Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Uncomfortable State of Unknowing

I read the above quote (or had it read to me, it's an audio book) while fixing breakfast this morning, and it occurred to me that the process of writing a novel and that of solving a mystery (as Maisie Dobbs, the 1920s titular PI character in the excerpt above is doing) bear a striking similarity.

The above quote is taken from the first book in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. I'm just a few chapters into this book, but already (obviously) the writing is resonating with me.

Wait awhile... do not rush to conclusions, no matter how uncomfortable the unknowing.

I find this holds true in the plotting of a novel. I will admit it can be a very uncomfortable place to be, caught between knowing you have a novel to write (and a deadline by which it needs to be done) and not knowing the who, what, when, where, and why of how that novel is going to weave together to create a satisfying story, characters that are three-dimensional, a setting that feels vivid and real.

A story in all its complexities doesn't drop into a writer's head all at once. At least it's never worked that way for me. It comes slowly. Like peeling the layers of an onion. Tears and all!

Truth walks toward us on the paths of our questions. 

Rushing this uncomfortable process is always a temptation, and always a mistake. Gathering information (research into story, character occupation, lifeways, setting, history, etc.), asking the questions this information triggers (story-weaving, brainstorming, whatever you want to call it), and then waiting for the answers to come is part of the process I need to do before I ever set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

Often those answers are far slower to arrive than I am comfortable with.

And I do begin to write before I have all the answers to all the story questions a novel will present. Sometimes I don't even know a question will arise until I'm halfway through writing the book.

There's a tipping point of questions/answers I need to reach before I can begin. It's not a balance I can quantify, but I know it when I've reached it. Still, many answers to long-standing story questions don't become apparent until I've written a chunk of the story first. I find them in the writing.

She would not struggle to answer the questions, but would let them do their work.

It takes courage to keep pushing a novel along knowing there are huge question marks lying ahead on the path. Especially when the writing itself fails to produce the answers I need. These are the times when I commit the questions to prayer, remind myself that I cannot find the answers without God's wisdom in play, and then wait with expectancy for those answers.

And remind myself to stop fretting when the fretting starts.

Remind myself that the answers have always come before. They will this time too.

Remind myself that's it's perfectly all right to write around the ? if needs be, knowing the answer will come in time and will be better than anything I can cobble together now, when my thoughts on the matter are muddled or divided.

Spending the vast majority of the time it takes me to write the draft of a novel (8-10 months, on average) in this State of Unknowing is not a comfortable place to be, but it's a stretching and growing place to be. It's the way God uses to bond me to Him in this walk of faith and trust He and I have going.

He has that way for each of us.


  1. It all sounds just like LIFE---it's unknowing--but God knows. And ohhh, that's worth the sometimes uncomfortable waiting, not knowing nor understanding... I love you, Lori!

  2. I love this writing advice. God is so good to use our human words to speak bigger eternal truths. I just finished The Wood's Edge and I can see where the Lord has given you eyes for the characters' hearts, their needs, their blindspots, their flaws. I think that is why your books resonate so well. You take the time to listen to God's heart. Thanks for sharing, may the Lord bless the work you set your hand to.

    1. Jessica, thank you for that sweet blessing. From the outside some people look like they have it all together, but we all know our own frailties and shortcomings and just how greatly we are dependent on the Lord to do what we do, and to Him be the glory.

  3. Manuela7:43 AM

    I totally agree with Patti, life works this way too. Learning to wait on God is part of the process of developing our trust in Him, giving the situation over to Him. Very true, this is not a comfortable state to be in, but there is no other painless way of achieving it. You hit the nail right on the head, Lori! Thank you so much for this lovely post! Oh I just remembered a quote I read "Never doubt in the darkness what God told you in the light". It's so fitting to the situation.

  4. Yes indeed. He has that way for each of us. Writing is no different. :)

  5. Hi Lori,

    I needed to hear that! Thanks. :) I've been fretting far too much about the ending of my book. The story has always come together before; I need to trust that it will do so now.

    1. Hi Beth. There's a post at Writer Unboxed that might also offer you encouragement. I tend to find the start of books hard, getting to know the characters, waiting for them to talk to me, open up. And getting my head wrapped around a massive amount of research. This post is an encouragement when the work is hard. You'll have to copy paste the addy: http://writerunboxed.com/2015/03/05/your-one-wild-and-precious-life/

    2. PS: I'm SURE the end of the book will be wonderful. And you know you can always tweak it later if better things occur to you.