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Author Topic: How do you know?
akeenedesign
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I've never finished a first draft of a novel. I always get to a point where I feel like the story I'm telling isn't in the right tone or being told with the right pacing. The story still works, but it's working differently than I imagined it would.

It's like an illustrator drawing a character he didn't mean to draw, but the resulting character is still good in its own way. Does the illustrator continue on with what he unexpectedly created, or does he start over to try to make the original idea come to life?

Since this is where I ALWAYS get stuck in my creative process, I feel like I'm either consistently doing something wrong that leads me to this inevitable identity crisis, or I'm doing it right and just need to learn how to accept where the story is going and how to adapt to the unexpected.

Has anyone else experienced this? Should I push through and finish the first draft and learn to make this unexpected version of the story the best it can be, or should I start again with a better focus of bringing it to life closer to the way I imagined it would be?


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Meredith
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I will quote Kevin J Anderson, from his 11 Tips to Increase Your Writing Productivity here:

"Dare to be bad (at first)."

(Scroll down and look at the right side of the screen for the recording.)

First drafts aren't meant to be perfect. They're just meant to get the story down so you can fix it in the revisions.

Yes, all of us want to make that first draft as good as we can, but you can't stop to obsess over that or--as you've found out--you never get to "THE END". Getting to "THE END" is the point of the first draft.

And, yes, sometimes characters are uncooperative and refuse to do what you had planned. Sometimes even better ideas come up while you're writing. Embrace it, if you think it works. And just keep going until you get to "THE END".

ETA:
I just checked my notes. Apparently KJA attributed that piece of advice to Dean Wesley Smith.

[This message has been edited by Meredith (edited January 14, 2011).]


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Smiley
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I have the same problem sometimes. I recently found a cache of my old things that I'd created when I was young. I was amazed at how many there were (I was really creative back then) and then I was appalled at how many were unfinished.

This was when I realized that choosing to structure the story, or make a story line, was the best way for me to visualize the beginning, middle, and ending of my stories. I'm sure there is a more technical term for this, I just don't remember it right now.
But I've been making great strides with keeping to the initial germ of the story idea and keeping me from wandering away from it, as you say you're experiencing.

Granted, I think that letting a story unfold to wherever it wants to go is also a viable way of writing (as mentioned by Stephen King) but I've never quite gotten the hang of that one.

Try using a story skeleton (for lack of a better term) to lay out your story plot from top to bottom, start to finish, and see if it cuts down on the wandering. It may help.



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KayTi
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I have always had the most success when I push through to the finish (one of many reasons I like National Novel Writing Month in November, I've finished 4 novels by participating in that! Two of them aren't half-bad!!)

Even though the story isn't very well-formed in my head before I start writing, I still find myself surprised by the directions I end up going. Some people are planners, having every plot decision made in advance. Some a "pantsers" (seat-of-the-pants) which apparently applies to me. We wing it, then once the story is down we can see where a little foreshadowing here would be good, a little more characterization there would help the reader understand motivations, etc. It means our second drafts might add quite a bit to the wordcount, and our process might take longer in the end than someone who meticulously plans. It's just two different ways of writing.

I've tried planning more, and need to continue trying to plan more as I'd like my process to be *shorter* - but in the meantime, just FINISH something. Then you can look back and start to learn more about your unique writing process!

Good luck. Go write!


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akeenedesign
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I'm a NaNoWriMo Pantser too! I tried plotting before, but I find I enjoy the unexpectedness of a loose plot. The novel I'm working on is my NaNo novel from this past year. It was going so well when I pushed through, but the more I think about it, the more I question it. Maybe I just need to turn my brain off and keep going, but something's bothering me about the story, like an itch... and I'm not sure whether I should scratch it or ignore it because scratching it will make it worse.

I think my issue is less "telling the right story" and more "telling the story in the right way." The story itself (plot, characters, premise) is going fine, but it feels more serious than I thought it would. It feels slower than I thought it would. The right things are happening but they're not happening how I expected.

Since I've never gotten past the first draft and onto rewrites, I have no idea if things like tone and pace are the kinds of things that can be altered. Well, I assume pace can be altered, but tone... can you really change the entire voice of your story once it's written, or is that something you have to get at least partially right the first time through?

