Lost in Search of Story

A number of the writing books I’ve read in the course of my “Writerly Education” have directly, or indirectly, recommended approaching the writing of a book through a three stage process: story search, story design, and story drafting. Several of the books I’ve read which have discussed this approach are Outlining Your Novel (K.M. Weiland), Story Physics (Larry Brooks), Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass). The idea is that in the first phase you hold every idea loosely and spill everything that comes to you onto the page. You dash down (as edit free as possible) all snippets of dialogue, scenes, characters, ideas, images, etc. that come to you. You just spill and spill and spill until a story has emerged. In the second phase–story design–you organize everything you came up with (and probably a few new ideas) into a beat sheet, or outline, which contains, at a minimum, the beginning, middle, and end. Ideally it also contains a breakdown of what happens in every scene–a sentence which describes the single narrative goal of the scene. With your blueprints in hand, you then set to work filling in the wholes and filling out your scenes. Once you’ve done so for every scene, you have a book. Then you return and iron out transitions, and all the other stuff that needs to flow together and remain consistent.

I’m currently in the story search phase for my work in progress–The Unchosen. I started it several weeks ago and really put out a ton of material. Pages upon pages of material. And yet, I’m depressed today because I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. I’m still following my process–going to bed by 9 pm and waking up at 5:30 am, but I don’t feel like I’m really making much progress on discovering my story. This is an issue because I don’t yet *have* a story. I still have bits and pieces and good ideas, but not the whole enchilada. What I have doesn’t even make sense thematically yet. I know, I know, the pantsers among you would just tell me to get writing and fix it in a few drafts. Eventually the story will make sense…after an immense amount of effort, complete page 1 rewrites and such. No thanks. I’d rather suffer right now in search of story then suffer through draft after draft. Eventually I’ll figure out what lies within and the story will emerge, and until then I just need to stay the course. As the War of Art would argue, this is probably Resistance trying to get me to back down–get me to blink, quit, settle, give up. My angst could be the vast majority of the problem.

Each morning when I wake up, make my coffee, and sit down to write, I’m wracked by fear. Fear my ideas aren’t good enough, that I don’t have what it takes, that I’m delusional. Out of my mind. Who am I to think that I can be a writer? That I have anything worth saying? Who am I to believe I, too (there *are* others already doing it), make a living as a writer? Who am I to be so ungrateful for a good, stable, corporate job and side-line consulting gig? I should be grateful to have a good job, a good life. Who am I to think I can do better? Underneath it all there’s the fear that I will succeed. That my ideas are excellent. That I will write immensely entertaining, thought provoking books which will sell exceedingly well. And in doing so, I will face expulsion from the tribe…that after a life time of doing my damnedest to fit in, I won’t. I’ll become one of those people living the dream, allegedly blessed by the Gods and specially designated for the life of the Chosen few. Which is kind of ironic in contrast to my first book being called The Unchosen–and being all about these themes of what it means to belong, fit in, to have a place, to be Chosen…and yet how much more meaningful the road can be when we march to our own drum. But even that isn’t quite right. The last part is, but the first part doesn’t quite nail what I’m shooting for. I’m trying to write about the idiocy of it all…how we all want to feel financially stable, and secure, and like we have a place within God’s eyes and on earth…the sense that we are called and Chosen to something greater than ourselves. What’s the common refrain? People wondering what they should do with their lives. They do everything they’re supposed to and still don’t feel satisfied. They feel like it would be nice if someone just told them what they should do. It would be nice if they didn’t have to figure it out. Didn’t have to deal with all the uncertainty and mystery of life. We live lives of work, sleep, eat, TV/movies/sports/etc. but we never truly live. On our death beds that’s when we realize we regret all that we didn’t do, and a lot of what we did–because we recognize the trade-offs. We recognize then that if we would have done less of X and more of Y we would have been happier. But then it’s too late.

So The Unchosen is a story about a society in which people are called by God and Country and Chosen. They are given a life, desires, the whole thing. It doesn’t matter what they want, because they don’t have a choice. They are Chosen for. Told what will make them happy. Told what should make them happy. In that society someone is nothing is they are not Chosen. They have no life. No calling. In the eyes of God and country they are dead. I can’t decide if the society literally kills them–those who are Unchosen–or if their death is more figurative. Like they lose their family, their name, and become Nameless. I feel like death is too often thrown around in books, movies, and television to the extent that it has lost its meaning, its impact. Something more nuanced often seems to provide a lot more power in a story. But on the other hand, at least in this book I’m drawn to blood and death and misery of all kinds. Is it just the beginner in me, reaching for the broadest brush possible? Or is it something more primal about the story itself? Perhaps so. Perhaps I’ll stop worrying about all the death and mayhem I’m tempted to throw around and just dive right in. Perhaps nuance will emerge as I cover the page in broad strokes and move to finer points. But that aside then I’m faced with questions about how they’re Chosen, what the ceremony entails and why, and how does the society police its laws against socializing with the Nameless. Or if they kill them, why? Or is their a combination ceremony where those who are Unchosen may die or may become Nameless depending on the outcome. Some die rather than being Nameless. After all it’s a hairs width of difference between the two. Also, how does the Choosing work? Does it make people automatons? Override all their impulses? Or just specific ones? Does it make someone chosen to be a baker some stereotypical baker? Or does it simply give them baker-ish abilities like heightened sense of smell, taste, and an ability to put ingredients together–but doesn’t make them characteristically any different. I.e., they will still be lazy, or motivated, honest, or dishonest, or a cheat, or a jerk, or whatever. I.e., just having traits that may make them a master baker doesn’t mean that they will all be master bakers because some will keep crappy books, some won’t get out of bed in the morning, some don’t have any social skills. And either way, they still feel (or do they) the unease we all feel when we’re not pursuing our dreams–living for something more than the paycheck, the big house, the perfect family, all the toys, or whatever drives people in First World countries. We pursue a lot of things, but so many things which ultimately don’t make us happy.

Anyway, so that’s a piece of what story search mode is like. It’s hard and scary to wander amidst the jungle, trying to ferret out treasures. But I will continue to splash around until I uncover them. One day at a time. One day at a time.

p.s. I also realized that part of my issue was that my main character has a similar name to my daughter. This makes me loathe to really throw the kitchen sink at her–you know, because I’m protective of her in real life. I initially chose to have things that way because I am writing about a girl who I hope serves as an inspiration to my own little girl, and all the girls out there who read my book. But the problem is that I’m protective of the character even more than usual because of the similarity of the name. I’ve got to find a new name so that I can feel less horrible about the path the character will walk on the series of books beginning with The Unchosen.

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