9.28.2009

On Not Writing Like Lot's Wife

Last night, I set a healthy goal for myself to finish my novel in progress, Scarlet Letters: The Tale of the Vampire Mailman, before my 30th birthday. I figured out of all the goals I intended to accomplish before that milestone year (losing all my excess weight, having a graduate degree, being utterly and disgustingly rich and famous), this is one I could actually do. After all, the story is still very much at the forefront of my mind. I have faith in the idea and the characters, and I believe that our culture is in desperate need of a story that I could only describe as "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy meets Vampires meets Truckloads of Twilight Hate Mail." Sadly, I've allowed internal forces to slow me down over the last month and a half. One of those things was disorganization, which I lamented in my last post. There are other things, however, that are throwing proverbial banana peels into my Path to Novel Completion. One of them is my tendency to go back and re-read previous chapters and edit them before proceeding with the rest of the story.


I know there are a lot of authors who do this. Some of them are even seasoned pros. Elmore Leonard, for instance, confesses that he doesn't do second drafts. Obviously that works for him, because Leonard is a fantastic writer and he has written over 40 books and a dozen or so screenplays. He's also a minimalist who tells fast-paced crime and suspense stories that don't stop long enough to admire the scenery. I think his writing style is served well by such an approach. By the way, his work is a master class in dialogue, and I highly recommend his books on that basis alone. At any rate, if you haven't written 40 books (or can't even finish your first one one), and you haven't had an atom's worth of the success Leonard has had over the decades, editing while you write is likely not a good practice for you.

Guys like Leonard are seasoned marathon runners while the rest of us are still trying to get our wide asses up off the couch. The more you stop and go back and look at what you've written before moving onto the new stuff, chances are you'll still be wearing a dent into your sofa this time next year. So why do some people do this? Why do we need to go back and re-read our words before making new ones? Did they somehow change from the time we wrote them and closed the document to when we opened it again the next day? Why is it that we sit and marvel over what we already did instead of continuing to forge the trail into new territory? What are we afraid of, exactly?

 I can only answer for myself, but I'll discuss my experiences: I sometimes do it when I've deviated from the original plot idea (after all, I'm really making it up as I go along), and I feel like I can't move forward unless I stitch up the hole I opened in the preceding chapter. I don't think there's much wrong in that. I am sure that this is very much behind Leonard's methods. You just have to make sure you make the fix and get back to work. If you don't feel you can do this and get back on track, make a note in a pad next to your keyboard that says, "Make sure John Smith doesn't eat the cheese before he kills his mother," and carry on. Other times, I've genuinely forgotten what I've written. This happens if I miss a few days of writing. But then again, you should really only need to read the last couple pages to get the idea back. But those are only technical reasons, and they don't get to the emotional core of why I would do this. The real reason is because my confidence as a writer is so low sometimes that the only way I can jack it back up to write another chapter is to remind myself of what I've already accomplished.

This is distinctly different from what Elmore Leonard does. Someone who writes as much as he does is not suffering from a confidence problem. He just wants to get the damn thing done. In his mind, if he can fix the kinks as he goes, then he can write "The End" and throw the manuscript at his editors and have them buff it to a high shine. But most of us don't have that knack (or luxury, for that matter). It's the same reason we get mired in research without writing a single word. It's the same reason we get so concerned about "having the story exactly as we want it" before it's even started. We are distracting ourselves from the ultimate task at hand (writing) by looking back, because it's easier than looking ahead and moving into the unknown.

A lot of it is simple procrastination, but we're also worried we're going to screw it all up and that we're going to have *gasp* go back and fix it later! No, it's much safer to just keep patting ourselves on the backs for goals long accomplished than to take a plunge and just do the damn deed and get it done. It's a very bad routine to fall into. Especially for a fledgling author. The line between a simple habit and something far more pathological is when it starts to have a severe or negative impact on your life and your ability to function. If you can rewrite your first draft as you go and still manage to finish your books, then you don't have a problem. If, however, the practice is preventing you from writing new material, then maybe it's time for a change. If you're spending most of your time reminding yourself, "Hey, I am a writer, by god! I can do this! But first, let's look at the awesome stuff I wrote yesterday!" before you can even get started on your daily word or page quota, you'll likely end up exhausted with the idea of your story before it's even half finished, and all because you spent your energy on retrospectives rather than on completion.

Today, I forged ahead with my story knowing very well that there are existing plot holes and extraneous elements that I need to delete or change down the road. There are some continuity issues too, and perhaps some stilted dialogue, redundancies, and some parts that just don't make sense in the context of my characters because I was writing on a bad day. However, I have relinquished my responsibility over having to fix those things right now, and it feels good. What I am doing is not only OK, but it is standard practice for the majority of writers out there. At this point, I will be happy being able to put "The End" on something longer than 25,000 words (even if it needs additional work). That is my goal. I will take all of the energy I saved from NOT re-reading my unfinished book and put it toward polishing and revising a complete novel (after it's had about two months to mellow, of course). I am not Elmore Leonard; most of us aren't. The ones who spend the most time looking back are really just pillars of salt--rooted to one spot and gazing over their backs at a burning city--incapable of moving forward.

9 comments:

  1. This is one of the reasons I've found NaNoWriMo to be such a valuable tool for a writer. It forces you to ignore all those things like plot holes and continuity and stilted dialogue in favor of JUST GETTING THE DAMN WORDS ONTO THE PAGE. If you can convince yourself for thirty days that's more important than being perfect, it carries over beyond NaNo and allows you to actually write for real. I firmly believe my 5 (!) bouts with NaNo have made me much more productive than pretty much every other writer I know personally, because I've coached myself to say "fuck it, I'll fix it in rewrites!" and blaze on ahead. It works for me; you can make it work for you too.

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  2. I love this, Allie. Love it. When is NaNoWriMo anyway? Maybe I should give it a shot.

    -Natalia

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  3. I too feel like NaNo did a lot of good for me in that way. I was a chronic suffer of this problem until then. Now I do it only every once in awhile, especially if I feel like I'm stuck in a place in the plot and I need something to help jimmy me out. But you're right--you don't have time to look back and lament over your screw-ups with NaNo. It really takes nothing more than sheer practice to get over this habit. And the ability to convince oneself that it's okay to not hit a hole in one on a par 4, just because Happy Gilmore can do it. lol

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  4. Natalia -- It's in November. I'm keeping my fingers crossed I can do it this year. I need to finish my current book first. If I can do that by the middle of next month, then that should give me some time to do some planning on the next story before diving in November 1st. :)

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  5. A very good, insightful, and timely article. Thanks Allison. And keep going!

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  6. Allison,

    I agree with you completely. I'm working on a self-editing workshop for a writer's group, and I'll begin the presentation by suggesting writers write first, edit later. I will note that some people (like your example of Elmore Leonard) don't have to do this, but I've never met a writer in person who didn't do better by just getting ideas down on paper in the first draft. I have met many writers who have never finished their first manuscript because they continue to go back and read and edit over and over again and never move forward.

    Years ago, I took an online novel writing class from Lary Crews, and the thing that made the biggest impression on me was this: the first draft is supposed to be pure green dreck. After you finish the first draft, you can go back and edit, but until you have the first draft down, you don't have anything to polish.

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  7. You had me at "Twilight hate mail"!

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  8. Lillie -- Exactly right. And I really want to save writers from going down this road, because in so many cases what they're suffering from is a confidence issue. It's more a case of spinning wheels than of trying to expedite the writing process, as Leonard does.

    Anton -- I might even put that in my pitch. hahaha!

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