Don't plot, just play Fortunately-Unfortunately
The Battle of Towton: 29th March 1461

Working hypothesis: write as if you're a writer

One of the things I often have to explain when I'm teaching academic writing is that it's important to define any terms you're working with, because if you don't make it clear how you're using them, then the first time anyone says, "But what about...?", the chain of persuasion, which is your argument, is broken. The thoughtful students look nervous: they know that concepts such as Modernism, or Need, or even The Eighteenth Century (1713-1789? 1660-1815?), are things which people write whole books about, arguing with other whole books. So we talk about working definitions: of the possible sensible, reasonable definitions, which is most useful to you, in persuading your reader that what you're saying is true?

And then there's the idea of the working hypothesis. To work an idea out to the point of discovering if it's true or not, and whether it's useful or not, you have to act (for now) as if it is true. Whether you want to study single-cell animals, or create a dance work, you have to anchor some of your thinking - take some things as givens - so that you can imagine and observe and understand outwards from those anchorages. You must make a reasonable assumption about how a certain kind of animal behaves  under certain conditions, so as to decide how to measure that behaviour. You have to decide how many dancers you'll use, before your ideas of space and bodies and budgets can start to develop.

In other words, when you work creatively, you must treat some things as if they're true, knowing perfectly well that they're not the only possible truth, and might not turn out to be true at all. So it's just as well that creative people are, by definition, very good at behaving, for now, as if things were true. But it's part of the paradoxical nature of the writer - the way we are both/and, not either/or - that sometimes we have to decide to stick with a definition and an assumption, and sometimes abandon them and make some new ones.

So how do you chose between stick and twist? When, in other words, do you stop suspending disbelief? Even when two writers are caught at the same point of decision, they may decide differently, and may not ever be sure if that was the "right" decision, even though it made all the difference. They can't now know what would have happened if they'd gone down that other road through the yellow wood. So, here is a handful of working definitions and hypotheses, with a suggestion of why they might help you to develop creatively.

I am a writer, so it's worth spending time/money/effort on my writing. You need to define yourself as a writer, at least for now, if you're to put in enough of the 10,000 hours to find out if you are, actually, a writer.

This is a story on a scale which makes sense, because you can't actually know whether it's the right proportions for itself and the right length for your readership till you get there.

My overall way of writing this story will work - because you need to commit to a form, a voice, a structure, if they're going to develop coherently. Trying to fine-re-tune every line or scene, to suit every different scrap of feedback, or information about "what sells" or "what wins prizes", or  evidence of what other writers do well, is disastrous for now, when your overall idea of the "how" needs to be calling the shots.

My grammar, vocabulary and syntax are up to the job of a crazy - first draft - because it's more important at this stage to let your overall sense of storytelling run.

I shall be able to get help with them later - so you don't need to fret about them now if that blocks the creative channels of your writing-mind. Which doesn't mean you might not start looking about you for a good writer's circle or forum, of course.

My writing is worth being wasteful. Creative work is inherently wasteful. If you focus on "being efficient" in the crude sense of time spent and acceptable finished article produced, instead of focusing on the best way to get the story out of yourself and onto the page and revised and polished, you're not being efficient, you're just being penny wise and pound foolish.

My narrator is X. You need to know, in order to write any words, which consciousness is conditioning what gets narrated and how:  is the narrator you, a version of you, an external narrator who isn't you, (a) character(s) in the novel, a character looking back on the events of the novel?

This part of this scene should be in Y's point of view - because you need to decide what consciousness the setting and events are told through, at this moment of plot and story.

This scene (or whole novel/memoir) starts in the right place - because you have to start it somewhere, in order to start it at all. Even if you're a writing-out-of-order writer, it's worth having some kind of sense of what the reader will first know about your characters and their story.

This scene (or whole novel/memoir) will end where I can sort-of see it ending. Some writers (all right: this writer) have to know where a story will end - in the emotional sense, or the physical sense, or both - before we know where it should start, and before we can have faith that we'll be able to make the decisions as we work through the as-yet unknown middle.

My reader is intelligent. If I Show (evoke) this place/emotional turmoil/action, the reader will do the Telling (explaining, interpreting) for themselves.

My reader will be concentrating. I don't need to shove everything that matter under their nose with a large label saying This Is Important.

My reader will trust me. If I don't explain what happens in the gap of this jump-cut, they'll still believe in what happens next.

My reader will be patient with me. If I bother to narrate something whose reason for being in the story isn't immediately obvious, they will construct their own working hypothesis that it is a necessary part of their experience, and keep reading.

My reader has their ears and other senses open - as well as their eyes and mind, so I can work with sound, rhythm and lyrical writing.

This is what I need to find out for the story I'm imagining - because your imagination can't work and grow a story without being fed with real-world stuff.

This is what I don't need to find out, to tell my story - because it will only be inert data. If readers want facts, they can go and read a book about facts.

I'm only not a good enough writer yet. It's unrealistic to expect yourself never to have deep doubt - or even the three-in-the-morning horrors - about yourself and your work. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon your original working definition of yourself as a writer. You just might need to change the working hypothesis about what kind of writer you are, and where best to put your effort and talents. 

I will be published, or find enough of the right readers by another route, so it's worth spending time/money/effort on my writing. We're back where we started: you need to feel that you will be read, if you're to put in enough of the 10,000 hours to find out if you are, actually, a writer.

Of course, the opposite of all of these is also true. Any of these, hung on to for too long, becomes a drag, not an anchor. These are the not-working hypotheses, the un-helpful definitions, the equivalent of the person who refuses to see the evidence of their partner's infidelity, or their job's destructiveness, or the fact that their lack of talent at something precludes a professional career in it. So hanging in the space at the end of each of those working hypotheses and definitions are some  further things to think about:

  1. What would be the proof that this hypothesis is no longer serving you and your writing and your life well?
  2. Should you look for that proof?
  3. How will you check that the "proof" isn't supplied by your Inner Critic, dressing up?
  4. And if you do, and the proof turns out to convince you, what new, better-working hypothesis might you replace this one with?

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