What happens when you don’t have the answers?

question-mark1If I belonged to the Insecure Support Writer’s Group I would post this on the first Wednesday of August. But, I’m having my moment of serious self-doubt right now, so I can’t wait that long. 

Suddenly, something about the blog posts and articles that I’ve both written and read recently have made me question everything I have written so far on my NaNo#1 Novel – That which is left is lost. It’s culminated in a long list of panic-stricken concerns that I am convinced means that I have no ides what I’m doing. For example:

  • Is my protagonist a willing or unwilling hero? Is he even a hero at all?
  • Does my antagonist orchestrate the events in the novel that lead to my protagonists change in circumstance?
  • Does the structure of the novel support the story arc? Do I even have a recognisable story arc?
  • Do I demonstrate change in my protagonist?
  • Will people (readers) even care enough about my characters to continue reading past page 1?
  • Do my characters react to change or create opportunities to change?

When I’m reading all those ‘how-to’ books on writing or advice on creating a novel I can say I understand it but then when I try to apply it to my own work I fall flat. My novel isn’t one with an out and out hero, my characters don’t seem to fit into the archetypes of fiction where their flaws determine how they progress and change throughout the story. Rather, my characters put one foot in front of another and make decisions based on limited assumptions that cause them to alter the path of their own, and others’, future. Even my antagonist – Madeline – isn’t really a bad person, she’s just misguided and desperate to make an impact on the world – she isn’t my villain or my anti-hero. She just is. 

Once again I feel as though I have no clue what it is I am doing. The fear is that I will put in all this hard work on the story I want to tell but that, somehow, in the telling of it I am dooming it to never see the light of day. I don’t believe my novel is ‘traditionally written’ in the sense that the book is not based on one person’s narrative: on the face of it, the story is about Dr Whalley and his need to ensure his patient not die alone. Yet, beneath that, the driver for the book itself is to tell Madeline’s story, but not from her viewpoint. The premise is that people remember Madeline differently to how she herself is, but that she ends up taking on this persona and becoming what people believe her to be. 

I guess the problem is I have never really come across a novel like the one I am trying to write. I can’t think of any comparable titles. I don’t know of any story told in quite the same approach, or understand what it is I am doing that is so different to other writers. All I know is that I’m writing the story the way I think it should be told. Yet, I can’t apply the most basic of writing ‘rules’ to it in a practical sense, at least not yet, not to my eyes. 

So I am in doubt. I feel that I may have written something worthwhile and yet all the evidence makes me wonder if it’s just hopeful desire getting in the way of woeful acceptance that it’s not a good book. For me writing has never been a formulaic approach – I’ve never had to question the motives of my main character and consider if they are aligned with the theme of the narrative, or if the obstacle they are fighting against is a metaphor for something bigger, or even if the struggle they are going through climaxes at the right point. I just write. 

And now, having written, I am struggling because I do not know how to apply all the advice and suggestions to the manuscript I have in front of me. I have written something that I do not understand, at least according to the wisdom of those who have gone before and set the way of authorship.

Does that make me wrong? I don’t know.
Does it mean that my novel will never see the light of day? Possibly.
Does it make me a bad writer? I hope not. 

Despite my lack of faith in my abilities, I do believe in the story I am working on. To me Dr Whalley, Madeline, Cecelia, James – they aren’t characters that can be categorised or placed in boxes to be ticked off, they’re people; complicated, unknowable individuals that have the capability to surprise not just the rest of the world, but themselves too. I can profess to know them well and explain away their actions, but I can’t understand them any more than I understand myself. As characters – as people – they are each an enigma. 

Maybe I don’t understand fiction, perhaps I will never be capable of identifying the three act story, or placing the proper scenes within an ideal story structure. I was always told that I over-complicate things, that if there is an easy way and a hard way I will always end up with the latter because I believe the first is a cheat and the ‘hard way’ is more character building and worthwhile. The hard way makes for an interesting story – a quest in which I can be the heroine. But if I can apply terms like this to my own life, why can’t I do it with my own creation?

All I know is that the questions rolling around in my head – like the ones above – are ones I would never ask of ‘real life’ and for some reason I feel that by trying to pinpoint the answers within my novel I am creating something more artificial than believable. To me, my novel isn’t a fantasy, it’s real life…and real life has no true answers. 


Related Posts:
My post on Writing for Readers
Victoria Grefer’s posts on Heroes

Why I didn’t say ‘Yes’ to your submission by Rachelle Gardner


If you have any idea what I’m talking about, or have experienced feelings of the same ilk, please consider signing up to follow my blog or leaving a comment below. Alternatively, if you want to check in on my mental writing status more regularly (to ensure I’m not going completely off the rails) consider following me on Twitter.


17 responses to “What happens when you don’t have the answers?

  1. Pingback: 2013: In Review | Cat Lumb: The Struggle to be a Writer

  2. There is absolutely no need to fit your story into a box. I find that having your characters behave in the manner you describe means that they are likely to feel more relatable and less forced thus easier to sympathize with.

  3. I’ve spent this month tearing apart my opus-novel. It was riddled with weak plot development and tangents meant to cover that. I say that because I want you to know I understant the self-doubt, even if my problems are not the same as yours. (My book’s central mysteries are complex, but the characters and the story arc are pretty classic for its genre.)

