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Asking Why

Why am I writing this story?

It seems like a simple question. And hey, the answer is pretty damn important. You’d think it would stay in my head the whole time I’m working on a project. But you know what? It doesn’t. It starts off blindingly obvious, in the dreamy floaty stage before I start a first draft. You know that stage. It's like falling in love. Everything about the story is amazingly beautiful, even when it leaves socks all over the floor and plays very loud music late at night and doesn't behave according to the plan you've set out. Even then. I mostly don't even need to ask the question in that stage. I'm writing it because it is glowing and amazing and marvellous and because it is the sort of idea a genius might have, and because I think there's a chance it might not even be that hard to write at all.

But this stage wears off, and it turns out that this story isn't the mythical one which turned out to be easy to write all the way through. In fact it isn't even remotely close to that. In fact it is impossible. Impossibly impossible. And I start making changes the story needs in order to make sense, because no story ever comes out making complete sense.

But then my inner perfectionist kicks in. And my inner perfectionist doesn't understand how editing is meant to work. I'll start thinking that the story is lacking in all these different nutrients. It needs more cleverness. More literary sparkles. More plot twists. It needs to change its hair, and its name, and its soul. And I start making changes left, right and centre, to fill all these holes, to make it less flawed. Because never mind the reason I was originally writing this - never mind that! If I change all the right things, it will be flawless. And in the middle of all that, it's surprisingly easy to forget why I'm writing it in the first place. I switch things around and switch them back, and it doesn't fix anything.

It just so happens that this is exactly where one of my recent projects ended up. I'd been giving it makeover after makeover, trying to make it better. I wasn't sure exactly where I was going wrong, but I was sure that if I made exactly the right changes, I could fix everything, and it would be perfect. Then, for reasons you might have already read about, I had a huge break from writing anything at all, which didn't help. Every time I thought of the story, my brain froze up like a grumpy computer until I thought about something else. I was starting to think that almost two years of work was, well, a write off. It was an unfixably broken story. I couldn't find the fire at its heart anymore.

But one evening I sat myself down and very gently asked myself why. What was it that had made me want to write this story in the first place? Initially I couldn’t remember. Then I made myself remember the summer when I first came up with the idea and couldn't get it out of my head. Slowly, the whole thing started to glow again.

Why? Because I've had this certain scene floating in my head for years and I've always wanted to write the rest of the story. Because when I was twelve I read this book that resonated with me so deeply that I had to write my own response. Because there’s this scene at the end where the fireworks happen and everything comes together, and I want to get to that scene and light the fireworks. And most importantly, because there are these two characters, characters I love, who are travelling through darkness together, characters with a chemistry that wouldn't leave me alone for a whole summer. I went back and read the scenes I'd written that seemed closest to all these things. And suddenly it all made sense.

Just like that, I had found the heart of my story. And it wasn't anything clever. In fact, it was kind of ridiculously simple. So simple that it was easy to forget.

After that, I ended up making more changes. But this time, they weren't to make the story more 'impressive'. They were to make things clearer, and to take the story as close to the things I first fell in love with as possible.

What are you writing at the moment? And why are you writing it?

Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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8 comments:

  1. I'm writing the second book of a trilogy, because my MC's story isn't finished yet.

    I love the idea of revisiting an old idea and developing it. Gives me hope for some of the random things floating around my head!

    Thanks for this post :) One for the bookmarks!

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  2. I am writing my second novella, I Wish I Could Read Your Mind, for several reasons. First, I always had an interest in mind reading - not in the creepy way, but in a "I wonder how it'd change the world" way. Second, it is the proof to myself that I am still valuable to the world after my girlfriend of two years broke up with me. And, finally, it is my way of telling others that "love" blinds you, and unless you can remove the blinds the second something goes wrong the relationship will shatter.

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  3. This is a great post. I'm adding more and more things to my current novel, and now I suppose I'll have to ask myself why I wrote it in the first place.

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  4. Thank you for posting this at such a perfect time! I was going through a bit of distancing from a recent project and found this to be a bit of a pep talk.

    Right now, I'm working on a science fiction story, because I wanted to explore the question: What would happen when a horrifying innocent met a benevolent monster?

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  5. I think we can all relate to this post. I just finished my YA novel and yes, I wanted to bang my head on the wall a few times. Just like you I remembered why I was writing the story. It started as one little scene and I had to finish because I owed it the MC and myself. I couldn't leave her floating around in darkness. Great post!

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  6. I believe I went through this,though perhaps on a less drastic level. It feels SO much better to be making changes that "clarified" the story rather than trying to make it "impressive."

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  7. This is a really awesome post, and it's really making me think about my WIP. Recently, I got an out-of-the-blue rejection for a trunked-piece, that was actually quite nice, and pointed out some problematic aspects of it. So I dug it out and reread it and realized, yes, all the reasons I trunked it are still there. There are huge vast issues with plot and pacing and characterization. But overall, it completely satisfies the 'why' that I had in mind when I wrote it. I wanted to write something about a different world, one that's both wondrous and horrible and strange, and never, ever predictable. And I did. I love every inch of that world, and in every scene something new and interesting appears. It's a terrible book, but a pretty good travelogue.

    When I went back to my current WIP, which is much more character and plot driven, I felt sad and upset. This one wasn't as awesome and magical as the one before. I'm also editing it in tiny little chunks that are really difficult to work with. I don't know what sort of overall effect I'm having.

    But you said 'why'. So why, why am I writing this story? It's not because everyone said 'it's right to write about disabled and gay people' because all that was in there before I ever knew what 'everyone said.' It's not even really about the politics, though I am trying to say something, something about how it's okay to not quite fit the mold, how you don't have to be perfect to be a worthwhile person. And I'm not writing this story because I love to turn fairytales on their head and give them a good ducking, or because I want to be as smart and funny as Terry Pratchett, or because I was desperate to write a pastiche of Beauty and the Beast (disney version) and the Secret Garden.

    I'm writing this story because my main character, my very own not-quite-normal princess, needs her story told. She trusted me with it. And it's her story. That means that awesome settings and cool monsters don't matter all that much. What really matters is that every scene is about her growth, her choices, her desire to change.

    Now I can do my edits! Thanks!

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  8. This is completely me right now, sitting at approx 25% of my WIP and banging my head against a wall. Thank you so much for this post, I'm going to have a lovely think about my original idea.

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Item Reviewed: Asking Why Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin