Monday, August 9, 2010

Destiny Has Many Faces

There's a bit of writing advice I hear a lot around the interwebz, and it's something with which I agree -- with a caveat.

First, the advice: As writers we shouldn't let anyone change our story from what it's meant to be. In other words, we should write our story the way that's right, and not worry about word count, genre, audience, etc.

There's value in this, in the idea that it's our story, and that we should always have full possession of it. We shouldn't automatically be swayed by every comment or critique of our writing; all opinions are not equal. A critique is only as valuable as what we do with it. A brilliant critique is only brilliant if it helps us transform our story in a positive way. A terrible critique is only terrible if we let it sway us in the wrong direction.

As a writer we have to take ownership of our writing. Its path is ours and ours alone to plot -- all committees are advisory only.

But... here's the caveat: It's easier to accept our story as definitive, as finished, than it is to explore change.

Destiny has many faces. And so too does our story, at least in the realm of possibility. The danger of the above writing advice is that the process becomes static. We see our story as fated - we see it as we first imagined it, as we wrote it out on the page. And, look, it's on the page! Finished! This concrete thing! Yes, we can tweak some sentences, the dialogue here and there. But the story is done. This is the story as it's meant to be, written in stone.

But what is that, exactly? What is meant to be? Is any story simply meant to be one thing and one thing only? We have a vision, certainly. But visions are malleable things. We ourselves often change, and our stories can change with us -- but only if we are open to the possibility, the idea that fate has many forms.

It can be an excuse for us, you see -- Oh, I can't change this, it's not what was meant to be. But that meaning is always wholly within us, and is bound only by what we can see and imagine. Yes, some things will lead us astray from what we want. We have to guard against this... but without closing ourselves off to the possibility of change, even deep change.

Destiny has many faces. I touched on this with my guest post for Nathan Bransford a few weeks ago. I think what I wanted writers to take away was the idea that you could see the story from within, that you could write in new doors and rooms to any story. Will they be right? Some yes, some no. But if we're never willing to make the attempt we're tying off our own possibilities, the power of our own imagination.

God built the world, and on the seventh day He rested. And on the eighth? Perhaps things started to evolve, to change - perhaps God started an endless revision in search of a final story.

Are we any different? The story is before us, always running into a future full of possibilities. We can cut things away, story elements becoming extinct, living on only as ghosts of memory. Yet the story remains, a fluid thing, open (as always) to possibility -- eternity is merely a story of continual genesis.


R.S. Bohn said...

Revision is a cold hard mistress, indeed.

To the first part, may I add: the critique is also only as good as the critic. Whether they tell you that your story is brilliant or poop, if they themselves are in no way qualified to make that decision, you need to remember that. And also, as Nathan had talked about recently (ooh, I hope it was Nathan... I think it was), most people give an opinion on a piece of work based on emotion. Did they like it or not? If they liked it, then obviously, it's great! If they didn't like, well, you know. Poop. So, for me, I say to take all opinions with a grain of salt.

Much of what you're talking about here echoes, at least to me, your earlier post on running/writing. The novel is a long process, and the first draft is just the first of many, many miles. Are you prepared to go the distance? It'll mean much, much more work. And it's not really fun.

Well, my cat is here, typing you 5s to infinity, so I'm signing off.

And thanks for another thoughtful post.

Mira said...

I am a strong proponent of writing the story that's meant to be written, but I also agree with some of what you are saying.

If someone's goal is just to write work to sell it, and they really don't care about the writing beyond that, then this doesn't really apply to them.

For those who write for self-expression, writing to ouside forces, you really risk watering down your work if you create to order.

I believe that for those who write for self-expression it is extremely important to write from the muse and mold the work from that.

After it's done, then it can be edited. That comes from a different part of the mind, and at that point, feedback can and should enter the process. And if someone is lucky enough to have a gifted editor, or even (said with reverence) a mentor, then the work can go through major change.

But the initial act of creation is too personal. It comes from the mind, soul and heart and should not be dictated by the outside. Discussed, yes, but not dictated. That act of creation belongs to the writer, and the writer alone.

That is the only way to achieve true art, and possibly even, great art, that transcends a particular time and place. And for the artist, isn't that always our goal?

That's what I believe, anyway.

Great topic, Bryan. Not discussed enough in the writing world, imho.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm well resigned to the need for revisions, more revisions, an endless rolling hill of changes where the greatest obstacles are only revealed once the foothills are taken. So my heart is very open to this.

For me it is more knowing when it is done. When we can fling it out into the world like Churchill and know that we've done what we can. To not kill the good in pursuit of the perfect. But not to miss the great in pursuit of the immediate.

It's a tricky thing, requiring some self-knowledge and hard cold experience. And always a willingness to risk, but that's what writing's all about. At least for me.

Bryan Russell said...


Yeah, when to end? That's always tricky, and there's no easy way out of that. Sometimes you just have to stop, send it out, and pray. Maybe some yoga. Deep breathing exercises.

Bryan Russell said...


Yeah, that's kind of what I meant about revision. The key to any critique is the writer's analysis of it. Don't simply accept it. Think, analyze, and apply where appropriate.

