Reflections on a finished draft

A screen shot showing the words "THE END"

Friends, I know it has been a while since I posted some news. I have been intensely focusing all my creative energy on drafting a novel, and today I reached “THE END.”

This is a huge deal for me. Sure, I drafted novels before, but that was 10 years ago in my MFA program. With deadlines looming and brilliant profs and students reading your pages, everything is aligned to keep you going. When this kind of structure fell away, it was very hard to reach THE END. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that everyone has to figure out their own process. I thought I’d share with you the way I found mine.

I have always considered myself to be a logical and meticulous planner, so when I learned that there were two kinds of writers, “plotters” and “pantsers” (think ”writing by the seat of your pants”), I was sure I was a plotter. But, seeing as I was in an MFA program to push myself and explore, I did just that. In my third semester, a most generous prof gave me the space to dig up all kinds of stuff from my subconscious using freewriting prompts that were designed to get at a character’s deepest needs and desires. These bits of writing would often never make it into your story, they would rather deeply contribute to well-rounded characters if you allowed yourself to delve in deeply enough.

Oh, I delved deep. That semester was a particularly challenging time in my life in the world off the page, and what started as creative writing became therapeutic writing. The line between me and my characters blurred, and my stories were going nowhere. I fled from the pantsing idea and reinvested myself in the (safer) plotter approach again.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about If you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” (Sylvia Plath)

After graduating, I switched to writing picture books. This smaller format allowed me to focus on story arcs in condensed spaces. I discovered that I loved this format. And, as I worked away on my manuscripts, ideas for novels kept pushing through. Ok, I thought. I’ll try again.

I tried every popular method you’ve probably heard of if you’re in the “plotter” camp: Save the Cat, Story Genius, Blueprint for a Book, The Golden Theme, Pixar Storytelling, The Anatomy of Story… It was a dead end for me, each time. I could not write an outline that made any logical sense. I tried to push through, anyway, and found myself exasperated. How could I possibly give my characters a satisfying resolution? I started wondering whether I was blocking my own progress, not trusting myself enough to figure it out. Was I my own worst enemy? I dropped that story idea and focused on picture books again.

And then… another novel idea wanted my attention. This one more urgent, inspired by my niece and nephew, who wanted to be in one of my stories. I acquiesced. I’d recently heard that it was beneficial to draft quickly. This way, you could capture a snapshot of your inspiration and creative context before they changed, so I’d decided to try another system: The 90-Day Novel.

It started with a bunch of freewriting. I could hear echoes of the pantsing I did in my third semester, but this time my world off the page was not so unruly. As I got to know the characters a bit better, it asked me to begin considering structural questions. This time, it seemed ok to not know the answers. I was encouraged to keep going anyway. It asked me to focus on a character’s dilemma, which, by definition, is unresolvable. And it asked me to imagine the characters transformed by the end, without insisting that I know how they would get there.

“Do not try to solve any of the structure questions. It’s more important to just inquire and to trust that your story lives fully and completely within you, that all of the juicy, exciting madness you wish to express absolutely belongs in your story.” (Alan Watt, The 90-Day Novel)

So, I committed to these 90 days of inquiry and curiosity. I loved how Alan Watt would repeat these principles daily, almost as if he knew how loudly my need for order and control would be screaming for my attention as I approached the page. Even when I took a break over Christmas, I came back to the process. This mindset of curiosity, inquiry, and trust was what I needed to birth my story.

“We can teach principles of story, and we can illustrate a process, but these fundamentals are useless without an open heart.” (Alan Watt, The 90-Day Novel)

a notebook page with 90 colourful stickers on it.

As a small incentive, I gave myself a sticker each day in the journey to the 90 day draft. I tried to match the sticker with how I was feeling at the end of the writing session.

A notebook with stickers on it, including one that says "Perfectly Imperfect"

And then, I gave myself a bonus sticker when I reached THE END 🙂

My novel is far from finished, but my draft is complete. I’ve discovered how gently and openly I need to approach the drafting process. I’ll try Alan’s The 90-day Rewrite next. For now though, I’ll celebrate, and let the story and my happy heart rest.

What works for you, when drafting a longer work? How do you celebrate when you get to “THE END”?

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