Let Your Stories Grow Organically

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.

Writing, Validity and Vulnerability

I received my contributor’s copy of the 2017 Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual this week.

Aesthetica 2017 Creative Writing Annual

It’s only the second time I have had a short story published in print, so it’s a great achievement for me at this point in my career. My story, Things I Have Wasted Money On, previously won the Devon Prize in the 2015/16 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. I enjoyed writing it and liked experimenting with its quirky format, which I hope tells the story and expresses the narrator’s emotions in an interesting way.

I also recently won 3rd place in the Erewash Writers’ Group 2016 Open Short Story Competition, which was judged by Patsy Collins. Again, this is a big deal to me because I haven’t had much success with writing competitions. Partly because I don’t enter as many as I should.

 

Submitting writing means being vulnerable.

When you enter a short story competition or submit work to a writing journal, you are inviting rejection. Most stories will be rejected. Very successful, established writers get rejections, so when your career is embryonic, rejection is not only expected – it is inevitable.

Exposing yourself to rejection is never fun, but it is necessary. The alternative is to write purely for yourself, to lock your stories away in a drawer and never let anyone read them apart from yourself. This isn’t an option for me, because I am passionate about literature and writing. I want people to read my work. I want them to like my stories. I want my fiction to evoke emotion and raise questions for people, to challenge their thoughts and assumptions. I would also like to earn a living from writing. All of this cannot be achieved without allowing myself to be vulnerable.

This is difficult for every writer. Well, maybe a few writers are super-confident and genuinely don’t care if everyone hates their work, but I have never met them. However, it is doubly difficult when you have mental health problems which make you constantly question your ability.

 

Small successes provide validity.

Hence these small successes mean a lot to me. They offer evidence that my work is worth reading, that I’m not wasting my time and energy. They are a small counterargument to that voice in my head which says “you’re kidding yourself, you can’t write” and “don’t bother submitting stories, because you’re wasting everyone’s time.”

It would be nice to not need or want such validity, to have utter confidence in my writing, but that’s not the way it is. External validation holds a lot of value for me.

So as much as I enjoy these small successes in and of themselves, they convince me to keep going. To keep submitting my work in the hope that someone will like it, that someone might believe it has value.

Ultimately, vulnerability and validity are two sides of the same coin. Part of me wishes I didn’t feel so vulnerable and that I weren’t so reliant on external validity, but it shows that I care. Writing is important to me and I want other people to believe my work is worthwhile. If just a few people enjoy my stories, that makes me happy.