Saturday, May 23, 2009

Discovering A Story

Discovering A Story

by Cecilia Tan

I am sometimes amazed at the techniques people use to write stories. I have friends who have written the first sentence, then the ending, and then filled the middle. I have friends who have written a flashback first, then the story, and then cut the flashback out at the end.

I've never been so fancy. I tend to start my story at the beginning and write until the end. I rarely know what the ending will be, though, or even what twists the plot will take.

When I start usually with some kind of image in my mind of where the story will go, though sometimes the image is like something you see in a dream, and you aren't really sure what it is until you get right up close to it. It might be an erotic image, of someone doing something to someone else, and yet I don't know who they are or why they are doing that incredibly hot thing yet. I have to actually write the story in order to find out what happens, with much the same sense of discovery that the reader will have when reading it.

I know writing like this sounds so strange when compared to some art forms, where sketches and studies are made before any paint is put to canvas, where endless variations can be tried of this or that theme of music before the melody and harmony are settled, that I can sit down at the computer and start writing with the first word of a story and stand up at the end with a finished piece, and yet I had no idea what the finished piece was going to be like when I started.
I've learned to trust myself.

When "writers block" comes, it's usually in the form of a failure of confidence. "Oh, this isn't working" I say. "This doesn't seem to be going anywhere." But I've learned if I just keep writing, if I push through, the twist I didn't anticipate will appear, the loose end that didn't seem like it would resolve will, the throwaway line I put in about the character's mother, or the piggy bank on the staircase, or the cat, will suddenly be the clue to unlocking the ending and everything will fall into place.

I wrote and sold many short stories this way before I moved on to tackling novels. Now that I am writing more novel-length fiction, I find I do some outlining and plotting first. I have to, because publishers want to see a plot synopsis before they commit to buying something. But what I've found in the course of writing several romance novels, some of them with mystery plots, is that I am pretty good at plotting the first half of the book when I'm forced to. The set-up of the plot, the introduction of the characters and their conflicts, all that tends to go very naturally, right up to the book's major, major crisis turning point, which I have usually had in mind right from the start.

But when I find myself there, it's exactly like being at the very top of a mountain. I started out on one side, at sea level, and I drew a map of how I was going to get up one side and down the other. That was the plot outline I handed to the publisher. But from the top of the mountain, the terrain on the other side always looks drastically different than it did from sea level. Yes, I can still recognize certain landmarks that have to be hit on the way down, but some things that seemed so clear before, now are obscured, while other more interesting paths may be visible from up there.

Again, I've just had to trust myself that I will get back to the bottom with all loose ends tied up, character arcs completed, mysteries solved, broken hearts mended, life's lesson's learned... whatever is appropriate to the tale.

The first book that really threw me for a loop that way was The Velderet. I was writing it as a serialized novel for Taste of Latex magazine. So every chapter had to have sex and plot in it, and it had to be exactly 12 chapters of 5000 words each. After the sixth chapter was published, which took us right to that pivotal halfway point, the magazine folded. I stared at my half-finished manuscript for several months after that, wondering if it weren't sort of lucky that I had the reprieve. Another year went by while other projects took precedence, and then one weekend I just sat down and said I'd waited long enough. I didn't even look at my old notes. I just re-read the beginning again, and then re-plotted the second half. I wrote six chapters in three days and it was done. All the pieces fell into place. I ended up publishing the book as a novel with Circlet Press, to finally appease all the readers who were emailing me for two years asking what happened to those characters. I really couldn't have just emailed and told them what was going to happen. I had to write the book to be sure.

The next time I did it was when I wrote Mind Games for Ravenous Romance. The premise is that our heroine falls in love with the private investigator she hires to help find her missing sister. I ended up weaving in multiple lines of mystery though: what happened to her sister? why is she getting strange phone calls? is she actually psychic and if so, how do her powers work? The trick was in making it look like these are all separate lines of inquiry in the first half of the book, and yet in the second half both our heroine and the reader discover that everything is connected. All the questions can be answered from a single source. It was a little terrifying at first since I'd never written a mystery before and I felt like it was like a juggling act where in the first half of the book I kept throwing more and more balls into the air... only to have them all land neatly when the ending finally came.

Right now I'm in the middle of writing another erotic romance for Ravenous, and this one also has a mystery element. The book is called Magic University, and it is a Harry Potter-esque story of a young man who arrives at Harvard only to find out he's magical and will be taking classes in magic. As he struggles to figure out all the usual things an 18 year old away from home for the first time has to, including his first girlfriend, what constitutes magical safe sex, and so on, he also gets embroiled in a mystery on campus when one of his best friends gets attacked. I'm deep in the second half now, and the ending is changing right before my eyes as I am writing. Honestly, when I sold the book to the publisher, I wasn't completely sure who the culprit in the mystery would be. Now that I know, I'm gleefully writing in red herrings and misdirections that make for fun character development and erotic situations, but cannot wait until I can write the reveal. I'm as impatient to get there as a reader probably will be, but unfortunately I can't just stay up all night reading to find out what happens! I have to write it. I've been writing until 3am every night as it is, but I'm not there yet!

