On Writing Alone

Writing is / can feel like a solitary adventure, going off to strange lands that you operate as a ghost in, exploring characters and rolling landscapes that you can only observe. The creative process is unique to everyone, and everyone experiences creative flow differently, but I’ve found this analogy of being a witness to the events, characters, or both to be commonly understood by creative writers. But from what angle, what side of things do you witness and build the narrative? This is where many people differ.

Which is where having a community of creators and storytellers becomes so important. As someone who rarely collaborates with others I can attest to how easy it is to make your work an island with a population of one: You. It can be tempting pull a Dickinson, hiding your work and creative perspective in the middle of a metaphorical ocean. No need for conches here, there will only be one source of thought or reflection. And while this sounds lonely, if, like myself, sharing your creative babies can be terrifying, it is ideal. But your work will never reach it’s full potential if you do things this way, because not only does another set of eyes on your work provide a whole new perspective when editing, it can show you that yours isn’t the only way that a story unfolds in the writing process.

When I was in high school I was fortunate enough to meet someone who I would come to know both as a life time friend and a creative powerhouse. Kaitlyn was (and still is) a child of the artistic side of the internet; she had already listened to the new podcast you were just hearing of, was working on some cool digital art and, yes, was already writing a visual novel. Always a bit afraid of the digital side of storytelling, it was as baffling as it was inspiring to see someone writing stories and making adobe movies or just playlists to go with them. We were also on much of the same wavelength for what we liked and what we wanted to make. For the first time in my life sharing what I was working on and walking through my endless plot “what if’s?” felt natural.

We were creative in much the same ways, but also had some wonderful differences that gave us something new to work off of. One of these was the how, the why of a plot. Now, living on an imaginary creative island up until this point I had thought there was only one way this process occurred. A thought, an idea, a “what if?” would drift to the surface, much like the many writing ideas that can be found on the subreddit r/writingprompts. What if we are the aliens? What if the objects in our homes have memories? What if humans later learned how to photosynthesize? And the exploratory questions would go from there, considering how humanity would interact with this kind of reality, and, if I was lucky or inspired enough, what kind of dramatic scene would come out of this kind of setting. This was often totally up to my imagination, it could be an opening sequence, a climactic moment, or occasionally the end of the whole affair. My job was to try and keep the momentum going, writing it out and writing forwards or backwards, whatever was necessary to fill in the rest of the story. Characters were secondary to all of this. Important, but a means of reaching those narrative moments that had made my spine tingle in the first place.

For Kaitlyn, plot was the secondary process, what came after to suit the characters in her head which were very, very much alive. She could tell you what kind of music each one of them listened to, what clothes they liked to wear, their most traumatic childhood memories… the list really could go on. Her stories were for her characters, while my characters were for my stories. And had I not ever had those many conversations with her, it would have taken me much longer to realize how little I knew the characters that I would want my eventual readers to connect with. Even more than this, it made me realize that there were likely many ways and different approaches to take to writing, which I wouldn’t be able to learn from if I continued to work quietly on my own.

I am still most comfortable working from an exciting plot twist, but I make much more of an effort to get to know my characters, writing lists of the most inane but interesting details and even taking personality tests on their behalf (the sorting quiz can be especially illuminating, thank you J.K. Rowling ). While I don’t think I will ever be quite as good in this regard as Kaitlyn, I can say that my writing has improved because of the added effort. My characters now take actions that make sense given their history, not just to move the plot from point A to B.

Since then I have built up the courage to share my work with other talented friends ranging from screenwriters to visual novel developers. Their different perspectives inspire me to grow in my own medium, while also helping me to get off the island of “when it’s good enough”. Even if you have been writing or working away for a decade, it’s never too late to build a community and grow some more for yourself. We create to express ourselves and connect with others, it makes sense that the process itself shouldn’t be an isolated one. If you haven’t found your community yet, we at Adventures in Storytelling would love to welcome you to ours. For those who have, let us know in the comments the best tips or ways of creating that your friends have taught you.

