Discovery Writer, Gardener, Pantser… Whatever you decide to call us, I fall pretty firmly into the camp of writers who don’t plan their stories before they start writing them. Sure, there’s some mental “steeping” required before I can jump in the deep end, but that’s pretty mystical, even to me. And in my quest to better my fiction, I’ve learned to ask certain structural questions early on (at the moment, I’m a fan of Dan Well’s 7-Point Story Structure). But it’s always a bit of a struggle for me, and I’m much more comfortable imposing structure after I’ve written the bones of the story. Too much too early generally results in an unfinished story.
Since I don’t think things through beforehand, I end up doing a lot by instinct and only assessing the “why” after the fact. In the moment, I only know it feels wrong. That means I have to be willing to change my story, sometimes drastically, based on gut feeling alone.
I know a lot of writers who get very attached to what they have written, to the point that any change is painful. I’ve always had a bit of trouble understanding that point of view – much more painful, in my experience, to know there’s something wrong without knowing how to fix it. Changing things is the easy part; deciding what to change and how – that’s where things get dicey.
This week, I experienced a particularly vivid example of this. I thought I’d share, on the off chance it is helpful or interesting to others.
It all began at a write-in I had with my new California writing buddies. We were using some of my many (and sadly under-used) story prompt tools. First up, Story Cubes, and I had to put together three images off the dice and use them to start a story. I got a padlock, arrows pointing in different directions, and a teepee. Here’s what I came up with in the following fifteen minutes (please have pity on me and overlook any poor quality in the following samples, I didn’t want spend time editing scenelets I’m not going to use):
They left me, tied to a stake and blindfolded.
I stood there while they packed up the tents and loaded the horses. There were no words loud enough to hear, only mutters as dry as the approaching winds. They passed by me as they left, I know by the spittle drying on my body.
I think the heat on my skin is from the sun, but I am afraid it is the warning of the winds.
I twist my body from side to side, work my wrists until they are so raw the pain doesn’t fade. The wood scrapes across my back, but I think that it moves a little. Or perhaps I only wish it moves.
My fingers swell. My sweat rolls off me, it feels like ants crawling on my skin. It may be ants, climbing me to take of my moisture, to eat of my salt before taking my flesh.
When the air begins to move around me, I know my time has passed. Even sweat does not stand against such heat, and my skin is dry, dry, dry. My lips are gritty with the carried dust, and I sag against my bonds.
The winds come. First eddies of searing air around my feet, blistering. Then waves beating against me, and then a cyclone, ripping the flesh from my body in hair-thin strips as the infinitesimal motes of dust tear through me.
I have no water in my body with which to weep, so my painful sobs are dry.
When the rope releases and I fall forward, at first I think it is the storm which has worn the rope through. I am glad to die free, at least. But I would rather not remove the blindfold, or expose more of myself to the ripping wind.
“Geroff yer arse!” A man screams, and his hand closes around my arm and yanks me upright.
This is not the vocabulary of the wind demons who drag sinners to hell. And it is definitely not the words of the Sheltering Mother.
I get off my arse.
Not bad, but I have no idea where this is going. Perhaps I’ll figure that out later. That’s OK though, because we’re moving on to another prompt. This one out of a book. “Start a story with the following line: What I’m saying now is a lie.”
What I’m saying now is a lie.
I was never tied to a stake and left behind to die in a dust storm. The skin never flew from my bones like moths from an old sweater. I never breathed air so thick it might have been earth.
And that was certainly not when I met my husband.
No, my husband was given to me by my grandmother, who made the match. He drank with my father, and painted the barn for my mother. My husband and I have always lived in a house built of plaster and lathe.
He is certainly not kin of the wind-demons.
But since I am lying to you anyway, I will tell you what I want to tell you.
When I was young, I caught lizards with a boy who had hair the color of the noon sun. We played in the mesquite roughs, where the branches twist like snakes striking. We overturned rocks to find the scorpions and tarantulas and centipedes underneath. We lay and shivered on the bristly stiff grass at dusk and watched the bats flutter overhead. He fed me leaf-ladles of dust and twigs and told me it was soup. I scrubbed river mud in his hair and told him it was a potion to make him tall and wise.
I saw the sun-haired boy for the last time the day Mama and Gran brought me into the house to tame my wildness. They put me into the bedroom and tied my window-shutters closed with strips of muslin. They put heavy rocks in front of the door, twice as big as I was.
They tell me it took twelve days for me to quiet. Six days without food and another six days without water (they had been pouring water through a hole in the wall). And when they finally dared open the door, I was a girl and my hair was antelope-brown. They will not tell me what color it was before that, but I like to think it was dark like a moonless night. Or perhaps black like the shiny body of a widow-making spider.
I ate bread soaked with water and let them wash my body with water and lye-soap. Mama says they washed the mesquite dust away and found me. Gran says they combed my hair with a dry thistle, and shook loose the demons that had lodged there. Papa says I was a pretty little girl after I got cleaned up. Gramps says I was always pretty.
