3 | writing out of my comfort zone
As I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I had to write a thesis. Typically this is a very academic research project showcasing something that we, as an English major, are either specifically studying or are interested in pursuing. So, if you were an English major with an education emphasis, you might do something that relates to teaching or English students. This project translates into a 30+ page paper and a twenty minute presentation in front of peers and faculty.
When it came time for me to choose a topic for my thesis, I was a little frustrated. I kept thinking about certain options I could do, but none of them felt natural. They didn't mesh with my emphasis.
I wanted to do something that really fit into creative writing. It wasn't that I didn't want to write an academic paper, I just wanted my topic to align with what I'd spent four years learning to do. While at GWU, I had been learning to write different genres, from creative non-fiction to fantasy. I wanted my capstone to showcase the different genres and tropes I'd learned about. Turns out, there wasn't really a "creative writing" thesis.
After a bit of discussion and playing around with ideas, my totally awesome professors helped me to craft a thesis that would allow me to study genres, attempt to combine them, and then write a novel. This, I thought, was a better representation of what I'd learned while at Gardner-Webb and would allow me to challenge myself as a writer. Little did I know just how much I would be challenged.
I chose to study historical fiction, Neo-Victorian literature, and Gaslamp Fantasy. I have always loved the Victorian period and had dreamed of writing within that era. I had (and still have) many ideas for historical novels but could never figure out how to start. The idea of writing in a time period that was (a) not my own or (b) not entirely made up by me was overwhelming. How could I possibly do it justice?
Thesis gave me the opportunity to (Who am I kidding? It FORCED me to) write outside of my comfort zone. This was good, since up until that point, I was mostly cruising through novels. I was writing at least two books a year and I was working within established series' and genres I was comfortable with. I needed a change.
During this same semester, I was taking a novel writing class. This added a little bit of pressure and gave me that NaNoWriMo feel that I needed to get started on the project. Typically, the deadlines for the novel writing class came before the thesis class. So, while I didn't need to have my novel idea figured out right away for my thesis, I had to have the general premise for the book figured out for the novel writing course.
For that class, I had to come up with an elevator pitch. You're supposed to pretend you are on an elevator with someone and you have from one floor to the next to explain the premise of your book and catch a readers attention. When this assignment was given, I had just the barest skeleton of an idea for my thesis novel. I knew that it was set in the victorian period, I knew that the main characters was going to be in an asylum, and that there would be some paranormal elements. With that information in mind, I wrote this--
The year is 1879. When thirteen-year-old Ruth Merritt Holbrook emerges from her family's burning estate home, bloody and charred, but entirely numb--She makes headlines. Reporters believe she is deranged. They accuse her of having set the fire. All the headlines read: "UNSUSPECTING FAMILY SLAIN BY DERANGED DAUGHTER." Everyone believes it. How else could a highbred girl exit a burning building, injured yet senseless? Why did she not scream or cry? The police tell her she is a killer. The doctors tell her she is mad. The nuns at St. Agatha's tell her she is possessed. Perhaps, Ruth Merritt Holbrook is all of those things-or perhaps she is much more.
I read that aloud in class and was thrilled with the positive response. I had struggled to get my very loose ideas to fit into a pitch, especially since, at that moment, I knew so little about the book. I ended up using the elevator pitch as a guide for the tone and feel of the book. I haven't even bothered to change it since then. This is the same pitch I used for my description for Senseless on Wattpad. As they say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The elevator pitch really helped to get the ball rolling with a plot. Once again, I can see how I work well under pressure. Over the course of a semester I wrote the first draft of Senseless. This project was different than many of my other books, because I really forced myself to be organized and plot things. I had to, if I didn't, I wouldn't finish the book on time and it may not follow the genre tropes that I needed it to.
To write the book, I ended up using a very pretty leather notebook from Barnes and Nobles and the writing program Scrivener. Two of my literary prime sources were Dracula by Bram Stoker and Leanna Renee Hieber's novel Darker Still. (If y'all haven't read this book, drop everything and go do that now. It's a masterpiece. I love it. 10/10 will always recommend).
My thesis was kind of a pain, not only was I writing an academic paper on genre, but because I was also writing a full-length novel. I had to cite every bit of research I did for the book. That included everything from what a train ticket cost in 1880 to what parlor curtains were made of. By the time it was done, I think I had over seventy sources just for the novel. A lot of research goes into writing historical fiction.
There were artistic choices I made for the book that I probably wouldn't have made if I weren't trying to fit within genre expectations. For instance, I use a scarce amount of contractions in Senseless (a practice that still affects my writing, even now). This wasn't something I did before writing that book, but it was a staple of traditional Victorian literature. With that in mind, I trained myself not to use contractions in the novel. If I were to rewrite, I would totally change this.
Another choice I made that I might have done differently, is the way the plot moves. Everything is told in documents, with Merritt writing the actual scenes in her diary. All other information is told through letters, newspapers, and medical files. I wanted the book to flow the way Dracula does, with the story unfolding for the reader as if they had just stumbled upon a box of documents. This is really cool and I don't know of many contemporary novels that are structured this way, but it seems a little heavy for YA (which is the genre I typically write in and the audience I wrote this book for).
Aside from those small changes, I really like Senseless and loved writing it. The novel was a challenge in many different ways, but it taught me that I could write in new genres. Eventually, everything unfamiliar, if done enough times, becomes familiar. It also showed me that I could apply my ideas to new settings and places. I not only wrote Senseless within a different time period, but also in a totally different country from my own. I learned the power of the internet and creative researching.
I would encourage any writer who is stuck in a rut or finds themselves strangled by writer's block to try placing their plot in an unfamiliar place. Write outside of your comfort zone, try something new. While writing Senseless was very hard and had it's more stressful moments, I think writing is always that way. And, honestly, the benefits of having written that story highly outweigh any discomfort I felt at the time. I am a better writer because I challenged myself.
Never be afraid of trying something new.
If you want to read the very rough draft version of Senseless, you can find it on my Wattpad profile linked here.