My writing journey began when I was a young girl – maybe eleven or twelve years old. I was deep in the thrall of Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables, and Lloyd Alexander, my head full of my own take on those wonderful stories. My relationship with writing started when I asked, “What if?”
What if Harry Potter had been Harriet Potter? What if *I* attended Hogwarts? What if I lived on Prince Edward Island at the turn of the century? What if I lived in a kingdom like Prydain, surrounded by magic and cauldrons and prophetical pigs?
Now, I’m not saying the stories that came out of those questions were any good, but it sure was fun to try answering them. And more questions came up in their place, questions like “What would life be like for this character instead of me?” and “What if I were to invent my own kingdom? What would it be like?” Before long I was filling notebooks with my pretend kingdom’s name, geography, history, and culture. I was drawing characters (very badly) and naming them things like Spellsong and Chrysanthea.
While my drawing ability has remained much the same (i.e. horrible), I like to think my stories have improved since then, asking more complex questions and peopling their worlds with more complicated, interesting characters (sorry, Spellsong). Over time, though, it has also been harder to keep hold of the thrill I felt when planning a story as a kid.
Back then, it was all pure, unbridled joy and excitement at asking myself, “What if?” Now, after that first initial flash of inspiration, I find myself asking other “what if” questions instead: What if this story has already been written before, and written better? What if I can’t do justice to the idea in my head? What if these characters, this plot, this setting is boring, familiar, overdone?
What if I fail?
Not only do these questions make it extremely difficult to get words on the page, they tend to make those words stilted and horrible. They are a self-fulfilling prophecy, these doubts. So this year, I’m making a concerted effort to silence those questions, starting before the writing even begins.
Time to borrow back the excitement of planning a story from twelve-year-old me.
This whole realizing-a-piece-I’d-been-missing thing started with a writing friend of mine, Shaunta Grimes. Shaunta recently started a book planning tutorial called The Plotting Workshop. It’s FREE and conducted entirely via email over eight weeks. Each message from Shaunta contains wisdom and advice about a step of the novel-planning process. She’s more than qualified to teach the workshop as she’s published two books of her own. More than that, she has tailored her messages to be both inspiring AND self-pacing. She encourages you to think creatively, but you’re welcome to do it within the timeframe that works best for you.
Starting the workshop was as simple as reading Shaunta’s first email, opening up a notebook, and making a list of inspirations for the story in my head. Yet, as I made the list, I realized this was something I hadn’t done since I was twelve. As an adult writer, I’ve been too afraid of being unoriginal to acknowledge the artistic influences over my work. Yes, I knew they were there – how can we not be inspired by books, movies, music, art that we love? – but I preferred not to open myself up too influence too much, for that would make me a pathetic copy of something else, right?
Wrong. Spending a day immersing myself in inspirations only made my own original ideas flow more freely. A piece of music inspired an idea about a character in my book. Reading about Celtic mythology helped me create the mythos in my own fantasy world. We take in these influences all the time as artists, yet I’ve been trying to push them away without even realizing it because I feared being labeled as unoriginal. Appreciating them wholeheartedly, without shame, made me happy – as writing should.
I know there are times when writing will be – and arguably should be – difficult. But after such a long time of complicating what had once been simple and fun, it was refreshing to go back to that pure, childlike excitement. I stopped thinking “what if this story has been written before?” and went back to “what if my character did this or that?”
I know that every writer has their favorite method of planning out a story. Some imagine an exchange – a bit of dialogue, an emotion – and go from there. Others start from the bottom and plan out every detail of their story before pen hits paper or fingers hit keyboard. What I’ve discovered about my own process recently is that it’s not so much about controlling the details as it is about letting them go. Trying to fit my characters or plots into a certain mold was my way of controlling my doubts and anxieties at the same time. Setting all that aside and listening to the heart of my story allows me to enjoy writing it again.
I’m sure the doubts will creep in again, say, as soon as I start editing, but for now, I’m content to have discovered a way to silence them temporarily. Returning to my childhood process reminded me how enjoyable writing can be. What is your secret? What are your methods for planning out a story? Share your writing wisdom in the comments!