I feel like I'm making a sculpture out of porcelain clay and then realized that maybe I should have been using earthenware clay from the very beginning. Either sculpture can have the same shape, but the essence is different and I'd have to start all over.

Can I really complete a first draft in the "wrong" tone and then make it into what I want it to be? Or is my judgment of "this is wrong" is the thing that needs to be altered?

I don't know if I just need to accept that the tone won't always match what I imagined the story to sound like, and that it can work with how it is, or if I should start over and try again.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I'd recommend pushing on through to the end, so that at least you have a first draft to work from.

At the very worst, once you've finished, you may decide it isn't the story you wanted to tell, and you'll want to start all over again. Your time and writing will not have been wasted, though. You will be better prepared, your writing will have improved by experience, you will see more clearly what it is you really want to have written, and you will be able to focue better on how you want to write.

On the other hand, you may see, once you've finished, what you can do to get it the way you wanted it with only a little bit of adjusting or tweaking or editing or rewriting.

If you are a "pantser," then you may not do well with "outlines" (the "technical term" you were looking for, Smiley?) at the beginning, but you can consider your first draft as a kind of "outline" from which you can work to solidify the story into the form you want for it.

Without a first draft, you may still find yourself itching and not being able to scratch.


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Wordcaster
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I've had the same problem, but I think I figured out why.

I always tried to operate as a discovery writer, beginning a novel with a germ of an idea. I get x chapters in and can't find a satisfactory path or the path I am on loses my interest.

I'm close to finished with the first draft of my current wip and the one thing I did differently this time is comprehensively outline. I know the whole story already. Stephen King advises againts this in his On Writing book, but I think an outliner is the type of novelist I need to be to get through a novel.

I am dying to revise previous chapters, but I am avoiding it like the plague.

Anyway, as a person with several false starts, it seems to be working for me.


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tchernabyelo
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Realistically, no-one's going to buy an unfinished novel (in practice, it actually has happened, but it's very rare and there are usually major extenuating circumstances).

You learn a lot more by finishing something than you do by starting it. You don't have to finish EVERY piece you start - but it helps if you finish most of them. In the 1990s, I started dozens of short stories, most of which were never completed, and I didn't significantly progress as a writer. In the last five years, I have completed probably 85-90% of stories I've started, and I'm selling stuff.


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walexander
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Ak-

Just push on through! I'm racing toward the finish line myself, and no looking back. I'm 18 chapters in and only about ten more to go to finish my WIP. I can see the finish line in the distance and I'm typing hard. Care to join me in the winner circle? Well start typing and we'll all be there to cheer you on! When you do finish, whether good or bad, you'll be part of select few that can actually say, "Yes, I wrote a novel."

Keep all the worry's of revision and editing out of your mind till one week after your done. Finish! Say Yah, I did it! Take a week off, pamper yourself, and then dive back in and edit that Goliath stone by stone.

See you at the finish line,

W.


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Smiley
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Outlines! Yes, thanks Kathleen.

I'm seeing now that you should follow your tendencies as a 'pantser'. Always work toward your strengths, as the saying goes. This will get those 'pants' muscles more developed and pretty soon you'll be churning out all kinds of hot 'pants' novels.


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Meredith
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You've got to work with the process that works for you.

Outliner and pantser (or discovery writer) aren't the only two choices. It's more like a spectrum and you have to find out where you fall on the continuum.

There's really only one way to do that--write.

I'm mostly a pantser, myself. I'm willing to take a short story on faith--take an idea and see where it leads me. Sometimes, it leads me into a dead end and I have to back up and start over, but it's only a few thousand words. And no writing is ever wasted--it's all experience.

For a novel, I find I need to know a few things before I start. At a minimum, I need to know the inciting incident, the central conflict (I managed to write the entire first draft of my second novel without a central conflict. I won't make that mistake again.) and the climax. Ideally, I'd like to know a couple of points in between. With that, I can start and stay pretty much on track.


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genevive42
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I used to be a pantser, and still am at heart. But I also realized that plot was the weakest part of my writing. So now I outline lightly, just to make sure I have a track to follow. Right now I'm five chapters into my current novel and while I had a good idea of where it was headed, I just today sat down and charted out the chapters. No details, just the important events that had to happen in each one. It's going to help me weave a much better first draft. And while I don't believe that it's not going to need some rewrite, the less it needs, the better.

