Hi everyone. I’m trying out a new section of my blog called “Writing Stories,” where I let you in on how my writing process works. I have no idea if this will be of interest to anybody, but I thought I’d try it out.
I grew up hearing that would-be writers are undisciplined. They moan about Writer’s Block, chase inspiration like butterflies, and never get work done on time. I didn’t want to be like that. For many years, I tried to be disciplined. I set goals, broke my goals into measurable tasks, and tried to accomplish my tasks by a reasonable deadline.
Results have been mixed.
On the one hand, I can now sit down and write almost anywhere with little to no angst. I write every day, and when I need to, I can write for hours. I have a clear idea of how long it takes me to accomplish a goal and how that goal needs to be broken down into other stages.
On the other hand, I’ve learned, rather painfully, that trying to force out chapters sometimes means I miss out on genuine moments of inspiration. While trying to accomplish a single concrete task, I often lose sight of the bigger picture. Constantly doing work leaves me no time to think, learn, and reflect.
So this past year, instead of planning my tasks months in advance, I decided to wing it. I was going to listen, day by day, to my own feelings and write whatever appealed to me the most. This meant giving up some of my control over the writing process, but it also meant I wasn’t beating my brain against a computer screen (metaphorically). I’ve enjoyed the process of giving up control, and I feel like the quality of my work has risen as a result.
This brings me to Nanowrimo.
I’ve done National Novel Writing Month in November every year since 2012. The challenge is to write a novel/ 50,000 words/ 200 pages in a single month. To me it’s a push to accomplish one last, great thing before the end of the year. I typically use Nanowrimo to write a chunk of my epic fantasy The Originals, sequel to The Changelings.
Because I’ve done this so often, I have my structure down pat. Normally, I know what I’m going to write, and I spend the whole month of October brainstorming: half an hour a day, five days a week, minimum. (And honestly, it works better if I don’t go too much above that minimum.)
As September came to an end, I realized it was time to begin brainstorming for Nanowrimo. I felt conflicted. Did I want to do Nanowrimo? Yes. Did I think I could do it? More than likely. But the only way I knew how to succeed required planning, and thus far, I had been avoiding planning. I didn’t want to go back to being rigid and controlling and writing lots of stuff I’d just delete; on the other hand, I didn’t want to lose my sense of discipline and structure. Could I integrate both planning and spontaneity?
Here’s what I decided to do.
At the end of September I re-read a lot of the messy writing I’d done on The Originals, and I realized I was really close to completing Sylvie’s storyline. I wanted to do it; I thought it would be a great thing to accomplish for 2019. But I didn’t want to box myself in, so I left my options open.
I decided to do my October brainstorming (or Crunch-tober, as I call it), because, well, it works. Brainstorming half hour a day is part of the discipline of writing. What I decided to do differently was to NOT commit to finishing Sylvie’s storyline. Ideally, I wanted to do this, but if the ideas didn’t come, they didn’t come. I could always pivot and work on something else. After all, I have four other character arcs going on in The Originals, not to mention about 10 other projects waiting in the wings. There’s always something I can write.
The first week, I began my brainstorming by asking questions. Almost immediately, answers came. It seemed like Sylvie’s story was finally ready to tie up, but I was still missing a lot of key details. However, this wasn’t anything new for me. I usually start Week 1 in Crunch-tober with lots of ideas. It’s Week 2 when the ideas dry up.
Last week Saturday, as I sat with my composition book, I realized that I didn’t want to write about Sylvie. I wanted to write about Warden. Normally, I’d force myself to focus on the character I should be writing about. But this time, I let my mind wander to Warden. And just like that, I figured out how to conclude his arc--and the arcs of two other characters as well.
This didn’t mean I had a plot outline or any details. It didn’t mean I was prepared to write Warden’s story for Nanowrimo. But it did give me a direction for his character, and that was an incredible breakthrough. Emboldened, I began Week 2 wondering if I could conclude the arcs of the rest of my characters. And so I played with that. I got new ideas and fresh perspectives. My themes began to weave together.
This was all well and good, except that I hadn’t made much progress with Sylvie’s section. I had to work out physical locations, coordinate skirmishes, and structure scenes. None of that was happening. Oh well, I thought. If this is the price I pay for figuring out the ending to my entire novel, so be it.
Then, two days ago, on Friday, my inspiration swung in the opposite direction. I sat down, and all I wanted to do was figure out Sylvie’s location at the start of Act III. I promptly did: a moderate town called Pear Blossom, known for its horses. Yesterday, I started to work on a skirmish. I didn’t coordinate the fight, but I did figure out one side’s mission, the number of men, and the battlefield.
I have no idea what will happen next week, let alone a month from now. But thus far, I’m pretty happy. It’s a little early to draw out lessons, but this is what I’ve concluded.
First, I need to look at my story from a holistic point of view. If I try to focus on a single piece without seeing how it fits into the greater narrative, I miss crucial elements. This, I believe, is what causes me to feel stuck, try to force out ideas, come up with the wrong ideas, and end up throwing away pages of work. Seeing the bigger picture helps me narrow in on the details.
Second, there is value in leaving my options open. It gives me the freedom to explore. If I had committed to doing the Sylvie section, I might have ignored my other characters and missed out on ideas. Brainstorming is more than just problem-solving. Nor do I need to flesh out the ideas as soon as I get them. I can squirrel them away, look at them a year from now, or discard them for better ones.
Obviously, this process doesn’t work for everyone, but it seems to work for me. The real test will be Nanowrimo. But I’ll keep brainstorming and trusting that by November, I’ll be ready to go.
If anyone else is doing Nanowrimo, good luck to you, too.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.