Though revisions can be fun! (well, some of them...)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Bryan I think the yoga might be more painful than the querying. Good choice!

Bryan Russell said...


I agree in part, and I'm not one to show a first draft in progress - I want to be alone with the story at that point.

But what is "meant to be written"? It's so abstract, and yet stories are specific. Is it just that one version? Or are there many potential versions that are equally "meant to be written"?

I'm not really talking about writing to the whims of others, even to sharp critique. Just the idea that writers close themselves off to story possibilities, to the chance at re-envisioning and perhaps deepening their story.

You suggested revision is from a different part of the brain... and I agree with that, but only partially. Yes, some of the analytical tasks are different in the revision stage, and for many writers will be found only then. But some writers will apply those same things during the writing of the first draft. And, in the same way, I don't think the muse has to leave simply because you start a revision rather than a draft. The muse is still needed. There can be as much "creation" in a revision as in a first draft. After analysis (even if that analysis is common only to revisions), the results must be applied -- and that is a matter of creation, of talking again to the muse, of finding story answers... and perhaps finding new stories altogether, hidden within the old.

I think the problem is that sometimes that dichotomy of different brains is too firmly held. A writer creates, feels the muse, and writes their first draft. And then the muse leaves. They turn off their creativity and go all logical. And yet, with that disconnect from the muse, what form will their revisions take? Probably simple, technical, rational things. Delete some extra words, check the grammar, fix the typos, maybe smooth out a few craft issues.

Ideas get set in stone. The muse came, gave me this story, and left. I can tidy it up a bit, but that's all there is.

But what if the muse never leaves? Creation is constant. Inside the story there are endless possibilities. Perhaps the true part of the story has yet to be found? We need that muse. We need to set it to work inside the "finished" story. Perhaps the story that is "meant to be" isn't there yet, but simply waiting, lurking under the surface, waiting for the muse to pull it out and welcome it into the light.

Bryan Russell said...


Maybe we'll stick with deep breathing... safer all around.

Anne R. Allen said...

I think this is a first draft vs. revision thing. If you show a first draft around and are urged to change your essential vision, stop up your ears (and don't show it around next time.) When you're ready to revise, listen to everything, ignore what sends your muse into a screaming temper tantrum and consider the rest. Usually critics can't tell you exactly what's wrong or how to fix it, but their criticism will tell you where the piece needs work.

Or it may lead in a whole new direction. I've always been impressed with the factiod that Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections by expanding one chapter of a WIP--discarding the rest of the novel.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post.

It set me thinking, and documenting my writing process.

As a newbie writer who has just begun to publish in a few short story anthologies, I'm very interested in the paths various writers take towards the completion of their stories.

I have to agree that the muse has to be there always, especially so during the re-visioning process. This is because a lot of creation takes place at this stage.

I can only turn off the muse when I am editing/ proofreading, which comes much, much later.

In my current post, I have linked to both your post here, and the one you made at Nathan Bransford's blog. Hope that's ok, and thank you very much for helping me introspect!

Ted Cross said...

I especially have this issue, because my story existed in my head for more than twenty years before I typed it up. To me it is more of a history than a story, and history isn't something that one changes (unless you are a reporter).

Bryan Russell said...

Or a historian! Ha ha!

Bryan Russell said...

Though, on a serious note, I think that's actually true about historians. My father was a historian and history professor, and wrote some revisionist work in American History (Yes, yes, we're Canadian, but Canadian history is boring. We're too nice. :) A history is not so different from a story - indeed, it is a story, an attempt at reclamation, at re-creation. We move forward, stringing facts together, first this way and then that. We backtrack, revise, find new facts, try and amalgamate into some sort of truth. And then a new argument is made, and we're swayed in another direction. New facts emerge. People argue about meaning...

History is a process, an attempt to find the story that is right. Is a novel so different? They're both a process of continual search.

Matthew MacNish said...

Personally I don't think there is any right and wrong when it comes to creative writing. There may be publishable and unpublishable, but even that is subjective and a matter of opinion that may vary depending on who you ask. For my own writing I only try to focus on ideas like "good" and "better".

Also I strongly agree with Bryan and R.S. about the source of feedback. For example when I get some editorial advice (or even questions only) from someone as thoughtful as Bryan I consider them deeply even if they feel wrong at first. If a comment comes from a random blog reader I only consider it seriously if it resonates.

Bruce H. Johnson said...

Writing Craft is what you do. It's having a story structure (3 Acts/4 parts, etc., character development, concept, pacing, scene writing, etc.)

Art or creativity is how you do it. It's your choice of words, the actual plot point, the way you portray characters.

Craft can be learned and practiced to a well-honed ability; think of musicians practicing scales.

Art is exercised and is always fresh. Yes, there are methods of getting inspiration/artistic ideas such as brainstorming and the like, but the result is not predictable -- and that's wonderful.

These comments from the beginning have noted that you must consider that validity of the source of criticism. Too true. "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" doesn't tell us much beyond that.

However, if someone like Orson Scott Card or James Scott Bell, says, "Might have a look at the middle, there. It seems to drag a bit," you'd better hop to it.

