writer's life, Writing

Filling the Well

Since we returned home from our summer of adventure, I’ve been writing like a girl on fire. It’s been powerful and cathartic, filling me with a sudden clarity of purpose after five years of inner soul searching. I find in the midst of my writing that I suddenly know myself and it brings a sense of peace I’ve found elusive for too long.

A Lot of New
Last week I finished final revisions for The Light Within and sent it off to my editor, eager to turn my attention to a new project. But, I sat down at the computer and for the first time ever as a writer stared into the void of the dreaded blank screen. New ideas is not really a problem for me, I have notebooks and computer files full of novel ideas, some with nearly 10,000 words already attached to them. So, I knew the problem wasn’t lack of inspiration. There was something else wrong. As I began to try to force my way through it, I finally realized that the real problem was that I was working in completely new territory:
A New Genre – Steampunk
A New Style – Serial Novel
A New Format – Journal/Epistolary
New Demands – Lots of required research

And what’s more, this idea felt huge and beautiful in my mind, full of potential…and I wanted to get it just right. Which meant, of course, that I was starting out with a ton of pressure already piled on my shoulders and I hadn’t even written the first page. No wonder I was stuck! I waded through it for a while and then finally decided that I was going to have to make a choice. Either I could embrace all the new this project held, believing that the extra work it brought would be worth it, or I could give it up now and move on. In the end, I decided to tackle the project. I really feel strongly that it is going to open all new doors for me as a writer and become something truly great. Accepting this meant facing the work from new perspectives with new strategies. Instead of just sitting down and writing, I would have to do some research, a lot of planning, and more than my fair share of daydreaming.

Rules & Lessons
I have a very strict rule for myself that I made up when I wrote my very first book: No reading in the genre you’re writing in. This may seem crazy, but it started with a genuine desire to be unique in my story and voice. I didn’t want to be too heavily influenced by any other work in the midst of writing, and I was appalled at the idea of being accused of relying too heavily on someone else’s work. So, I gave up reading in the genre I was working in. This turned out to be easier than I imagined as I quickly realized that writing meant I had even less time for reading anyway. All the hours I used to spend curled up with a book were now spent hunched over the computer desk, telling myself stories late into the night. Well, this new project happens to be in a genre I don’t read. So this week, staring at that blank screen, I decided it was time I broke a few rules. I went into my library and pulled steampunk novels off the shelves that I’d always wanted to read. I went to the bookstore and bought the entire Infernal Devices series I’d always wanted to find time for because I enjoyed her writing style. I pulled up books on my kindle that I’d bought and never read. In the end I had a very ecclectic stack of books piled high on the bed beside my journal and planning album. This would be my world. Instead of writing for the next few days, I would pour myself into reading and soak up the work of talented authors with completely different styles and stories. From clockwork automatons to airships, from an India-inspired fantasy world to the streets of London, I explored it all.

I learned a few things, too. I learned that I needed to fill my first few pages with buzz words that would clue readers into the genre and the overall story elements I planned to use. I learned that I was letting my characters off the hook too easily, running away from their pain or disappointment instead of dealing with it. As a reader, I cherish those moments where I get to feel what the character is feeling, the deeper the better. As a writer, I want my readers to not only feel that, but to lay the book down and wrestle in that moment with thier own pain or fear or whatever it is they are facing with my characters. Because, in the end, this is what makes a novel worth reading, worth creating. Through books, we discover bits of our own broken souls and in seeing the characters triumph, we find hope for ourselves, too.

Filling the Well
My talented friend, Susan Kaye Quinn, calls this process Filling the Creative Well.

Reading, free writing, watching movies, TV, engaging in erudite discussions – all of this feeds the creative well. It will fill your subconscious mind with the raw stuffs you will use to create your work when the time comes. This isn’t TV-as-distraction or a brain-dead-reception of whatever is put in front of you, but an active, voracious consumption of creative works. This will renew – and inspire – you when your creative work block-time comes around again.

I remember when I first read this advice in her book, The Indie Author Survival Guide, I laughed out loud. When do I have time to do that? But, now I know she’s right. If I don’t make time to fill the well, then I end up dry and empty with nothing to give to the blank page.

Last night I was up to 4 am reading (and crying with) The Clockwork Prince. I remember lying there in a puddle of tears and thinking, “I hope this is worth it. I will probably be a complete waste of space today after a night like this, but oh how I want to be able to make readers feel this way.”

And you know what happened when I set aside my writing and devoted myself to reading? It led to more writing. I went to bed at 4 and woke up at 8:30 with my phone ringing. It was my sister and I couldn’t wait to tell her all about the stuff in my head. Character ideas, story ideas, settings, devices, plot twists… And almost none of it had much at all to do with what was in the stories I read. I emerged from that marathon reading session with new and beautiful ideas that were NOT in the books I’d just consumed. This blew my little rule out of the water. Most important of all, I walked away with a lot of ideas about how I want my readers to feel when they put down one of my books. This is invaluable. This is a well full of creative energy and focus that I need to tackle this great big beautiful project.

Feel the Pain
I also realized something huge about my work: I don’t allow my characters feel their pain too deeply. I let them run away. Death, heartbreak, loneliness, fear…I lead them right up to those moments, give a nod to those emotions, and then off we go to chase down the next plot line. Two of my projects in particular deal with some heavy pain and I realized that I was doing a disservice not only to my characters, but to my readers as well, when I let them run away from their pain without looking too closely at the source of it. I sat and thought about that for a while and realized something else, too. In the end, I’m really the one running away. I, the writer, don’t want to face their pain. I don’t want to have to think about it, to dwell on their loss. I want them to be happy and move on to the next happily ever after. But life brings pain and to truly grasp our happily ever afters, we have to first face the pain.

This could probably have been an entirely separate blog post. I’m curious how you feel about it, readers, writers. Do you need to fill the well? Do you run from the pain in your story? Or, do you find strength in facing the pain and rising up to meet it?