Thursday, October 25, 2012

Three-part writing process: a theory.

Tragedy.  I wrote this idea out in an email to a friend. Wrote it in gorgeous, bloggy detail. Then I cut it from the email, realizing that she (not a writer) wouldn't be interested in my theories. Intended to paste it into a blog entry.

But, as life would have it, I got randomized and forgot to paste it...anywhere. So when I finally got to this window, I discovered the computer actually has the link to a website stored in the paste function.


But! It was my brain that thought it up to begin with, so I'll recreate. Less than spontaneously, but maybe more thought out.

Here's the concept. Writing has always been considered a two-step event. Writing and then Editing. You write your novel. Then you edit it. Sometimes you edit it over and over again. 

But let me pose this theory:

Great writers write in three steps.

Creating. Polishing. Editing.

Yes, those are in the correct order.

Writing is really a combination of creating and polishing. This is where the various "writing styles" come in - some people create an outline first, then fill it in with details. Others write copiously, then cut and rearrange. No matter how you come up with your fully functional narrative - that's your goal in the creative phase. A narrative draft that is "finished". That's what people mean when they say "I finished the first draft of my novel." It means, "I have written a narrative that holds together, and I won't be rearranging it in any significant way." 


Most of the work of new writers is to figure out how they best hammer out the skeleton: whether through the inspirational and copious bloodletting known as "getting it all on the page" followed by major manuscript surgery (as I do) or by thinking hard and writing from an outline that's been a few months or even years in the making and then filling in the prescribed scenes and details (my friend Nick Kaufmann writes his fantastic urban-sorcerous crime novels this way).  Professional writers are really good at knowing when a skeleton is unfinished. They are slaves to the feeling that "something isn't right here." And they will tweak and cut and rearrange until it feels "finished."

Before sending out that "finished" story, they polish that filled out skeleton. This is where you edit your own writing. You choose better verbs. You cut characters that steal scenes for no good reason. After you absolutely know the frame of your story (Victor LaValle has some great things to say in interviews about this) you go through and "fix" -- whittle down scenes that are too long, add descriptions so that scenes don't happen in empty rooms with blank walls unless they're supposed to. 

This sounds so obvious, right? So why do writing students so often send out stories in the middle of the Creative phase? Teachers of writing often have to select the scenes to cut and mark where the story actually "begins". 

A great editor I recently worked with agreed with Victor that you can write your outline AFTER the novel is written, but you still have to have an outline.  Every story has to have a skeleton that makes sense and that can be filled in (with scenes that organs?) and can be overlaid with details (skin, eye color, hair?)... despite my extended Halloween-induced metaphor, I do think that the skeleton of the story is important, and the creation of this core of every narrative should be thought of as a separate action from the polishing (finding the perfect words, describing the perfect weather, adding the crazy character traits that will make Mr. Blusty an unforgettable professor of science) -- but I also hold that the polishing of the story is NOT the editing of the story, because polishing is still fun. It's making your story all shiny and glimmery and yours. 

The editing is the painful part. After you already think the story is perfect. "As good as you can make it" - you give it to your trusted readers. Then your agent. Finally, professional editors. Each of these rounds will give you feedback which you can opt to use or not - but which you MUST look at with a critical eye. Not your inspired, vulnerable, genius writer self. A critical, consumer, teacher, word-count, sort of eye. And that is editing. Editing hurts. It's letting go of the paragraph you kept in (though you kind of knew it should go, certainly you moved it six different places)... 

So what do you think of my three-part writing process? 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Music to guide us

In our world, we multitask. 

Facebook and other social media send us alerts during the workday; and often we have a peek at the message. The phone rings (or buzzes, or plays a melody, or quacks, or honks) while we are talking to a friend and we check to see who is calling. As parents, we are masters of listening to one kid monologue about a space station he is developing while the other explains that she’s not sure her best friend likes her as much as she did the day before yesterday – all while we are picking up a trail of jackets, scarves, and lunchboxes and deciding where they should go. 

I bring this up because my son’s principal told me the other day that kids can’t keep track of reading two fiction books at once. Something felt wrong, though at first glance it seemed a reasonable comment. We all pretty much read one book at a time. Most of us have a pile of books on our bedside, but we only have bookmarks in one (or two: but the other is the one that we will likely never finish because it's boring.) Books are one-at-a-time. It does make you think that maybe our brains can't follow two (or four, or six) complicated plots at once.

But think about your friends. They are always telling you long intricate stories and you pretty much know which one of them is suffering a hideous divorce, and which one has the ailing mother, and which one is going to tell you about her "awful" job that pays $500K/year. 

Well, maybe they're all minor characters in your ONE story of your life. That's possible. Novels often have divergent threads of narrative that go nowhere.

But what about television (when you used to have time for that) – ? Before having kids, I kept track of the plots and multiple characters in Friends, Seinfeld, Mad about You, who knows how many other shows…I had no trouble with that. So why do we have this notion that we can’t read more than one book at a time?

Or work on more than one project at a time?

This is me, thinking on paper. But it seems to me that what let us get from one show to the other was something concrete. Namely: the theme song. I mean, listen for that sproingy jazz riff at the head of Seinfeld and the characters of Kramer, and all the rest just leap into your head. Same goes for a glimpse of…anything. Name your magic: Gilligan’s Island, Blossom, Greatest American Hero, Full House, Andy Griffith Show, King of the Hill. You play some music and your brain clicks in.

Can we do this with our writing? Can we condition ourselves to get “in the mood” for writing our novels this way? Leaping right back in, after a 30 second intro? Maybe one song would drive us nuts. But how about this--choosing one single playlist to put on repeat or shuffle through for the duration of the writing, so that any of the songs on the list will throw you right back into the scene you were working on when the timer went off reminding you that Jeremy needs to be picked up from school and brought to jazz yoga.

We are Pavlovian creatures and music plays on us. That’s a fact. Why can’t we use this to our advantage as busy, harried writers with very little time?

I want to believe so. Anyone who has experience with this, comment or write to me. I’m dying to know if this will work. I might even try it at home.