Monday, December 27, 2010

For A Story vs. About A Story

Kit Whitfield, author of Benighted[1] and In Great Waters, has a fascinating piece on how to tell the difference between an idea about a story, and an idea for a story.

I'd really recommend that you read the whole thing - especially if, like me, you're an aspiring writer who tends to get a little over-ambitious with your writing projects - but the section of the article that really stood out for me was this:
"Ideas about stories can drive you to distraction. Their fatal flaw is this: because they're not confined by specifics, there's no limit to how good they can sound. ... Usually you'll delay writing it, mostly because you don't actually know how to start (because you don't have anything to start with), and the longer you delay, the better the story can look because the further into fantasy it retreats. In the end you can find yourself delaying writing it precisely because any pinning down of specifics will be a reduction of the grand idea: no concrete rendering can be as all-encompassing and full of vague potential as an abstract idea."

I have done this. I had an idea about a story that I mistook for an idea for a story. I spent years working on it[2], and the results were... bad. Even more telling was the fact that the longer I continued, the worse the results became. If it had just been a bad idea, I might have dropped it much earlier; but I really, really wanted to have written the sort of book that I wanted this to be.

I finally just quit writing for a while. When I started again, I picked a fresh idea and ran with it. That project had its own problems[3], but it worked. I finished it.

My advice? Save yourself the grief. Learn to tell the difference between an idea for a story and an idea about a story.

[1] Which is also Bareback, depending on which side of the Atlantic you call home.

[2] Or, more accurately, years trying to get it started.

[3] Primarily, it suffered from Kitchen Sink Syndrome: I tried to include every cool idea that I'd had about that world. This had fairly predictable effects on the plot: it became unfocused and meandering. Now, some writers can get away with meandering because of the strength of their prose (c.f. Tolkien, Robert Jordan); but I am not one of them. Similarly, there are plenty of fantasy/science fiction stories which exist primarily to show off a particularly interesting world (e.g. Gulliver's Travels) - so that can be done, it's just that I hadn't structured my story to do that. And if I'd been writing in a more serial format - an ongoing monthly comic, for example - it might have worked anyway. A novel only has so much room.

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