    My advice is, go back to the basics. Learn classic story structure and make sure your fascinating people are going through the growth that needs to happen. Get the foundation down so that it can support your unique take.

    • I think I will have to do this as some point, even just to understand which rules I’m breaking and why.
      Hope that your hard work has been fruitful – do you now feel more positive about your own book? Have the doubts gone away, or have new ones taken their place?

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience and advice.
      Take care, Cat

  4. Firstly honey (((((hugs)))))

    Secondly, I know exactly how you feel, as my first novel has driven me mental. I’ve tried 3 different structures and I’m still not happy with it. I’ve put it away in a drawer, got it out again, started to edit, stopped, you name it *sighs* 😦 It’s bloody HARD WORK, mentally, emotionally, and, as you know I’ve even toyed with the idea of giving up writing all together!

    I have no hesitation in saying that I KNOW you’ll get there, and in the meantime, you rant away, we all need to 😉

    Deep breaths, grit teeth, and GOOD LUCK! Xxx

    • Thanks Vikki. It’s good to know I’m not the only one experiencing such difficulties. Sometimes all you need is someone to remind you that you’re worth believing in again. Thanks for doing this. It IS hard work, but we’ll get there in the end and it’ll be worth it.

  5. Whenever I get like that I just remind myself that I’m writing the story I want to read, but isn’t out there. It frees me up to just enjoy what’s happening in the moment. I sometimes think the writing workshop questions are made to put people in their place 🙂

    • That is how I feel about my novel. Thanks for reminding me of this!
      Those questions have certainly put me in my place for today… But only for the moment. I’ll dust myself off and plough on ahead regardless; I have a story to tell after all.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Am appreciative of all the reassurance today 🙂

      Take care, Cat x

  6. Imagine my voice is very soothing as I say, “Take a breath. Take a deep, deep breath. Letting go now, letting go now, letting everything go.”

    You are doing fine. You have written the story you needed to write in the way you needed to write it. All that talk about antagonists and heroes is great; it’s fantastic(I will admit I skipped those blog posts on purpose when I saw them on my feed because I didn’t want to freak myself out).

    Stories do not fit into clean molds, and the advice that is right for one story is not necessarily right for another. I’m assuming Madeleine is the patient that is dying? So at the heart of the story, other than the Dr’s overarching goal to make sure she not die alone his sub-goal is that he convince others of this fact (this is how he will achieve his overarching goal). The tragedy of Madeleine is that she is not the villain people assume she is, but because of people’s perceptions she almost takes on that role whether she knows it or not.

    The trick to this story, I think, is to figure out what Madeleine’s overarching goal was before she got to where we see her now. How could her good intentions be misinterpreted? How can her strong character traits be seen as something other than what they are? Is the choice to become what everyone says she is really a choice?

    The idea is solid, and if I’m understanding correctly you have the first draft written, so now you just fill out those details in your minds eye and look at the draft again. You’ll notice places where you need characters to make stronger decisions and where you need things to be more ambiguous so they can be seen from two different perspectives even though you’re only getting the one.

    And if most of this advice does not help you at all at least I’ve imparted a soothing breath unto you. Those are always helpful.

    • Why is it that you seem to understand my story so much better than I do? lol!

      Firstly, the soothing voice definitely helps. A lot. As does the advice. I happen to be mentally preparing to write a prequel/sequel to this novel in November which consist of Madeline’s diaries to show her personal journey and reveal the reasoning behind her misguided attempts to be more than she believes she is. It will also show the affect she continues to have on those people present when she dies even after she has gone. Perhaps this will help me more with this novel too.

      In short I can only say: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
      You’ve provided me with a solid bit of ground to stand on again and made me realise there is hope for me (and my story) yet.

      I really appreciate you stopping by to leave a comment (and, in fact, just reading my post today!). I can feel myself packing away those doubts back into a little box already…

      Take Care, Cat x

      • This is a bit late, but NaNo ate my soul for a bit. Anyways.
        You’re welcome. I can only assume that my insights come from years of studying theatre in college. All we did was analyze characters’ wants, desires, goals, and how they try to achieve them. And break scenes into beats…oh how I detested finding beats.

  7. Alan – A MASSIVE Thank You.
    The way I’m feeling right now your comment made me well up because it makes a lot of sense and is so supportive. (No wonder I ‘won’ NaNo last year with you cheering me on!).
    Hopefully I’m just experiencing a short-term wobble and things will get back on track soon. In the meantime, I really appreciate your words and your confidence in me: it makes me want to fight back and prove you right. 🙂
    *hugs* Cat x

  8. The best stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. The fact that your characters are not heroes or anti-heroes makes them more accessible and easier for the reader to relate to. Events happen beyond the protagonist’s control and it’s how they deal with the events in their own chaotic and haphazard way that makes the story come to life. I’ve read some of your shorter work, and I know that your self-doubts are baseless; you’re a good writer. Your characters will be (partially) shaped by the situations in which you put them, and whether they deal with these situations effectively or not will reveal personal characteristics that will endear them to the reader.

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