Like most authors, I enjoy some parts of the writing game more than others. I have a good eye for prose, for making solid sentences stronger, for adding a dash of color to an otherwise unprepossessing phrase. I like to polish, in other words.
I am not nearly as adept at coming up with story ideas. If you’ve read my books, you’ve seen the tropes–secret babies, marriage or courtship of convenience, snowbound romance (waves to Pietr and Joy). The standard plotting advice–turn the trope on its head!–is also in evidence. Darius is the fallen woman with a heart of gold (‘cept he’s not fallen and he’s not a woman). Quinn Wentworth is a duke on death row. Ned Wentworth, as we shall see, is the thief who never learns to steal.
But coming up with something truly original? I struggle mightily, sometimes roosting on an idea for years before I can see its potential. I’m far more likely to think in terms of scenes, conversations, or themes than I am to envision an actual plot. For other writers, the slipper is on the other foot.
Those lucky souls can see whole story lines, start to finish. They can flip, rotate, invert, or twist any plot, and their problem is pruning away subplots, red herrings, and idiosyncratic settings. Sometimes, they are also impatient with the endless revision required for a well told story or their characters can come off a little plot-bunny-ish.
I had written many books before the fundamental paradox of writing became clear to me. It’s the old gambler’s dilemma: You have know when to go wild and know when to go home. A writer like me is always editing: That story won’t work, that subplot is anachronistic, that source of conflict doesn’t get intense enough… inadequate, silly, weak!
When it’s time to polish prose, those instincts result in a better story. When it’s time to get the clever premise into the light of day, that constant self-editing stifles the brilliant idea before it draws breath. The impulse to judge immediately stops a good notion from dancing off into real creativity.
So I’m working harder on thinking of stories in terms of “I like that because…” or, “It could work if…” This is hard for me, because contending with myriad possibilities makes me anxious and impatient. I want an opening scene, a catchy opening line. I want one flashlight beam to follow the heck out of, and leave the grand designs to those suited to such conceptions.
Except that a great book needs a grand design as well as polished prose. In fact, a wonderful life probably needs a balance of editorial acumen and creative license, too. A time to dream and a time to do.
Do you tend to be more critic or composer? Are you full of ideas, but not so keen on execution, or the person who gets the job done even if the result isn’t so fancy? Maybe you are one of those lucky few who can toggle between different modes? To three commenters, I will send an ARC of Miss Dignified (who will be on sale in the web store Dec. 14, and available from the major retailers Jan. 4.)