Plans Begone! No Wait, Come Back!

I’m in the middle of revising my book and it occurred to me that I finally really like the direction it’s going in now. November Nanowrimo provided a great time to get past writer’s block and just power through a draft. It helped me rebuild a daily commitment to writing and forced me to show up to the page.

Revision is a great exercise in making decisions and really thinking through what’s important in this story. With my Nanowriomo stories, I’ve had to do A LOT of thinking through after the fact, rather than planning and thinking through before and during the writing process.

I’m a planner in all areas of my life. It’s something that I get sick of every so often and try to shed. I’ll live spontaneously for a few days and then inevitably revert back to my routine. It’s comfortable, it keeps me going. Last year, when I really put some effort into building a writerly life, I took a planner’s approach. I mapped out stories on index cards. I made graphs and charts of when characters would come in and out of scenes. I was pretty proud of my story before I even sat down to write it because it was all planned out and, assuming it went as planned, it would be awesome.

As we all know, assumptions are often wrong. I’d spent so much time planning and trying to be what I thought writers were and do what I thought writers did, that I forgot to include the creativity into my creative writing. Imagine my surprise when I wrote my first novel in a month and it was nothing like my planned outline. In fact, it didn’t have solid A and B plots with interwoven themes. It had one- dimensional characters following boring paths. It was frustrating. That novel is sitting on my hard drive and will potentially never see the light of day.

In that practice, I gave up control and let the story take over. I wasn’t sure about that whole “let the muse be your guide” and “your story wants to get told” rhetoric that you often read in creativity and writing books. I wasn’t sure I had a muse or a story to be told. I only knew I liked to write. I liked to put pen to paper and create. But, lo and behold , the story did come, not as I expected and planned, but it came nonetheless.

When I did Nano again this year I also planned out my story, but I knew for certain it would change as I went through the month. When November ended, once again I had an incredibly disjointed, not totally coherent story with a few glimmers of good dialogue and character emotion. What was different for me this time was my commitment to revision, thanks in large part to my writing group who read my first draft and offered invaluable feedback. I knew what was wrong with the story, but I needed to hear someone else say it too, so I knew I was on the right track and not just being too hard on myself.

Starting tomorrow my writing group is starting our own revision Nano. We’ve committed to certain daily revision practices (days, words, hours) and daily email check-ins to prod each other along. So my statement of finishing this draft by March 30th still stands. My commitment was to revise at least one existing chapter each day. They may not stay chapters, because a lot has to get cut and reworked, but I’ll go into the old chapters and see what I can do with each one, at least one a day. So that’s my plan, and muse be damned, I’m sticking to it!

Scary Right Now

I used to think I was actually “putting it out there.” I sort of thought that’s what I was doing with this blog. But really, I’m only talking theory and ideas here. When it comes to my writing, like my actual story, I still feel so guarded. Only a close handful of friends and family know that I write. I mean, I talk about it on Facebook, but who really pays attention to that? I tweet about it, too, because it feels more anonymous, since I’m followed mostly by people I don’t know in real life.

You’re probably familiar with the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I think it’s a nice quote. I even have it on a magnet. But do I live that way? No. Would I like to? Maybe. I think I’d revise the quote to say, “Do the thing that scares you right now.” Or, I’m sure someone already has. I don’t know if it’s about every day, so much as it’s about taking that leap of faith and believing in you.

So last night I tweeted and Facebooked a public statement, committing myself to finishing the second draft of my book by March 30th. It seemed so doable when I first dreamed up that date. Then I got scared that I couldn’t possibly make that deadline. Then I counted down the calendar and tried to do some mental math. And after finding the cosine of the hypotenuse and added the tangent of the right angle, I realized I’d done too much math and not enough trusting myself.

Then, this morning, I did the thing that scares me. I told a coworker about my secret. I admitted to being a, *ahem* writer. I explained the inspiration for my story. And I’m still alive. In fact, I feel proud of myself for taking that baby step. I know it’s not a huge deal, but it feels like exposing yourself. I mean, what if he wants to read the story? What if he hates it? What if he writes terrible reviews of it?

The what-if trap is always holding me back. I have to reign myself back in. I go on Goodreads every day and look at books my friends are reading. I read reviews before adding a book to my to-read shelf. I write reviews when I finish my books. I’m in multiple book clubs. I enjoy critiquing books and I enjoy reading others’ opinions about books. So the what-if trap starts in easily for me. What if I got published? What if people wrote mean things? What if people hated it? And then I remember- the story isn’t even finished yet. Pull yourself together woman!

I spend so much time living in the future, the possibility of when I finish… what if I…what if they… Doing the scary things brings me back to the present. I want to live now and enjoy the process. And IF things happen with this story, I will enjoy them as they come.

Three Dimensions

Something that bugs me in the YA books I’ve read recently  is making the characters too one-dimensional, too much like stereotypes. This is especially true of female characters that are meek or shy at the beginning of a story and then suddenly transform throughout the story in response to a quest or other dramatic event. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that most kids, most people, have a little bit of everything in them?  We’re usually not one way all the time. With some people we’re outgoing, with others we’re reserved. In some situations we’re adventurous and daring and in others we’re terrified.

I saw this most clearly in my own writing when I finally got a chance to spend some time with my 16 year old niece. The story I’m currently revising is very loosely based on some of her life experiences. From an outsider’s perspective, I thought I needed to make the character angry and cynical, in order to make some of the big events and revelations make sense. And, though I wrote certain glimmers of happiness and contentedness, I kept the character sort of guarded and surly through much of the book. However, when my niece came to visit, I got a glimpse into the life of a 16 year old. And maybe there is some anger, but mostly there’s still growth and development. Sixteen year olds like one thing one minute and another the next minute. They want to wear make-up and have sex, and they want to make origami boxes and color the driveway with chalk. They’re walking contradictions as they discover who they are.

It was stunning to realize how much I’d underestimated and pigeonholed this character, because my own memories of teen life are permeated with angry, discontent feelings.  Those strong feelings clouded the others. So much that I forgot about the humdrum of daily life. I forgot that I wasn’t angry all the time, or even half the time. After I spent time with my niece, I went back and reread my story. I didn’t do the age, the experience, or the inspiration very much justice in what I’d written.  I know there needs to be elevated emotions and drama to come across strongly on the page, but I want to do a better job of making my character well-rounded and more accessible to lots of different types of readers.

On a side note, this post seemed timely because I did the same thing in real life.  I sort of under-estimated, or maybe assumed is a better word, I assumed things about someone I work with because of his position in the company and his experience in business. Instead of thinking of this person as a well-rounded human begin who probably has many likes and interests, just like everyone I know, myself included, I assumed he was stuffy and maybe uninteresting. When in reality, since I’ve learned a lot from him and about him, I’ve been surprised by how wrong my initial assumptions were.

 As a former teacher, I should know the rule about not judging a book by its cover. I’m working on it, though. It’s a hard habit to break. I think maybe it’s not about breaking the habit, but rethinking the process- maybe it’s okay to make initial assumptions, as long as we actively seek to find ways to contradict them.