Writing about the conceptual breakthroughs I’ve had as a writer seems a bit pointless, since they’re not really the sort of insights that another person can take and use. I think this is the problem with writing advice. For the person who gives it, it’s always very true and deeply felt. But for the hearer, it’s just words. The advice is a verbal tag that’s given to a set of behaviors and thinking patterns that can be summoned by the tag, but not described by it.
Most of my conceptual breakthroughs have been really simple. In 2011, I realized that I needed to start doing a lot more rewriting if I was going to eliminate some of the bagginess and silliness in my stories. Then, last year, I realized that voice was one of the most important elements of a story, and that if the voice was missing, the story wasn’t ever going to be particularly readable.
And lately, I’ve realized that I need to interrogate my stories a bit more deeply and start trying to think harder about the choices I am making and about how everything fits together. Usually, I am content to work out everything on an intuitive level. But there does come a time at which intuition can no longer be allowed to run amok.
With my latest story, I’ve started jotting down questions that I have about the story: “Why is the character doing this?”, “What are the characters talking about in this scene?”, etc. And then I just think about the answers to these questions. When I wake up and shower and walk around outside, I think about the answers to these questions. Eventually, an answer comes to me, and then I think about that answer. It’s a very halting, grinding process, since each answer brings up more questions. And whenever one part of the story gets built, then all the weight shifts and falls upon another part. The temptation, for me, is to always proceed and build up the strongest and most well-realized part of the story and, thus, to deflect attention away from the weaker parts.
But with this story, I am forcing myself to work on the weaker parts before I address the stronger parts. I think that if I can figure out what is happening in the weaker parts—in the backstory, in the setting, in the motivations—then the stronger parts will be richer and more confident.
Of course, it’s just a supposition at this point, since the story is far from being completed. It’s entirely possible that I will abandon it entirely. It’s astonishing how far I’ve gotten on so many stories before eventually abandoning them.