Sink…Swim…Start Over

I’m writing. I’ve done my character research and worldbuilding and checked off those boxes on my captain’s log. Prepping my stores to sail on this writing adventure is full of forgotten joy. Sussing up previously unknown character motivations, inundating myself in photos of my fictional location. It may not be dialogue on the page, but folks, I’m armed with scissors and glue and paper and an MBTI quiz and I am being an author. 

And then I start scribbling down notes and lines and plot points and I smile to myself and turn up Imagine Dragons and think that this must be what it’s like to write. My thumbtacks are sharp, my notecards white and empty, and I am ready to do this!

So I sit down at my laptop and reintroduce myself to Scrivener and launch off on this ship to the great unknown. I’m a few thousand words in and…my ship is leaking. There’s a million tiny cracks, and I can’t find my wash bucket to start bailing. I don’t want to jump ship, but there’s a thunderstorm brewing, the horizon is endless, my sail is in shreds…why am I here, exactly?

I know it’s a first draft. It’s going to have cracks that you patch with red marker and sticky notes (FIX THIS NEXT TIME), but sometimes your first draft…sinks. It doesn’t just flounder into the harbor; no, it heads straight to Davy Jones’ Locker.

And while I’m clinging to the flotsam of my outline, I’m wondering what went wrong? I had colored paper clips and bullet points! My outline actually existed! My characters were fabulous, and I’d just launched them onto this journey that I’ve been planning for five years. What was wrong?

In my case, this was my second time launching off on this route. My first draft made it to The End, but was too battered and crushed to try repairing. It needed a total overhaul. So I filched the sails and the anchor and headed towards another ship, the good vessel REWRITE.

Except every ship needs a few basic things, just like every story. I had my Who: a girl, suitably complicated, at least in her character profile. What: an epic journey and a terrible band of rogues. When: a time and era of my own choosing, ending in a predictably gold and red sunset. Where: the great high seas…or a foreign country. My How: the aforementioned vessel, which I was hoping would fare better than my first doomed craft (the SERENDIPITY). Why was I not seaworthy?

Ah, the talk around the docks. Everyone asks the necessary niceties above, but a few reminded me of the one I was missing. Why?

I had every ingredient for an epic story, but I was pushing out on my own without motivation to give me fortitude and hold this leaky ship together. I knew where I was blowing, and I still had my old anchor, but I had no reason to set sail. Neither did my character. Why would she launch on this journey? What could possible rattle her from the comfortable confines of her Chapter 1 locale? The choices and confrontations could not be sustained off a spur-of-the-moment decision. When the swells are over your head and there is no sun on the horizon, you’d better have a good reason for being on the boat.

So, back to harbor. Let that battered sail dry out; patch it up, it’ll fly another day.  Go ahead, paint the decks, find out what provisions you’ll need for this particular route. Dress appropriately for the culture you will enter. Buy a new hat, colored pens, and about three dozen notebooks.

Then sit down with your character. Ask her why. Keep an eye out for the squalls that will test you, or the ones that will drive you out to sea. Are they to blame for why you’re in the middle of the ocean? It’s one thing to be you vs. a thunderstorm; you’ll survive that trip. It’s quite a different story when it is you vs. your own flimsy motivations.

So now I’m off for another trip, folks.  I’ll tip my hat and remember why my character and I are setting off on this epicness. I’ve smashed the bottle and rechristened the ship. Let’s see how far the SECOND WIND takes me.

Beginning.

It’s happened before. Or maybe it’s the first time. You’re standing in the kitchen, doing dishes, when it hits you. You’re getting a drink of water at work, staring at the cooler as the inspiration comes. Maybe it happens on the commute, between traffic lights #3 and #53867. The question, the query, the first bloom of an idea.

For me, it’s usually a scene that comes to mind. Some conversation or scenario that once it begins, quickly transforms into a continuous background loop throughout the writing of the book. It’s rarely the instigating incident; it tends to be the climactic confrontation that the book builds up to.

I mull. I scribble notes. But I don’t write out the entire scene, not yet. I let it foster, I brood, I get excited about it. I find an excuse to get a brand new notebook and I start writing out the notes and the random backstory and the continuing plotlines that are all sparked by this brave little idea.

Then, I start writing. Since my ideas are usually from some later-in-the-book scene, I rarely write it at first. I avoid putting on paper that question-answering/world-shattering revelation that first woke me up to the promise of a new story. It’s like overwatering a plant that has barely had time to take root. You have to add some more dirt first. Just start writing. Take these stick-thin characters and walk around in them a bit. It doesn’t matter if this is how you’ll actually start the book or not. Wake them up on an ordinary day and interact with them.

I wait to write down that scene that kept me up at night and sat on the back burner during the note-writing and world-building and person-meeting. I wait until my enthusiasm is lagging and I’ve written myself into corners and my notebook is no longer as shiny as it used to be and my characters are flat and ugly…then I revisit that spark. I remind myself why I was excited, what got me into this frightening thing called writing.

If my spark came as the opener of my new work in process, then I have to write it down. But then, when my computer is slow and my brain slower and my ideas ground to null, then I go back to that opener and I rewrite it, no matter how shiny and kick-butt it seemed at the beginning. It’s like pushing the reset button without erasing everything. I’m able to write something that excites me, regardless if I’ve put it on paper before.

You can begin your story a thousand times. Just because you don’t get it right the first time doesn’t mean you can’t come around for another shot. You may wallow around in pages of person-meeting before you find that day when it all begins. And then…it begins.

How do you begin? Do you savor that shiny moment and keep it for a rainy day, or do you push it from the nest and watch it take flight?