I spend a lot of time talking to other writers about their work. Some are new writers. Some are more established. But sometimes, I have to give myself a bit of a shove…
I have planned, since early July, to enter a chapbook contest, and I’ve known the deadline date for months: August 15.
When I first heard of the contest, I played with several possible submissions. I have one long story that could fill up the 30 to 45 pages. I have another three-part story that I’ve long wanted to have published as a tryptic. And there was the third option: Three related stories that I wrote a few years ago in anticipation of writing a novel that has yet to see any development.
I decided on the last option: three related stories that are the background of what may someday be a multi-generational novel set in Colorado. But I had a problem: the third story didn’t fit well, and even though it was the stronger of the three stories, I couldn’t use it.
That meant, in order to use the first two stories, I had to write a third one, from scratch.
That’s Not How I Work
The thing is, I didn’t know what the third story should BE. Well. Except, I needed fifteen pages.
But I am not, typically, a writer who writes based on the number of pages needed. Oh, there have been some write-for-hire kinds of projects where I was filling the required space, but in my fiction writing world, this simply IS NOT the way I work.
But that’s where I needed to have “the talk” with myself. It is the same talk I sometimes have with other writers: If you are stuck, or unsure, or floundering, maybe you should try something…different.
So, this past weekend, with the August 15th deadline approaching (and with a genuine desire to have a draft of the third story ready for a writers group on Tuesday) I did something I never do, when it comes to fiction first drafts: I made an outline. It went something like this:
- Setup, 2 pages, Wade comes home from his “straight” job, Cassie goes to work, toddler in the playpen, baby #2 on the way
- New Situation, 3 pages, record company calls, “You’re a hard man to find”
- Progress, 2 pages, “You’ve still been writing?” big break offered
- Complications, 3 pages, has to quit steady job for the possibility of chasing the dream, Cassie isn’t happy
- Final Push, 3 pages, the bills are paid, Cassie is with him, but he has to tell her about the West Coast tour, then England
- Resolution, 1 page, he decides to keep after musical success, against Cassie’s wishes
As outlines go, this was still sort of wide open. And, in fact, in a some ways, I didn’t quite follow the outline.
So Why Do It?
If I didn’t follow the outline, exactly, that’s ok. There were still two good reasons for me to work this way:
1. The outline forced me to write SOMETHING. Yes, it was forced. And, honestly, the first draft felt stiff and lifeless. I was incredibly discouraged by the hand-written pages. But the pages were there. There were words to play with. I was stuck, and I wasn’t going to just “wait” to be unstuck. Perhaps I could have. But the answer wasn’t going to come in time to have a draft done on Tuesday, or the whole three-story arc ready by Friday.
2. The outline forced me outside of my comfort zone, and my creative side had to react. In a sense, the bad first draft made my creative side perk up. “Wait a minute,” the snotty writer said. “We can’t let this drivel out into the world. We’ll be exposed as a fraud! To battle stations!!”
As I transferred the handwritten draft into the computer, something amazing started to happen: The story took shape, around the outline, but without feeling “outlined”. There was breathing room, and I took advantage of those spaces. A few illuminating phrases here, some better dialogue there, and some key details that illuminated the themes of the story, and suddenly, it felt like I had something significant. Two more editing passes and reading it out loud to my beagle, and I felt I had something that was maybe, possibly, ready to be a real story. The group I read the story to today seemed to agree.
I know how Gepetto felt, when Pinocchio became a real boy.
Do you have an instance of stepping outside your normal process yielded positive results? Share it in the comments section. I’d love to hear more…