The White Rabbit from The Nursery Alice by John Tenniel, Held and digitised by the British Library, and uploaded to Flickr Commons. A higher resolution version may be available for purchase from BL Images Online, imagesonline.bl.uk, reference 065443
I fell down a rabbit hole this week, not a literal one, but a literary one. No, I didn’t reread ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carrol, but that’s where the original idea of following a strange rabbit down it’s hole and falling into something, or someplace, totally unexpected came from. I first heard the term ‘rabbit hole’ used for writing by Emma Bull on a panel at Archon, a science fiction convention here in St. Louis. I was in the audience back then because I had yet to sell a single story of my own. I had read and loved Emma’s book, “War for the Oaks,” and listened to any bits of writer wisdom from her with great attention.
She and her husband Will Shetterly both explained that for a writer to fall down the rabbit hole meant an idea, or subplot, that led you off your plotted path. They seemed to think rabbit holes were always a distraction and the writer should climb out and get back on their plot path as soon as possible.
Years later with my own writing group, The Alternate Historians, we continued to use the term in much the same way. If you are a writer that plots and outlines heavily then rabbit holes are truly a bad thing, but if you are an organic writer like me, sometimes the rabbit is right. I believe George R. R. Martin calls them gardeners as opposed to architects.
What does it mean to be an organic writer? For me, it means that sometimes all I know is the first sentence of a short story, but I’m going to sit down and write that sentence and see where it leads me. It means that once the world building is done, or sometimes in the midst of it, I’ll often start writing the first draft of a book because I learn things about my world and my characters by actually writing. What I learn goes into the character building, or even the world building. I often find that what looks good in notes, or plot outline, doesn’t work at all when you are in the middle of the story. I’m very much a throw it out if my characters have a better idea that comes more naturally to them and their world. A word of warning here: do not edit heavily as you write your first draft, especially as a beginning writer. You do not know how your process works yet, so don’t do what I do, be cautious, save everything, and edit once you have a complete draft.
For an organic writer chasing rabbits down their holes can lead to new ideas that help grow your world, your characters, and just make it all into your own Wonderland. Or it can be just a distraction that wastes your time, energy, and derails your book just like I was warned all those years ago. The problem is that you can’t tell the difference from the outside of the hole. You have to crawl inside and risk falling down and down, before you know if you’ll be talking to a hookah-smoking caterpillar, or just trapped in the dark, covered in dirt.
In other words, the hole could lead you to things you need to discover as a writer, or it could just get you lost and covered in rabbit poo. To find out which way it will go you have to chase the rabbit and be willing to climb into the dark and follow where it leads.
The Anita Blake novels, and the Merry Gentry series, have both benefitted greatly from me chasing rabbits through their tunnels. It has led me to some of my most creative and innovative ideas, or most poignant scenes, but it’s also led me to the dark end of a lot of tunnels, where I had to dig my way out, or back track and cut out all the writing I’d done while I was in that particular scene “tunnel”. I’ve lost a week, or more of work this way. Hundreds, if not thousands of scenes, characters, all useless in the end, but I’m still not certain that writing out the useless bits doesn’t shake something lose that I need.
When I was in high school, I read an article by Ray Bradbury, I believe it was exerts from, The Zen of Writing, but I’m no longer certain. I do know that I translated his wonderful, and much more poetic advice into this, “Every writer has about ten thousand words of crap in them, so you better start writing early and get the bad stuff out, so you can get to the good stuff.” I think sometimes books are like that for me, I need to write the stuff that doesn’t work, then cut it, to find the stuff that does work. I can’t prove that this is true, and maybe I just tell myself that to feel better about all the lost pages, but I can’t prove that isn’t true, either. I’ve written over thirty novels this way, so I’m not going to change my creative process, it works for me, but I’ll admit it’s imprecise. I think all creativity is imprecise, if you could measure it out to be precise it would be science, not art, though there is more than a bit of art in most good science.
