The Writing Rookie Season 2, #6: Stocking the Pantry

For the complete list of columns in this series, click .

While a single point of data eliminates any line that doesn’t pass through the point, sadly it does nothing to narrow down the infinity of possible lines from every point of the compass-rose that do, in fact, pass through that point. And so it is with one-of-a-kind experiences. Such as, say, writing a novel.

You’d think that having written one with which I was more or less happy (though I’d hope to do better next time), I would know at least how to go about the writing part. Sadly, this turns out not to be the case. From a creative writing perspective, the last several years have been spent trying out one method after another. In the absence of any noteworthy success, I’ve felt that I didn’t really have much to share in this forum. Hence the two-plus years since my last Writing Rookie report.

I still don’t have any solid evidence that this has changed. However, I’ve been trying something the last several months that (a) has not yet proven that it won’t work, and (b) has the virtue of being quite different from what I’d tried before. So I thought, why not share? Even if this doesn’t work out, at least it may have the social utility of any publicly failed experiment…


I won’t drag you through the sequence of my various failed attempts, which besides being rather embarrassing have by this point become somewhat boring even to me. I have, however, learned three important things about the story-writing process, at least as it pertains to me:

  • Any story should succeed on as many levels as possible.
  • As a writer, I am attracted to big stories.
  • You need to spend time stocking the pantry with the ingredients you plan to use in the recipe.

(And how’s that for a nicely non-parallel series? All complete sentences — but one each in first, second, and third person! It says something kind of sad about the kind of geek I am that this makes me both uncomfortable and, at the same time, somewhat gleeful.)

Anyway, my latest writing strategy is kind of built around these ideas. I’ll start with the first.

Way back in the mists of time, I remember listening to Dave Wolverton talk about his writing. (This was back when he was just getting started as a national writer.) I remember him talking about going through a story multiple times and making sure it succeeded in as many ways as it could, in order to draw in as many audiences as possible. For the military sf folk, it should work that way. For those who like verbal style, it should include little linguistic easter eggs. For those who like strong and interesting characters, it should feature those. Et cetera, et cetera. He must have rattled off about 8 or 10 different ways he was trying to get his novel to succeed.

It all sounded pretty exhausting. Why not just write a story that works at the thing you like best, and not worry about the other part?

A couple dozen years later, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that Dave was right. At least, for me as a writer. It’s kind of crazy. Every story I read by other people is strong in some areas and not in others. That doesn’t bother me. But in my own stories, if I don’t try to make it as good as I can on every level I’m aware of, it turns out not to be any good on any level.

It’s not just a matter of putting my best effort into it. I’ve started to think that without trying to juggle multiple competing priorities, plotlines, characters, et cetera, I don’t actually have any idea what to put into a story. In place of an internal muse, what I have is an internal traffic director. (Maybe it was all that time as an English major.)

Which brings me to the big stories problem.

I love stories of many different kinds. I love simple stories. I love short, well-written stories that take a single character from point a to point b (and sometimes point c), but do it with such purity and grace that your mind and emotions are left aching. I like fun, straightforward stories.

I cannot write them. Instead, I find myself trying to write immense, epic, worldbuilding stories that require far too much work to do well, and a great deal more effort than I like to do at all. I can go from a to b, but not without wandering through half the alphabet first, together with random letters from Greek, Arabic, and ancient Etruscan.

Which brings me to stocking the pantry.

I used to think some people just make stuff up as they go along: characters, plot events, worldbuilding details. And I’d berate myself for not being able to do so. Whether that’s true or not for other people, I now recognize that it’s not true of myself. The words flow only when I already have plenty that I want to say (something that’s true of my other writing as well, so yay for consistency, I guess).

This has little to do with outlining versus writing in the moment. Outlining when I don’t have a lot of story parameters already figured out is just as disastrous as trying to draft at that point. And yeah, you can say that outlining is the process in which you do that kind of idea generation — but I’ve discovered that for me, there’s an entire (lengthy) process that comes before that, which is generating all the “it” of my story: the incidents, characters, details, places. Once I have those, I can proceed to outlining or drafting or mosaic-creation or whatever other kind of hybrid or substitute works for me. Until then, nothing works.

This, I now recognize, is part of what I did with No Going Back. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight (and a new theory), I can now see that all of these were part of my writing process Back Then. I was trying to do multiple things at once. I wrote a story that was as big as I could make it within the confines of the story I was trying to tell: one with multiple characters, that wasn’t just (or even primarily) about being gay and Mormon but also about growing up, choosing one’s loyalties, developing a testimony, learning how to be a good friend, and learning how to be a balance institutional requirements with everything else in one’s life. And I had a whole lifetime of thoughts and experiences as a Mormon to draw on, with no motive to hold back as I was pretty sure this was the only Mormon story I would ever write. My pantry was full, and I did my best to stuff as much of it into a single book as I possibly could — not always successfully, in the eyes of some readers at least.


Which brings me (at last!) to my latest, current method.

