When I was in sixth grade, I came up with a story concept. It was liminal at best, but featured everything I loved about fiction at the time: a thrilling plot, quirky characters, and a romance that I wanted in my real life.
Fast forward nine years and that story is still with me. I’ve written so much about this character that I feel like she’s a part of me, a voice in the back of my head, the person I talk to when I fall asleep at night. Maybe she’s me, maybe she’s a carved-out piece of my subconscious. Whatever she is, her story has stuck with me for nine years.
And yet, I can’t get her story right. She’s such a well-developed character for me that I can’t decide which of her stories to tell. Should she be framed for a crime she didn’t commit, find out she’s adopted and that her real parents hid state secrets in a box only she can open, or be forced to turn against her friends in the name of keeping her family safe?
I come back to her story in times of crisis, when I have so many ideas in my brain that I’m paralyzed by choice or so few ideas in my head that I’m paralyzed by inaction. This story is a safe haven for me, a place I can always return to in times of drought or flood.
Hers is the only novel I’ve ever finished, but I’ll be the first to say it’s got some problems. It was the sprinted efforts of a fledgling writer. That book’s purpose was to be a finished book, proving to myself that I was capable of writing more than three consecutive pages. Nonetheless, it’s a finished draft sitting on my hard drive. I pull it out every once and a while, and reading those words feels like going home.
I think we all have a story like this. A story we keep coming back to, a story that feels like home. Its characters have clear, embodied voices to us; they take up physical space in our minds, tangible and whole. The world is so developed that we could live in it ourselves.
It’s the place we escape to when we’re not tired enough to fall asleep but need to get some shut eye. We go there because we’ve been there so many times before; it’s a safe and comfortable place that we can control.
Why do we have these stories that we can’t get out of our heads? Why do I keep coming back to the same story, the same characters, the same scenes that I’ve attempted to write over and over and over?
It feels like no story I write is going to do it justice. I’ve spent nine years thinking about this character, and no half-assed pass at a story is going to be right. I feel this incredible need to tell the story the right way as if my character is the one calling the shots.
What sucks the most is that any of the plots I’ve generated would be just fine. Treason or theft or paternity scandals, whatever; it would all work. The plot of the novel that I’ve already written is just fine, but that’s it; it’s just fine. There are no fireworks, no illuminated neon ticker tape celebrations telling me that I’ve finally found the plot that’s going to shine as vividly as its main character in my mind.
Where does that leave us? What are we to do when we’re so set on one aspect of the story, but can’t find the missing puzzle piece? No, seriously, I’m asking.
I’ll say to you what my high school mentor told me my senior year. I was falling behind on producing pages because I was second-guessing everything that I wrote. I’m a champion second-guesser, but it was bad; I’d maybe produce 400 words in one week. I was so intent on writing the perfect first draft that I was choking on my own story.
Here’s what changed my process: you can’t fix what you haven’t written.
If you’re unsure about one aspect of your story, write it anyway. Get it out of your brain and onto paper so you can stop thinking about it. So long as you’re not carving it into stone (maybe that’s your process), you’ll be able to make changes as you go.
First drafts are a race to the finish line. You may have a violent physical reaction to writing a draft that doesn’t meet your personal standards (I’m a crier), but I promise you this: it’s better to have a subpar story sitting on your computer than a novel you’ve never written rattling around in your brain.
You can’t fix what you haven’t built, so build with abandon. Write your story, craft your narrative. Your new job is to write to worst first draft to ever see the light of day. The only thing that draft has to be is done.
Phew that was a big one! Let me know how your current project is going in the comments; whether you’re on your fifty-second draft or just started today, I’m proud of you. You’re doing something that a tiny, tiny chasm of the population ever do. Give yourself some grace for that.
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