This is my reflection to our most recent experiment, PLAY 002 | NaNoWriMo and Other Challenges, in which I learn a lot about some of my previous outlining ideas. You can find an intro to our reflections over here, along with links to others’ experiences during November 2016.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this clip:
Fittingly, I embedded it in the first PLAY reflection article—Longhand Jam in the Woods—and since then, it’s been wiggling away in the back of my brain. I decided to use PLAY 002 as an opportunity to tackle this feeling.
Recently, I started to think about it alongside another of my articles—Planning My Way To Q: a 3-Stage Experiment in the Creative Process—and what I’ve been experiencing as I write Charlotte’s Journey. See, before November started, I was struggling with a particularly nasty bout of “How do I!?” in a section of Charlotte’s Journey where I had to get our heroes onto a boat. Not as easy as one (*cough*James*uncough*) might think…
I was stuck. They needed to be on the boat, but I couldn’t get them there; nothing made sense about it. I started questioning everything from the scene to my abilities, and got to the point where I wanted to quit writing (that section). Thank you goes out to James for patiently listening to me, then telling me not to sacrifice this learning experience and demanding I keep going. I did, eventually, get our heroes onto said boat, and also found a way to make the entire scene work (at least for now).
Ultimately, I think what was holding me up was my inability to stop thinking. I wasn’t experimenting (“What if they jump onto it…” *type type type* “No, that didn’t work, so they sneakily swim… *type type type* “Better, but still not Oh! They craft a raft out of Blue…”), to see what might work, what could work, until I found what did. I just kind of froze. Which made me think about the 3-Stage Outline process I outlined way back when, and how I have drifted away from it in my last couple sections (i.e. I did half of a framing outline, but no intensive).
Which brings me to NaNoWriMo.
During the month, to reach my 50,000 words, I was working on three projects: Charlotte’s Journey, and two short stories. I did zero–to–little planning for the two short stories—no outlines, no character sketches; nothing beyond the ideas I’ve thought up when they first came to me—and just sat down and started writing. The results were, to say the least, mixed.
The first one—“How To Make a Witch Killer”, a fantasy romp through Hell—was based on an idea for a scene, an ending really, that I had over a year ago, and last month became a 13,000 word mess before I abandoned it. At least half of those words are definitely prewriting. Not to say pre-writing is bad. Prewriting is very, very good. Those 5,000ish words helped me understand my pedestal character a lot better, created a history for him that will be a driving force, even if not something that actually comes up in the final draft.
Once I had that understanding, I hit enter three times and started the story again. A completely new beginning—very different than my first attempt—and, I think, how this story should really start. (We’ll see though, when it’s all said and over. One never really knows until you’re “done” writing it.) But I got a lot farther than the first attempt, before I found myself wavering again. Maybe it’ll turn out to be just more prewriting. Maybe I should have started with the scene I could see in my head. The point being, I had no plan, and I didn’t really get anywhere (though I did learn stuff along the way.)
The second short story—”Worthwhile Lives”, a science fantasy character drama—went a lot better, and is the story I’ve chosen to start editing throughout December to hit phase two of my NaNoWriMo goals. Now, cards on the table, I lied to you a little—I had a bit of an outline for this one. In fact, I had part of an intensive outline, because this was the idea that sprung into my head last Spring when I came up with the 3-Stage Outline process, and I tested the idea a bit on it first before trying it with Charlotte’s Journey. But I never finished the first intensive outline, which was only for the first scene of the story, but it did give me something to start from. And start I did!
As I said, “Worthwhile Lives” went a lot better. I was able to complete a first draft, learn more about my characters, have some bad ideas that eventually became good, and found that some of my great, solid ideas were really just road apples. I started to get a sense of “Carol” and “Cal” (yes, those are placeholders): who they are, how they’re likely to act in a conflict; what happens to them when I put them in certain scenes. I felt a lot better about it, so much so that I chose it to finish, but as I started the editing process I realized how little of what I first put together is bound to end up in the final draft. (Which is editing, I guess? Right? That stage is still a little new to me.) I got the characters from A all the way to Z, and it’s a path I’ll retread as I tighten, cut, add, rewrite, and, you know, edit, but there were a lot of days where I struggled to get stuff onto the page. (See my half month reflection in the comments; that “difficult week” I mentioned was when I started “Worthwhile Lives”.)