So my suggestion is to try some light outlining. You don't have to stick to it, but it can certainly help make sure you get to the end. Whatever you do, don't quit before the story is finished.


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RoxyL
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There are so many variations to how a person writes. But as everyone else has said, it all comes to naught if it's not finished.

I just finished Stephen King's On Writing and I think one of the big take aways for me is to try to put the editor/worrier/critic aside and have fun. Giving yourself permission to play around with ideas can be a very good thing. King also said he puts strongly imagined characters in situations and sees what they would do. Let them run a bit and you get a more realistic flow.

Usually I'm very strict, but for my WIP I tried it his way. There's still a beginning, middle, end, and character basics all set, but letting some 'panster' out has made revealing the details so much more enjoyable. So maybe a hybrid approach with broad goals or marker to reach, but freedom in between could help in reaching THE END.


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Reziac
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I write every which way. Planned, spontaneous, pantser, outlined, in order, random scenes, fell outta my head and landed that way. I think the real thing is not to get stuck on some particular method if it's holding you up.

As to whether you can change the pacing and tone later -- definitely, with just a good line edit. If some section bothers you, make a note about it -- "tone or pacing wrong, too slow, too light, too heavy, too whatever" -- and move along rather than dwell on it. If you stare at it too long you'll just impress that version on your brain, making it harder to revise later. (In fact due to such brainburn, some scenes that I had knock-down drag-outs with because the tone was wrong, I still remember as having that wrong tone, even tho eventually they got fixed. When I reread those sections today, I'm always surprised to see that the fixes exist.)

Working differently than you imagined -- well, that just goes to show that you're being flexible, incorporating new ideas as you go, and that usually makes for better results than by-damn forcing the hapless story to do as it's told. "The beatings will continue until morale improves!"

As to accepting the unexpected... mind you this was after completing 3 short novels and parts of two more, all with the same characters, you'd think I'd know 'em by then, right?? Well... I came into a scene and to my surprise, found my MC drunk -- and I mean seriously *soaked*. I say to him, What do you think you're doing? Sober up! we have work to do! And he just gives me the finger and passes out. Cripes, til that scene I didn't know he DRANK. But it explained some apparently-anomalous behaviour way back in the first book... and then I had to go back and fix a bunch of stuff to account for this new information, cuz it wasn't anomalous after all, it was just unfinished writing.

So yeah, unexpecteds happen, and I'd say it's generally best to go with 'em.

And if your characters live long enough, you may find you have no control over them at all anymore.


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J. N. Khoury
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Please please please find and read "Hooked" by Les Edgerton. Seriously. It turned my idea of writing inside out, and things that never made sense, those areas no one else seemed to be telling us how to do - Edgerton does. He doesn't waste time talking about description and metaphors and how to make your fantasy world more believable. He talks about the art of building a story from beginning (most importantly) to end. It makes finding the beginning, middle, and end of the book so easy, you'll wonder how on earth you ever got by without him before.
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LDWriter2
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quote:

Has anyone else experienced this? Should I push through and finish the first draft and learn to make this unexpected version of the story the best it can be, or should I start again with a better focus of bringing it to life closer to the way I imagined it would be?

You have already received some good advice and at least some of what I would say is a repeat of what others have said already but I though what the heck I thought of a response so I decided to go ahead a post it.


My first thought after reading your last question was it's your choice. I have two stories that I have decided to redo (some time or another) because they didn't come out the way I envisioned them when I first came up with the idea. The stories I have are good I think but not quite what I wanted. So I will try again...as I said sometime.
That has never happened with a novel. Not that I have a lot of the: three I'm working on, two are done, three or four that are just sitting there. If I ever thought that I would probably go on, depending how far along I was when I realized the novel wasn't what I wanted. Oh, I should add that there have been a few times when a scene came out different than I envisioned and I had to redo it to keep going with the story. That has probably happened with a novel or two. But that was a scene and not the whole thing.

I have heard other writers say a story came out differently than they wanted and it came out better. As I said at the beginning it's up to you.

Oh, I should also say that one character came out different in one of the novels I'm doing than I wanted and that changed a certain aspect of the novel. However the main story still came out the same. It added romance and more chaos in my MC's life but still, as I said, it didn't change the basic plot.

Hope this helps.