You can be constructively-criticised to death and end up with nothing. "What kind of title is Devils and Angels? That's sacrilegious." You sure don't accept everything.

Consider decent feedback/criticism of the Craft only. Never entertain slams about your artistic creativity or you'll end up with nothing.

In fiction writing, Craft and Art are inextricably commingled. Throughout the entire writing process it's the Art which is the ruler in conveying the powerful emotional experiences we want to deliver.

"The story concept seems a bit weak" might well be valid, since concept is part of the Craft and might bear consideration. However, it's your Art which will make that concept higher.

"You've got to be a pervert (heathan, herotic or whatever) even to write about that. May you be cursed," is an ad hominem attack and requires as much attention and response as a mosquito buzzing outside your triple-paned window.

Go write something great.

Mira said...


I agree with both you and Damyanti. The muse is definitely part of the creative 're-visioning'. In fact, that's probably my favorite part of writing, and the part where I feel most fully creative.

But I think there is another, less creative, structural part of the mind that comes into play when polishing.

But that's really a small part of what I was saying.

The heart of what I'm saying is that I believe thoughts about word count, genre, audience, etc. interfere with creativity. These concepts are about selling the work at a particular time in the culture.

I believe that writing to those outside requirements waters down the creative process. It also may make your work 'time bound', so that it fits a particular cultural moment, but doesn't transcend it.

All of that is different from critique that helps improve the writing and enhances the creative process.

But it depends upon your goals. Writing to sell writing is a fine goal, and if that's your goal, cool. I'm just saying there is an artistic cost. But it may be a cost any particular artist is willing to pay, which is fine too.

We all have different goals, which is cool.

What I mean by 'meant to be written', is the book that most clearly, precisely and profoundly communicates what you are trying to say. You wrote a post about word choice, and the 'rightness' of finding the right word. The same is true when you write the right book, I believe.

Bryan Russell said...


I agree with you... to a point!

Man, I like saying that. :)

Yes, sometimes trying to write to a wordcount or audience can damage a story. But sometimes those impositions are exactly what spurs creativity. The challenges of the form demand it.

At times, it is much easier to write your story and say Hey, that's it. Pressures, though, put a demand on the writer. Will we meet it?

You can write your first draft and have it 300,000 words. Oops. (Yes, I admit, I'm guilty of that) Now, I can say that this is just the way the story is... or I can embrace the challenge of transforming it. And the challenge is one that will test our creativity.

I think I'm someone who's happy when it's difficult - I like that challenge, that necessity. My book, for instance, is far more creative and interesting now in draft twenty-whatever (having embraced the ol' wordcount challenge) than it was in its gargantuan first draft. It's a better book.

And it's the publishing strictures, which at first seem so very abstract, that led to this. There's probably some wisdom in publishing practices (Egad! I know!). Most 300K manuscripts shouldn't be 300K. They'll be better books if they're cut. Yes, there will be exceptions. But I've found it wise to tread very carefully whenever I start thinking of myself as an exception -- I can build my house on the sand! (Hmmmm... why is my house slanting at an odd angle toward the sea?)

So! Yes! and No! Isn't it great being definitive? I'm like wishy-washy ol' Charlie Brown.

Unknown said...

I believe in "meant to be written". I don't think I would have the confidence to write otherwise. I think the problem arises when a writer confuses "what is meant to be written" with "what I have already written". They saw something and coppied it to the best of their ability but who's to say the light wasn't tricky at the time? It was at a limeted angle and now that they can see it more clearly they can coppy it much better even if it isn't anything like what they originally thought. Listening to what the story wants isn't being closed off to what other people have to say. Quite the oposite. It's being constantly open to what the story has to say.

Bryan Russell said...

Nicely put, Taryn.

Mira said...

Bryan, I know what you mean about the challenge. I enjoy writing to prompts and limits. Flash fiction, for example. Trying to capture something in 500 words or less, that's fun.

And I may be proud of it, think what I created was terrific and even try to have it read or published. But, for me, that's still limited creativity, albeit fun.

But maybe I'm being a sort of creativity snob about this, I don't know. Maybe writing to limitations is the best creative environment for some folks. But is the best for everyone? What about the artist who really needs a blank canvass to create their best work?

So, I guess the ultimate question is: are you writing to requirements because you want to get published? Or because you think it makes a better story?

And I know you well enough to guess that you'll say: both. That the limits required by the publishing industry ARE the best way to write a story. But I don't want to go THERE. So, we can let the argument rest at that point. :)

I'll say again, from my perspective, if people want to make money from their writing, they want to build a livihood from it, or want to spend all their time writing, so they want writing to be lucrative and support them, or various other reasons to make money for writing - I hope they do!!

Bryan Russell said...

I'm going to be a gazillionaire, myself.

I don't even know how much money a gazillion is, but I want it.


Mira said...

I guess it's important for me to emphasize that I am really, really not dissing on folks who write for money.

In fact, I think writers don't always fight hard enough to be compensated fairly for their work.

Money is not WHY I write. On the other hand, if I publish I expect to be paid, and well paid, at that.

Mira said...

Ha! You posted right before my follow-up.

I'd go with a gazillion, but I'd settle for a bazillion.