Saturday, December 29, 2012

Writer's Rules Revisited #10

I've been doing a lot more thinking and artistic soul-searching this holiday vacation than writing. It's been irksome, but there's a reason behind it. If you read my last post, you'll know the reason for it.

 But the year is winding down and a number of things have some things have come into sharp focus. After you lose a friend, loved one, or colleague, you take stock in what people will have of you after you're gone and you realize you have so much more to say.

I have so much to say that it's frustrating I can't say it at the speed at which I wish to. With the New Year, I'm going to commit to writing more in 2013 than I ever have in the course of a year. Not just prose, either. Pieces for Huffington Post, StarWars.Com, Big Shiny Robot!, City Weekly, and any other outlet that will have me. I'll write and have published more short stories than ever and I'll be putting out at least a book or two.

I have to.

Time is short.

For far too many it's far too short.

One thing I'm going to work on more is this series as well. I'd like to see it done and see it added to significantly.

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 herePart 5 here, Part 6 herePart 7 herePart 8 here, and Part 9 here.

31) The hardest part of writing is starting. Finishing is no trick as you've already committed to start. 

Writing is hard.

That sounds obvious, but it's totally true. Presumably, everyone reading this has had a time where they've bled for their writing. It's taken our blood and sweat and tears. