Jaye Wells

Craft Thursday: Playing God with a .38 Special

As a sort of corollary to last week’s post, The Journeyman Writer , I thought I’d share how I’m currently working on my own craft.

But first, a musical interlude.

Writers are control freaks.That’s why we find creating worlds from scratch and torturing the poor inhabitants fun.  Playing god is a gas.

But if you’re like me, this tendency to want to control everything can cause more problems than it solves in the early stages of writing a book.

This is exactly the issue I was struggling with earlier this week. I’m working on a new proposal. It’s an idea that I’ve wanted to write for a long time. As the date neared to start working on it, I had romantic notions about the freedom to create without a deadline. How these new characters would be charming and interesting and so fun to work with. What I was forgetting was how much work is involved to create a world from scratch. I forgot that it’s not easy to get to know new characters. And soon, the pressure I put on myself to make this next series a blockbuster, ruined all my fun.

Then I realized that while I am pretty good at dishing out advice, I am not so good at listening to it myself. I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t being patient with my process. But most of all, I was trying to force the story into a plot way too early.

It hit me on Monday that I needed to take a step back. That I needed to reread the blog posts I’ve been doing for you guys and take my own medicine. So I did.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a novelist friend who mentioned she was working on a scary new idea herself and found THE 90-DAY NOVEL by Alan Watt helpful. As it happened, I realized I already owned that book, but had not read it. So I pulled it out this week and got to work.

Watt’s central idea is that we must allow ourselves time at the beginning to let our imaginations play with our ideas. Imposing structure on these fragile things too early can destroy a story’s promise before its had time to develop. Which brings us to the reason I’ve had a .38 Special song stuck in my head all week: Watt says that in the beginning, we must hold our ideas loosely.

Maybe this sounds a little granola or woo-woo to you. But to me it makes perfect sense. My best work comes after a period of play. When I allow myself to toy around with images and snippets of ideas for a while, by the time I am ready to write the process is much smoother. It’s smoother because the better I know my characters and the world, the more organically the plot unfolds.

Why? Because all that futzing around is actually laying the foundation for your story. It’s work, but it doesn’t feel like work. Brainstorming while we do dishes and watching movies and reading other books and answering character questions (and Watt’s questions are great–much better than ridiculous character profiles) and writing down images without judging them allows our subconscious to do its job. It allows us to understand what drives our characters. To delve into their backstories. To understand what themes drew us to this idea in the first place. In short, it allows us to understand what we want to say before we commit it to paper.

Imposing loose ideas into molds breaks them. It prevents them from blossoming into their potential. It also results in forced, formulaic writing. Why formulaic? Because when we’re stuck and stressed, we tend to fall back on easy fixes. Genre fiction is filled with examples of books that rely on formulas to act as short hand for telling a good  story. But my absolute belief is that the best genre fiction respects the conventions of its genre while also elevating them through rich characterization, fresh writing, breaking some rules, and honest treatment of theme.

Now, I will say that my patience an only be stretched so far. Spending a month doing freewriting exercises is just not going to happen. It also won’t, as Mr. Watt suggests, take me a month to write the first act of the story. But I have a few books under my belt and writing is my full-time job. I’m confident enough in my abilities to work through issues beginners face and can therefore skip some of the more elementary steps. So, basically, I am using the lessons as a reminder to be patient with the story and let it develop.

This approach might make some of you itchy. You might do better just diving in and discovering your story as you write it. But I know this does not work for me. And that is part of the challenge of learning to be a writer: Learning what works for you and what doesn’t, while also being open to new approaches that might push your craft to higher elevations.

If this post resonated with you, you might want to check out THE 90-DAY NOVEL. Just understand, writing is an art and a craft. Just like formulas don’t result in good plots, they also don’t magically result in a finished book. You still have to do the work. You have to be open to trying new tools to do the job. But most of all, you have to …

“Hold on loosely and don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re going to loose control.”


6 Thoughts on “Craft Thursday: Playing God with a .38 Special

  1. Well this is a littler spooky. Just this morning I was doing some writing about this new project that is floating around in my head and thinking about maybe trying NaNoWriMo for the first time. But what I kept stumbling on was that the idea isn’t really ready for that kind of pressure. It’s a little zygote of an idea not even a whole idea yet. I was literally trying to figure out how to go about growing it because it came to me differently that my story ideas usually do…there’s no character or conflict, just some loose ideas about a world but I really like them. So thanks! I needed to hear that and I will check out that book.

  2. Andrew McQueen on September 22, 2011 at 8:53 pm said:

    I can dig this one and your “Journeyman Writer” post. I have a few writing tools of my own and I’m thinking about getting that book.

  3. JayeWells on September 23, 2011 at 9:05 am said:

    Miss Bliss, I think Nano can be useful as long as you to your pre-work. It’s allowed by the rules as long as you’re not writing the actual book before Nov. 1. Why not do the 90 Day Novel prework leading up to starting Nano?

    Andrew, I read writing books all the time. Never know when you’re going to pick up a new trick. Happy writing!

  4. Hey Jaye,

    Thanks for the shout out. I could not have explained the process better myself. And by the way, I totally agree about the NaNoWriMo pre-work. I assume a lot of writers do it anyway, but if not, I think it’s real valuable to develop a sense of the world of your story before you dive in and start banging away for thirty days. That sounds unnecessarily terrifying.
    All the best,

  5. JayeWells on September 26, 2011 at 9:51 am said:

    Hi Alan! Thanks so much for stopping by. Yes, I think half the battle of writing is cutting out the unnecessarily terrifying parts. There’s plenty of necessary terror involved anyway.

  6. Just thought I’d check back in and let you know I got Alan’s book and started reading it last night. Looking forward to some new tools. Thanks so much!

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