Commitment vs. Realizing I’m Writing the Wrong Story

Is it giving up if I decide that this story that I’m telling isn’t the one I set out to write, and isn’t one that I want to write–at least not right now?

I started this story with the question: Why would a group of people (monsters, particularly) choose to remain enslaved?  And then I thought of my monster-soldiers, and Fen in particular–and then I wanted someone for contrast, someone who was enslaved but trying to escape.  Not literal slavery, but genetic slavery–I mean, she’s the daughter of the Lord of the Land, the Pater Familias*, absolute head of the household, who has the right to decide anything for anyone in the family (or in his land), up to and including ordering execution without justification.  Absolute power, over his daughter Allie, his soldier-slaves, and everyone else.  But in the society I created, this became all about arranged marriage, and how much it would suck for this one character.  To remain true to that society, Allie couldn’t become badass, at least not immediately and without extraordinarily unlikely things happening, and I want her to be badass.  I wanted her to be witty and capable, not angsty, choosing and acting.  But I’m giving her an impossible decision: accept the arranged marriage to this horrible guy, or run away and leave her younger sister to the same fate.  Or have her sister run away too, and have the whole land, their whole family, be overrun and brutally killed.  This is a dark, hard situation.  The time between the beginning of the story and the point at which she could become badass was too long, and I was getting too frustrated by her lack of action.  She’s not in a situation to have actions to make.  And the situation I started out putting her in was to be struggling against was her enslavement, not the future husband, not the attacking monster-army.  Those were incidental and extra–yet they would have to be central to the story for it to make sense.  So what story am I trying to tell?  I still want to tell that original story.

And do I really want to write a story about a woman being raped?  That was effectively where I was leading, and if she managed to escape it, it would be too pat.

So I got stuck at about 3000 words.**

And then I wrote a scene that was really dark, even darker than I’d been managing, which would’ve totally shortened the story, getting us straight into the dark and scary.  And dude, I write funny.  I’m most interesting when I’m funny.  Can I maintain a dark and scary tone?  Can I maintain a dark and scary tone while telling a story that isn’t the one I was trying to write?

I don’t think I’m just copping out… but I do feel like I’m copping out.

Last night I realized I could write a different part of the history of this world–unfortunately, also dark and dismal–this one in a place where I can just create badass women without feeling like I’m being untrue to historical accuracy or to the society I’ve established.  I know the ending of this story–it leads directly into the world of Allie & Fen–but I don’t know the beginning or the middle, and I don’t know who is involved.  I don’t know what happens, but I know where they end up.  I don’t think I’ve ever begun a story already knowing the ending.

I don’t even have any characters yet, or societies, or settings, and I haven’t really decided if it’s sci fi or fantasy.  Right now I’m leaning towards sci fi, because it feels more exciting with that tone, and anything that excites me is more likely to lead to an exciting story.  :)

How I feel today: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people” -T. Mann — quoted by Laura Anne Gilman (


* This is a Latin phrase from Ancient Rome^.  Wikipedia says this:

The pater familias (plural: patres familias) was the head of a Roman family. The term is Latin for “father of the family” or the “owner of the family estate”. The form is irregular and archaic in Latin, preserving the old genitive ending in -as (see Latin declension). The pater familias was always a Roman citizen.

Roman law and tradition (mos maiorum) established the power of the pater familias within the community of his own extended familia. He held legal privilege over the property of the familia, and varying levels of authority over his dependents: these included his wife and children, certain other relatives through blood or adoption, clients, freedmen and slaves. The same mos maiorum moderated his authority and determined his responsibilities to his own familia and to the broader community. He had a duty to father and raise healthy children as future citizens of Rome, to maintain the moral propriety and well-being of his household, to honour his clan and ancestral gods and to dutifully participate – and if possible, serve – in Rome’s political, religious and social life. In effect, the pater familias was expected to be a good citizen. In theory at least, he held powers of life and death over every member of his extended familia through ancient right but in practice, the extreme form of this right was seldom exercised. It was eventually limited by law.

My Pater Familias seldom uses his powers of death, either, but … he could.  And marriage?  Marriage is definitely controlled by him.  Usually arranged for political reasons, which was true for powerful men throughout much of European history and many (most?) other cultures in this world, too.

^ Studying Latin and history extensively give me all kinds of useful concepts to draw on.  Some more depressing than others…

** “So” implies causation, and I don’t know that this is actually the cause.  Here is the root of my concern.  Did I get stuck because I’m telling the wrong story, or did I get stuck because it’s hard and I don’t want to work this hard?  Or worse, did I get stuck because I committed to finishing this story, and committing makes me not want to work on the story anymore?