From that day, they kept me inside the house of plaster and lathe, and taught me things I would need to know.
I learned to spin, weave, and sew by making my new clothes with Gran. When she was not looking, I would skew the weft or knot the thread to create a roughness, and I would run my finger over it to feel the bark again. My mother taught me to cook, and I remember leaning close to the fire to breathe its heat into my lungs, so like the summer sun in the roughs. They did not let me help boil the soap or gather the eggs. They did not take me across town to worship the Sheltering Mother on Firstdays. But I was allowed to beat the rugs on the stoop if one of them stood with me.
All right! I like that. I spent the rest of the night moving this particular story forward. But later, when I came back to it at home, especially when I started to look at the ending, I realized it still wasn’t right. I used all sorts of visual details, but it’s still all summary, no scene. Everything is distant, and the voice just didn’t feel quite right for this particular character. Plus, the start is gimmicky, and probably needs to be cut.
So, perhaps back to close first person?
I do not remember anything before Gran opened the door to my bedroom. All was darkness and wind, and then that iron latch rattled. A little pale light streamed into the room, framing three bodies in the doorway. Then I could see that it was not dark, that light seeped through the cracks between the closed shutters and through several hand-sized holes in the walls.
Gran shuffled toward me over the uneven wood-slat floor, nudging chunks of plaster and torn strips of lathe out of her way with her silver-fitted cane. I looked down, the only escape left to me now that my body would not move.
She reached me and cleared the floor in front of me. Then she knelt, awkward and with many popping joints. She reached forward and brushed my hair out of my face, dislodging a cloud of plaster dust and a rain of wood sticks. She lifted my chin with her cool, paper-dry hand and studied my face with a gaze full of intent. Then she held a tin canteen out to me, and my tongue cracked for want of water.
I reached for it, but stopped. My fingers were more splinter than skin, prickly like dried cactus.
Gran tsked and lifted the canteen to my lips herself. I drank as much as she would let me, messily, water sliding out of the corners of my lips and down my throat. She took the canteen away too soon, and I licked desperately at the moisture my tongue could reach, heedless of the taste of dirt and plaster.
Ugh. No. I feel like I lost the mood and tone I liked so much in the last iteration. Plus, this particular point of view is going to make it tough later on, especially since Gran’s intentions are so important to the story. And the voice still isn’t right. The girl sounds far too normal.
After a little pondering, I decided to try an omniscient point of view. Maybe I could have some scenes, recapture a bit of tall tale tone, and depict the girl as properly mysterious. Maybe. I usually don’t like reading or writing omniscient, but it can be done. It’s just a question of whether I can pull it off.
After twelve days, Granny Higby opened the door. No one can say what was in there before that prairie sage fell to the floor and that iron latch rattled. But afterward, there was only a girl.
They say the room was so shambled they didn’t see the girl at first among the chunks of lathe and plaster. They say the floor rolled like the foothills, with some slats bowed upward and some bent down. They say every surface – walls, floor, ceiling; everything except the door and the closed shutters – bore deep rents, as if from a panther’s claws. But even with all that dust, they say it still smelled of hot grass under sun-bleached skies. Like heat-lightning and dust devils.
Granny Higby went in with no hesitation. She went slow, using her iron-topped cane to knock the debris out of her path. Higby Senior watched from the doorway next to his daughter-in-law, who covered her face with her apron rather than see Granny torn apart.
But the girl just sat there on the slatted wood floor in the center of the room, hair gray with plaster dust and hands more splinter than skin. Like a dead cactus – that bad. She kept her eyes lowered to the floor, as was proper for a young lady. But the very first thing Granny did was tilt that girl’s chin up with her chill, papery old hands and look into her eyes.
What Granny saw must have pleased her, because the very next thing she did was pull her tin flask. “Take it child. You must be powerful thirsty,” she said. Ma and Senior didn’t even see the flask change hands, but there it was, sucked empty and dropped on the floor. The clatter of it shocked Ma back behind her apron.
“Now, now,” Granny said sternly. “Pick that up for me, dear, and hand it back next time. My bones are too weathered to be chasing my things about on the floor.”
The gall of that shocked Ma into looking, despite the danger of any manner of blood and guts. Her knuckles were white to match the fabric she clutched so tightly, but she watched as the girl picked up the flask and handed it back to Granny, meek as anything. That’s when Ma started to see the potential Granny had been telling her about for twelve days. She hadn’t been able to hear the truth beyond the hair-prickling screeches and bone-shattering crashes, but she caught an echo of it just then.
So that’s the version I’m working on now, and I’m liking it so far. We’ll see how it works for the full story and what others think. Who knows, I might end up back at one of the other versions. As my first-ever intentional attempt at omniscient, I’m sure I’ll end up going through a pretty hefty revision. But at the moment, it feels right, and the words are flowing.