This post by Lindsay originally appeared on the blog in September 2015.
Sitting in my college creative writing class, I absorbed the words of my pony-tailed professor: “Nobody knows exactly where they’re going when they sit down to write a novel.”
20-year-old me took this to mean that sitting down at my computer with a character, setting, and/or vaguely novelicious ideas would produce a novel. Viola!
That same year at college, I was also taking a 19th century art history class. The beginning of the class started with the artwork late 18th century – the swirly twirly baroque that 19th century artists would rebel against with clean lines and simplicity. We focused on the French and, particularly, the art of the French Revolution because it embodied this transition perfectly. It caught my imagination. It was novelicious.
So I sat down and started writing scenes. They were good scenes. I got a couple hundred pages of good scenes, and I spent many late nights embellishing them gloriously with adjectives and prepositional phrases. But then I had this problem: They were going nowhere.
I had no plan.
I had no ending.
I had no point.
I had no novel.
So, I put it on the proverbial shelf. I worked on another idea, waiting for the magical novel to appear from the tips of my fingers. I can’t deny that magic happens when people sit down to write. It’s like your fingers and brain connect and find things that surprise you – things you didn’t even know were lurking in your mind. Things that almost feel given to you. I love the surprises. I love finding out as I go. It’s the joy of the pantser!
So I wrote more scenes. I went to town with descriptions. Changed character names and clothes. But no novel.
Einstein was giving me the look, telling me I was insane.
After a few sleepless years of having babies and not writing much, I realized I needed to master structure. I needed a concrete idea of where it all was going, even if that ended up changing along the way. I needed to have an idea of plot points from the get-go. Because writing is two parts magic, one part stinking hard work.
So I’ve been experimenting with some new strategies over the past few years. I picked up my old French Revolution inspiration, planned an ending, and actually got there. What’s been working well for me lately is to alternate between my writing journal and my screen. In my journal, I ask myself a bazillion questions, draw charts, arrows, cartoons, jot research notes, character traits, whatever. I work out my problems in the notebook, but I can’t do it all at once. One step at a time. Plot point by plot point. Roadblock by roadblock. Maybe I have a character arc in mind, then need to plants the plot. Maybe I have a problem in mind and need to plants the character arc. It’s all a learning curve. It’s organic.
There’s no formula, except find what works for you. And don’t go insane.
In all of this, I keep in mind a quote from my friend Sandy Asher’s book, Writing It Right! “Nothing is wasted,” Sandy’s editor, Claire M. Smith, once said, and this is incredibly comforting!!
My poor nomadic scenes weren’t truly going nowhere. They were teaching me how to write scenes. They were helping me hone my descriptive skills. They mattered!! Your crappiest scene matters, too, because it’s a starting point. It can only get better from there, right? At least you have something…now you can figure out what’s wrong with it and get it right! *Happy dance!*
So, if you’re stuck in a rut, or feeling frustrated with how your writing is going right now, remember this:
As we grow, we learn one thing at a time:
Learn to write letters.
Learn to write words.
Learn to write sentences.
Learn to write paragraphs.
Learn to write scenes. To characterize. To write dialogue. To capture conflict and develop narrative voice.
We learn to weave it all together into a novel or picture book at our own pace, and in our own order.
And then, we learn to do it all over again – and do it better than last time.