My daughter flopped on the living room rug armed with a box of crayons (one of my favorite smells since preschool) and a pad of paper. “I’m going to draw until Daddy calls to say he’s coming home from work. Do you want to watch?”
“WATCH? Are you sure? It’s not going to squash your creativity?”
My daughter pushed her hand through a mound of crayons in an old tin box and pulled out a blunt, magenta crayon. “I’m going to draw a fairy.”
“Don’t you want to plan it out first?” the writer in me asked. Do you even know what the fairy’s normal life is like? Have you given thought to the inciting incident that will cause her to flit from her world?” I pressed on… “Don’t you, at the very least, want to dump out the crayons and consider some of the other colors?”
“Writers.” She shook her head. “This isn’t the last piece of paper I have.”
As you probably guessed, this got me thinking about my own creative process. Why can’t I write with the freedom my daughter feels when she draws? Why can’t I sit at my computer and fearlessly begin a new story? Probably because I’m never alone when I write. Aside from my dog, Max, sprawled over the larger portion of my chair, my pesky self editor, with good intentions, constantly reads over my shoulder. Let’s call that well-meaning voice in my head…Gretchen. (Now where have I heard that name before?)
“Gads!” Gretchen says. “Are you sure you want to start off your story with that sentence? Think of Charlotte’s Web! Think of Where the Wild Things Are.”
“You’re right,” I say. “And let’s not forget my all time favorite, A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck. I lean on the delete button and begin again.
“Ah hem,” her familiar voice nags. “You’re not actually considering starting with back story?”
Delete, delete, delete.
“Cliché!” her voice rings in my ear. “Stereotypical! Done before! Can anyone say SLUSH PILE?”
Writing, I have come to accept, is NOTHING like drawing.
Change of plans. I spread out my note cards, grab my set of highlighters, a bag of chocolate chips, and systematically create a character I want to write about. Her personality must be endearing, yet suitably flawed in a way that contributes to the story problem. Her fears, hopes, and wishes carefully chosen, too. I fill in the blanks on my lengthy Character Questionnaire. Then I write a series of more personal questions in the form of a letter and answer them the way I believe my character would. (I learn so much this way.)
Does this always work when I want to start a new story? No. Sometimes the writing flows better when I start with a problem common to most children. I then decide what kind of character would make a perfect match for such a situation, a humorous match, an unlikely match…. (So many factors to consider.) In most cases, the unlikely or humorous match makes the best fit for an entertaining story.
Now that I have a character, I have to place her someplace. I can’t have her bobbing like an astronaut in outer space across a blank sheet of paper. Once I decide upon her call to action, I add a few failed attempts at solving her problem, a low point, a moment of revelation, and one last go at resolving her issue which leads to success. (Maybe not the success my main character hoped for, but one that is better than she imagined.) And all this must cleverly tie back seamlessly to the beginning of the story, finishing with a suitable denouement.
Little does my daughter realize the gift of mental clarity and freedom children naturally possess.
What is your writing process like? Do you like to create characters from scratch? Do you like to start with a problem or situation first? Do your childhood memories play into your writing?