Back to the Basics

As some of you might know, I’m into boxing (the kind where you punch things). As some of you might not know, I’ve been coming back from an injury recently.

I’ve been doing a lot of physical therapy— lots of stretching, lots of small and methodical movements, lots of careful placement of my body as I do activities that I’ve been training to do for quite a while.

I promise this has to do with writing, just bear with me.

As a result of the injury, I’ve had to go back to a lot of fundamental movements with my boxing (and also, my biking and my running). I’ve got to do a lot of exercises that specifically engage parts of my body— low abdominals, the soleus muscle in my calves, and my hips.

It’s boring work. But because I’ve been doing it, I have been able to ramp back into boxing classes and ramp back into training on the whole.

What does this have to do with writing?

Well, I’ve been drafting. Drafting, as I mentioned before, is something I tend to do by going around in circles. Drafting is also my least favorite phase of writing. I am much more of an editor or a sculptor when it comes to my work, then I am a raw creator.

But the injury has got me thinking. About all of the basic, underlying movements that I took for granted for so long. Made me think about how those small foundational movements build into something larger and more important over time. Those foundations can lead to injury when you increase your training too much. Or they’re the ones that can actively help you heal when you’re on the road to recovery.

So I’ve been thinking about the foundations and the basics in my writing, too.

My third book is ultimately about friendship. Every time I go over a passage, I ask myself if the scene has that underlying framework. It’s a simple idea: is this scene about friendship? But it’s amazing how much asking myself such a foundational question changes the tenor of what I’m writing. It’s amazing how many times I’m trying to drive forward the main storyline of my book with only one of the three point of view characters in a scene. True, not every character has to be in every scene. But, if the main component driving your primary storyline is friendship, then that had better be in the majority of your scenes.

I’d gotten so lost in the mechanics of my plot, I’d forgotten to check in with the most fundamental promise that my story must deliver upon— is this a story about friendship?

So, I’ve started asking myself simpler questions as I draft. I’ve been asking myself the basics of setting and character. What does the bookstore look like where the story happens? (I’d forgotten to describe it). What does a character do when she’s nervous? (I hadn’t ever asked myself). What kind of car does another character drive (she rides a bike, which, is a story in and of itself).

And inevitably all of these small details add up. Not just into a larger story. But also— they make my themes richer. They make the slice of contemporary world that I have built more vivid. Locking each of these foundations into place makes the overall writing more effortless (though, for me, drafting is never really effortless).

It is, all in all, a bit like boxing. If my core is engaged and I’m breathing right and my chin is down and I rotate my hip properly— the punch just flies. It was the foundational effort that produced a better, more fluid punch. It was foundational movements that helped me heal, helped me be able to start training again. It’s a lot of effort dedicated to simple things. But they add up to something greater in the end.

And it’s the foundations in character and in story that have been seeing me through all of this drafting. That have been slowly adding up to a book about three girls trying to save a dying bookstore. About three girls who think they know each other, but really, they’ve got to learn to better understand one another on a fundamental level.

Sometimes, we’ve all got to go back to the basics.

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