One lesson I have had to learn again and again when writing stories is that they need to grow at their own pace. Maybe that sounds precious and stupid, especially to non-writers, but each story develops in its own way and when I try to rush the process, it shows.
Word limits are not your friend when drafting.
Word limits are necessary for most competitions and publications, but when I am preoccupied with staying within a certain number of words when drafting stories, they suffer. I tend to rush towards the end, as if I’m afraid the story run away from me. It’s ridiculous — especially considering I rewrite stories several times — but it’s an impulse I can’t resist.
The solution is to try not to have a specific word limit in mind when writing a first draft.
If this isn’t an option (during my MA I needed to write stories within word limits and usually didn’t have time to try out a few different stories), just be aware of any similar tendencies and think about how to fix them. For me, this means paying extra attention to the ending of my stories and ensuring I have let the plot and characters develop at a believable and comfortable pace.
Drafts develop at their own pace.
Sometimes a story comes to me in its entirety quickly and the draft is very similar to the finished piece. Other times, the story reveals itself gradually and takes a lot of work to uncover, often undergoing several transformations throughout the rewriting process.
I have no control over the speed in which a particular story develops and when I try to speed it up, the story feels forced. It’s also more likely to become clichéd.
It can be frustrating when a story isn’t developing as fast as I would like, especially when I’m trying to hit a deadline, but rushing it along never works.
The only option is to work on other stories and hope to find one which develops quickly so that I can hit the deadline.
Structure is an essential consideration, but isn’t a priority in the first draft.
Some stories have a clear structure from the outset, but others need to find their way. Examining structure and seeing how (or whether) your story fits into a satisfying framework can be a very helpful during later drafts, but trying to force a story into a certain structure during the first draft is likely to make it feel forced and/or cliched.
Let your story develop its own structure during the rewriting process.
When you don’t consciously think about structure when writing the first draft of a story, you will often discover a more interesting and effective structure than you would have chosen. Go with it — even if it seems weird or scary. You can always change it in later drafts if it doesn’t work.
Thinking time is vital.
Even when a story develops quickly, the structure is sound and everything seems to be in place, it needs space. It needs time to breathe and grow between rewrites. You need to get away from it for a while — if you can only spare a few days, that’s better than nothing, but take as much time as you can to get some distance.
Getting distance isn’t just about being able to appraise your story with a cool, critical eye. It also allows ideas to marinate in your mind.
When you return to your story, you will have fresh eyes and fresh ideas about how to develop it. You will have appraised more options and your story will be stronger for this extra consideration.
Letting stories grow isn’t a mystical process.
It might sound mysterious when I talk about stories growing organically, but it’s really about giving your creative thinking the time and space to come up with interesting choices. You can think of effective solutions when the pressure is off, whereas forcing the process means you are liable to choose the path of least resistance — clichés.
Giving your stories time to grow and yourself time to think will make you a better writer.