When I write, I write like an engineer solves a problem. I start with the problem, introducing it with as much “hook” as I can, hoping to grab the reader’s attention while she’s perusing the book on a shelf so she’ll buy the damned thing. I then move forward to reveal the other aspects of the story: characters, their relationship to the problem or its solution, the various aspects of their shared dilemma that weren’t obvious at the start, more details of the setting, etc.
From there, I’m some fraction of the way along and I start thinking about how to get through to the resolution. The characters work on their problem, slowly revealing its hidden facets, unveiling their character traits to either aid or thwart their working through it and the other ingredients introduced by new actors or its new facets.
Even describing this process here in this post shows me my internal thought processes are goal directed, where the tacit goal is to solve the problem rather than to create a tangled and engaging story containing human drama and twists and turns and beauty along the way. I’m writing stories like I write computer software — direct, to the point, deliberately, but my deliberacy isn’t directed toward what I now perceive as the real goal. I’m writing a problem statement and then proceeding with a solution rather than writing a story.
In writing my two big works to date, my process has been the above. But I’m reaching a point in my development as an author where I see this can only result in stories that may be interesting to some readers but are far from riveting to all. As in many things in life, things get much simpler if only one can focus on the true goal rather on the shallower, obvious one.
Does this process come naturally to some, even as a beginning, but not so much to the type of beginner I am? Probably. Someone like Stephen King or John Grisham might have started out thinking of their story as a story rather than as problem → solution as I seem to have been doing. Or did they have to learn this vital lesson themselves at some point? I would love to be able to ask them some day.
In the meantime, regardless of the path taken by others, mine is leading me to this lesson having written some hundreds of thousands of words while still traveling along what I now perceive to be the wrong path. I’m not saying viable and readable stories can’t come from my original, instinctive way of working. But writing linearly and then going back to try to add interest, twists, and misdirection later leads to an inferior result.
I might be turning myself into the centipede who’s asked how he can possibly coordinate all of those many legs to walk, leaving him frozen in analytical self-doubt. I hope not.