I’m not NaNoWriMo-ing, as I’ve said before, but I do have a thick skull full of dubious writing tidbits for those of you out there scrambling to make your 50k. (What are you, at 10k today, pushing for 12? Maybe a bit further along to buy yourself a breathless, red-eyed day off over the weekend? You poor souls.)
Today’s rumination: categories are crap.
Let’s be clear: your work is going to be categorized, and it should be categorized. Eventually. Categories matter: without them, we’re never going to be able to get our works into the hands of as many readers as we’d like to. But (and here’s where my novice chops are going to show, maybe) I don’t think categories matter until it’s almost time to publish. Because categories are for readers and editors and publishers, so they know where to put and where to find and how to push your book.
But for you? The author neck-deep in a 50k slog that needs to be completed in three weeks? (Or in the midst of a 100k slog that you’d like to complete this year, more conservatively.) You can give a big middle finger to categories.
“Oh, I’m writing an urban sci-fi horror YA cyberpunk thriller.”
No, you’re not. You’re writing a story about some kids with computers that spawn monsters who drag their souls into the dark web and sell them for Bitcoins. (Copyrighted!)
“Me? I’m writing an alternate-historical period piece romance / spy novel.”
Negative. You’re writing a love story between secret agents in a made-up setting where you can make up any rules you want.
But what’s the difference? I hear you cry. Why not pick my category now, so I know how to write it the piece as it grows?
In this humble writer’s opinion, putting a category on your work is like putting up a fence in your yard. On the one hand, it makes it real easy to see where your property ends, or where you need to put on shoes lest you step in a pile of dogsharknado. On the other hand, it makes it real easy to see where your property ends, or where you need to put on shoes lest you step in a pile of dogsharknado. Putting a category on your work means that you’re saying, this stuff belongs in my story, and this other stuff does not. It means, these sorts of things can happen in my story. It means, I’m going for this specific feel in my story.
Which, again, is great … for later drafts. Later drafts are the time to think about audience, about marketing, about where your story fits. But to think about this stuff during the first draft, or even the first round of edits, is suicide. To use the fence metaphor, you’re marking out clearly defined areas where your story can and cannot go.
But why would you do that during the first draft?
The first draft is hard enough without arbitrary lines criss-crossing the landscape telling you you can’t go here. The first draft is a brutal hike through overgrown jungle with a machete, it’s a solitary sojourn through unforgiving desert. Boundaries are a great way to bog down, and if you’re NaNo-ing, you can ill afford to get bogged down. (To be fair, even if you’re not NaNo-ing, getting bogged down in your work sucks — lose your momentum and you lose your motivation to continue.)
The first draft is a baby bird learning to fly — it needs all the clear space it can get to figure itself out. Your story needs the space — you need the space — to breathe, to try new things, to make a hard left and run the story into a ditch, to cut back right and drive it through a building. You make that harder on yourself if you’re locked into categories, into preconceived notions of what your story can and can’t be before you’ve even written it.
Stories are living things that change as they grow. I started my just-finished draft of a novel thinking I wanted to write a YA sci-fi coming-of-age piece, and I ended up writing something a lot more like a survivalist cyber-horror fate-vs.-free-will story, if any of those things are actually things. One way or another, I’m a lot happier with the story I wrote than the story I was trying to write. Further, I noticed that every time I got stuck in the novel, it’s because I was trying to force the story or the characters to do something out of character. I can’t have this happen in a YA novel, I thought, but when I let go of that constraint and just let it happen anyway, the story moved along just fine.
Don’t get me wrong. That first draft is a mess. It needs tons of work, and the time will come when I will refine it down and decide what neat little boxes it fits into. But if I’d gotten hung up on the categories, I don’t know if I could even have finished it.
Your story wants to be something.
You have to accept the fact that maybe you don’t entirely know what that is yet.
But, just like a teenage daughter, if you try to force it to be something it isn’t, it’s going to rebel and bring home a guy with a mohawk.
Don’t let your story bring home a guy with a mohawk.
Let your story be the guy with the mohawk.
This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.