When I don’t know the WHY behind a scene or a character, there is nothing more helpful than stepping away from the manuscript. When I am writing away from my story, I am free to explore my characters, setting, plot, theme…well everything. And since it doesn’t “count,” it also doesn’t have to be good—that is the permission slip I need.
I’ve finally discovered a way of dumping this inner perfectionist for at least part of the journey. I learned through trial and error that the keyboard, domain of the delete key, precursor to print, was where my perfectionist tended to take control. Pencil and paper was where my heart led the way. Which is why I began to “channel” my characters through freewriting. Like poetry, freewrites are a way I ditch my inner critic and make the switch from common sense to felt sense, from thoughts to emotions.
Sidewriting takes us away from linear and helps us explore divergent thoughts and also digs into our subconscious, which actually does know everything about our stories and is just waiting to tell us all about them.
The sidewriting exercise I rely on most is really simple. I write a messy, gossipy version of my story (or scene or conflict). I handwrite it, like it’s a note I might pass in class, and I allow myself plenty of gossipy digressions. . . . I’ve developed a kind of outlining process I love, but sometimes I really crave the structure of gossip, the way it’s built on cause and effect.
I always start with character. For me, that’s the spark that makes me want to write. Who is this person in my head? What are they grappling with? What do they need to figure out (about themselves and/or life in general)? To answer these questions, I write scenes about them and sometimes in their voice.
I ask you: What questions do you need to ask your characters? If that feels too challenging, Walter Dean Myers’s advice in Just Write: Here’s How! is to “Come up with a bunch of questions you might want to ask about someone you just met in real life.”
If you’re a writer then you likely have feelings about sidewriting. You know, all that extra writing you do (or wonder if you should do) in order to figure out and enhance your story. Sidewriting can be anything from doing a story spine to free form writing to letters from your characters to hand writing a scene to word associations to writing from a new POV to plot graphs to–well, you get the idea. Sidewriting is any writing you do that (generally) doesn’t go into your actual manuscript.