In reviewing the last few years, it’s easy to identify particular moments that made a massive impact on my writing. There was when my awesome friend, Ellen, shared it was possible for me — no MFA or English study outside of a few courses in college — to be published, and that Wattpad should be the last resort, not the goal. Or when I finished my first draft, then immediately decided to make a significant structural change that would require a rewrite of the entire manuscript. And, of course, when I signed up for the AbsoluteWrite July 2017 Camp NanoWrimo cabin with zero expectations, and came out with two of the best critique partners I could ever ask for. There are some books and podcasts which totally shaped my lens as well – Writing Excuses, First Draft, 88 Cups of Tea, Lessons from the Screenplay, Story by Robert McKee, Into the Woods by John Yorke, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass and so on. They helped build my confidence and belief that I too could be a writer and an artist. But beyond all the study and reading and constant dissection of media, some of the best lessons I’ve learned about crafting story have simply come from play — or, as we like to call it, The Well.
During one late night word wars session last November, I was neck-deep in rewriting the second draft for Highness and struggling to get anything on the page. Now, my dear CP, Kira, has this fantastic sci-fi story featuring one of my favorite characters in all of fiction and a world that I was chomping at the bit to play in. In an effort to have a positive word count for the wars session (#notnegative), I closed Scrivener, opened Word, and started writing what was essentially crossover fanfiction between our two unpublished manuscripts. It was totally goofy, drafty and so damn fun. Once Kira and I agreed we were the biggest dorks of all time, we proceeded to fire up a Google doc and go all in. Over the next three months, we wrote another 50k words on top of our normal manuscript work, spawned a badass idea to co-author, and shared hours of giddy laughter at whatever ridiculous trial we were putting our characters through. It was all excellent fun, and to my surprise, full of unexpected lessons that would help shape my writing and process. Here’s a short list of a few things I’ve learned in the Well.
1. Writing Fast
I’m not a perfectionist by nature. I’m a bit of a risk-taker, I make decisions quickly, and I’m not very detail-oriented. All these things are evident in varied aspects of my life, whether it be at work or rowing or figuring out what to cook for dinner. But then I open Scrivener, and suddenly I turn into this technical, methodical (read: slow) writer. I tracked my word count per hour this month, and I average around a whopping 180 words/hour. Woof. Fortunately, this is far from the case in the Well.
Speed is part of the deal in the Well. Usually, my contributions happen while I’m eating Greek yogurt before my morning commute, or I’m sneaking a quick update in before lights out. There’s no time to agonize over word choice or question if what’s going onto the page is “right”. While my wc/hour ratio is low, my drafting speed has certainly increased. There are a lot more “[big emotional reaction]” and “[some slick worldbuilding element]” notes riddled throughout my drafts than ever before, and having the ability to continue past these bits that used to stop me entirely has been super productive.
2. Crafting Organic Storylines
Nothing has helped me embrace my inner pantser more than the Well. If the label is necessary, when it comes to my process I’m more of a ‘headlights plotter’. I have a general vision for the endgame, can see a few beats ahead, but haven’t entirely worked out how the characters are going to get there. What the Well has taught me is how to find inspiration in the open doors established earlier in the text. How to build block by block and allow character to dictate plot instead of an outline. It forces me to get deep with character emotion and reaction, and gives me permission to skip writing worldbuilding codices or a detailed outline before I jump into the story. Two years ago, I was more plotter than pantser. Now, it’s quite the opposite, and I’m having way more fun.
3. Trusting Your Internal Sense of Structure
When I started writing seriously, I realized that I’d retained little of my academic understanding of narrative structure. I couldn’t have told anyone a damn thing on the difference between three-act and five-act, and hell, I remember one time totally flipping the climax and resolution when discussing a film I’d recently watched. Nowadays, I’m a bit of a structure junkie. Say the phrase ‘value transition’ or ‘character arc’ and I get excited. My notebooks are full of graphs and scribbles that look more like circuits homework than plotting. I read about structure constantly and am always on a quest to deepen my understanding of how to wield it in effective ways. But still, even with all this study and analysis, I oft question whether I’m hitting the proper beats, if my plot is a strong external metaphor for internal character change, if my scenes are truly fractals of the overarching acts, and so on and so on. It’s enough to do my head in. John Yorke talks about how story form is inherent to our human nature because it’s based on how we process information. For something that’s supposed to run deep in my bones, I sure worry about it a lot.
Again, in comes the Well. Pure pantsing. Only partial control over story direction. And nothing remotely close to notes on theme or arc or central premise. Yet, the farther we get into the story, the clearer it becomes that these plot beats exist, and magically enough, they hit at appropriate times in the story. That our characters have needs and wants not by any particular design, but by playing them out as people. This ties in with the organic bit above, and also validates that we have some clue about how structure works. It’s a good reminder to stop trying to shoe-horn plot and theme and whatever else, and to simply trust the story.
4. Play, Play, and Play Some More
Sometimes, when an element of Highness isn’t working quite right, or I want to test out a character or idea, I’ll toss it in the Well. It’s crazy how toying around with different pieces has either helped me solve a story problem or kept me from spending time on an idea that wouldn’t have worked.
More importantly, the Well is a good reminder for why we put ourselves through this crazy thing called writing, because it’s so much fun. There is little in my adult life that lends itself to the same innocent excitement that comes from drafting stories in made-up worlds with a friend. Waking up to new words gets the creative juices flowing first thing in the morning, and there’s always this lingering anticipation of wondering what will come next. And for those days I’m feeling down about my writing, I’ll go into the Well, because it always, always reminds me of all the good that has come from embarking on this journey.
Good characters. Good stories. Good friends.