In the past two years I have gone from my "I don't want writing advice" cocoon to actually reading several books and articles about it and even doing a free online course on fiction writing. While I believe it has helped me look more critically at my work and expand my skill set and knowledge base, I still believe givers of writing advice walk a fine line and that not everything holds true for every writer. One of the things I want to look at today is the "rule" that says you need to know the ending before you start.
In the past, back in the days of fanfiction and light-hearted fun with words - it's still fun now, but I have become a lot more serious in my pursuit of writing - I did not always know what I wanted to say with a piece of writing. Sometimes I only had one scene in my head, around which a story (sometimes 1000, sometimes 10,000 words) evolved.
When I started writing my own stories, that core idea was still there, but the piece of fiction that inspired me to write in my own world - a still unfinished fantasy novel in three parts - had been growing in my head for seven or eight years at that point in time. I had a pretty good idea of every important aspect: I knew my characters like the back of my hand, I knew the setting (at least the basics) and I knew where I wanted it to end. The rest, I was confident, was to grow in the telling. And it did. Even when I was certain there were no surprises, like with my characters, I still managed to be stunned by what came out when I actually gave substance to the thoughts in my head. Reading through some of the scenes I wrote, these characters spread wisdom that cannot possibly originate from me.
The Young Adult novel I distracted myself with just a little over a year ago when even the first part of the fantasy project seemed too vast for my newly shaping writer's mind, was never supposed to be more than "the novel on the side" - my little bit of fun I indulged in while rekindling the flame for the fantasy project. Like everything else I have written, it started with no more than a core idea, which in this case happened to be a dream I had a few months previously. In October I decided to challenge myself by taking part in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, and write 50,000 words in 30 days. That left me with only a couple of weeks to come up with a battle strategy.
My structure was rough. The notes for the last four of what I assumed were going to be ten chapters descended into the realms of "there is a battle" and "One side or the other will win". Even my characters were hollow at best. One was to be called Max with his defining quality being his creativity. The other was called Sophie. All my notes told me about her was that compared to Max she was spoilt and rich.
Not really story material, but I had my core idea and on 1st November 2015 I started writing. By the end of November I had all but the last chapter written. I had a plot with more holes than a Swiss cheese. Max and Sophie had character and a back story - though in Max's case that worked out better than in Sophie's. More importantly: I had a plausible beginning and I at least knew where the end was going to be. My core idea had created a whole network of story around itself.
As you can see, I am a very intuitive writer. I need to have an idea and a rough plan, but for the most part I write until I know where I am going. I don't know much about my setting until I experience it. The same goes for my characters. Until I see them in action, hear them talk and react to the world around them, I have no clear idea of who they are. It is in the writing that I find out. Once I have a first draft and know both the plot and the characters I can sit down and edit. In the case of Max and Sophie, the second draft was almost 15,000 words longer than the first draft and the first chapter had been entirely rewritten to fit the tone of the story and the characters I was working with. And that was before my first proofreader got his fingers on it and told me that 85 % of the technology I was using did not make sense. 😲
Since then I have read quite a bit more about how to aid the writing process and more often than not I come across the concept that you should know where you want to go with your story before you start. It made sense to me. I needed structure and a reason to write and if I figured out what I was working towards, surely I was setting myself up for a much smoother ride. I decided that with my next, i.e. current project, I would make sure to know what I write before I start.
It did not work. It created a lot of anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and a sense of being stuck in a creative hole. After several weeks of beating myself up about my lack of ending, I went back to my "write until you know" approach. Yes, I may only be two chapters in with no clear idea of how it will end, but I am beginning to get to know my characters and the world they inhabit. Will I eventually have to rewrite everything that is on paper so far? Most likely. But that is okay, because at least I am writing. I am beginning to see the statue hidden in the slab of stone. Yes, it is rough around the edges and I may only see half of the shape it will eventually take, but I am chiselling away at it, and every word I write, every sentence that makes it into the document, takes me closer to understanding my setting, the characters, and the story that is shaping through and around them.
What I have learned from this is that writing advice can intimidate. Take tips on board and try out new ways, but simply because it works for many other writers does not mean it has to work for you. And instead of forcing yourself to conform with what other writers promised will work, follow your instinct. Everyone's approach to writing is different. If you don't know where the story will end when you start it, that is fine, as long as you keep writing until you figure it out.