In my current work-in-progress novel, “Manifestation,” two of my main characters came from previous writing projects I’d worked on in the past. When working on collaborative writing sites, Tock was the main character of over 150 pieces of writing. Each, individually, is of short-story length (I wrote anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 words in each one). Gabby was the main character of about 85 similar pieces of writing, plus I wrote 30,000 words in her in-character diary in her original story. The ideas in Gabby’s Diary here were largely inspired by her original diary, and a few of the poems I used on this site were revisions of Gabby’s old poems from the first diary.
I’ve found that having so much previous writing has been extremely helpful when working on my current novel. There’s several reasons why:
- It helped me develop the characters. Before I sat down to write the first page of “Manifestation,” I knew who these characters were. I knew their personalities, how they would react to certain situations, whether they were violent (Tock) or timid (Gabby). I also knew that there was a certain developmental path I wanted to take them down in the course of the novel. While the events in the novel differ GREATLY from the original writing, certain key points (such as everything related to Gabby’s family, or Tock’s magic city) were designed from Day One to follow a certain story arc. I was able to do this because I took core ideas from the previous writings, rebooted them, and used them as goals to reach in the new novel.
- It helped me create certain ‘core’ scenes. Several of the scenes in the novel were taken directly from my previous writings. Tock’s coma dream, certain poems, and a few important paragraphs of major scenes were taken straight out of my old writings, revised, and inserted into the novel. Essentially, the old writings are Draft One (which is part of the reason I call the posts on this site Draft 1.5). Also, even where I didn’t take the exact scene, there were several important scenes in the story that were inspired by some of my previous writings. The details in those were greatly changed, but certain fundamental elements were inspired directly from previous writings.
- It helped me develop the magic. Both Gabby and Tock have supernatural abilities, and I had the exact specifics of HOW those abilities work figured out in advance, long before I started this novel. This was especially crucial for the foreshadowing in Gabby’s chapters; we don’t find out WHAT her power is until the very, very end, but I knew exactly how it worked before I wrote her first scene. That made it far easier for me to insert hints and write scenes in a way that, while the reader might not understand at first, when they look back it’ll all make sense. All throughout Gabby’s chapters are examples of things happening a certain, precise way based on my knowing exactly how her power works. That would be impossible to do if I hadn’t had her power figured out in detail before I started.
- It helped me to know where the plot was going. This novel is planned to be Part One of a (hopefully, if/when it’s published) three or four (or more) part series. I have a huge number of ideas for where I’m taking the story. Many of those ideas came from my previous writings.
So, how can this concept help someone else as a writer? Well, my recommendation is to “Write Outside the Novel.” Whether it be freewriting (just letting ideas flow without any real sense of purpose), writing an in-character diary or journal, writing short stories, or experimenting with stand-alone scenes, you can develop a lot of things on the side, which can then help strengthen your novel. Here’s some specific suggestions:
- Imagine a scenario you’d like to explore, and see how your character would react to it. It could be the death of a family member, or how they face down an armed assailant. It could be their first kiss, an intimate night with someone special, or their wedding day. It could be putting them on stage at a Broadway musical and seeing how they react (I wrote a scene with Gabby, singing at a Broadway show. It was great fun). Since these scenes are “outside the novel,” you don’t need to worry about them counting as “real” or “canon.” Hell, you could even write the character’s death scene, just to know how they react to dying. You don’t need to kill them off in the novel itself, but you still get to see, as a writer, what would happen. It can give you insight into the character, and help you learn things you wouldn’t have known.
- Write something in-character, from that character’s first person point of view. This can be a diary, a doctor’s notes, an in-character blog, or you could even write a fake Twitter account from that character’s perspective. Writing in first person is much better for getting in touch with a character’s thoughts and unique voice. If your novel is third person, then taking a break from that perspective can help give you a different way of looking at things. Your character might surprise you when they write something unexpected, revealing their deepest, innermost secrets.
- Write something in a different genre, with the same character. Tock has been written in medieval fantasy, 1800’s steampunk fantasy, and modern fantasy. You might find some good ideas if you take your modern-day character and insert them into a scene with knights and wizards, or take them to the future on a sci fi adventure. If you get a really good scene out of it, you could revise the scene to your normal time period, make it a dream sequence, or find some other way to adapt the material to your novel. Or you could just do it for fun, post it to your blog, and never use it in the novel itself. The point is to explore as a writer.
- Write a scene where the character does something you think they’d NEVER EVER do. Is your character such a good and pure person that they’d never hurt a fly? Write them committing cold-blooded murder. Are they happily married and faithful? Write them having an affair. Are they a strong, wicked criminal mastermind? Write them dancing ballet (I did this once, and found a way to make it actually make sense in character). The point is, when it’s “outside the novel,” you can explore the ideas in risky scenes, without having to count them as part of the canon story. It might teach you something about the character that you never knew before, and open up new possibilities in your novel.
Remember, writing is about growth, exploration, and discovery. You won’t succeed at writing without taking risks. Sometimes that means breaking out of your ‘comfort zone,’ and writing something new, different, and scary. If you’re working on a novel now, any time you feel stuck, have writer’s block, or just need a change of pace, writing a short story or stand-alone scene that exists outside the novel might help you out in ways you haven’t realized. And you might just create a perfect scene that actually CAN be inserted into the novel later on.