Bringing Up Baby: That Story You Still Love

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This week’s guest post is brought to you by Gwen. Thanks, Gwen!

I’ve been writing since I was four. Well, scribbling, but I swore they were stories. Seeing as even I can’t read them anymore, I can claim they were the best I’ve ever written.

When I was twelve, I read a dozen books by Raphael Sabatini and a dozen more by Tamora Pierce. By accident, I stumbled onto the idea that would obsess the next fifteen years of my writing life: seafaring men and women with magic and Shakespearean family drama.

It’s not difficult to see why I would want to spend hundreds of hours writing about swashbucklers and sea battles, cannons and fire-conjurers, hurricanes and kings. I dragged this story with me as I grew up, kept coming back to it over and over. I had a thousand edited pages of a trilogy when I turned eighteen and realized that I was both totally in love with the story, and too bored to continue.

As it turns out, it’s difficult to take a story with you through adolescence. I’ve been rewriting, rebuilding, and slowly working out how to do it:

  1. Don’t be afraid to get messy.

When I was twelve, I thought orphans felt free, not lost or abandoned. When I was twelve, I thought swordfights didn’t have to end bloody. When I was twelve, I thought thieves were romantic, and getting robbed never hurt anyone. I have a fair amount of nostalgia for the naïve whimsy in those stories, and it kept me afraid to shade in the darker sides of the picture for a long time.

I was equally afraid that if I started pulling pieces apart to make space for new things, that I wouldn’t have a story anymore, just a tangle of prose.

I was afraid I would ruin something. Instead, I gave myself a wider space to play.

And I saved all my old drafts because nostalgia is powerful.

  1. Change the names.

When I was in college, a friend asked me why I still had “mages” in my stories, when the term was forcing me to spend extra time explaining away an audience’s preconceived ideas of what they were. A few years later, a professor suggested that I change the names of all the characters I had been working with since I was twelve, to escape old thought patterns.

I renamed a lot of things: people, ships, islands, magicks. It felt like writing a new story, with all my favorite pieces of the old one. Some things went back to their old names after a few months, but it was a valuable freedom.

  1. Question gravity.

Very recently, I was talking a plot problem through with a friend. For years, I have been trying to decide how to destroy something very large during a fight between two people.

“I think you need an army to do that,” my friend said. She spent about thirty seconds explaining it to me, before I realized she was right, and that her idea served my story extremely well.

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before,” I said.

“Because fantasy stories usually follow the idea that one or maybe two people accomplish all the important things,” she said without hesitation.

And I realized I had internalized the Law of Singular Heroes. Like it was the Law of Gravity. Not for the first time, I’ve had to remind myself to question everything, because without meaning to, I’m still mimicking the stories I grew up on without reason.

  1. Keep writing.

I’m a writer who likes to plan her stories, scene by scene, but there’s only so much that can be accomplished without putting words on paper. It’s a particular kind of exploration, like actually walking on an unknown continent instead of flying over it. You learn quickly what works and what doesn’t with your feet on the ground.

  1. Fall in love HARDER.

Whether you started writing at six or sixty, you started because you were in love with something. I loved knights, swords, and dragons. Maybe you loved time machines and elves. I suspect we were both a little in love with words. Whatever it was, our enthusiasm was the most important part. Always, always fight to hold onto it.

Don’t make your changes because you think they make the story better. Make your changes because they excite you, because they enamor you, because they make you love your story better.

You can find Gwen on her blog.

3 thoughts on “Bringing Up Baby: That Story You Still Love

  1. “Don’t make your changes because you think they make the story better. Make your changes because they excite you, because they enamor you, because they make you love your story better.”
    Well said!

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