Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Known & the Unknown ... Dance

A quick thought on writing. This is from a talk I gave a couple of years ago, but I've been thinking about it because of where I am in my current book, and I thought I'd share.

I guess it relates to the outline-or-not issue, the pantsers versus plotters, if you've heard that? Do you plot out your books in advance? Or fly by the seat of your pants? It's still a source of bewilderment to me that with the persnickety uptight JERK of a brain that I have, always craving safety and control, that I don't outline. It seems like I would outline. But I don't.
It's not that I'm against it. It sounds lovely in so many ways! To know what's going to happen and then just write it? Heaven.
But ... also not heaven. I'd like to make the same claim that I've heard other authors make (and have made myself, I'm sure) and which is not untrue, but also not the main reason. It's this: I don't outline because I like to be surprised. I like to discover the story as I go.
That's true ... but the fact is I'd probably cope with the lack of surprise and discovery if I could outline and be orderly and un-anxious.
The real reason I can't outline is very, very simple. It's this:

I don't know what's going to happen. 

I try to know. It doesn't work out. The story laughs in my face. I cannot underscore enough: this is a perpetual source of terror to me. I have a general sense of where I want to end up, and in between, it's all a huge terrifying blur. My orderly brain is always on my clueless brain's case: WHERE ARE WE GOING WITH THIS? HOW WILL IT FIT TOGETHER? I HOPE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING!

And I don't. I don't know what I'm doing. I only hope. I hope a lot. 

And I rewrite a lot. 

A lot.

Anyway, with that preamble, here's a more fanciful (and alluring?) way of saying the same thing. It's a metaphor conceived from the safe side of a deadline, in the HA I TOLD YOU I COULD DO IT phase, and is accordingly lacking in DEAR GOD WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! Here it is:

For me, writing is a dance between the Known and the Unknown.
I imagine it as one of those Regency pattern dances, and the Known stand on one side of the ballroom, sedate, secure, sober, reliable, their pins are all pinned, buttons buttoned. These are the folks you’d trust with your children. You know they’d put them to bed on time, a healthy meal in their bellies, and tell them a story, and a good story too, if not great. They aren’t drags, the Known. They’re my team. I couldn’t do what I do without them.
And facing them across the dance floor: the Unknown. Of course it’s dark, they’re in silhouette, and I might be wrong, but their silhouettes seem to be changing. Is that … a tentacle? What the hell is going on over there? I do not want to dance with that. Oh wait. Ooh. Pretty lights. Fireflies. That one has a fox’s head. A ballerina in a cobweb tutu. Ladybug wings. They’re eating … ice cream cones? I would not have predicted ice cream cones. They don’t know the dance steps. The Unknown never do. But they have moooooves ...
You would not leave you children with the Unknown. They might give them ice cream, or they might give them razor blade apples. Whatever it is, it will be wholly unexpected, and it will twist your story like a kaleidoscope.
And stories need that. The occasional razor blade apple or serial killer monkey or tentacle or ... ice cream cone. YOUR KALEIDOSCOPE NEEDS TWISTING.
That's where the magic dust of Fascination comes from--from the Unknown. And in order for readers to be fascinated, I think first we must be. We must face death or failure by firefly or fox's head or come what may in order to achieve a state of fascination, or else our books are all buttoned buttons and healthy meals. And come on ... you know you want more out of life and fiction than that!
The Known and the Unknown dance.
And that, for me, is writing a book.

And now good night! 

**UPDATE: Regarding plotting. In my midnight writing last night I stopped short of saying something very important, and it's this: I PLOT. I believe in plotting! I don't think it robs the magic from writing. I think there are a million ways to find a balance between the Known and the Unknown and I mean noooo disrespect to plotters! Maybe your Knowns have talismans to make your Unknowns behave. And maybe your Unknowns are ungovernable fey things impervious to magic and cajoling. I think your brain wiring determines this, and you have to learn to work with it.
While outlines exceed what I could possibly know about a novel at the outset, I *do* need to know some things. I need to have buoys to swim toward, these story beats that I'm making my way toward. In my notes and brainstorming, I am sooo eloquent about these buoys/beats, I tend to call them Things, capital T. Like this:

I need a Thing! What's my Thing?? 

And until I have a Thing, I generally tread water in distress or cling to my buoy and gulp down salt water. 

A term I love for "pantsing" is "flying into the mist" (I think it's from Jane Yolen) and I love the sound of that, but have only found myself capable of genuine mist-flying with a short story or exercise. Not a novel. 

Doesn't it sound so beautiful, though?

All right. That's all for now. **END UPDATE


Lucy Claire Hounsom said...

I love your metaphor - especially because I can so empathise with it. I only had the barest outline in my head of the book I've just finished, and now am in the position of trying to plan book 2 while 1 is with the agents. As much as I try to be sensible, I simply can't come up with a strict chapter by chapter plan. Instead my pen wanders off into character sketches or ideas for strange societies or possible trials to be faced down.

Looking back at my first book, I had to let the characters tell me their story and they weren't going to do that until I understood them as people. I guess like you, that meant several substantial rewrites. But I'm beginning to think that's the way I work and probably always will.

Anywho, thanks for this post. I hope you find your way through the Dance :)

Stephanie Mooney said...