Short and broody

Seriously, only 300 new words?  A whole new scene and it’s only 300 words?  Bah.

I figured out what was wrong with my scene yesterday: no conflict.  It’s simply, these are the things that happen.  Nothing is at stake, no one argues with anyone else.  And conflict is what makes things interesting. But I don’t know how to fix it yet.

Also, I really don’t know what Allie should be doing.  Despite continued efforts, she’s still broody.  (Not quite angsty… I haven’t had her cry once in this version.)  I think she I may have to leave her alone for a while, because she’s really not where the conflict is right this moment.

Maybe I can figure out what Fen and Jonas are doing next.  *And* spend a bit of time (off-screen) paying attention to Allie to figure out who she really is.

Pulling teeth

600 new words, typed in a mini-scene I’d scribbled in my notebook last week and a new one that comes next in the plot.  This new scene is short and flat–almost like the author couldn’t see the scene in her own head.  Oh, right, it’s cuz she couldn’t.  I had no muse-hit from this one.  In effect, it’s a placeholder for when I figure out the real energy of the scene and fix it.  Meanwhile, I think I can continue from here to scenes I can visualize better.  (I hope.)

I have this strong desire to get it *right*.  Like, I can’t write the scene until I can see it, so I’m going to beat on it and beat on it (in my head) until I can see it–except the harder I beat, the further away the scene is, until I’m at the point where I KNOW what should be happening, but I can’t see it at all.  The window into the world is shuttered, and I’m straining desperately to hear what’s going on through the glass.  This is when I fear that writing is always going to be like pulling teeth.

So I said frell-it, I’m *not* going to get it right.  I don’t have to get it right yet, because I still haven’t found the right voice or pacing of the story.  So, even the scenes that are “right”–there are a couple, but they’re short–will probably be wrong once I find the right voice, and will have to be rewritten.  Therefore, stop caring about “right” and just put something on the page!

Except (says the other voice in my head), if it’s this hard to see the scene, how do I know it isn’t just that the scene is completely wrong and I need to re-think what’s supposed to happen here?  In which case, if I keep marching in this direction, I’ll be so ridiculously far from “right” that I’ll be writing a completely new story the next time.  Wasted time and effort.

Yeah, I don’t know.

Meanwhile, Allie is stubbornly refusing to be funny.  Not even a snide remark.  Anne (her sister-in-law) is at least good at poking fun at her, and Allie appreciates the humor–but generates none of her own.  Piffle.

I stopped writing when I wanted Allie to go talk to a teacher/priest/techie-guy whose title I couldn’t invent.  “Maester” was the closest that came to mind, from GRRM’s A Game of Thrones.  Obviously, that’s taken.  And then I got distracted by the intarwebs.

Oh yeah, and I have a cold.  And I’m going to a planetarium today to see a show!

Allie–Elizabeth Bennett or Miss Angst?

I’ve been struggling with Allie, my Main Character.

Here’s the problem: I’ve put her in a culture where women are the property of their fathers and husbands–and actually, men are the property of their fathers, and even fathers are the property (in effect) of their lords.  Even the lord isn’t free, because he has an obligation to all of the people he controls.  No one is free.  So, I could think of two natural responses to being the daughter of the lord.  1) Accept it meekly because this is the society you were born to and you don’t know anything different.  (yawn.*)  2) Oh, woe is me!  I’m being forced into a marriage I have no choice in, and my life will forever suck, and I must cry now!  (anachronistic if I take the feminist route, and way too angsty regardless.)  Fundamentally, those two responses are usual.  Anyone might have those responses.  I’m not writing about just anyone; I’m writing about this character.  Therefore, she must be unusual, different, and above all interesting.

But how can she be unusual, different, interesting, and believable in this situation?  I can’t write myself (for example) into this role because I was raised in a family where I could be anything and anyone, and I got to make my own decisions.  So, if someone told me I had to marry IG**, I’d laugh in his face and move on with my life.  If that weren’t an option, I’d probably run away.  Or agree, and then go about finding my own way to avoid it entirely.  None of those options makes sense for her.  (Possibly the third one, but …)

Allie started out being angsty, although I was making her be angsty about her younger sister*** getting married, in a protective “oh noes, it should be me!” way.  But it doesn’t make sense.  Allie is intelligent and not overly self-deceptive, so she has known her whole life that both she and her sister would be married off to whoever was most convenient and beneficial to her family at the right point in time.   So her whole life she’s been inventing a plan for how to handle it.  The plan might not be what actually happens#, but she has one.