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rstegman
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I write the story out TELLING what the story is about, then write it in detail. In the work I am fighting with now, I got stuck on something, so I TOLD about the story and the plot change I considered. That firmed up what I needed to do, and I got back to writing, never looking again.

When I TELL what a story is about, it is never longer than four pages, and usually about one page. In essence, they are my story ideas. It is a thumbnail of the story.

It is simply a different method of outlining. I will include key quotes, key details, and gloss over everything else. More detailed than an outline but loser in form.
The interesting thing is if you find yourself changing the plot, one can blast out another TELL and see how the plot works and where it will go.
at 23 words a minute, it usually takes me less than an hour to write one out. IF THIS WORKS FOR YOU, it is well worth the effort. Nothing works well for everybody


endings have always been my weakness, so if I can get an ending in my TELL, I can get to an ending in my real work.


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Wordcaster
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Rstegman. I'm glad you mentioned your process. I planned on using the same method on my next novel. My first draft is discontinuous and has become a glorified outline requiring a 2nd draft rewrite.

No problems though- part of the learning process.


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micmcd
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Not trying to be contrary, but this is exactly the way I got started writing. In the last six years or so I had about a half-dozen stories that petered out when they got to the 50-80K word count range. I realized that they weren't really good stories; my passion for the characters died. Each one of them was better than the last, and I'm now very near 1st draft completion of what I hope will be my first novel.

I can't advise this as the absolute path towards success, as I haven't published anything other than a short story in an online journal, but hey, it felt okay for me. I don't really want to revisit most of what I did before; some of the characters were good, but the worldbuilding wasn't, or I hadn't thought much about consequences in the plot.

Of course I'd echo that at some point you just want to finish, but I'm hardly one to pin it down since my WIP is at 183K and growing, and I've killed works as large as 80K. I also have a naive hope that killing so many of my own stories gives me a pass on having editors kill the one I really love. (Note - I am well aware of how unlikely that is. I'm still hopeful.)


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akeenedesign
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Thanks everyone! There are some great thoughts and bits of advice on here.

I'm feeling like it would be best to continue on with how my story is going now, instead of scrapping and starting over. It's working, in its own way, and the people I've shared it with so far have been overwhelmingly positive (of course, they're all friends/family so they're overwhelmingly biased as well).

I wish I could get a real objective eye on it, but I'm guessing I should probably finish at least the first draft, if not the second, before asking for real feedback. It's a mess (as all first drafts should be, I'm told) but I'm constantly nervous, wondering if it's a mess worth working on.

Gah! Where did all this negativity come from!? I'm usually such a passionate, it-doesn't-matter-as-long-as-I'm-getting-better kind of person!


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Negativity times may just be part of writing. After all, we have to exercise a certain kind of negativity when we edit.

Maybe what you're struggling with, akeenedesign, is the dreaded
"Editor on My Shoulder" syndrome--a common source of negativity.

If you like, we can shift this topic over into a discussion of how to deal with that syndrome, or we can start a new topic on it.

In anticipation of doing the former, I offer one thing that may help: sometimes, all it takes is recognizing that the editor side of your brain is trying to kick in and get to work before you've finished your first draft. Once you recognize that's what is happening, you may be able to consciously tell your personal editor to be patient.

This is one time when that Great Evil, Procrastination, can actually be a help to you: tell The Editor on Your Shoulder that you'll do the editing later. (Yay for Procrastination!)


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Reziac
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I think this may be all one topic. Did that unfinished draft really die because it wasn't going anywhere, or because your brain just got tired of looking at it, having seen the blasted thing once too often?? I know if I stare at something too long, my brain is liable to go BORING and then I don't want to see it at all!

While at this point I mostly self-edit as I go, when something isn't working, I don't fight with it anymore -- as KDW says, you're usually better off to lock the Editor On Your Shoulder in the closet for a while. As some famous author once put it, it doesn't matter if you write Crap, so long as you write something -- you can always fix it later!

What I do now, rather than fight my prose to the death, is put a note in the text saying this part sucks for whatever reason -- wrong tone, missing dialog, needs tech or timeline rectified with some other part, how do I get out of this scene now that I have it? where IS this character who is usually hanging around, but who I just don't SEE in this scene? or whatever ain't behavin' itself. It won't jump up and run off while my attention is elsewhere, and maybe it just needs time to ripen (or go to seed as the case may be).


