A long, long time ago I wrote a blog post for Apex Magazine about creative play. It’s long gone now, after several much-needed and very successful website overhauls, and if the original version is on this computer, I’ll be dashed if I can find it. (Welcome to the modern world of data-hoarding and the joys of “What did I title that document again?”) But I wanted to discuss it again, because recently, I’ve started exploring what creative play means in a writing setting.
Let me begin with a bit of a flash-back: In “The Good Old Days” when I was in sixth and seventh grade, I could write for hours. Literally, hours. My standing record was seven hours straight one Saturday without stopping for sustenance or probably even to pee. I remember that day only in hazy memory, gilded at its fuzzy edges by the sparkling fairy dust of childhood-remembered, and the whisper of urgent creativity: what happens next? I didn’t want to play outside. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want to watch TV (which, if you know me and my self-admitted addiction to television, is the biggest shocker of all). I wanted to write, because writing at that time was more than just putting words on the page. It was living story. It was all-consuming. I wasn’t writing at all, but playing make-believe in Times New Roman. It was free and it was fun as hell.
Was the writing good? Hell no. Some of those old 100-page novels make me wince in stylistic agony when I re-read them these days, but I can’t deny they were bliss to write. Even now, I consider those heady days as some of the best of my writing life. I was so absorbed by the stories I was telling, I couldn’t hardly think about anything else.
In high school, and particularly in freshman/sophomore year of college, I decided to get serious about pursuing writing as a career. I started learning how to write short stories. I took a miserable correspondence class that just about killed my desire to write at all. I started submitting to anthologies and magazines, and began collecting rejections (as well as a pair of miraculous acceptances).
I made some progress, and learned a ton, in the following years. But in the process of “getting serious,” I lost the art of playing with stories. Don’t get me wrong, there were a number of stories I really enjoyed writing, but I put a lot of pressure on myself to “do it right” and to “get out there” and “make progress” on the whole writing career. Truth be told, I still do.
And then, one day, I tried something new. I had this great beginning scene to a story I felt 90% sure could be a novel, and I was chomping at the bit to get down a second chapter, and then a third, but every attempt I made floundered and got no where. I knew what needed to happen, but my ability to manifest the prose at the speed at which my mind wanted to explore the idea was just not up to snuff. I just wanted to play with the idea, to see if it had legs.
So I started summarizing. Not little chapter-worth paragraphs, but outright babbling: So there’s this girl, right?, and she’s the only daughter of this fairy queen and a huntsman, and she’s best friends with a dragon, and also there are gnomes. The first scene, we see her running through the woods because she’s accidentally killed a gnome, and everybody knows that the penalty for killing a gnome is death, and she’s terrified. (This isn’t the actual story, but an example of the babbling style.)
It’s not elegant. It’s hardly even what you could call prose fiction. It’s barely readable, from a third-party standpoint. It’s complete and utter telling of the story. From time to time I would spin out into page-long descriptions of the world around her and the people she meets, spending way more time on those details than I would have if I’d been writing the actual prose version. I wrote for hours. HOURS. And it was so much fun. It was just like playing make-believe all over again, because the only thing I wanted to do was have an awesome time and make the story as cool as possible. There were blow-by-blow duels, tragic natural disasters, loss of companions, romantic awkwardness, and grand betrayals. I let my creative mind run all over the place, led willy-nilly by “Oh! Wouldn’t it be cool if-?!”
I drafted an entire novel-length story that way (novel-length in that the idea was novel-length; the summary-draft itself was maybe 20-30k). And when I finished, I felt so guilty. I’d had way too much fun, and in the end it wasn’t even a draft I could show to anyone. (Heck, it didn’t even have dialogue beyond “She glares at him and tells him to go #$%# himself. He grabs her by the wrist and tells her he’d rather she did.”) Plus, I’d read plenty of warnings by authors far more successful than I who said it was dangerous to talk too much about the idea you’re working on, because you might lose momentum and cure yourself of the desire to write the story at all. I worried that I’d killed an idea that could have been a “real” novel by “cheating” with this totally train-of-thought drafting style, that I should have gone linearly from one scene to the next, or at least written whole, prose-draft scenes out of order and pieced them back together.
But I’d had so much fun. So much. There was no way this was an accepted way to draft a first version of a novel.
For the longest time, I avoided that method again. And then, about a year later, I banged out a sci-fi “novel” the same way. Again: all summary, all telling, nothing sharable. But in doing so, I began to realize that maybe this was something I was allowed to do. Unlike some of those authors who fear the loss of momentum by sharing an idea, I’m a think-talker. I process ideas and possibilities and plot points by describing them to other people, by running the story over in my head repeatedly, tweaking the telling each time to better suit the emotional payout I want. (For one early novel in college, I had the whole description of the story timed to two-hours if I started at the beginning.) And I realized that this method of drafting might be my way of keeping all that think-processing to myself, rather than driving my friends and family crazy by re-capping all the changes and developments as I thought of them, but simultaneously allowing me to engage in the idea-exploration process that works for me.
Every time I summary-draft a novel, I find out things about the story I didn’t know were there. I meet characters organically that I might never have thought of including. I learn new traits my main characters have that I didn’t even consider when I began the story. Past histories show up in the context of “Oh! And she’s pissed at him because of XXXX that happened when she was ten, and he has NO IDEA, which is why they keep butting heads!” And I have fun learning all that stuff, and revealing that yes—the world-building does need to be more interesting, and yes, the main character does seem a little shallow—all before I’ve invested more than a week or two of wild, frolicking afternoons. I can see the whole story arch laid out, with its gaping holes easy to see without being obscured by passages of prose that I’ve already lovingly crafted. What’s more: when I set these summary-drafts aside, I can see—some months or years down the road—what parts of the story I still remember and still love, because those are the hooky scenes I have to include in any future prose draft, and maybe the others I can’t remember need a little spice to them.
I still feel guilty sometimes. It still feels like cheating because it’s so easy, so fun, shortcutting all that difficult prose-work just to “get to the good stuff” of seeing what happens next. It does mean that by the time I sit down to write the first prose-draft much of the discovery process is already complete (save for some wriggling off-outline, when all the info I expected to appear in Scene 5 actually doesn’t come out). But it also allows me to relax when I get to drafting the “real thing.” It lets me sit back and focus on craft, on “Okay, but what’s the best way to get this feeling across to the reader?” without sacrificing my own playful rush of initial inspiration.
Because the prose-draft is all about the reader and communicating in the clearest, most exciting way the things I discovered in that summary-draft. But that summary-draft is for me, and me alone. That summary-draft is my inner child running rampant and screaming at the top of her giddy little lungs, “OH! I KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!”
And it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.