But then I couldn’t think of what it would be.  I couldn’t imagine a plan that was practical, realistic, and interesting.  I went straight into angsty or feminist.  Feminist is definitely anachronistic.  So how can she be realistic, expectant, and still having a strong-and-interesting reaction to this news?  It is directly related to the core plot of the story, so she must have a strong reaction!

Finally, I concluded that she needs to be Elizabeth Bennett.  This is her society and it is what is expected of her, so she has been taught her whole life to expect this event.  She is smart, though, so she doesn’t just accept any of this blindly.  She’s going to be funny about it##.  Sarcastic sometimes, snarky maybe, but mostly just seeing the funny side of the world–except when the dark side looks her in the face and says “boo!”.  This works really well for me, except I’m having trouble integrating it into the character who appears when I think “Allie”.  I have two separate images, and whenever I try to make them one, I feel like I’m forcibly overlaying one onto the other.  They’re not sticking together.

This probably means I need to spend more time developing her character.  Where has this humor helped her in her life–and when has it hurt her.  How does she react to common things.  How is she Allie with the humor, and not Elizabeth Bennett###.

* Actually, the more likely variation might even be accepting it and working hard to be the best wife possible.  Still not very exciting, but acknowledges the fact that she’s likely to be an intelligent person with her own thoughts, not a brain-washable automaton.

** This is all I’ve come up with to call the guy she’s supposed to marry.  It stands for “Icky Guy”.  :-/

*** Incidentally, the name I tossed out for the sister was “Betty”.  Betty is a nickname for my full name, Elizabeth.  I’ve always despised all variations of the “Beth” part of my name, at least when applied to me, and Betty is one of the worse ones on anyone.  So, the fact that this was what my subconscious gave me for the poor sister… tells me that my subconscious didn’t actually give a damn about the sister, and that we were wasting our angst.  Fortunately I realized this 1500 words into the story and not several thousand.

# Hah, it definitely won’t be.  I’m not going to make this easy for her.

## I need to stop trying to make my stories serious, anyway.  It usually just comes off as pretentious.  Funny is way more interesting from me.

### Furthermore, I’ve realized that I don’t have a plan for a Mr. Darcy–that is, a love interest–and I’m not sure whether that’ll work.  Maybe he (or she…) will appear when he needs to, and it’ll just work.

Writing in the middle of the night

So, I’ve been working on this story.  My goal is for it to be a novel, and I don’t want to give up on it until I’ve beaten it into one.  I figure, I’ve never actually finished a full-length story, so it’s probably not the *stories* that are lacking, but rather *me*.  So, no point in giving up on this one, as though the next one might be any better.  Nope, I hope to figure out my own process on this one, to learn how to write a novel.

I find writing to be very roller-coaster-y.  One day I’m flying high because a scene just wrote itself out of nowhere–I expected the scene to start about an hour later and with completely different characters.  But then I stop before I end the scene… I ran out of time during my writing group, in this case.  And since it was going so well, I figure I’ll just pick up where I left off and it’ll be great.

Then there’s the great loud THUD when I return and discover that I have no idea how to continue the scene.  The ideas that were in my head when I started the scene are now in a whole different place, and I can’t seem to corral them together in anything resembling like how it should go.  Instead my MC just sounds petulant, or whiny, or … just dumb.  Ugh.  So I say screw it, I’m going to bed.  Brushing teeth, I’m totally berating myself for having dropped the ball by not finishing the scene while I still remembered where it was going.  Climb into bed, and just lie there, staring up at the ceiling I can’t see, still berating myself.

And then, like a light switch, I realize this is the wrong mental state.  This line of thinking is just the right way to completely give up on the story forever.  And I already know I don’t want to do that. (Usually it takes me weeks to stop berating myself… or even if I do, then I still don’t get any good ideas for a while.)  I think, ok, so I don’t know how that scene was supposed to get where it should be going.  Fuck it, let’s go in this other direction and see where that leads.  Really simple way to do it, no fancy dialogue required.  And then I realize, oh, that will leave me with the MC in a room with this other woman, who I think is her confidante, so they can have a conversation about what all is going on.  Which I thought they should have, but I couldn’t work it into the flow of the story.

Woah, ok, so that makes sense.  And then… And then I start imagining what they say, what they might conclude.  And so finally I have to get up again to write it all down, or else I’ll *really* beat myself up in the morning when I can’t remember a single thing.

So, 450 new words in about 20 minutes.  Unfortunately, it *doesn’t* lead naturally into the scene that comes after it.  Does that mean I’m just not showing it, or that I’m not showing it from her PoV?

Oh, and I can’t think of anything resembling a title for it.  I hate calling stories after the characters in them, but so far I’ve been calling this one Allie & Fen.  If only I knew what the monsters are called, I might call it after them.  :-/

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