myself to either plotting a story or developing characters, but my Writer’s ADD kicks in and I have to shift focus from one to the other. And then sometimes the characters will inform the storyline and vice versa.
    Even if you fully draw the plot and characters ahead of time, it’s possible some part of your plans will change before the end of the novel.
    I’ve often read that fiction writers will let their characters determine the direction of the story as things unfold. In that case, advance plotting generally goes out the window anyway. It helps to be flexible and not married to an idea – that’s something I’m still working on. -Jen

    • jannatwrites February 3, 2011 / 8:38 PM

      “Writer’s ADD” – I like that. With your blog title, I’m not entirely surprised by this revelation 😉

      I would never have a tight plot plan because almost everything of any lenght that I’ve written so far has deviated from what I originally envisioned. I actually like the shifting focus idea where I’d work on the plot some and then switch to characters. I will make an effort to be flexible – that’s good advice.

      Thanks for the tips, Jen. I’ll take a deep breath and start somewhere…and then see what happens.

  8. widdershins February 3, 2011 / 10:22 PM

    My characters and plot seem to develop along side each other… that said, it’s a whole ‘nuther kettle of fisheses now that I have to write book 2 of the series, then book 3 etc…. that’s when a story outline becomes a necessity.

    • jannatwrites February 5, 2011 / 7:49 AM

      I can see how book 2 of a series can be a bit more complicated – especially when a third follows. I know I’m not ready for a series 🙂 I hope your outline serves you well, widdershins!

  9. J. P. Cabit February 4, 2011 / 7:01 AM

    I’ve found that a plot can develop while you’re developing characters. One thing leads to the next, to the next, and before you know it, your main character is related to John D. Rockefeller and you’ve got a bucketload of intrigue.

    Now, all that said, usually I outline first.

    • jannatwrites February 5, 2011 / 7:50 AM

      For my first novel, I did the outline first and then cast the characters (so to speak). I’m leaning toward doing that again, but I know I need to spend more time on character development. Thanks for sharing your process, JP!

  10. 36x37 February 4, 2011 / 6:22 PM

    I love your line about not wanting to give the temperature in your town because you don’t want Midwesterners to think you’re bragging. Ha!

    I’m always game to complain about Ohio winters. Then I hear about places like South Dakota at -40 degrees. I can’t believe that kind of cold actually exists.

    Stay warm this weekend!

    • jannatwrites February 5, 2011 / 7:57 AM

      I can’t even imagine anything below zero. I think I would die. I’m not being dramatic; it’s the truth Those temperatures do explain why we have so many winter residents from those states (tons of license plates from IL, OH, SD, PA & MI). You stay warm, too. And feel free to complain about the Ohio cold 🙂

  11. jesswords10 February 4, 2011 / 8:00 PM

    I loved your analogy of “if my writing journey were like climbing mt. everest, I’m still packing my supplies.” ME TOO! It’s really overwhelming at times to keep all the rules straight and just get the words down. I’m almost regretting what I did put down during NaNoWriMo because chunks of it don’t follow “good writing rules.” But then I thought, hey this could be part of my brainstorm or beat sheet of plot points, and I can edit and reflow the story to make more sense and be more captivating in the intro. So maybe the blisters I get on my trek uphill with you will toughen me up for the long haul! If you’re running low on granola bars or wet naps, I’m your best mate!

    • jannatwrites February 5, 2011 / 8:04 AM

      Yay – a hiking partner! It was getting rather lonely at the bottom looking at everyone else making their way to the top 🙂 I’ll definitely keep you in mind for granola bars and wet naps…never can have too much of either! It is hard to stay on the line that goes between following too many rules (too crisp, no personality) and not adhering to them close enough (ameteur-ish).

      Good luck with the editing. Be sure to stretch first, because it can be strenuous 😉

  12. clarbojahn February 13, 2011 / 8:02 PM

    What an amusing post and comment section. I muchly enjoyed that. 😀 My book is in journals and I haven’t even outlined yet. I’ve only just begun transforming it into Word this year and it really is quite a mess. It lives largely in my head. I’m working on a short story now. So mark me with those of you packing for the trip up to Everest. You’ve got granola bars, naps and I’ll bring the oxygen tanks! Plus for the seven mile trek to the top we’ll need lots of patience and practice.(rewrites) 🙂

    • jannatwrites February 13, 2011 / 8:34 PM

      I’m so glad you liked it clarbojahn. I didn’t even think about the oxygen…good call 🙂 I think we all need a spa treatment when we reach our goal!

      I wish you the best on your writing and revisions. Just remember, it’s like deep cleaning: it always looks worse before it gets better 😉

  13. crumbl February 23, 2011 / 11:51 PM

    I think it goes both ways, Janna. A perfectly plotted story won’t bring 2 dimensional characters to life, nor will perfectly developed characters infuse interest into a boring storyline.

    Very much as SASFictionGirl said, I find well developed characters take on their own lives and shape the plot, and well developed plots shape the lives of your characters.

    I try to start with a concept of the major characters and their role in the storyline, and am frequently surprised at how the evolution of both dictate change to the direction in which I thought the story was heading.

    • jannatwrites February 24, 2011 / 9:35 PM

      I agree that plot and characters are dependent on each other. As much as I could, I tried to work on plot and characters at the same time.

      I’ve got a basic plot and most of the characters summarized. I wanted to spend a little more time on character development than I have in the past, so that’s what I’ll do over the next couple weeks. Then, I’ll start writing and see where it goes. I’d like to see it deviate from my loose plot because that will be a good sign that the characters have come to life.

      Thanks for sharing your opinions on working plot and character, Crumbl. Now I just have to bring it all together 🙂

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