Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Peril of Predictability (March theme) by Claudia Mills

I consider myself somewhat of a pro at avoiding what may be the chief pitfall for all writers everywhere. But alas, my prowess at avoiding this pitfall has ended up plopping me down in the midst of another, perhaps more insidious one.

The pitfall that I'm a champ at avoiding? Self-doubt, that paralyzing uncertainty that leads so many writers to accomplish so much less than they otherwise might. Now, I don't lack self-doubt because I think I'm so amazingly wonderful. It's that when I'm writing, I don't think about myself much at all. Because of my other work and life constraints, I'm only able to write for an hour a day, and during that hour, I don't gnash my teeth and tear out my hair, I write. Just that. I write. I put one foot after the other, take one step then another. You want to get a job done? I am your girl!

Along with this pitfall-proof ability to keep on trudging forward with dogged determination is an ability to focus on a book's structure. Whether I'm plotting out one of my own books or critiquing a manuscript from a mentee, I usually have a clear sense of what a book needs, what has to happen next for a satisfying story structure, how one event in the story is going to lead to another. If you want get from point A to point B, I am on the job!

But . . . . my biggest writing pitfall is not that I stray too much from the path, but that I don't stray enough. I am a perky plodder, a cheerful churner, I get my words written, lots of them, on time, to meet my deadlines. But sometimes I miss out on the magic that comes when a writer heads off deep into the dark and forbidding woods. My stories are well structured, in my humble opinion - but sometimes too well structured: too neat, too tidy. If I can clearly see what has to happen next, this too often means the reader can see it, too. I cheat us both out of the delights of surprise.

Now, in my defense (and those who don't go in much for self-doubt tend to be adept at self-defense!), predictable is not always a bad thing. In fact, my favorite review I ever got in my entire career, of my book Dinah in Love from the brilliant Deborah Stevenson at the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, said, "It's predictable, sure, but so were Tracy and Hepburn." I've cherished that review for years.

But predictable is not usually a good thing. And so a few years ago I hired a creativity coach, poet Molly Fisk, to help me learn how to un-learn my good-girl, stay-on-the-path, get-it-done ways. Molly set me the goal of writing "a book that will surprise me." Assignment number one: clear my schedule for a weekend, get in my car, and start driving without a map.

I did it. Well, sort of did it. I couldn't give it a whole weekend, so I did the assignment while driving from a conference in Cincinnati to Greencastle, Indiana, where I was living at the time. And I did peek at a map, just to figure out the general direction I needed to be heading. But then I followed Molly's advice. I got off the interstate. I drove on little rural roads. I stopped at small towns. And along the way I got an idea for a book unlike anything I've ever written: a time travel fantasy set in the cookie jar store I stumbled upon along the way.

I wrote the book. It hasn't been published. Some of my writing group friends loved it; one hated it. My agent didn't think it was "ready." I hired the amazing Plot Doctors to help me figure out what it needs, and yup, what it needs is a sturdier plot structure of exactly the kind that I pride myself on knowing how to produce. Their suggestions were excellent, but I haven't had time to take them because I'm so busy putting one foot in front of another with my usual projects in my usual way. But one of these days, I will. And maybe this will turn into a magical book, an enchanting book, a beautiful book. Maybe it won't. But it was a book that surprised me. Readers may find it predictable, if it ever comes into their hands. But I didn't find the writing of it predictable, not at all.

Whatever comes, I'm glad I strayed from the path a little bit. Straying from the path leads many into pitfalls. But this time, it saved me from one.


  1. You've got to stray from the path to challenge yourself, don't you?

  2. Oh my gosh -- a book set in a cookie jar store! I love the idea.

  3. Claudia, I love this post! We need surprises, if only to remind us that we never know the whole story.