The Power of Side Writing

I sit down. I write. I get up. I go about my day.

I write only what goes in the story. I don’t have a lot of time. I need to go about my day. Did I mention that?

What happened in yesterday’s writing session? I pick up there. And I write what happens next. And that’s it.

I have a good story now. I mean . . . well, it’s decent. It’s got all the right bits. I get up. I go about my day.

But now as I fall asleep, it nags at me. Something . . . I don’t know. It’s not right. I have an adequate story. Have I put all this time into writing to be an adequate storyteller?

I wake up. I sit down.

I don’t write. I think.

I think there is more to consider here than a series of events. More than first and then and next.

There is why.

There is what if.

Have I asked her how she feels about the story I’m giving her, this character of mine? What would she tell me about her story? I let her write her letter to me. Oh. Oh. I am missing things, not explaining reasons, not really understanding her. But she tells me. She tells me what I forgot. Missed. Ignored.

How well do I understand her, really? Less than I thought. Do I know what she would do in a situation she’ll never face? Let me write her one, a scene that has no place in my story, but shows me what she would do. And as I understand it, I understand how much further to push her in the scenes we see.

I sit down. I write. And somehow I lose her voice. So I hunt it. I write her a scene of pure dialogue in the form of poetry. What kind of poetry would she speak in? Is she a limerick? Of course not. She would roll her eyes. Is she a sonnet? It makes her skin uncomfortable, like she has tried to wrap herself in a fancy fox fur, but she doesn’t like the bristles against her skin. She is not fancy. Is she a chain of haikus? But no, she feels as if she’s cut off, each thought having a little more to it. She is free verse, and as she speaks her poem, I find her voice again. The poem doesn’t show up in her story, but her voice is growing more clear.

I sit down. I write. Most days it is still the story. First and then and next.

But some days, some days the character must play so she can lead me off the narrative path to where the surprises lie, surprises that as I pick them up, as I see what she loves, lead me on to the better story.

These are all actual assignments given by advisors I worked with in the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and each exercise unlocked a new and deeper layer of my characters. Thank you to Will Alexander and Cynthia Leitich-Smith for these nudges. 

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

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