Dear Story Nurse,
In post #2, “Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself”, you said:
“I’m working on two novels at once right now; one involves putting characters I’m very invested in through some difficult experiences with strong echoes in my own life, and the other is much more of a technical exercise.”
I’d like to know more about the latter one. What is it like? How is it a technical exercise? I would be interested in trying this approach myself, so any details would be much appreciated. Thank you very much!
Thanks for asking about this; working on a practice project alongside a passion project is something I’ve alluded to in a few posts, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to go into more detail.
I stumbled on this quite by accident. I’d been working for a while on my passion project, Valour Advances the Man, a Regency romance novel with a gay trans protagonist. As part of my research, I went back and reread a bunch of Jane Austen novels, which reminded me to rewatch one of my favorite movies, the 1995 film adaptation of Persuasion. (I also watched the 2007 version, which is considerably more melodramatic and less interesting.) My partner X hadn’t seen it, so I was describing the plot, and I said, “Like all Austen books, it comes down to saying that people deserve love, and showing them finding love, even if society tells them they can’t have it.”
And I paused, and rewound that in my head, and said, “That’s such a queer story. That’s everything I want in a queer romance.”
Immediately I started wondering how Persuasion could be adapted as a present-day queer love story. Some avenues presented themselves—it’s really not hard to write a story around the idea that a Navy officer can’t marry the man he loves, who has been told emphatically by a trusted family friend that such a match would be impossible and unsuitable—and I sketched out a couple of ideas. But I hesitated to dive into it, because I was working pretty intensely on Valour, into which I’d put a couple of years’ worth of research and plotting as well as a good portion of my heart.
The thing about passion projects, though, is that they tear you up as you’re writing them. Once I finished the bulk of my research and began writing Valour, I realized I could only write a little bit of it at a time. Even working on the outline was emotionally difficult. Though I was nominally writing in a genre, there really are very few models for the type of book it was rapidly becoming. Over and over, I would try on a trope that was familiar from a dozen romances with crossdressing heroines and realize that it became unpleasant or unworkable with a transgender hero. I had to dismantle my internalized transphobia. I had to write about my characters’ struggles to find love—and to believe themselves worthy of love—while living in a transphobic, queerphobic culture. It was really hard. And on a technical level, I struggled with plotting, which has never been my strong suit, and grew frustrated with my own amateurish writing mistakes. Fifteen years of reviewing and editing have given me a lot of knowledge about how to fix things that are already written, but I still had to learn how to write. Every time I reread my attempts to tell this story I cared so much about, I’d wince and wonder whether I could ever do it justice.
So I needed to take breaks from the heart-work and seek solace in brain-work, and I needed to improve my basic technical competence. The Persuasion adaptation (let’s call it Persuaded) was a perfect way to do both of those things. I wasn’t nearly as emotionally invested in it, so I was freed to write badly, and thus to learn from writing badly. I was much more comfortable working with an extant text than creating one from scratch. I could study Austen’s plot and characters instead of stressing over developing my own. Setting it in the present day meant I didn’t have to do nearly as much research, and working firmly within genre bounds gave me lots of familiar tropes and tools, so I felt much less at sea (so to speak). This gave me the emotional safety and mental wherewithal to play around and experiment and take risks, which of course is how one learns.
The flip side is that working on Persuaded doesn’t bring me that deep visceral satisfaction. It’s a technical, intellectual exercise, so I get technical, intellectual pleasure from it, but that only goes so far. Valour was still on my mind, and those characters still clamored to have their stories told. After some trial and error, I figured out that I could work on Valour until I felt too frustrated or overwhelmed to continue, and then work on Persuaded until I felt like I had leveled up in my writing craft and was ready to dive into Valour again.
It’s slow going, writing two novels at once (and since my baby was born at the end of 2015 I’ve barely touched either one), but it’s working really well for me. If I weren’t able to work on them in parallel, I’d focus on Persuaded first. I don’t want to put off Valour forever, but I think I need to be a better writer than I currently am—and a more confident writer than I currently am, able to take some leaps and risks even when the stakes feel higher—in order to write it the way I want it to be written. I expect that this back-and-forth approach means that the final chapters of both books (I am, for the most part, a write-from-beginning-to-end type of writer) will be light years beyond the first chapters, and I’ll need to do some pretty extensive rewriting once I’ve got complete drafts. But that happens to nearly everyone who writes a book, I think, because the process of writing it teaches you things. Writing two books in parallel just means I’m going to learn a whole lot of things.
Shifting from personal stories to advice (since this is an advice column and not my personal blog), some suggestions if you’re wrestling with a passion project and think a practice project might be useful:
- Choose and design a practice project that feels like your passion project with training wheels on. It should be easier (but still enough of a challenge to learn from) and safer, a place where you really feel free to play and don’t mind if your experiments sometimes fall flat. The practice project is like the studio where a musician rehearses before a performance. Much as they might try playing that riff a dozen different ways, you can try writing a paragraph or plotting a character arc a dozen different ways. The goal is to gain a level of knowledge and a fluidity of skill that will help carry you through the more difficult aspects of working on your passion project.
- Do make sure you have some emotional connection to the practice project. You have to care enough about it to work on it regularly. Part of what you’re practicing is the experience of joyful writing, fun writing, expansive writing; you won’t get those from something that doesn’t grab you in some way.
- It’s totally up to you whether you work on the projects in serial or in parallel. Try both and see what works for you. Even if you mostly focus on the practice project first, you may occasionally get a jolt of inspiration or an “aha!” moment about your passion project; make sure to note those down for later use.
- It’s also up to you whether you think of the practice project as something to eventually share with the world or something to keep purely for yourself. Again, go with whatever hits that sweet spot of keeping you invested but not weighing you down.
- Use the practice project to practice aspects of writing that are less quantifiable—things like voice, emotional resonance, trope inversion, allegory and metaphor. Those are trainable skills, just as much as the basic techniques of prose, character development, plotting, and worldbuilding, but they’re much harder to learn from textbooks or classes. Take this opportunity to develop them by writing.
And finally, a word of warning: don’t let yourself put off the passion project indefinitely, especially if self-confidence is one of the things you’re struggling with. It’s easy to always feel like you just aren’t a good enough writer to tackle that incredibly special and important story, but remember that it’s your story and you are allowed to write it. Set yourself a goal or deadline after which you will start working on that project, no matter what. Acknowledge explicitly that while you’re writing it you will be full of doubts, and when it’s done it will not be perfect (because no book is perfect, especially in its first draft); commit to writing it anyway.
You can’t thrive by only making art that feels safe and easy. Sometimes you need to be brave and do the thing that’s scary and hard, because the rewards are so much greater. (Including career rewards; readers generally respond more strongly to passion projects.) But you also can’t be brave all the time; you need rest, and play, and learning, and sustenance. Combining passion projects and practice projects is one way of giving yourself a balanced intellectual and emotional diet. It’s certainly not the only way, but I think it’s an option worth considering. If you try it, leave a comment telling us how it works (or doesn’t work) for you.