Asking the Oracle

Asking the Oracle
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Hello all!

I was asked a few days ago what my process would look like when I'm working on a story. The truth is: I often don't know myself. Usually, I just have a vague idea of the direction I want to go. But that's about it.

It may be a rough idea for a plot or an interesting character as I write.
It can be a melody or a series of chords if I'm making music. What really emerges at the end of the journey is something I'll have to figure out. That's what makes it so exciting!

For me, the final result is certainly a part of the experience and oftentimes a reminder of the many trials and tribulations that led to the result. For me, in the rarest of cases, the path between initial idea and result is a straight line. And if we are honest? When is a thing really finished?

As a writer, you too frequently see the rough edges, scars, and warts that our creation puts out into the world, tempting you again and again to call it back and label it Draft_#XYZ and keep working on it.

This is not to say that one should self-indulgently put every outpouring out into the world, patting oneself on the back. It also doesn't mean that only perfect things should be published. If that were the case, I certainly wouldn't be allowed to publish this post here. It's more about a healthy return on investment consideration.

After each draft, I let a few days pass before looking at it again, asking myself if further editing will really improve the quality[1] noticeably. If the answer is no, then I rather use my time and energy for another project.

And how do I now come to the result, for which I then eventually pat myself on the back and say:

"Benni, you've done an impressive job. It's time for something new!"?

This path from idea to finished text has changed a lot over the last two years. My stories were planned top-down. So from the big structures to the details of each scene, I worked everything out and planned it meticulously. I was a plotter who had a lot of fun trying to understand the story from all perspectives, with all possibilities.

In the end, however, I was more busy preparing this plan than executing it, and I noticed how I was in danger of losing the fun in writing. I felt a disconnect between the story and me.

So I tried writing a story without a plan and just wrote away at it. It felt good to just fill a few pages and watch the story move in whatever direction it wanted. After a few weeks, it felt too aimless for me and I had produced some good scenes, but objectively, a reader would have a hard time understanding exactly what was supposed to happen in the story. So was it a failed attempt and I just had to realize that I needed to get back to the planning workshop?

No. Of course not! But it took me a few months to discover another approach for me that I'm currently much happier with and also fits better with what I already wrote in the first paragraph: I love the allure of the unknown! I want to be surprised without getting lost along the way.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was looking for new ways to keep myself busy. The people I had been playing role-playing games with regularly before were unavailable, and I went searching for a way to immerse myself in fantasy worlds to recharge the creative batteries.

One tool I found was the Mythic Game Master Emulator. It is a very lightweight role-playing game rulebook and a set of tools that does the Game Master's job. Mythic helps you both advance the story and simulate the world with its reaction to the characters' actions. I'll have to write more about how much Mythic has had a lasting impact on my relationship with role-playing games in another post.

You're probably wondering by now what this foray into the world of role-playing games has to do with writing stories. Let me tell you:

Thanks to Mythic, I was able to experience adventures in any world again, despite Lockdown and Social Distancing[2]. In doing so, the character in Mythic, similar to many other role-playing games with a narrative focus, experiences the adventure in scenes with a beginning, a goal, and an end that occurs when the goal of the scene has been achieved or replaced by a new one.

My character, and I as the player, had a picture in mind of what needed to happen in the upcoming scenes to get one step closer to the big goal.

Depending on what happened in the scenes then, the content of the following scenes changed. While playing, I suddenly realized how much I liked this approach!

Like an adventurer, I knew what I wanted to accomplish at the end of the story and what steps were necessary in the next scenes to move the adventure forward. At the same time, the story had enough room to develop in other - often more exciting - directions than I had imagined a scene or two before.

If we're sticking with typical terms from the writing bubble, my process has settled into plantsing, which is a combination of plotting and pantsing. I have a rough plan, but there are big parts where I let myself be surprised at what the characters are likely to do, and I react to that as I tell the story.

I've been searching the internet for a long time to see if anyone has already come up with a term that most accurately describes what I've figured out for myself, and I came up with Flashlight Outlining.

Currently, I'm still in the midst of finding a mode that works well, and this blog is one of them. You can assume that the stories I post here for practice purposes were created in this way.

What does your process look like? What has worked for you and how has it changed over time?

Drop me a line in the comments! I'm looking forward to your descriptions!

Yours, Ben

What exactly belongs to the editing then depends on the specific context. Sometimes it might just be changing a few names, sometimes it's moving story parts that might work better in a different place but require some rebuilding. Judging how long that change will take and how much of a noticeable positive impact it will have on the next version is something only everyone can answer for themselves. Maybe I should continue writing about this in another place. The footer becomes a footer paragraph... ↩︎

Virtual platforms like Roll20 have not met with any approval from my people. ↩︎