In this age we live in, productivity is the name of the game. We take hold of our stories by the balls and get them written now, get them written right, and get them out the door. I don’t know about you, but to me, this is intimidating. I read blogs all the time about authors who write several books a year when I can barely finish one over two years. When writing that quickly, there seems to be so little time to let the story grow organically and instead, we push out the words and get from Point A to Point B in the shortest amount of time possible (in the storyline and on our career timeline) whether our characters like it or not.
I’ve tried to do this. It’s not working for me.
The novel I’m rewriting now is the one I started during National Novel Writing Month of 2010. As usual, I started with an idea and an outline. I had a timeline of when I would finish and a Chris Baty-imposed deadline.
I wrote that first draft like a champ. And then I got stuck.
Because unlike the seasoned authors I read about, my first drafts are junk.
But I’m okay with that.
See, I don’t feel like I truly know my story and my characters until I’ve written the first draft. Sometimes, not even then. In this case, the first draft taught me that I didn’t know my characters and, by extension my story, at all. The inconsistency of my MC’s choices and actions proved it. I didn’t know how to fix it. I tried to push through the pain for the sake of my timeline but eventually I had to set it aside, had to stop forcing it. But I knew this was “the book” for me–the one that will get published–so it was always in the back of my mind.
Every once in a while, over the year or so that I let it sit, I did some character building exercises or some brainstorming with a friend, waiting for the “click” to happen. I so desperately wanted to get writing again but the last thing I wanted to do was write another trash draft. I wrote various outlines on the nights I felt inspired but ended up tucking them away again because it just didn’t feel right.
A couple of months ago, after a bout of familial chaos, my life returned to normal and I knew I had to pull it out and face it for real this time, regardless of how I felt about my mess of ideas. With all of them swirling in my mind, I just began to write without much knowledge of where it would lead. I was interested to find that much of it stayed the same, save a change of location here or minor character there. Yet, after all the subconscious simmering I’d done, I was surprised at how much had changed. The little details about their backgrounds and how they carried themselves and how they reacted to things finally made them feel real. And through those changes, the new story began to emerge.
And this is when the panic set it.
But my outline! But my timeline!
I pulled out some of my old outlines to try to force my story back into the can I had originally opened and laughed when this “new” idea I had was the same as one of my previous outlines. Clearly my characters were trying to tell me something I hadn’t previously been prepared to listen to. They were trying to tell me the real essence of my story…whether I liked it or not.
I called my brainstorming buddy just before midnight saying, “I’m having a writer identity crisis. Can I do this?” The story was so much more dramatic and so much darker than I originally intended to be but no matter what I did, I couldn’t turn my mind back. It was like the story had rolled itself out before me–a single path that I had to follow to the end.
So I closed my eyes and took the first step.
Maybe many authors, especially seasoned ones, listen to their characters better than I do (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of being stubborn or having a one-track mind *cough*Taurus*cough*), but I wonder if there are some authors out there so focused on getting the book written that they forget to take the time to listen to those quiet voices of their characters as they point the way.
I wonder if I would have missed the opportunity to write a truer story if I had only been looking at my timeline…if I hadn’t stopped trying to lead.