Once in a while, a very long while, I envy those writers who can plan out an entire novel and then sit down and write it. Then I think about the pleasures of discovery and I not only don’t envy them, I feel a bit sorry for them. When NaNoWriMo started last November, I really thought I had my novel idea pinned down. But it turned out to be the most difficult NaNo I’d experienced, and I came out of it with barely 50,000 words and the feeling that the book had escaped me somewhere along the line.
The story I wrote wasn’t anything like the story I’d thought I wanted to write. The characters were mere shadows of humans, glimmering with potential. But what was that potential? And what was the story really about? The last three months have been a slow, frustrating process of finding answers to those questions. I can’t count the number of times I abandoned it to work on something else. I even thought about tucking it into that metaphorical drawer and forgetting about it for a couple of years. But it kept nagging at me, the way some stories do, so I continued to slog away.
I didn’t add to the word count, just made notes, often inspired by something I’d just read. It took a while to understand that what I was searching for was the heart of the story. I’d won NaNo, but ended up with something that was lifeless. I’d reached for something that I thought was the heart and had come up with empty hands. Some writers would say that was a bad thing, and that I probably wasn’t meant to be a novelist. Others, if they experienced something similar, would give up at that point.
Instead, I felt something familiar that had happened many times before. It was the pleasure of watching a story grow, on its own terms, organically. And even though I’ve written about this before, maybe too many times, I hadn’t really internalized it. I’m not the kind of writer who can sit down with a vague idea and churn out a story. And I’m not the kind of writer who needs to create a detailed outline before I can start writing. I’m a writer whose path is never straight or clearly marked. Because writing is about the pleasures and surprises, and even the pain, of discovery: what the story is really about, who the characters really are.