Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Writer's Resolution 4 - Things get messy

So, after committing yourself to the discipline of writing productively, carefully choosing which story you'll write to the end, and exploring your subject enough to have plenty to say, you're finally putting together sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. And it feels weird, maybe a little off. Especially if you are a perfectionist, used to rewriting as you go along. You've filled pages that, by any standard, aren't your best.

This is probably fine. It takes a while to get used to just telling the story and worrying a good deal less about the quality of the prose. Continuing to move forward may feel like building on sand. It takes a great deal of trust to keep composing as the editor in your head is shouting dire warnings.

In most cases, you can ignore the editor (for now). For all the rewriting that is in your future, it generally is more efficient to compose first and revise once the manuscript is done than it is to try to do both at once. And you'll avoid the real story killer, looping. Having pages full of cliches, wrong turns, on-the-nose dialogue, and grammatical errors is a small price to pay for getting a fresh story written and completed. Gaping holes can be filled later and, chances are, there will be whole chapters that will need to be cut. But you'll know better what is needed and what can be improved and what must be removed once you see a version of beginning, middle, and end in its entirety.

It is possible to get too sloppy. There is a difference between having the words flow because you are caught up in the scenes and having them fill up pages because you are making easy, shopworn choices. I ask myself these questions:

  • Am I being specific and true to my characters, or have they slipped into something familiar and generalized?
  • Am I truly immersed and emotionally involved in the scene (or at least keeping true to an outline I believe in)?
  • Within the last ten pages, have I surprised myself?
  • Within the scene, have I raised any new questions?
  • Does the overall tone of the scene fit the whole of the story I'm writing, or has a different voice emerged?

If the answers to any of these questions disturb me, I will look toward writing a scene that is important to the story and so challenging that I'm reluctant to write it. Usually, this is a scene further on in the story, but it can also be a prequel scene. I don't write it immediately. Instead, I prepare to write it on the following day.

What I'm looking for is a return to something that is authentic to the novel I'm working on. This will, almost always, snap me back to full attention and make me more present to the story.

An easier way to do this job is to write a completed scene from the point of view of a different character. This verges on rewriting -- in that the setting and beats of the scene are available --without turning on the editor in my head.

The hardest thing to do to fix things when they are falling apart is to branch away from the story, but sometimes a turn is so disastrous that is the only way to move forward. I've had, on occasion, to reach back several chapters to a place where the story (though not necessarily the prose) is working well, find an alternative choice and move off in a new direction. This is daring and requires a new outline, but worth the effort. 

Here's the good news: I've found that, the more I write, the less often I need to take action to revive the composition phase. In fact, the occasions when the prose feels dreadful (not a true problem) are fewer. Fast writing increasingly means fresher and more exciting writing.

It also is more audacious for two reasons. First, the words are less precious when I'm more productive. I worry less about losing them. Second, my imagination runs faster than my concerns about extreme choices and material that might disturb people (including me). I think of this as running through the yellow lights. I keep the storytelling in gear and find myself in dangerous neighborhoods. And that's a good thing.

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