Two short stories, little to no planning, and the results I achieved were hard to come by, made me feel crummy, and in the end definitely read as “shitty first drafts”. (Yes, one day I’ll share those drafts through AiS, but not yet.) So, success, right? The goal was a shitty first draft. Yea! But I’d rather not have felt so bad about it, or at least, felt it come out of me a lot differently.
Which brings me to Charlotte’s Journey. The most planning I’ve ever done for a story. And, despite my recent struggle with a boat, the easiest story to write I’ve ever experienced. Which, for a while there, made me think the secret was those outlines. James and I have done character sketches, plot beats, treatise on magic; we did layer after layer of ideation, we’ve zoomed in and out on our characters in dozens of different ways, we’ve talked and talked and talked about this story for more than a year, and when it comes time to write it—I feel good. It flows.
Which tells me I need planning because without it I get caught up as I’m trying to write. I think back to my first experiments with the 3-Stage Outline, and I remember when I finally got to the actual prose part, the writing was smooth. I had done all the thinking already; all that was left was the words themselves. Cool, awesome, conclusion made: back to super outlining stuff!
…and then in walked James, sitting on the other side of a Skype chat, looking at me as we prepared to talk about one of the sections for Charlotte’s Journey that I finished during NaNoWriMo, and saying, “Luke—don’t take this the wrong way, because I don’t want you to feel bad about all your other writing, but…—I think this is some of your best writing. Ever.”
James went on to explain why: a lot of my writing tics, the weird little grammar mistakes and the strange use of language I try and play with when I give myself the time, were gone. He theorized that because I had a large word count, and not a lot of time, I just went for it. I didn’t have time to overthink grammar and word usage, and what was left on the page was clear, enjoyable prose.
So… if I stop to think, my prose suffers. If let fly with the words, my story struggles and I feel like a crap writer. Rock and a hard place, much?
But with some time to reflect, I don’t really think that’s it at all. Remember, Charlotte’s Journey is incredibly thought out. No, we don’t have all the nitty-gritty elements—and as we write sections, both James and I have come to new conclusions about our characters, or shifted how major plot moments need to happen—but we know where the story started, where it is going, who the characters are, and a whole lot about our world, too (though that link is fairly sparse; there’s a lot of stuff we’ve done for CJ that has yet to get onto the web). All that talking we’ve done has grounded us in our world. And that is exactly the kind of “outlining”, otherwise known as planning, that I think I need. It’s why I find it so easy to write about Charlotte, Raul, Vilnius and the whole crew, even when I’m scared of an important section, or worried I won’t be able to do an important moment justice, and why it was a slog to get Carol and Cal talking, or to let those guys that may not have even had names to their final destination. I know Charlotte’s world. It’s just a matter of tapping my head and getting it out onto the page.
That kind of planning is what was missing from my short stories, and is why I struggled to write them. The writing, which turned out a lot to be the prewriting, was where I was thinking, learning, discovering all I could about these tiny worlds and my characters in them. That’s why I struggled, because I was working on pretty prose and story development side by side. (Which…yeah, still continues to happen; as I just said, we’re shifting plot moments as we go sometimes in Charlotte’s Journey)—but my point is if I don’t have a grasp of the world before I try and write prose, I’m going to feel pretty bad about what I create. But if I can separate these moments, truly do the “thinking” before I try and hit word count, I write better.
I do still need a “3-Stage Outline”, but I see now I don’t need it section by section—I need it for the story as a whole. Which is exactly what James and I did. We chatted for months over Skype about Charlotte and her as-yet-unnamed world—the framing outline—before I was finally able to visit James up north for our first Summit, in which we plotted out Charlotte’s Journey on some 40-ought cue cards—the intensive outline.
And what comes after the intensive outline? The writing.
So all told, I think it was a pretty good NaNoWriMo experience. It reinforced some things I’d kind of already learned, and brought me to a better understanding of what I was trying to create for myself regarding my process. There’s actually a couple other things I came up with during the month, some questions and ideas about first drafts, but this reflection has already gone on longer than I expected it to, and I want to give them a full treatment. So I’ll save those for a couple of up-coming articles and sign off for now. I look forward to hearing what others’ experiences were during the month, and chatting about what you’ve learned. Because—and this is one of those topics I want to get more into—the more we talk about it, the more we learn. Shocking, right?