2 thoughts on “On Writing Alone”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately, Madeline. The idea of collaboration in artistic pursuits. (I’m sure Adventures in Storytelling has a large role to play in that, or possibly, I got fascinated with AiS because collaboration was on my mind…)

    Either way, both in my personal projects and at work, I can see clearly that I create better things with collaboration; I think anyone does. As you touched on, by creating on one’s own means you only have one perspective, which can be an incredibly damaging thing to a creative work. Even when that story is meant to only show one perspective, when it’s zoomed in so far that there is no space for the other side within the bounds of the created world, it nonetheless behooves one, the creator, to seek out collaboration so that you understand both sides. Because how else can you properly depict the nuances and wonder of one side if you’re unaware of the other?

    I’m not saying every project needs to have two writers on the cover, that every song must be written by committee. Look at movie credits, though. All those names are not there just for logistics. The writing room is a real thing because it brings challenge, insight, and depth to your own mind by comparing it to another. Even just sharing pieces of your idea with friends when its raw and cooking can help you find its feet. (Candice has helped shaped—well, probably all—of my ideas at one point or another. She’s my first test audience, my writer’s room, and my editor all rolled in to one.) James and I have talked about this in some of our articles, but I’ll say it again—Charlotte’s Journey is not something that either one of us would write alone. It has grown as we have shared ideas together, challenging one anothers’; melding, breaking, and reshaping until something better is made.

    I also wanted to say, I love this line: “Her stories were for her characters, while my characters were for my stories.”

    I definitely understand the pull of a pivotal scene, that “what if?” question that drives—no, that IS the story. Many, many of my early short stories when I was young hinged on that one singular idea. (It’s how a lot of ideas come to me still.)

    I’ve also come to realize that, and maybe this is just as I get older, that my love of story is housed in characters and character moments. Not just as my connection into the story, but where I seek story completely. I’ve tried to write about this in my last couple articles, but haven’t quite gotten to what I want to say yet, so I’ll keep trying.

    For now, I’ll say I think the best stories, the ones we love and continue to return to, learn to happily marry characters and plot. Some great works have been done that lean more heavily towards one or the other, but the ones that stick, do both. But let me not forget that this article is about the process, not just the end result, and as you say Madeline, everyone’s journey to the end is their own path to travel. If you create best from the plot starting point then do so! Unequivocally! The community shall be here to discuss character when you’re world is ready (or vice versa if your ideas start from character)…

  2. Like Luke, I really dig the “Her stories were for her characters, while my characters were for my stories” line. I think that’s a really important idea to consider as creative writers. My ideas often stem from situations or simple events as well, but I’ve always known writers who were the type to make the characters first, then throw them in a room together, and see what comes out. The story first approach has led me to some difficult places. Too often, I’ve ended up with protagonists I don’t like as a result. Its hard to spend so much time with somebody you don’t like. This is part of the reason why creating the character sketches for Charlotte’s Journey was so illuminating for me (you can see them over in the Left Pillar). It forced me to think about the character before putting them in the room, and that was a big change, and I think its been valuable.

    A funny thing happened when I was writing those sketches though. One of our characters waltzed right into my head and wheezed slightly. Blue, the skeleton who doesn’t know he’s a skeleton, is perhaps the most fully realised person to ever come out of my head (which is doubly interesting since Blue, in his original inception, was Luke’s idea). Its been an educational experience seeing what those other kinds of writers get with such complete characters just waiting for a story.

    Further, on working with other creators: during my undergrad, I wrote and recorded a concept album based on The Road Warrior called The Ghost of Max Rockatansky. I did not do it alone. My friend Jack and I had been playing a lot of guitar together, and he said “we should write a dance album.” Felt like a good idea at the time, but neither one of us really knew how to make dance music… so a more traditional guitar approach was the order of the day. In working together, though, we did write songs that went outside what we were both comfortable with. In short, working as a pair forced us to grow and learn as creators, and there was a marked improvement in my technical skill. John Donne feels appropriate… “No man is an island” (John Donne maybe could have taken the TNG approach and gone gender-neutral, but ehhhh).

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