A Question of Balance

balancing on a tightropeI’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?

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

14 thoughts on “A Question of Balance”

  1. OK, I’m dizzy now. That sway has me feeling sick. 🙂
    I am mostly a pantser. My characters usually lead me. At the same time I do have an end in mind and try to steer them in that direction. Often something unexpected pops up but even then it serves to ‘get me there.

    As for writing a series, it’s not so different, I think. I knew early on where i wanted to end up. It didn’t turn out exactly as I thought it would but it conformed to the general path. When I began I had no idea if anyone would read it so I didn’t aim it at readers. The story is what it is.

    1. I can see your wobbles. They come out in “usually,” “try to,” “Often,” etc. It’s funny how un-exact a science writing is. If readers only knew–they think we know what we’re doing!

  2. Great post, Melissa. I don’t know what I am, as far as pantser vs. plotter. I definitely plot, but I’m also open to letting the story lead me where it wants to go. Sometimes I struggle against this because my stories tend to lead me to controversial places (what does THAT say about the stuff lurking in my subconscious?). 😉

    1. Thanks, Melinda. The balance between leading and following is another one I hadn’t thought of. But the subconscious definitely has its say when we write. And sometimes, those are the best bits of all.

  3. Very interesting post, Melissa.
    I can only achieve balance through progression. First draft: pantster. I have a rough story arc and a set of basic characters, but I go with the flow, wobble on the tightrope, do tricks, fall off.

    Second draft (by which I mean total rewrite from the first word to the last) is more structured: take out the illogical, the superfluous, tune the plot, focus the characters.

    Third draft (again usually a total rewrite) is the polish that brings it all into balance, focussing on the pacing and polishing the prose and cutting word count.

    Fortunately, it then goes to my brutal and highly competent editor, who finds things I never could have!

    The goal is a balanced book. Have I written it for me or for my audience? As a thriller writer, it has to be a bit of both (balance again!) – thriller readers have certain expectations, but I also like to subvert them now and then for my own entertainment.

    The final balance is one of research. I do huge amounts of research for books, but it is a balancing act to ensure that only the most vital bits of it ever end up in the story. No fiction reader is interested in the cruising speed of a Mil Mi-24 helicopter, but I need to know it. Get it wrong and a few readers will notice. Too much technical detail is boring; too little makes me look like an idiot!

    1. Alan, thanks for bringing up another point I didn’t address–research. You’re so right about needing to know the facts but not needing to dump them all in the book! Good point. And your process sounds impeccable, altho vastly different than mine. When I’ve finished my first draft, I figure I’m 95% done. Rewriting from the get-go? Painful! I’m glad it works for you, though. Thanks for sharing.

      1. One author told me many years ago that he writes his books beginning to end six times – it’s part of his writing ritual – so I have it pretty easy at only three! He’s now one of the world’s best-selling writers, so maybe I’ll be half as successful as him if I write half as much… I wish!

  4. You won’t get your inside info on series from me, Melissa. I write mine to please myself. 😀 One of the joys of being an indie, I think, is not having to worry so much about what will sell. I find myself trusting that whatever comes out of the subconscious not only fits into the book eventually (and like you, I find myself saying later, “Oh, so that’s what that was for!” 😀 ), but will find readers eventually, too.

    1. Lynne, I have a feeling your process and mine are very similar. And yes, not having to conform to some publisher’s idea of what will sell is a huge factor in favor of being indie. I’ve written before about publishers being more concerned with my page count than with any of the content of my books. Being indie means being free to give rein to both the conscious and subconscious forces that we use while writing. Trusting in that gets us an interesting story every time.

  5. I’m definitely a pantser, Melissa. Oh I do have a rough idea of where I want to end up when I start but that’s about all; the characters lead and I follow.

    great article, Melissa.

  6. I have a pretty good idea what I am writing before I sit down each day. Small details will occur to me at odd times when I let my conscious writer’s mind relax. I don’t strive for control over the story or the characters. If they decide to run in the opposite direction I simply follow. 🙂

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