I’m deathly afraid of heights. Going out on the observation platform on the Space Needle in Seattle, I have to plaster myself to the back wall of the central structure and dig my fingernails into the wall when the wind blows. At the Grand Canyon, I have to stay at least six feet back from the low walls that line the trails; none of this blithe waltzing over to the edge and looking down for me.
So how did I end up on a tightrope?
I’ve discovered that writing is very much like walking a tightrope, placing the feet carefully on the rope itself, hefting a balance beam and making very small corrections to the left or right as necessary. But what, exactly, are we balancing?
The more I write, the more I realize that there are several balancing acts at play in the process. The most obvious and well known is the contrast between planners (or plotters) and pantsers. Planners tend to plot out their stories in great detail, creating long outlines of specifics, managing every nuance of the story before writing. Pantsers (flying by the seat of their pants) tend to start with a few broad ideas and just wing it, letting the story develop organically. Neither way is right or wrong except as it suits the writer, and most writers probably fall somewhere in between the two poles.
But there are other balances as well.
One balance point that’s come up in discussions lately has been writing for self vs. writing for the public. Writers of series, I believe, are much more plugged into their readers and much more aware of the expectations of their fans. Never having written a series, I can’t speak to what that feels like, but I would be happy to hear about it from others. Does that add extra pressure? Or is it more liberating to know what your readers expect and be able to give them that? I write wholly for myself and if I like it, I’m happy, but I wrote one book where a note played a central part in the story. I alluded to the note but never disclosed the full text of it. My publisher insisted I had to rectify that. She reasoned that since the note was so pivotal and was mentioned over and over, I had to reveal the full text or the readers would feel cheated. After some thought, I had to admit she was right, but it was not something I would have arrived at on my own.
Also, I’ve seen more mention in online forums about writing consciously as opposed to letting the subconscious take charge. I think it’s fairly easy to differentiate the two; while we’re sitting poised over the keyboard, ideas percolating in our brains, the ideas that flow logically from one to another are usually the conscious. If our main character is a 30s-something man, then logically he is still working, still building his life. His parents may still be alive; he may or may not be a family man at this point. All these are logical assumptions that stem from our original idea of the character. But if we get ideas from out of the blue that don’t arise logically, those are probably from the subconscious. What if our main character likes to sky-dive? What if he has a natural talent for languages and speaks dozens of them fluently? What if he’s terrified of earwigs?
These are the kinds of ideas that bring us to a balance point. When something like this comes up, do we go with it, lean into it, and see where it takes us? Or do we lean away and dismiss it as silly and not pertinent to the story?
I’ve faced this challenge over and over in my writing. One book in particular seemed to lend itself to this kind of thing, maybe because it was ultimately a spiritual novel. Goddess Rising was unlike any other book I’ve written primarily because I did let the subconscious have free rein. Very often when I sat down to write for the day, I had no idea what I was going to write. Just as often, I would add in developments and then wonder why and what I was going to do with them down the road. The really marvelous thing was when a completely illogical development popped up later on in the book and became useful, even central, to the plot. And it was a huge surprise to me when it did.
If I had confined my inspiration to the logical, the usual and the sensible, serendipitous events like that would never have happened, and the book wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting.
I feel like the overarching balance point (closely associated to the above) is control vs. going with the flow. If the tightrope is our planned story, once we step off the platform and head for that distant end point, how do we get there? Do we grip the balance beam with white-knuckled hands and try to maintain our balance with the smallest amount of sway in the tightrope? Or do we relax into the sway, going with the tightrope as it swings first one way, then the other? Do we try to command the journey through sheer will power, or do we dance across the rope and enjoy the journey as much as the accomplishment of reaching the other side? Or is there a happy medium between the two?
You tell me. How do you balance the aspects of creativity?