In my last post I talked about using three new (for me) techniques in writing my latest story, ‘Leaving Dreamland’. The first, and probably the single most useful, was letting go of the need to write in a linear fashion.
I’ve always written stories from A to B. Without really thinking about it, I’ve always assumed that was how you were “supposed” to write them – in the same order you would read them.
As part of that, I never started writing until I had a firm idea in my head of the story structure – which events I was going to depict in writing, and the order in which they would happen. While writing, I might jump back and add something I only thought of later, or leave a note for myself on something to add when I get further along, but when I sat down at the keyboard, my focus would be, OK, what happens next? And if I had an idea for a moment or scene that didn’t obviously fit into the story structure as I envisaged it, I usually discarded it unwritten.
But this time, as part of my general commitment to writing every day and trying in general to be more fast and loose with my writing (emphasis on fast), I decided to embrace my inner pantser, write whatever came to mind, and worry about structure later.
So this time, when I sat down at the keyboard, the question in my mind was, What story element is interesting to me right now?
Taking that as my starting point, I would write whatever bit of background or character interaction or internal monologue grabbed me, without worrying about how what I was writing would fit into the eventual story or even whether it would fit at all.
The other thought I worked from, especially when I was just getting started and had little more than a vague idea of what I wanted the story to be, was What question am I trying to figure out right now? A bunch of my writing sessions involved my POV protagonist just monologuing about different aspects of how the world got to where it is now, and how she got to where she was at the story start. Of those writing sessions, only the tiniest fraction of my output made it intact into the final story.
Letting go of “good enough”
In hindsight, it’s super obvious that focusing on what interests me is a great way for me to harness my ADHD brain to best effect. But I can’t emphasis enough how revolutionary it feels to me to just write whatever I want to.
For me, sitting down and writing has always been the culmination of a long period of not writing – of thinking about the story from various angles, playing with ideas and weighing up options and, let’s be honest, forgetting half the ideas I’ve thought of, all while putting off the act of writing until I’m absolutely sure I trust a story idea enough to commit to it.
Because writing – the actual act of sitting at the keyboard and getting words out – has always been a struggle for me, so I’ve avoided doing it unless I was absolutely sure that what I was writing would be in the final story – that it was “worth the commitment”. And because I put that was sure that everything I chose to sit and write would be part of the final story, when it came to writing it, I felt huge pressure to get it – which made writing incredibly hard. Which just made me even more reluctant to begin unless I was sure of myself, and even less likely to be sure of myself, and you can see how this becomes a vicious cycle, right?
But if I’m writing just to get ideas out of my head or answer questions for myself, suddenly the pressure is off. By not stopping to consider how the words I’m churning out might have a place in some finished piece, I release myself from the need to make sure my words are “good enough”.
Discarded but not wasted
So how did my new writing style work when it came to actually structuring a finished story?
By the time ‘Leaving Dreamland’ was in its final form, I had discarded thousands of words – I cut at least as much writing as I kept. That would be absolute anathema to my old way of thinking.
But I also wrote thousands more words in the same space of time. I churned out more story every day, without taking my usual lengthy breaks to analyse and plan and pick apart and generally think myself into the ground.
And the words I discarded were far from wasted. For the first time, I felt like I actually had a firm handle on the broader setting, not just those elements that ended up being directly important to the story – because I had written them down, and in doing so turned them from vague notions in my head to concrete, complex lore. Likewise, I knew so much more about my protagonists than I usually do, because their thoughts and words and actions extended beyond those seen in the final piece. Their history became more than conceptual to me – I had been there and lived it with them.
All those scenes and background elements that didn’t find a place in the final story still informed that story. Even if no one will ever read them, ‘Leaving Dreamland’ is that much richer and deeper for my having written them.