I think you can still have surprise and discovery in outlining. I plan out the events, but I'm always surprised how each one works out. The discovery, for me, is in the details.

It's like I have a map through fairyland. I know where the road twists and turns. But I have no idea what the enchanted forest will look like, or how the forbidden fruit will taste, or whether the creatures lurking in the shadows are friendly nymphs, or an imp waiting to lure me off the path.

I think the known and unknown are always present. They just show up in different places. :)

LOVE this post. LOVE the dance metaphor so much.

Kristan said...

Wonderful post! I loved the cobweb tutu best. ;)

But ditto what Stephanie said. I outline my projects to various degrees -- sometimes I have 3 plot points, sometimes I have 30 specifics scenes sketched out -- but always there is discovery in the writing.

In other words, I think most plotters believe in dancing with the Unknown too. :)

Related: One of the principles I learned in design class was that the more constraints you have, the more creative you have to be. So restrictions are actually our friends. It seems to me that with writing, plotters just put constraints on their project ahead of time, whereas pantsers run into constraints as they go. Either way, you've got goals and you've got restrictions, and you have to creatively navigate between the two.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post! It's nice knowing that authors who write incredible books don't even know which way they are going to go. I love thinking of this process as a dance and a crazy one at that!

Vyki @ On The Shelf

KarenC said...

Laini, you have a way of saying exactly what I need to hear just when I need to hear it. After my second cup of tea, I'm off to dance with the unknown. Wish me luck.

Kate said...

"the more constraints you have, the more creative you have to be. So restrictions are actually our friends"--I never thought about this, Kristan, but it's so true.

--jenna said...

Oh, I so needed this today! I have a deadline (baby number two) and need to finish my book before sleep deprivation steals my creativity, but I've been terrified. I have no idea what's going to happen. I know what I have is good...and it is going somewhere...but the more I think about how to outline, the less writing I get done. Here's me, going back to the dance instead. :)

Bob said...

The knowns and unknowns are there in every story. For me, it's like I have to start with some known and gradually use the knowns to build a bridge to get to the unknowns. The Unknowns could be hiding just behind the curtain or they could be miles into the darkness and they would suddenly jump out at me and reveal a tiny detail about themselves teasing me, daring me to write about them. And then there are some very well-behaved Unknowns. You're writing a simple scene. There's the crunch of gravel outside which means you have a visitor. And the visitor just walks up to you and TELLS you "You're writing about me, aren't you? This is my story!"

Bob said...

By the way, there is a new synopsis for Dreams of Gods & Monsters on Goodreads. Someone updated the old synopsis. I just read it and the story looks even more promising. Just like Days, Dreams will surely exceed expectations. Aaaand, there's a proper release date, April 29th 2014.

Charley Robson said...

What a beautiful metaphor! I think you and I operate on a fairly similar system - one brain that wants order and an idea, the other that wants to run with things and see what happens. I like your metaphor much better than anything I've ever used to explain anything though! xD

Laurence King said...

I love your vision of a dance between the Known and the Unknown. How apt...I'm so relieved to read that you don't outline. I don't either and, like you, choose to navigate through the Mist sometimes with unerring ease, sometimes with the sinking feeling of not knowing what comes next.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I follow the blog of another writer, Kim Wilkins, who has just posted about how she prefers to plot. It's fascinating to read both points of view.

Undercover YA Writer said...

Local Portlander here. I on Alberta Street last night and went into the Guardino gallery where there are some prints by Margeret Van Patten. One caught my eye because it was a drawing of woman. With antlers. Having read your books, it caught my attention and when I looked more closely at the picture I saw that there were a bunch of pulled teeth next to the figure. Seriously. I actually took pictures and sent them to the email you have listed on your blog so you could check it out. Very Karou/Madrigal. Anyway thanks for your wonderful books and for writing on your blog about writing with kids. As a full-time professor and mother of two, my writing time is always either serendipitous or doggedly claimed. But always enjoyed.

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Kait said...

I loooooove the metaphor. But I always enjoy your metaphors (especially in Lips Touch).

A few years ago, when I first found your blog and read your Not For Robots essay thing (not sure if I commented there, but I've lurked for a while--so hi), I tried writing a few exploratory drafts. It went badly. The Unknown harassed me mercilessly, leaving my story in scattered seeds of possibility.

What I'm saying is, I'm distractible and enthusiastic. So whenever a new story idea presents itself, even if I already have a dozen good ones and am working on one of them, I must explore it. This is not productive. (Random book chapters do not short stories make.)

I'm thinking perhaps I need bridle my imagination into very detailed outlines--my talismen? I've been reading a few books about it, and I'm going to see if it'll help.

Anoymous -- LOL the Kim Wilkins metaphors are gross! But then, they're funny, so it's okay. I love them, too.

Curiosity Inc. said...

That metaphor works a lot for my style of writing as well, except that the Known and Unknown aren't dancing. It's more like an interrogation.

The Known is sitting across a table from the Unknown, demanding to know some missing detail about the plot or the characters. So the Known will try various bribes, tortures, and lines of questioning until it gets a satisfactory answer.

Anonymous said...

Laini, I love your writing and I love the way you write about writing... You're so inspiring and reassuring - thank you!

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