The Evolution of Writing Projects: The Multi-Genre Mind
One of the first posts I wrote on this blog, back when it was Laura Schmidt Books, was about the evolution of writing projects.
It was in fact my second ever post, and it had the same title as this post: “The Evolution of Writing Projects.” Minus the multi-genre mind bit.
It was also my first successful-ish post. Back then, successful meant that it got over five views. Which is saying something, given that I wasn’t promoting at all, except for the little RSS feed to Twitter. But I had no Twitter followers back then, either. Let’s just say I’ve come a long way. I had a chance to think about that as I was writing the first post in my “Blogging Basics” series.
But this is also to say that this topic has always been one of interest for me. It probably isn’t one of interest to all authors, but I think that multi-genre authors in particular will relate to what I have to say about the evolution of writing projects. This is to say, sometimes you start with one beast, and at the end of the day you have a completely different one, and only you will ever be able to tell how exactly they’re connected.
I believe it was after I read The Hunger Games…
… that I decided to give the dystopian genre a shot, because I thought I could do just as well. My premise was the pretty age-old one about kids who are drafted into a war. At least, I think it’s age-old. If not, well, I’ve just given it away. At any rate, I started out with a pretty simple plot — teenagers are drafted, go through training, and eventually face war (emphasis on the training, less on the war) — and a fairly simple set of three characters. Between them, my plan was to get a pretty great, pretty unoriginal love triangle going.
In my first draft, which was titled Chosen, all this went to plan. The result was pretty meh, which is to say it was a first draft. And if I’d done a second and then a third draft, all would’ve probably continued going to plan, and I would’ve ended up with a thoroughly average work of YA dystopian fiction.
But by then my brain had come up with new possibilities for the story. I had seen potential in a supporting character, whose role rapidly expanded in the second draft, until the crux of the story revolved around him. No longer was there a love triangle — there was now some kind of twisted love quadrangle, and it seemed that at least one of the members had to get shortchanged to make room for this new character — who was, admittedly, a much more interesting character than both of the other two put together.
Herein lies a piece of advice: Don’t let those supporting characters get out of hand. If your characters suck, work on them. Don’t necessarily jump towards the first sparkly minor character you see (although this can work). If you do, recognize that the story you end up with won’t be the same as the story you started with, and that you’ll have to cut characters, not shortchange them, to make room for the new major character. Don’t shortchange characters. If you feel the need to have a character in the book, give them their due. If they have no place, slit their throat and dispose of them. (Maybe off-page, or things might get messy.)
I wrote another couple (okay, more like five) drafts with all four of these characters playing central roles, before realizing that it just wasn’t working out. Sorry, characters! Another character had emerged, which meant that if I continued as is I was going to end up with a whopping five main characters, which is to say too many. I made adjustments.
And in some ways, those adjustments brought me right back to the start. I once again had a female main character, a pretty shallow one. And I had two guys competing for her love, only now they were best friends and one of them was bisexual and quite possibly in love with the other. It was a love triangle, of sorts. A more complex love triangle than the one I’d started out with, but a love triangle nonetheless. The story now took place in a warzone. Training was gone. The result was more adult than it was YA, but since the project had started off as YA, it was hanging onto some of those tropes and trappings.
Another piece of advice: Don’t worry too much about the market while working on a project. It’ll screw you and the project. How’s that for a double whammy?
Slowly, over the course of another three drafts or so, the story shifted out of the point-of-view of the shallow, bothersome female character and into the point-of-view of one of the male characters. That’s when things started getting weird.
What had started off as dystopian YA morphed into a strange futuristic literary novel.
I had never written literary fiction before. But this would have been right around the time when I got pretty obsessed with it, to the point that I decided I’d be aiming low if I wrote genre fiction all the time. This is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, and WRONG again. If you’re a writer of genre fiction, DO NOT LOOK DOWN ON YOUR WRITING. Your writing can be beautiful and valid and can express just as much truth about the world as literary fiction does. It may do it in a different form, but it does it nonetheless. Today, I can say for a fact that I write some literary fiction, mostly in short story form. A lot of my genre writing has a “literary” quality to it, or so I’ve been told, but I don’t really know what this means and I don’t care. DON’T THINK ABOUT THE MARKET IF YOU’RE LOOKING TO ENJOY YOURSELF!
