Monday, January 22, 2007

We'll See It Through, It's What We're Always Here to Do (Writing Wank)

Please note that this is not a "Do as I do" post. (I feel the need to disclaim as I dislike prescriptive writing advice.)

I'm a very . . . seat-of-the-pants sort of writer. Particularly in the long form. With short stories, about half the time, I think about the story for long enough ahead of time that I more or less know the whole thing before I start. I may even do a rough outline before I start scribbling. With novels I can't do this. I have a setting, and some characters with baggage, and some things that I know I want to happen. Everything else (and even a lot of the preceding) is subject to change. Partly this is because it's more fun for me not to know everything ahead of time. Partly it's because it's my experience that every word is shaped by the words that precede it. (I nearly always write in sequence, for this reason.) Scenes often reveal things to me that I don't expect. It's in the details of character and setting that the story becomes real to me--stranger, more emotionally resonant, more true.

What this means, in practical terms, is that I get stuck a lot. I finish a chapter and I'm not sure what happens in the next. I know things that are supposed to happen, because the shape of the larger plot becomes clearer to me as I go along. But sometimes simply getting a character across the room is an ordeal. In other words, the specifics matter.

There are things I do when I get stuck. First, I don't panic. Well, not at first. I figure I've got until the next day or so before I need to get started on the next bit. But not long, particularly now; I've set myself a deadline for this book, and the deadline means that I have to finish 2 1/4 chapters a week, or nine a month, and somewhere in the midst of that are going to be edits for the book that's sold--yeah, it's probably not going to happen, I know. But it's still a goal I'm working towards. So I give myself that day, but I don't dare give myself much more.

I do other, less productive, things. I obsess over how crappy my vague conception of the next chapter would actually be in execution. "Oh, great idea, Dave. So the woman duellist who's posing as her dead brother goes to the prison to see her old professor, and he spends the entire time LECTURING TO HER about the impending revolution? Really interesting." Rule #1 for me (maybe my only rule) is Don't Be Boring. Lectures are boring. So are people talking about things that are going to happen. Rather, things should happen. So I get annoyed with myself and start to pick apart the characters and think about how much fixing the second draft is going to need and how I should have researched the French Revolution more and maybe I should stop thinking about this and have a drink but wait, maybe the character should be drunk! (This is something I'm trying to train myself out of--the Benjy section in The Sound and the Fury is a marker for me, and subconsciously I tend to want to spice up boring scenes by fucking with the character's perceptions through intoxication or other impairments. Need to not do that.)

I don't, as an aside, tend to get as far as thinking that my book sucks. The thing to remember about sucking is that you can fix it in the next draft. The key is just to not make any mistakes so horrible that you end up having to rewrite everything to correct them. (SEE IT'S THAT EASY. Aren't you grateful for having read this?) I know what I'm doing, mostly. The end product may not be perfect, but it'll work. It's just that, for the time being, I'm stuck.

The thing is, the real solution tends to be counter-intuitive. I have to not think about the book for a while. Going for a walk helps. Seeing a movie, or a book that's sufficiently absorbing to make me not think about how it's put together, can also help. And then sleeping on it. Because--and again, this is specific to the way I write--my subconscious does a lot of the connective work, and finds ways to learn from that bit that I read the night before, or that stray thought the other day, or that spicy meal last week. Things snap into place.

Seems like sometimes the best writing strategy is to do something else.


Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Much agreed, Dave. I have three or four month longs periods of writing coming mostly easily, and then sometimes I just have to take a few weeks or a month off. Or more. Whatever it takes. In Japan, midway through writing my second novel, I didn't write for about three or four months. Then it started back up again and carried me to the end on the next wave. I think writers should work however feels right to them. Whatever they have to do to make the book or story or whatever it is you're making, the best way to go about it is to do whatever you need personally to get it done. Sometimes you just have to go away for a while before you can come back.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Wow, Chris, you take a month off from writing completely? I don't know if I could do that. I start to go kinda crazy if I don't write for more than a week or so. But, then, I'm weird.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Darby said...

I'm going through a very dry period right now that is very unnerving because I'm accustomed to keeping a pretty rigid schedule. I tend to write every day, at least for a few hours, even if it's only a few good sentences (hopefully). The last month or so because of work and a shifting schedule, I'm completely messed up, and I feel completely tapped out. It's the worst feeling in the world, like it won't ever come back.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Hey Darby; in my experience that kind of upheaval can disrupt the schedule pretty badly. I'm the same way when I'm not writing--constantly thinking I won't ever write again, and if I don't, then who will I be? Writing is a pretty big part of my identity. So I can totally relate to that awful feeling. Maybe you just need a day or two to stand (or sit) still and regain your equilibrium. Hope it happens soon!

10:28 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Dave, I take off whatever time I need. I tend to be a two or three pages a day kind of writer, but if I feel that I've reached a place where what I'm writing is no longer useful to whatever I'm working on (short story, novel, essay, etc.) I'll pull back and give myself whatever space of time I need to begin again. Sometimes it's a couple of days. Sometimes it's a couple of weeks. Sometimes it's a month. In the case of the longest period I've had to pull away from a project, it was four months, as I said, in Japan. That had to do with an emotionally difficult period I was going through, too, though. I would get upset during that four month period because I wasn't writing, but I also needed that time to work through a rough emotional experience, and in order for me to be able to write, I need to mostly be emotionally grounded. At that time, I wasn't. When I was centered again, it all came out in a steady flow for a long time. That's when I decided to not give myself a hard time for not writing, particularly I mean when there is some other part of my life that needs all of my attention. Giving myself a hard time over not writing only serves to extend the not-writing period, in my case. It's best if I go with the flow, and if the flow says I need to do something else than write right now, I do something else and know that I'll begin writing again when it's time to do that.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Thanks for elaborating, Chris. I totally get that--not forcing it, emotional upheaval getting in the way, etc. After 9/11 I didn't write for about three months, and that's probably the longest I've gone. It was torture! Still, I do try to give myself brainspace, 'cause I think a lot of writing is about taking time to consider what you're doing, not just putting words on the page. So I don't force myself to write every day; but if I go more than three or four days (even if I'm not on a self-imposed deadline) I start to get a bit cranky.

6:55 PM  

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