May 23, 2010

Ask Robin: Blank spots


You [have said] that your stories are, in large part, not strictly “your creations.” You maintain that they simply 

Ahem.  ‘Simply’ has nothing to do with it. 

come to you, telling themselves first to you, and prodding you to . . . write them . . . [but] there may be gaps in the official story.  And while you can accept a blank such as “and then SOMETHING happens, and Katriona is able to have a spinning wheel in the house that complies with royal orders” when it’s just a story in your head, when it comes to writing it down, something has to be filled into that blank. You must have had times when . . . the story simply won’t fill in that blank. . . .

My question is this: “How do you deal with those story blanks the Story Council leaves open, when you’re completely on your own to create them, keeping in mind that it has to lead to a certain event that you know comes after the blank?”

I suggest that the first thing you do when you find yourself in this situation—since, whoever you are, you are obviously asking with a good deal of personal feeling—is let go of the idea that you know what happens next.  You may not know.  You may be trying to make the story do what you want it to do:  you may really like the bit that comes next, or think it’s a really clever piece of plot, or it’s going to bridge that awkward transition between part one and part two, or you’ve been longing to stick the evil giant muskrat with the enchanted harpoon and you’re finally going to get to do it. 

           And you may very well not realise that that’s what you’re doing.  Writing stories is hard* and one of the hardest things about it is the way EVERY FRELLING THING IS SO FRELLING FLUID.  Every word you write may lead to almost any other word . . . and the word you wrote may already be the wrong word.  Trying to translate that fabulous story that has taken over your brain and your life into words on paper . . . gah.  It’s the worst.  It’s the scariest.  It’s the hardest.

            And so you are going to hang onto stuff that you think you know.  Very reasonable of you.  But you may be wrong.  Maybe you don’t know what comes next.  What you think you know may be totally brilliant and exciting, but it may not belong here in this story.  And thinking too much about it may be blocking your finding out what happens in your blank spot.  Try forgetting about the event you know comes after the blank.  Just sit there with your blank and see what happens.   And no, I have no idea how long I mean by ‘just sit there’.  An hour.  A month.  Twenty years. 

            It’s different for different writers.  So don’t take what I’m saying as the absolute and only truth.  But for me, if there’s a blank spot, it’s because I haven’t listened hard enough.  It’s not a blank spot in the story.  It’s a blank spot in my understanding of the story. 

            This is what I believe:  if the story is yours, if you’re the person who’s supposed to tell it, it’ll come to you.   It may drive you mad in the process, and it may take years.  But it’ll come.  If it doesn’t come, then it’s not your story.  How do you tell the difference between waiting and listening, and realising it’s not your story?  You don’t, unless it tells you.  Your job is to keep waiting and listening.  Meanwhile, if you can’t write this story right now, write another one.**  And if all your stories have blank spots, then there’s something else wrong, and you need to stop bruising yourself against that imaginary-but-very-very-real wall, and find out what it is.

            But that’s another . . . story. 

* * *

 * See:  simply has nothing to do with it 

** And if the story we’re talking about, the one with the blank spot, is the only story you can think about, then write book reviews or poetry or political commentary or something.  Not writing, if you are or want to be a writer, is not a good idea.  I’ve said this elsewhere, I’m saying it now, and I’ll doubtless say it again, but to be a writer you must write.  And writing, like anything worth doing well, takes practise.   Lots and lots and lots of practise.


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