The clock is about to strike ten, you’ve just settled under the covers. Your body heat seeps into the mattress, into the folds of your blanket. It is warm and you’re desperate to get into that one position that will send you off into Dreamland with ease. Your eyes begin to flutter shut, weighted by sleep already, when the most brilliant plot line bursts into your mind. Adrenaline starts to pump through your internal biological circuitry, anxiety gnaws through your middle as you realize that you must get this idea down on paper, your laptop — anything, really, to not forget this million-dollar story. You drag your heavy limbs from between the loving embrace of your bed to plop down on that rigid desk chair that groans like the structural bones of an ancient house vibrating in a powerful windstorm. You jot down a quick blurb about the basic plot and the general characters necessary to bring this idea to life, perhaps you have the jolting twist that will bring your reader to their knees already in mind, then you make your way back to bed where you float off into Dreamland with minimal effort. The next morning, eager to get writing, you turn on your computer to discover a great idea still waiting, but now the real work begins. How can you make this single idea into a essay, short story, or even a novel? Where does one begin when all you have is a single idea?
In L. Lennie Irvin’s essay, What is Academic Writing, the author highlights several key myths that students have about writing college papers, ranging from the overuse of templates to the expectations we put on ourselves to complete a story in one (very determined) go. I believe his carefully constructed advice is applicable to the scene described in the beginning paragraph; how can we take a singular idea and craft a well-written piece of writing that leaves us authors feeling hopeful that we haven’t just spent months on two pages of absolute rubbish? Two myths that stuck out to me in Irvin’s piece were: 1) writers have everything figured out before they start writing, and 2) the belief in a perfect first draft. Successful writing is a challenge, but not impossible. Changing how I approached writing in my extracurricular work has helped my academic writing process, morphing my abilities by leaps and bounds.
When I first began to write novels, I would come up with a plot on a whim without much regard to the rising action, climax, or even how it would resolve. Instead, I would focus on the main plot and throw in random drama and bumbling disasters of tension-filled scenes that I expected would add stress to the overall story while garnering empathy from my audience. I had not thought through how characters got from point A to point B, or how character’s actions and speech alone could conjure images of a character better than any amount of appearance-based descriptions could. When I finished my first two novels, both with over 100,000 words, I realized my approach to writing and drafting was ignorant and my direction was misled. My readers were not happy when they finished my work, they were not allured by my flat and static characters or the worlds that I placed them in. I was losing the confidence to continue writing, I thought that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer. My negative experience with these first two novels paved the way for the next wave of fiction pieces, I was forced to reevaluate my completed work. I studied various other author’s writings, trying to uncover the secret to creating a binge-worthy piece of literature. These secrets have ultimately led to the success that has brought me the response that I was searching for all along.
When it came time to begin writing the flagship book to my fantasy series, The Fate of Aerilia, I decided to change the approach I had taken with the previous novels. Instead of throwing random scenes together and calling it a book, I focused on the details, concrete and abstract. This vision I had for my novel was unlike anything I have experienced in the entirety of my writing career. For the first time, this world was completely mine and the characters were born from my own mind, because for the first few years of my writing, I stuck to fanfiction, a genre that places well-known characters (like, Harry Potter or BTS) in an alternate universe, or AU. My most popular stories had been created within a world, played out by characters that were not mine. Writing fanfiction helped me learn to write, how to find my voice as a writer, but I was ignoring crucial steps that were necessary to create thrilling, dramatic, and endearing stories. With The Fate of Aerilia, however, I was forced to start from scratch. Knowing that I should begin on background work to better understand my world and characters, I began with making a map of the central country, naming dozens of towns, capitols, seas, and forests. I knew exactly where my characters were going to go on their journey, what they would learn from these places, and how they would interact with one another. Next, I started listing out the various organisms of my world, giving names to man-eating plants and fanged monkeys, describing warring cultures with centuries of overview in multiple paragraphs. I could describe this fantasy country as well as I could describe my own world in reality, and I continued to delve even deeper into this mythical world.
Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t sort out my original plot from the miscellaneous information that I felt was just as important to the driving plot and characters. There were pages upon pages of information, but my story had disappeared. I had gone overboard with background information in a vain attempt to have everything sorted out before the drafting process. I wanted the reader to know everything that I did with unwavering conviction. Believable, that is what I wanted my story to be. Sure, I could explain the dynamics between the jungle-dwelling natives of Sao’los and the ruling kingdom of Embrisse, but I found myself refusing to begin even the first chapter of this story that would ultimately tell of this strained relationship in a much more dramatic and cinematic way. This deterred me as well as the potential readers that I had hoped to someday gain from the fantasy novel I had originally planned. There were hundreds of interesting details and tidbits of history but nothing to connect them. I was so focused on the interior details and information that may likely never be reiterated to anyone else that I found myself desperate to get back to the original story line.
Reassessing my position as the creator of my world and not a subservient viewer, I was able to begin to develop my first chapter and complete it. The information that I had worked so hard to get down on paper naturally came through in my writing and allowed me to transition into the next chapter and the subsequent chapters that came after.
Irvin’s essay had very important notes about the myths I had ignorantly believed that ultimately led me to come to similar conclusions. Writers do not have everything figured out before they begin the drafting process. They accumulate basic ideas and structuring, giving themselves a general direction to begin their main plot, perhaps a few noteworthy events that will play out in the later chapters — you don’t want to forget that daring plot twist. It is also perfectly fine to jot down a few key details, but these details should not be the main focus in drafting. A perfect first draft does not exist — a perfect first novel doesn’t exist, either. Stephen King and JK Rowling are great examples of the struggle that is being a writer. Throughout the years, both have revealed major clues and Easter eggs throughout their careers that offered another unique aspect to their work. Even George RR Martin had to wait twenty years before his work was acknowledged on a global scale.
There is always time to progress, always time to rewrite or rework a particular scene, to add in minute details that separate your world from that of reality or another famous piece of writing from the same genre. To produce a fine piece of literature, one must adhere to the rule of balancing the information you already have with the overall arching theme that you wish to portray to your audience.
Irvin, L. Lennie; Lowe, Charles; Zemliansky Pavel. “What is Academic Writing?” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writings. Volume 1, Parlor Press, 2010. writingspaces.org/essays. 3 February 2019.