I know what you’re thinking. I haven’t done an anecdote piece in a very long time, perhaps a little more than a year since my last piece on the writer’s process. There are as many writing styles out there as there are writers and narrators. Our job is to bring you a story, the best way that that story can be portrayed, but by no means should you think that the purity of that story has always been the same as the final product. I don’t mean the multitudes of editing we do. I mean the entire story itself, changing, morphing into something far removed from the initial stories that pop into our heads, or even the one that gets written down by first draft. Even at this point, the likelihood that the story has already changed somewhat from the initial story, or even drastically, depends on the story.
So how do these stories evolve? In many ways, it all depends on the outline process. When writers obsess over a story, we usually think of the big picture, what happens to start the story off, point A, to what moves the story along, point B, to how the story ends, point C. It’s not so simple once the writing process begins. I’m not an outliner technically. I don’t sit there and write out point by point what the story is and how it progresses, there are other writers out there like myself. The others, the organized ones, will often have few pages of the story outlined from point A to Z, because frankly speaking a story isn’t as simple as A, B, C, it’s much more complex than that. Writers like myself, we will rethink and rethink the story several times in detail in our heads before we feel comfortable enough to actually start writing the first draft. As I’ve said before, we are the seat-of-our-pants kind who write instinctually. It’s odd to say this but, that’s exactly what I do. I write instinctually, free form. I write chapter by chapter, a bit like how other writers look at their outline and follow a bullet point, I start off knowing where I want the chapter to go, but I have no idea how I’m going to get there, I just know that once I start writing, the rest will flow. Bit risky but it works, maybe not for all, but it still works.
In this process of outlining, whether in our heads or on paper, this is the first hurdle the story passes. This is the first checkpoint where the story has the potential to change from the original piece we think about. Why? Well, simply put, our minds are very good at abstract thoughts and making connections, however it’s another matter of putting it down on paper in a legible and easily understood manner. Or even something that makes sense. So the story that looks silver screen ready in our head may show kinks in it that needs modifying at Checkpoint 1.
After this comes a gigantic Checkpoint 2: the writing of first draft. An entirely long and draining process in itself, not without its own problems and challenges. This checkpoint is constantly working itself through the writing process. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of how many little minute changes the story goes through because we are so engrossed in writing it, getting that story on paper first. This is the hardest step. This is the step where several chapters in, we may suddenly find huge problems in story, character, relationships, or dynamics, scenes and settings that simply do not gel. The main thing here is to focus on getting that entire story down on paper and not get bogged down by sandpit of problems. As we write this bit, we may discover new directions the characters take, leading the story entirely in a different direction from what you intended. At this point a writer has come to a fork in the road: do you stick to your outline, which by all means is simply a guide, or do you take the lead the character is giving and go into unchartered territory? It’s a matter of choice. In most cases either one of the paths will lead you to finishing the story and not being happy with it, or unable to finish it and give up entirely, or at least put this story on a back burner. If your are wondering what I myself would do at such a junction, then I will let you know I usually follow the character. After all, it’s their story and if they take you down a certain path, it’s most like for a reason that will show up later in the story. After all, you are the boss. Just because you follow a character for a little while doesn’t necessarily mean you have handed over the reins.
When that first draft is done and you’ve got the bare bones with a little bit of flesh hanging off it, then you can pat yourself on the back and take a break. It’s well deserved.
Sometime, we are so engrossed in the whole process that our minds stop working properly and we give into character whims that don’t necessarily need to be there nor benefits the whole story. This is Checkpoint 3. Even if we don’t re-write or even go over our first draft, as writers we have the entire story now etched into our minds. After a few days break or weeks, or sometimes months (yes, I’m guilty of this), we usually work out in our head how to iron out some rough edges, where we need to truly focus on working extensively during the editing process. This is where we are making the next lot of changes that gets put into place when we start editing. Sometimes the changes will only be minor, to small sequences, scenes, or chapters, or characters and setting, and other times you will find that a huge chuck of the story needs to be thrown out and written again from another story point. This happened with my first novel, In Strange Company (on Kindle and paperback through myself). After a long hiatus away from the first draft, when I went back to editing it, I realized most devastatingly that I needed to write the entire first quarter of the book from scratch. It didn’t fit in with the style of the rest of the book, the characters had changed and evolved so much in the end that that needed to be addressed in the beginning, and so a long trudge began. For a writer working on her first novel, this was the hardest time. The time when you question the vocation, question if you are right for the calling, etc. This Checkpoint 3 is by far the most challenging to writers and the gentle egos.
Stories also change during editing. Time and time again, we will go over the book, and minor things are constantly changing and shifting slightly, honing that story. At this point, Checkpoint 4, stages of editing, your story might have drastically changed from where you began. For example, Charming Mr Stewart (also on Kindle) changed drastically from where the story began, about a widow running away from possibility of love, only to have it chase her in turn, to something more evolved, about a widow who gains her power and her right to heal the old hurt. Not exactly the same story is it?
Checkpoint 4 is as far as a writer can go alone on this road. Up until this time, our journey is lonesome, but no more. Checkpoint 5 requires us to push down our fear of criticism and the premature nature of the final product and invite expert opinions and scrutiny. This is where external editors come into play, and if you are extremely lucky to be affiliated with a publisher, then I’m sure they have been involved from an earlier stage. They may ask you to consider changing some plot points in the story, or character personalities, or given you a heads up on all your strengths and weaknesses in the story. Tell you what’s working and what simply will not do. This is a healthy stage for us. It forces us to take a step back from the story and look at it from a reader’s point of view, which after all is why we are writing in the first place, for the readers. This point may again see various changes through various stages of reading and re-reading and proofing. Ironing out those final little kinks in the story. Making the transition from point A to point Z as smooth and as indecipherable as possible, so that readers like yourself and I can not even sense the difficulty the author may have gone through, from initial point of origin to the final product.
The final checkpoint in a way is you, a selected group of beta-readers, the genuine pigs or test subjects who get to read the final product and give feedback. This point may prove very valuable to how the book is being received, and if there are any problems, a last change to make the change.
What you read, is not what always was. What you read is a result of an incredible effort and devotion at various stages. What you read, is an accumulation of faith and self-doubt used well. What you read is simply fascinating, because it started life as a single thought in someone’s gray-matter. A simple thought. And thoughts are powerful. They can suspend us into someone else’s imagination and propel us forward, make us lose hours, or regret reality when we re-emerge.