I don’t mind following the white rabbit when I know that’s what I’m doing in a book. I’ll run the new idea, or scene, up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes. If they don’t then I delete it, probably put it in an outtake file, and go back to the original plot point where I diverged and keep writing. What I do mind is when I don’t realize it’s a rabbit I’m chasing and I think its more unicorn. For a unicorn, which is an amazing idea that will make the book even better, I’ll drop everything and give chase, but I hate it when I see a horn and think unicorn, but it turns out to be more jackalope.
Last night when I finished writing I began to suspect I had fallen down the rabbit hole. I was hoping I was wrong, because my deadline was upon me. I went to bed hoping I’d wake up and it would all make sense, but instead I knew it didn’t. It wasn’t a rabbit hole, it was a rabbit warren full of tunnels and it was all dark, dirty, and even the rabbits had fled. I had to own that I would be throwing out about twenty-five pages, or more. Days worth of work when I honestly can’t afford to lose the time, or the pages, if I am to make my deadline, but there it was, the brutal truth. I was trapped in the maze in the dark, and the only thing I could do was try to find my plot thread in the dark, and follow it back to the last point where the book really worked.
As a beginning writer it was easier for me to tell when the plot thread broke, because the writing wasn’t as good, but as I’ve had more practice, I’ve gotten better. In fact, I’ve gotten so good that my writing is great even when the character development, plot, or world building, has derailed. It all reads well, but that doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it the best the book, the characters, the world, can be.
I had to go back through this morning and read, painfully, where that character wouldn’t have done/said that. Oh, there’s where the magic system that I have so carefully built and explained to the reader totally imploded. Yes, it was an exciting scene, riveting, but it isn’t the way the magic works, so out it goes. Okay, so that whole scene goes. Wait, that entire plot line is out. It’s far too late in the book to throw in something this big; it will distract from the mystery which we have to solve in ex-number of chapters. I’m not an obsessive outliner, but I do plot my mysteries out in broad strokes, the closer to the end of the book, the more that outline is filled in and eventually becomes fixed. This close to the end of a novel I have to keep my eye on the goal, which is to solve the mystery in a fair manner that helps the reader feel that all the clues were there. I dislike other writers who cheat by pocketing clues and just almost lying to the reader, so I try to play fair myself. Yes, I am aware that some really big names in mystery hide clues from the reader all the time. I adore Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are both guilty of hiding clues to keep the reader in the dark. Sometimes it works brilliantly, but it’s still a bugaboo for me as a reader myself, so I try not to do it to other people.
So here I am in the maze, which is the worst possible kind of rabbit hole. Not only am I in the dark, covered in dirt and maybe worse, but it’s not just a straight tunnel. I can’t just back up a few pages and keep writing, because there are tunnels leading off the main tunnel, so many lefts and rights that I’m not entirely certain which is the main tunnel, or if I came this way, or that.
I begin to suspect it isn’t rabbit droppings on my shoes, but Minotaur crap, and that’s much worse for the book, and for my deadline. My plot thread has broken off in the maze somewhere. I only know it’s not ahead of me, so I can’t keep writing the book from here, I must go back. How far back? I’m not really sure, but I have to find where the thread broke, so I can follow it back and rewrite from there, because the thread still in my hand leads to the heart of the maze and the ruin of the book.
I know I will find my way out of the maze, because I’ve been lost in here before. I know I will find my broken thread and trace it back, and then write myself out of the maze. I know, because I’ve done this before, and that means I can do it again. That’s really what an experienced writer has over a beginning writer, we know that we can do it, because we’ve done it. Success is like a shield to protect you from the monsters, both the outside obstacles and your own self-doubt.
So for all you fellow writers out there both experienced and not, if you find yourself lost in the dark take courage. First try to just back up, if it works, then it’s a rabbit hole, and you’ll soon be out. Dust the dirt off and keep writing. If you realize that some of the tunnel was great ideas, then dig your way up and out, and keep writing from there. If the worst happens and you realize you’re standing in the middle of the maze with a broken thread in your hand, and Minotaur crap on your shoes, then keep moving. You will find the other half of your plot thread, eventually. Once you find it, grab it and drop the other end, because the other end only leads to the heart of the maze where the Minotaur waits to smash you to has-been, or never-was pulp, and dance with castanets on your creative soul.