Learning to Crawl: Why I'm Setting My WIP Aside

For those of you who don’t know, I started brainstorming and outlining a fantasy/sci-fi crossover series in March; the initial concept was incredibly compelling, and I was eager to get the story moving. Writing was delayed by our move this spring/summer, and naturally by my own procrastination tendencies, too.

But I finally started writing in mid-July. And since Day 1, it has been a major struggle. The draft is sitting at a standstill at about 17,000 words, and I have no desire to touch it. Every word feels like pulling teeth, and it took me a long time to figure out why.

For weeks, I thought this was just the normal process. My first novel was a breeze, because it was therapeutic and poured out of me in one massive wave. Perhaps this was just going to be the reality for my first “real” writing project—one that is simply a work of fiction, and nothing more.

Then I read Bird by Bird, which, if you haven’t read it, is a magnificent book for writers. Anne Lamott is well-acquainted with the angst of the writing process, and she served as good company for me in my misery while I forced out those first 17,000 words. 

Bird by Bird is full of helpful little tidbits and exercises that Lamott suggests—one of those is to sit down and write about your childhood. That’s too big a topic, of course, so she said, “just write about Christmas”; write down every little detail, smell, and sound from your typical childhood Christmas growing up. Don’t have an agenda; just see where it takes you.

One afternoon, tired of feeling unproductive and incompetent in regards to my WIP, I decided to try this unassuming little Christmas exercise. And in an hour, I’d written more than 5,000 words—more than double my average pace for drafting a WIP. I couldn’t believe how easily the thoughts came when I wrote about my own life and memories; it was as effortless as breathing. 

I learned many things from from that experience, but arguably the most important takeaway is that for me, writing has to have part of my Self in it. I cannot isolate my Self from my work, even if the work is fictional. There has to be truth in it, and since I am a unique individual with one limited perspective on the world, I have to find some of that truth from my own direct experience. And unfortunately, I’d choked all of the Self and truth out of my work-in-progress.

Even with this revelatory experience, the problem of my WIP was only partially resolved. Sure, I could completely change the character sketch for my MC and put more of my Self into her. That might help, I suppose. But when it came right down to it, writing my WIP just felt hard. Like, I-have-no-freaking-idea-what-I’m-doing, hard. 

Then it hit me. 

Back in October of 2016, I thought it would be a great idea to participate in a 30-Day Yoga Challenge at a local studio I’d been frequenting. I was recently getting back into yoga, and loved it—so I thought to myself, why not aim for 30 yoga classes in 30 days, and possibly win a free annual membership in the process? Genius, right?

I scheduled out my classes, and was confident that I would make it to the finish line. Sure, it would be hard, but I could do it. Success is all about persistence, isn't it? Grit your teeth and get it done!

Imagine trying to run a marathon after walking 20 minutes a day, for maybe 2-3 days a week. That’s exactly what I was asking my body to do, and it was nowhere near ready. I think I made it about 7 days before I felt the pre-injury sensations in various joints, and fortunately, I was smart enough to scale my schedule back to a more manageable, healthy pace. 

That experience is directly applicable to writing, in my opinion. (Many will disagree with me, which is as it should be—what boring books we would write, if we all agreed about everything!) But diving in and writing a from-scratch speculative fiction trilogy as my first true fiction project is, quite frankly, over-ambitious. I’m asking myself to learn how to do everything at once: character development, dialogue, world-building, structure, themes, tone, you name it. Sure, I could write it down; but it wouldn’t be easy, and the product probably wouldn’t be particularly good.

At the heart, this is all about humility. I am not an expert, and it is foolish of me to pretend to be one. Instead, what can I do to work up to where I want to be? How can I become the writer I want to become? How can I figure out what sort of writer I’m able to become? 

This is the exciting part. 

I’m setting my WIP aside, for the time being, to pick up a new WIP — an urban fantasy, set in my city in modern times, inspired by a traditional fairy tale. The idea came to me earlier this week, and I’ve been chowing down on it ever since. But it gets even better!

I’m not doing any planning—at all. Zilch. Nada. No outline, no plan. Just plain-old discovery writing.

For those of you who haven’t heard the terms yet, there are two big buckets of preference for writing:

  • Discovery Writing (or “Pantsing,” as in “flying by the seat of your pants”)
    • Write first, wherever the characters take you
    • Clean it up later
  • Outlining
    • Prep first - figure out where you're going
    • Write the draft at least somewhat according to the plan

Many writers are a hybrid of the two, and some fall into one of the extremes. Writers of the internet love to advocate for and defend their preferences in comment sections, stating with absolute certainty that their method is the right one. And it probably feels that way—if you’re in your sweet spot, it feels good! Why wouldn’t you advocate for it?

But the reality is that everyone is different, and you have to determine what works for you. This has proven to be an important area to observe as I explore my own writing identity.

In other words, innate preference between discovery and outlining is a pretty big deal. 

As I wrote those agonizing 17,000 words of my outgoing WIP, I realized that I might have misdiagnosed myself as a writer. The planning and outlining process seemed to have sucked a lot of life out of the story, and what was left felt sterile and bland. Ah ha! I thought to myself. Perhaps I’m more of a pantser than I originally thought…

As I’ve worked on my new WIP this week, I've adopted a 100% discovery approach, and I’ve noticed that the process feels incredibly freeing; I’m still doing the work that I used to do upfront, but now I’m doing it simultaneously as I write the draft. And that feels efficient as heck, y’all. Sure, I have to stop periodically. But how can I waste prep that I’m not guessing at? I literally only stop to research or figure something out when I need to—never without reason, never in anticipation of what I might need down the road.

On top of that, I feel creatively liberated. The work feels fresh, full of possibility, and 100% pliable — even if I considered my initial outline flexible, it felt a little bit like a prison sentence. Now, I have room to explore, dart down unexpected side paths, and dig into my creative Self, which has far more to offer than I realized. 

The specific work that I have chosen to focus on is partially responsible for this feeling of liberation. Because I’m writing an urban fantasy in my city, in my own time, there is a LOT of stuff that I no longer have to worry about—access to technology, how long it takes to get from point A to point B, what is point A, how should I name point B, what do the people eat, what sort of vocabulary do they use, what does the education system look like, what natural resources are available for their clothing—the big bear of world-building is put to bed! 

Instead of crafting a new world, I can direct all of my focus on the characters, the dialogue, and the direction of the story. I have less to worry about, and fewer plates to juggle. In the immortal words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things; whole-ass one thing.” Ron would approve of my decision to back up and start small, I think.

So there it is—my meandering, nebulous path toward a better understanding of my writing identity. I am learning first to crawl, then walk, and then, when I’ve developed the stamina and muscle mass needed to make it through, finally work up to running my marathon, whether it be on a familiar or distant galaxy.

Thanks for sticking it out with me along the way!