You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

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I didn’t know I didn’t know that much.

One of the most valuable things I learned in school was that I didn’t know shit about anything. While I was an introspective and philosophical adolescent (read: I was convinced I was positively smarter than anyone I knew) who understood humans and the universe they live in, I learned that there was such a vast amount of things in the world I didn’t know were available for a teenager such as myself to know anything about. There was so much I didn’t know I didn’t know, so much I never even considered necessary or interesting or relevant. That’s one of the joys — er, betrayals — of adulthood, learning that there is still so much about life that you I don’t even know exists. Sure, I know I still don’t understand rocket science, or parenthood, or walking a tightrope, and a lot of those things I have little interest in learning. But coming to terms with the vast quantity of things I didn’t even know were possibilities is both a riveting and risky experience. I’d imagine it’s a little like agreeing to be the world’s expert on the next newly discovered animal species . . . you have no idea what you’ll end up with and whether you’ll spend the rest of your career being laughed at by your peers.

As a novelist, the same rules apply while writing. Not before I create a story, not while plotting or even researching, but rather while I’m writing.

Many of you new novelists know that amongst the plethora of writing blogs and craft books is the great debate of the process: is it better to be a pantser or a plotter? There are certainly many authors who swear by one approach or the other, but I’ve found that most writers are some combination of the two. These writers will tell you that they plot out the story in some fashion to get all their ideas in order and fleshed out so they know where the major plot points are placed and what line the story arc follows, etc.

But then, they say, you just have to start writing. Why? Because you have no idea where the story will take you.

This concept freaks a lot of people out. They’ve spent copious hours/days/weeks/months plotting their novel to the last detail in Excel spreadsheets; the last thing they want to do is change an element in their story and render their spreadsheets and charts useless. And on the reverse side, it’s a risky notion to start writing a novel without direction; the story could go anywhere and at the very least that creates a hefty amount of work in the editing stage.

But what about a nice balance in-between? What about being a pantsing-plotter? What would happen if you were to start with an idea, get some plot points down, figure out the characters and the Big Struggle and then . . . just start writing? Well, you don’t know what would happen, do you? And maybe that’s the point.

My novel TICK started with a girl, a secret, a goal, and the inciting incident. I didn’t even know how it would end (although I thought I had an idea, but wasn’t sold on it). One night I had a dream about a scene that would later be placed in the 3rd act, I got up the next morning and started writing. I still had my inciting incident and I knew I’d be working towards that, but aside from those few elements I could not see further into the story than two chapters ahead of where I was writing. I wrote about two chapters a day, spent the evening thinking about what would come next, and then repeated the cycle. The story just came. I didn’t know where the story was taking me but I trusted it to take me along for the journey. And it did. I’ve since rewritten it a dozen times and changed whole sections and swapped out chapters, but the story is still intact as to how I first wrote it. My characters knew what they were doing, my gut told me the purpose of my protagonist’s journey would reveal itself to me because in some part of my brain I knew exactly where it was going. It was thrilling, even, to be along for the ride as much as she was.

The conclusion of my story also led me to another thing I didn’t know I didn’t knowTICK is a science fiction novel. There are high-techy stuff in there because, well, it takes place 25 years in the future. But what I didn’t know was that there was more room for more nerdy science stuff. I love nerdy science stuff, I married a nerdy engineer, and what I didn’t know was that this newly discovered science fit so perfectly into my story that it not only explained my protagonist’s ailment but provided a platform to expand my whole entire story-world.

Case in point, I’d sat down and typed out one word after another without knowing where I was going and created the bare skeleton of a story. It was decent in this original form (while maybe a little weak in spots), but then came the fun part: I had my ear to the floor, listened for the rumbling frequencies that spoke to my objective, found some really cool geeky science stuff to make my science-fiction a little less “fiction”. What was the advantage of doing it this way? Well, had I plotted the hell out of my story I may have never even allowed myself to consider looking into this type of technology (as I’m closer to publishing I will tell you of this technology; it’s all thanks to my mom and Michio Kaku). I didn’t know it existed. At the time I wouldn’t have considered it relevant, so I never would have researched it. Had I stuck to my plot points with certainty out of fear of derailing the train, I never would have found the gold mine at the bottom of the canyon. Freeing myself of certainties allowed my story to evolve and expand and become the book it was meant to.

I’m now an advocate for being a pantsing-plotter. To me, it is the best way to write a story. Like getting in a car accident, the more you relax your body and don’t fight against the impact, the less likely you are to be hurt. Just roll with it. If you trust your instincts and let the story flow through those parts of your brain and heart and soul that know what makes a good story, the real tale will make itself known to you.

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