16: Of Stories, Subplots, and Second Thoughts

This past November, during NaNoWriMo, I made great headway in writing my first novel, tentatively titled, Alvis. I have continued to work on the project since then, but I have been struggling with how to employ my two major plots. As I have been wrestling with both behemoths, it’s like an editorial Elijah has been demanding, “How long halt ye between two opinions?”

The plots in question are both set in the same timeline, but they occur several centuries apart. The problem is that I keep getting great ideas for both, so I have been writing both simultaneously. Both are developing into big stories, and both are cross-pollinating each other, but I need to integrate them together. Should the whole story be told chronologically in two parts? Will the latter one take the lead, and allow the former to provide backstory revelations? Should I make them two separate books?

In terms of storytelling, the issue at hand is whether I want to tell an origin story that leaps into the future, or a present-day narrative that discovers its past — a futurist fiction or a modern mystery.

I have also been recently contemplating the ways that this same dilemma occurs in our own lives. We all have a portion of our life’s stories that are set in the past, and other parts we are writing now and planning for the future. Making frequent course-correcting edits as we go is part of the creative process, but as I’ve mentioned before, one of the “rules” of NaNoWriMo is that production is paramount, and large-scale editing is saved for later. (You know how hard that is for me.) During post-NaNo December, there will be time to make corrections and delve into “do-overs”.

We “write” our personal life-stories through the choices we make, and (hopefully) with some idea of a plot we are trying to follow — at least we hope the hero comes out on top, somehow. If you’re like me, a lot of that daily composition involves large amounts of both over-thinking and random tangents.

In scribbling and composing our lives, how much time do we spend revising and revisiting the past, versus building upon those prior chapters and moving the story forward? Line edits, and looking back to ensure we are still on track can be productive, but there are also times that we need to let go of previous paragraphs, focus on the page at hand, and write with an eye to the future. Like my dilemma in uniting the threads of Alvis — are you composing a life that dwells on the past, or one that learns from it? Are you simply waiting for the next episode or chapter of your story to happen, or are you writing it yourself?

As frequently happens with my perennial project, we all get sidetracked, and wonder what our best course of action is. Subplots often take us away on tangents and seem to distract us from reaching our goals. In the case of my own stories and poems, my bipolar vacillation between order and chaos can become a distraction, and I can despair of ever having anything worthwhile produced in the end. It’s in times of such despair that self-doubt creeps in, and envy and comparison compete to convince me that I will never ascend to the heights achieved by other authors and poets. I have second thoughts about my writing; not just “maybe I could say this better” types of thoughts, but also the “what kind of rancid garbage is this?” variety. When others are producing content and stories of magnificent quality, or laurels are heaped upon the brows of fellow artists while I impatiently toil in the salt mines of multiple simultaneous Google Docs, it becomes easier to get discouraged.

The same thing can happen in life. Our setbacks and missteps can cause us to despair of ever amounting to much; despair and self-doubt begin to destroy our peace. Envy and pride lead us to juxtapose our own bloopers with the highlight reels of others, and we convince ourselves that we will never be as talented or successful or “popular” as those we compare ourselves to. We have second thoughts about our value and contribution to the world. Again, it’s far too easy to become discouraged.

Can you feel me? It’s at times like these that discipline and endurance reap their biggest rewards in both life and literature. Sometimes we have to write 5000 words to find the right 500. We learn from the process of trial and error; of triumphs and dumb mistakes. Through days and weeks of structured (and even unstructured) writing at a literal desktop, I have often been reminded of the power of persistence and the benefit of routines. Likewise, through years and decades of faithful (and sometimes regrettably foolish) actions and reactions, I have been reminded of the importance of personal integrity and the need for ongoing change and growth.

Our “side quests” on tangential matters don’t have to be wasted time, though. In life, our character is developed by what we endure and experience. Likewise, the struggle of wordsmithing is often its own reward. As it is with any physical labor or exercise, the muscles stretch, the fibers tear, and our flexibility and strength increase. In just one of my many “tangent” notebooks, I have recorded over 1000 unique writing prompts, and I am developing the confidence that I can afford to both cut and create, because I know that when content must be sacrificed, there will be more to take its place.

As I continue to grapple with material and plot developments, I find that my content and characters have become deeper and more nuanced, even if that growth has been slow and frustrating at times. Ongoing development and second thoughts are merely second chances to make the right decision — even if that means we confirm the accuracy of our prior ones. As I have struggled with my stories, and battled with my books, the result has definitely been worth the wrestle. I firmly believe that the same can be, is, and will be, true for you!


W. R. Gilmour

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