The story’s plot, which had been simple to begin with, became pretty flimsy at this stage. As in a lot of literary fiction novels! It now centered around the POV character’s search for his friend, who was up to some strange stuff in the weird dystopian government that still existed in the story. The story was, essentially, about the collapse of a society. What I really meant to write about was the impending collapse of America, but I was too chicken because I was a paranoid teenager who took herself too seriously and thought the government might get on my trail and censor her work if she wrote about (gasp) the collapse of America. True story. I was in a weird mental state, which is probably why I wrote such a weird novel.
That novel, titled The Deadly Circus, remains one of the most bizarre pieces of work I’ve ever completed to this day. It’s a psychedelic, dream-like romp around what resembles the United States, but is called something different. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it all happened in the character’s imagination. It’s that bizarre. And, to be honest, it might work as a film — a very confusing film. But it’s certainly far from literary brilliance, which is what I’d been looking for from it.
This is what happened next: That novel broke my heart. So another piece of advice: Don’t let a novel break your heart. Or maybe do. I really don’t know. It was a learning experience. I had become so attached to the project and the characters that I couldn’t look at it square and improve it. Maybe the same thing has happened to you once or twice. Well, watch out. Your novel is like your child. But just like you wouldn’t want to spoil your child, you don’t want to spoil your novel. And that’s exactly what I did.
Years after I set it aside, the project re-emerged from the ashes…
… to attain a new level of evolution. I had realized, by then, that if I wanted to make the project literary, I might as well go all in and make it literary. So I set it in Boston, Massachusetts. The two characters were the same. They lived in an apartment together. They had a torrid love affair. And if The Deadly Circus was one of the most bizarre books I’ve ever written, Big Snow takes the cake as THE most bizarre. I think that the whole thing is a dream. I have no idea. I don’t understand the book. I wrote it in a month of feverish writing, which probably explains some of that.
And that brings us almost up to today. A few months ago, I wrote the opening of what I’ll call an epic novel, about the collapse of America. It turned out pretty well. I might share some excerpts here. And that project is on my radar, once I finish up the things I’ll be working on for the rest of this year. But, yeah. The evolution of writing projects. It’s a wild ride. At the end of the day, what connects all of these projects? The characters. In terms of plot, I almost feel like I’ve been traveling in circles. The result, which I’ll finish one day, will be big and sprawling. It will have both literary and genre elements. It will have a great cast of characters, the most developed characters I’ve ever written. Why? Because I’ve written millions of words about them in this universe, in others, in parallel dimensions, in second lives…
Okay, I know, we’re not trying to make some kind of nightmare film out of this blog post. But I would love to hear about the evolution of writing projects on your end. Have you ever had a project spiral down the rabbithole like this one of mine did? Or am I a total nutcase? Talk to me about anything!
And I do hope you enjoyed this article, as weird as it is. I didn’t write about the evolution of writing projects nearly as weirdly the first time around! But that’s why I started Voyage of the Mind — so I could write it all, the beautiful and the bizarre. Thank you so much for your readership. If you’re looking to support Voyage of the Mind further, you can follow using the buttons in the sidebar at the top of the page, or subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom. You can also support us on Ko-fi — buy us a funny virtual coffee for $2 a pop! The caffeine fuel keeps those feverish writing sessions coming easily. (Just kidding, no real coffee involved.) Oh, and if you loved reading about the evolution of writing projects, I’d love if you passed this article along!
A brief note on the New Year.
A reflection on things not going to plan on the occasion of an unexpected car breakdown. (What kind of car breakdown is expected, anyway?)
My second place haiku from the Experiments in Fiction Poetry Challenge #8, plus a couple more quick updates from me.
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