I’m currently 30,000 words into a story that has an embarrassing amount of “plot holes.”
Technically you can’t call something in a story a plot hole if you haven’t even finished writing the story yet. But the point is, there are missing pieces. Broken connections. Things about my characters and their backstories I don’t quite understand yet.
Yet, despite all the uncertainty I face each time I sit down to work on this story — is it a stand-alone book? Part of a series? Is it even a book at all? I don’t even know! — I just keep writing anyway.
Because here’s the truth most aspiring writers don’t want to hear: The only way to figure out how to make a story work is by writing a complete story. Even if it turns out a total mess.
You will never know exactly where your story is headed. The thing about stories is that no matter how strongly we believe they are going to go a certain way, the good ones almost always surprise us. Sometimes, even stories with predictable endings throw in unexpected elements that make consuming them even more enjoyable.
Believe it or not, though, this requires trusting your gut. Taking your story places even you didn’t expect it to go. Letting your characters decide what they do next, and having faith that as long as you keep writing and keep putting in the time and the effort, it’s all going to come together so much better than you originally imagined.
For many writers, this is an absolutely terrifying thought. Write a story without knowing how to get to the end from the beginning? You’re joking, right?
I’m not joking, it turns out. A little spontaneity can go a long way for even the most skeptical storyteller.
This even applies to “planners” — writers who plan out the course of their stories before they write them — some plan loosely, inviting in more spontaneous plot development, and others outline in so much detail it can sometimes feel as though they have already written the whole story when they technically haven’t written a single word yet (“technically”).
There is nothing wrong with outlining. There is nothing wrong with having some kind of idea of where you can expect your story might go next. Planning and “pantsing” as they call it, are simply two different ways of approaching a writing project. One isn’t “right” and the other wrong. When it comes to the degree to which you plan out a story, it’s really going to depend on what’s going to help you produce the best possible story in the end.
Some people work better when they have a plan. Others do better just winging it.
But sometimes, even when you are a hardcore planner, you at points have to come to the understanding that plans change. And the result is often an improvement upon what might have been.
Many of the discoveries you make about your story, you end up making while you are in the middle of writing it. So if you feel like you are lost and don’t know if you’re heading in the right direction … just keep going until you figure it out.
You can’t put together a really good story until you write a not so good story first. Many aspiring writers have argued with me on this point — as they absolutely have every right to do. Their most common argument? “Why would I waste my time writing something that’s total garbage?” Or, some variation of that, anyway.
I get that. I do. Time is something nearly every writer struggles with, and the one thing we can pretty much all universally agree on is that we do not have time to waste.
This makes the idea of writing an imperfect story extremely unflattering, I know. But here’s the thing about writing the first, raw version of your story — what we call the “first draft”:
You can’t fill in the missing parts of a story when you don’t have a story to work with.
If you know what your main character starts out as a rebellious, hard-headed teenager and by the end of your story becomes the trusted leader of an underground organization responsible for saving the world from ultimate evil — you know, just your average example, don’t read much into it — you might not know how she comes to make that full transition. You might know bits and pieces of what influences her to change. You might even know the major event that completes her transformation. But it’s the little details that come to you along the way that will give your story its unique brand of magic.
Don’t let self-doubt get in your own story’s way. Many — MANY — writers and creators in general struggle with their confidence. It’s not easy to put things out into the world, or even to fathom the idea of putting them in front of a bunch of people for them to judge. Especially since work that is made public is so often judged and criticized — sometimes not in the nicest way.
Why do we doubt ourselves?
- We want our work to be as good as that one book we read years ago that we’ve never stopped thinking about.
- We look at our imperfect, often unfinished first drafts and wonder why it doesn’t look or feel like “that” book.
- Sometimes people are not nice, and we don’t want those people to tear down our work … or us.
- We are often told writing is not a “practical” profession. Which it isn’t. But it’s implied we shouldn’t put too much of our faith in it.
- Watching other people succeed when we haven’t is really, really hard. Even when you’re at a place where you can be happy for others’ successes, it’s still hard.
- We often treat our work and our worth as one element when they need to be separated.
I could go on — but I will save this specific topic for another post. What I want you to take away from these bullet points is that everyone has their own personal reasons for doubting themselves. You are not “too emotional.” You don’t “overthink every little thing.” You don’t “care too much about what other people think.”
The simple truth is that you are human, and you have a relationship with words many of those you interact with will never fully understand. You have fears. You have insecurities. You have hopes and dreams and you face barriers and you don’t want to fail.
But you can’t let any of that stop you from writing the words in your heart. They’re like the song in your head you can’t forget until you sing it out loud. You’re not you when you’re not writing, and more often than we’re usually willing to admit, you are the only thing standing in your way. You are the only reason you aren’t writing.
So what are you going to do about that?
I hope the answer is that you will trust yourself to write without regrets. To tell stories in full even if they aren’t perfect. To trust your gut even though sometimes it’s wrong. To keep writing not because you have to or because it’s “the only thing you’re good at,” but because you love it. Because it is a part of you that you can’t survive without.
If writing is what you want to achieve, then do it. Write the words now. Worry about the rest later.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.