I haven’t been writing recently, as such. Rather, I’ve been stocking the pantry: with plot ideas, characters, details of the worldbuilding, etc. It’s hardly systematic. One day I’ll put down some worldbuilding ideas, another day I’ll work on a particular character, or the background history of my region, or try to figure out climate details. Meanwhile, I also spend time reading books and otherwise investigating topics of particular interest to me, such as medieval kitchens or the layout of medieval towns or the forests of southeast Australia.

This method has a lot of drawbacks. Foremost is the fact that, well, I’m not actually writing. There are no pages being created. And at my estimate, it will be months before I reach that point, at the earliest.

This is scary. You hear all those stories about people who get involved in an endless cycle of research and never really write anything. I can easily imagine this happening to me. But the other method simply wasn’t working. And now that I think about it, I have had experiences — not in creative writing as such, but in my professional writing, and other parts of my life — where I did this: that is, research frantically, a little randomly, and apparently fruitlessly, until suddenly one day I felt like I had researched enough and was able to start writing or make my decision or something. So I’ve had some experiences when something like this has worked for me in the past. I can hope it will be that way this time.

Second is the fact that there’s simply so much to do. Every little detail I generate reminds me of just how much more there is to do. It’s a bit like trying to fill in a swamp one truckload at a time. Progress is slow, and estimating how far I still have to go is only discouraging.

This is a method, by the way, that is well suited to doing in bits and pieces. All it takes is 10 or 20 minutes to come up with one idea and jot it down. This goes entirely against my rather lazy desire to be able to just charge ahead and do everything at once and get it over with, but recognizes the (apparently innate) limits of my creativity. I can come up with one or two good ideas a day, but when I try to push, I wind up with stuff I just throw out later.

The problem is, it doesn’t work well enough. I figure that with my other (paid) work and various unpaid project, duties around the house, and just generally being a parent, I should be able to get in about an hour of brainstorming/outlining/world creation work a day, plus another hour of random research. You can do a lot in two hours a day, if you’re consistent. Unfortunately, I’m not. Consistent, that is. And given the size of the story I’m currently working on, unless I pick up my pace, it could be decades before I have another story written, if I keep at it that long.

But any progress is better than no progress. This, I keep reminding myself. And once I reach a certain critical mass, I hope it will get a lot easier to put in the hours. Meanwhile, I try to make myself do something on it each day — to keep the process going, if nothing else. And my stack of notes keeps piling up.

And despite all my misgivings, it feels at some level like I’m actually getting somewhere with the my writing. That’s the most hopeful sign of all.

7 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie Season 2, #6: Stocking the Pantry”

  1. I have some short story ideas that I think are quite cool, but they are at the point where to move forward I really need to go out and do some research. And then part of me wonders if I’m going to make all the effort to do research, maybe they really should be a novel. Except I don’t write novels. At least not yet.

  2. I’m stuck in a research phase for the next novel I need to write. I have a lot of good stuff in my head, but haven’t quite hit critical mass and the frantic desire to write the narrative. Two thoughts on my own process and experience.

    **Thought The First**

    Choose an arbitrary starting point (date to start writing), then commit to it with an arbitrary daily carve-out (I choose two hours; thirty minutes can be enough).

    No excuses, no other projects. Start on that day and write no other fiction during your carve-out until you finish a complete draft. Write every day, especially when you don’t know what to write (see Thought The Second, below).

    It’ll either drive you out of writing altogether, or force your creative mind to start coalescing the research you do have into some kind of coherent structure and narrative.

    In physics there are two ways to excite matter: increase the quantity of sub-critical mass (research) until you reach critical mass, or put a sub-critical mass under pressure (arbitrary start date; no other fiction writing allowed) and force it into criticality.

    It’s a brute force method, but it’s proven very effective for me. It also leads to miserable days or weeks of intense frustration and endless false starts at the beginning of a project (at least for me) that eventually give way to unmitigated joy and increased intensity of process as the ideas and structure begin to crystallize.

    But you can’t get there if you don’t start.

    I’ve been putting off my next novel project for the last eighteen months with a series of useful workshop and short story projects as I do research. I’ve been reading the same non-fiction book for about ten minutes a day, three days a week, for the last half-year. Filling the hopper, if only very slowly.

    Time to up the pressure and force critical mass.

    I will start my Mormon Country novel not later than May 1. I have four books to read and at least two interviews to conduct before then. I’m already steeled for the miserable weeks ahead as I struggle to obtain that critical mass. It’s time to get through them.

    And the only way to do that is sit in my chair (I start writing early in the morning—about 6:30—when the mind is fresh and otherwise undistracted) and write, even if only for thirty minutes. Not blogs, emails, or other useful things. Fiction. *That* fiction. Every day. Starting (not later than) May 1. Until the flash comes.

    No more excuses. No looking back (sorry for that…).

    **Thought The Second**

    An active (and specific) problem right in front of that I have to get past before I can progress the narrative is an amazing spur to creativity, and limits immediate research to a specific, solvable problem.

    Because word counts are easy for me (I wrote close to thirty thousand words over a ten day period to generate a 5800 word short story), I tend to write (and toss) entire scenes in search of the “right” narrative thread. But I can’t get there if I’m not committed to the writing (see Thought The First, above).

