I am a writer who is most creative when I am not writing. Ideas for my novels strike when I am doing the simplest things. Taking a shower. Walking the dog. Playing Candyland with my four-year-old.
The perfect idea never seems to be perfectly timed—at the picturesque café with the excellent coffee, or watching a sunset, or doing absolutely anything at all in Paris.
A more difficult experience for me is when I have to force creativity. Forced Creativity is one scary character. It often shows up at some point mid-press though the first draft of a manuscript that is probably not going to work out. For every novel of the twenty-odd that I have published for young readers, there are usually about two or three works that never made it past a rough draft of the first fifty pages. So although I’ve crossed the finish line a bunch of times, I’m a lot more familiar with the feeling of halted journey than completed destination.
Ideas spark all the time, they’re wild and free and everywhere. Rounding out that idea is more elusive. And the difference between a manuscript that I’ll have to set aside (read: abandon) and the manuscript that I’ll shy-nervous-proudly show my editor very often depends on that mid-point moment.
What happened? Where’d it go? What, exactly, did I lose? Something! Plot, theme, third act, maybe the whole reason I decided this particular story would be a fantastic, amazing, never-before-attempted idea in the first place. It’s a nerve-rattling moment. And in the back of my mind, although I might choose to slog on, I’m already swallowing the hard-truth pellets. It’s an icy dread, that knowledge that it won’t be long before I have to say goodbye for good.
But before that particular brave decision. Before I chuck the old manuscript and take myself out for pizza and a milkshake to eat my bitter disappointment. Before I start all over again, on page one of Untitled. Wayyy before I arrive at any of those moments, I am scrabbling for that elusive mischief-maker, the thing that got me into all this trouble in the first place—creativity.
Where did it go? Why isn’t it here to propel me past these first 20,000 words? How could I have been holding onto it so easily, for so long, only to have it vaporize when I needed it most?
And it’s right about at this moment that Forced Creativity blows into town. A little too dressy and a little too glib. Forced Creativity takes weird chances with plot. Forced Creativity really, really likes to play search-replace with first draft names: let’s find Anne and replace it with Annabella. Let’s make this a second person narrative! Oh, right. That’ll fix everything. Forced Creativity spends hours rearranging the furniture in chapter five. Forced Creativity might kill off someone, or have a long digressive conversation. Usually Forced Creativity just makes a mess and leaves a trail.
Of course, I try to learn a lesson from the failure so that I won’t fail again. And of course I will fail again. But in a way, that’s the delight of writing. The leap in the darkness.
Obviously, I don’t want to hang out too long with Forced Creativity. I know what the future holds for us. But I have to be sure. Because sometimes Forced Creativity enters with just a patch of bad weather, a bog to slog through, a hard road to cover so that you can get to the end and turn around and repair the potholes.
But the weird part is, you can never tell. If I knew when I started where I’d be in the middle, then I never would have started—so breathless and giddy and sure—at all. Here’s the first page of a novel, The Leeches of Ache, an early young adult fantasy that I recently gave up on.
Past the graveyard and around the bend of Lake Ache stands a cottage that resembles a yam in a squashed top hat. Additionally odd are its crooked front door and the tangle of chasteberry trees that grow so close they scratch its windows.
The cottage has always been known as the Lump, and it’s famous for its witch-house magic, but you wouldn’t know it now. Now the grounds are frozen. The curtains are drawn. There’s a shave of smoke up the chimney, but it is hard to imagine a welcome hearth inside. In fact, anyone brave enough to approach would surely lose nerve before knocking.
The mailman, for one, is too chicken. He’s been leaving letters on the nearby wall. Trick-or-treaters skipped it this year, too. And last night’s carolers scoot past without a peep.
You’d have to be desperate to call on The Lump.
And desperate was a perfect description of Cat.
So. It starts fun. And I’ve got a deliciously weird cast of characters for this story. There’s a detailed outline. There’s almost one hundred fifty pages of text. It’s hard for me to believe that I lost clarity on this. It seemed fail-proof. But I did. Past page 100, I started to flounder. I couldn’t figure out the bigger theme of the fantasy. My world-building felt as though it would blow away on a wolf-puff.
And when I read back through it, oh, look. There’s Forced Creativity taking a wandering walk through some of my added text. Painting the roses there and adding a fight that didn’t need to be fought over there. Ugh.
It’s impossible to know the difference between what’s just some regular old turbulence in the manuscript before you’re clear again, and what’s the early sign of a crash landing. Giving up too early on something that might have worked out, had I myself worked harder—that’s always a danger. Building higher off a shaky platform is an equal, opposite danger. Time sometimes answers this question. The pause—walking away and coming back to the work—can be helpful. But sometimes it’s not. To me, that is also the absolute essence of the writing process. The mystery.
The Leeches of Ache was not a terrible experience. All I know is that when it left me, and when Forced Creativity came bungling in—with its inane ability to concentrate on none of the important stuff—I had to move out of this manuscript, and start all over again. Obviously, it’s a little bit heartbreaking. Of course, I try to learn a lesson from the failure so that I won’t fail again. And of course I will fail again. But in a way, that’s the delight of writing. The leap in the darkness. The possibility of free-fall into the void. And the unexpected, buoying delight in occasional success.