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LDWriter2
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Reziac talked about writing can be boring. I agree but maybe not for the same reason. Sometimes I get bored with a piece for a while--maybe it's my writing--but than it picks up again. And certain scenes tend to be a bit boring for me to write. Of there's always if it's boring to me it will be boring to the reader but certain scenes are boring to me no matter who writes them. I have to keep pushing on through to the end and try to use some good descriptions of what little is going on so not to be boring to the reader.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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There is another approach besides "pushing on through" a boring part.

It works better if you've got an outline, but it can be done without an outline.

Just skip to some other part of the story that isn't "boring" to you. If you force yourself to write something that's boring to you, you run the risk of it being boring for the reader as well.

Write the parts that you are excited about WHEN you are excited about them (apologies to those who have seen me advise this over and over again--I swear by it, though).

It isn't necessary to write a first draft in the order in which it will be read. (As I have also expressed many times before, they don't have to film movie scenes in the order in which they will be shown, and you don't have to write story scenes in the order in which they will be read.)

Go ahead and jump around. You can go back and fill in the blanks later, and then you can smooth things over in the rewrites.


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micmcd
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Seconded, KDW. I never would have gotten near completion of my WIP if I had written it in order. You don't have to write a book in order any more than you need to film a movie in order.

Other benefits of writing what's interesting when it's interesting - you might think of better ways to end those seemingly boring scenes, come up with changes to earlier parts that make the later parts better, or come up with ways to omit the boring bits altogether. IMHO, you really should be omitting the boring parts. If you aren't interested, why would your readers be interested? Find a way to include important things that happen without narrating them.

Seemingly boring things can be made interesting by focusing on the person rather than the act. I ended up very happy with a chapter that was essentially a mathematics (with magic) oral exam similar to the kind I took in graduate school. I guarantee the exam would be boring to anybody not taking it, and indeed, some of the characters observing the exam fall asleep while trying to be polite and watch the whole thing, but by working on the characters' emotions rather that focusing on each question and answer, the chapter itself stayed tense and humorous.

"Hour after hour, the examiners would push until he started to get into a rhythm with one subject, then switch completely just to see if he could change mental tracks. It was a duel, three-on-one, examiners versus prospective."

If you can't change the focus of a scene and make it interesting, kill the scene. Write something that occurs chronologically later in the story that's far more interesting to you. Maybe you can just say "Fortunately, he passed the exam, though there were whole hours where he didn't think he would make it," if you can't find a way to flesh out that scene.


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Reziac
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I see I got misinterpreted. I didn't mean the case of the writing being boring. I meant that after you've looked at something a thousand times, your brain DECIDES it's boring whether it is or not, just because it's tired of looking at the same damned thing for the thousandth time and wants to do something else, ANYthing else!

But the same principle applies: if you're tired of looking at some particular manuscript, or some part of it, chances are you've spent too much time beating your head against a wall when you'd be better off to go around it. So... skip whatever isn't working, or seems dull, or whatever negativity, and work on something else. What you thought was boring might in fact be great stuff -- if you aren't staring at the same passage or the same ms for days on end without getting anywhere.

And that's when a reader for partials can help too.
"Hey Joe, read this and tell me what's wrong with it."
Maybe Joe comes back with "There's nothing wrong, except you forgot to tell us about X, so we have no idea why Y happened."
"OH!" you say, "I've been looking at that for months and just didn't see it!"


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NoTimeToThink
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From your first posting, akeenedesign, I thought that the basic problem you were having is that the story wasn't going where you had planned. To paraphrase & adapt,
quote:
a story is what happens while you're making other plans.
Although some people may be able to completely plot out where they're trying to go with a story, I (and I believe most) don't REALLY know until it's done. Once you finish the first draft, then you look at it & say "Oh! That's what this story's about!" Then you go through and edit out everything that has nothing to do with it, and strengthen what does.
Don't get frustrateed with yourself. Writing is a creative process, and when you create a plot, or a world, or a universe, things aren't going to go the way you expect. Your characters will behave in ways you hadn't planned, and you'll be tempted to throw it all away, perhaps drown them all in a flood or something, and start over. But you won't get what you want that way - not if you want it to illustrate life and the human condition. You have to let the story come out the way it wants to...

[This message has been edited by NoTimeToThink (edited January 20, 2011).]


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