    I tend to obsess on beginnings. You have to start in the right moment, with the right event. Everything then flows naturally from there. Problem is that I suck at beginnings.

    In that recent short story exercise I chose the wrong start, and I kinda knew it at the time. But it had to start somewhere and I picked a moment of what I thought was intense action that featured all three key elements—a (1) character, in a (2) context, with a (3) problem. A group of helpful critiquers all pointed out that while I had a character and a problem, I had no context. They were confused by who was who and what they were trying to accomplish.

    Short story long…I tossed the opening scene and replaced it with one that backed up ten minutes to set what the characters were doing before the situation changed. Essentially ending the new first scene where the prior one began.

    (I also discovered the narrative unity I wanted *after* completing the first draft, not before. In the rewrite I was able to more effectively choose my events and details to focus on that clearer target.)

    In the process of that rewrite I got blocked by a new fact. Since I had already committed to an endpoint for the rewrite, I had to solve a specific and limited problem right now. I ended up calling a colleague with expertise in that field who could either explain it or point me at a validated source for further research.

    By keeping the research limited and focused to solving the problem immediately in front of me, I was able to retain the momentum I had built up, the frantic (almost obsessive) desire to finish the scene and move to the next (after an initial week-long slog to build up that momentum in the first place).

    I also discovered additional (specific) research that I wanted to do that was not critical to progressing the scene at that point, but that I did later (that night) and layered into the narrative (next morning) as refinement detail (leading to an additional spate of scene tossings and rewritings as the effects of the details rippled through the text—thus 30k words to generate 6k text).

    Interestingly, my two-hour daily commitment blossomed organically into four hour writing sessions (of course I had the time to give, too; not everyone can). Momentum and engagement had ceased to be the gating problem.

    I choose to separate research and writing times whenever possible, interrupting the writing only to solve the critical issue, and merely noting the detail issues as subject for specific and limited research later in the day—that has to be solved in time to commit to the writing next morning. Pressure works to focus both mind and creativity.

    (I like to allow the night’s sleep to enable steeping in the subconscious. It’s especially helpful for those of us with shallow depths to begin with.)

    It’s a process that works for me. Then again, I’m rarely accused of either rich or elegant writing. If your writing values lie elsewhere, this may not be an effective method.

  3. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for sharing what works for you in your writing process. That’s what this entire series is about, really: pooling and sharing experiences, particularly among those of us who are still trying to figure out how we write best.

    Something you said that resonates with me is the notion of making a daily time commitment. I’m currently struggling to make myself spend two hours a day. It’s a challenge because I’m naturally lazy and really there are no consequences if I don’t do it, especially right now when I’m not yet at the drafting stage. If I succeed, then hopefully I will eventually reach that point. If not, I won’t.

    While I agree that there’s a lot about a story that you can’t discover until you’ve actually tried to write it (and in some cases until after you’ve written the entire thing), I find that if I try to write before I feel like I’ve done enough pre-thinking, the results don’t bring me any closer. The hopper has to be full up to a certain point, or I just blow air. If that makes sense.

    Open-ended research has its place, for me at least, especially when elements of the story are still coalescing. I agree that once the drafting begins, it’s better if you can focus on more specific problems to be solved. While I’m working on solving those problems (research-related, or feeling like I need to figure out what comes next, or a character who won’t cooperate), I switch to working on other scenes so that I don’t lose the writing momentum. I’m not at that stage yet with my current project, but I remember that it worked nicely with No Going Back. It also had benefits in terms of me keeping a better handle on where my story was going, because I already had some landmarks mapped out further along. Or maybe it’s just that I have problems doing anything in a completely linear fashion.

    And, of course, there’s still the open question of whether this is what actually works for me, or if I’m describing the bad habits that get in the way of my writing…

  4. I’ve recently been trying (with inconsistent success) to spend 25 minutes on an exercise bicycle 4-5 days a week. I find that if I can read something interesting, it makes the time go faster. So that’s almost a half-hour of undirected research that it’s relatively easy to get in each day.

  5. I can only speak to what works for me. But after spending fifteen years waiting for my own hopper to fill organically, I found that forcing the issue as a matter of choice is what finally got me over the hump and has made me far more productive as a writer over the last two years than any other method.

    On carve-outs. Yeah. That’s the killer for nearly everyone. Which is why even a 30 minute carve out (same as your exercise bike) to write nothing but *that* fiction—character studies, setting exercises, worldbuilding, anything (I’ve personally seen more than 30k words in that world from you; I know you can do that much right now)—can be so useful to prime the pump and focus the creative process. Because once the flow starts, it often becomes a mighty flood that takes care of all other problems (and your 30 minutes becomes much, much longer).

    I carved out two hours a day to write a novel, and ended up gleefully spending ten-to-sixteen hour days over the final three weeks to write the final 60k words. But the first three weeks were brutal and I hated every minute of it, feeling like it was a waste and I was a fraud and the ideas would never ripen. FWIW.

  6. I’ve become very much a believer in the value of consistent dedicated effort. Which isn’t to say that I always succeed in doing it. But I have become convinced that my writing won’t get anywhere if I wait for the muse to drive all before it, without persistent prodding on my part.

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