I just have to trust myself. I'm going to get there. And it's going to be great when I do.

Cecilia Tan is the author of the erotic romances MIND GAMES, THE HOT STREAK, and the forthcoming MAGIC UNIVERSITY series, as well as the books of erotica BLACK FEATHERS, WHITE FLAMES, THE VELDERET, and TELEPATHS DON'T NEED SAFEWORDS. Her erotic stories have appeared everywhere from Penthouse to Ms. Magazine, from Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine to Best American Erotica.

Susie Bright calls her "simply one of the most important writers, editors, and innovators in contemporary American erotic literature."

Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Livejournal, or her own blog at


  1. Wonderful post, Cecilia! I like your theory about pushing through writer's block and finding what you need in a little throwaway line somewhere. So true! I love that.

    Thanks for sharing your time with the Grip today. Have a lovely weekend!

  2. Thanks for such a comforting (for me, anyway) post. I write much the same way. I currently write short fiction but am deep in the midst of my first novel. Like you, I find that novel writing requires a bit more forethought and planning, but am learning to trust myself and my ability to make it all work out.

    Nice to know one of my favorite authors writes the same way and climbed similar mountains.

  3. @Jamie Thanks! I had a lot of fun writing this and love the blog. (I follow Helen's Twitter feed so I've been reading it for a while...)

    @Z. Vyne -- Sometimes it's like Dory from Finding Nemo. "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming..." ;-)

    I think every writer has a little bit of "writing for discovery" in their process, just some of us rely on it more than others.

    Any story or novel, in a way, is you revealing to yourself (and your reader) what is cooked up in your subconscious. Some people are better at seeing what's in there than others -- I have to write in order to find out what!

  4. Celia, wonderful blog. I gulped when you mentioned your serialized book where the mag folded. That's got to be harsh. Writing for a specific genre is tough enough, but to be left hanging...ouch!

    Pushing through writer's block is something you learn by doing, in my opinion. I'm one of those people who will meet a deadline come Hell or high water, so being blocked just isn't an option. Painful sometimes, but stubborn is a good thing. LOL

    Uh, did the math, 6 chapters of 5K each in 3 days. OMG! Did you sleep? That's amazing.

    Thanks so much for joining us here on OGG. You've given us all some food for thought and that's a very good thing.


  5. @Jude Oh, I slept that weekend, and ate, but nothing else! I write about a thousand words an hour, and yeah, it was like 30 hours writing. Normally I'd rather do an hour a day for a month, but three ten hour days was just barely doable. It was the only way to make sure it got done done done!

    I'm trying to do 15K this weekend to finish the novel in progress (Magic U)! I just really want it finished now that I'm so close to the end!

  6. Cecelia!

    How do you find so much time to write? That's amazing in itself.

    Thanks for hanging with us. I've been reading your stories in different anthologies for years, mostly vampire stories.

    I envy you and Lisabet, your ability to write the way people do in the movies, where you put the blank paper on the left of the typrwriter and churn out pages until the last one that says "The End". I find I can write vignette type stories that way, but plotted stories get really twisted up asynchronously.

    I always like to find how other people do these things to see what tricks of the trade I can pick up. Glad you came by. Stay in
    touch with us.


  7. Welcome to the Grip, Cecilia! And thanks for your thought provoking post. I particularly resonate with the following:

    "I have to actually write the story in order to find out what happens, with much the same sense of discovery that the reader will have when reading it."

    I'm also a linear writer, beginning to end, and although I sometimes have a plot in mind, the details never appear until I actually begin writing. I love the "aha!" experience of suddenly realizing what needs to happen, or why some character really acted like he/she did.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with your comments on "writer's block". You just have to ignore it. Keep writing, turn off the nasty voices in your mind that tell you it's crap.

    A question for you, and other blog members/commenters: Do you ever go back and read something you've written, and think, Did I really write that? How did I manage to produce something that good? It's like giving birth to a baby, I think. (Not that I have personal experience in that area...) After the pain is over, all you can do is marvel at the result.


  8. @Lisabet -- oh, constantly. I pick up manuscript pages in the office sometimes and I'm like, hey, where's page one of this? Because I'm really liking it, who is this author? This story is really good... oh wait. This is one of my own stories. It just took a paragraph or two for me to remember it.

    It also happens to me at readings sometimes, where people request I read a certain story from a collection. By the time White Flames came out last year, some of those stories were ten years old and I had really forgotten them. I'd be reading along and be thinking, huh, this is a pretty good story! But what would have been really cool is if I set up some foreshadowing right around now... oh wait, there it is. I guess I was smarter than I thought.

    @Garce -- when it comes to having enough time to write, I don't know a single writer who does. I've really had to fight to make it and keep it a priority in my life. It has meant turning down more steady money from other sources, curtailing my social life, and also I do not have a television. I don't even rent movies on DVD. And I answer email and stuff like that while the baseball game's on the XM radio. Lottttts of multi-tasking... except when writing.


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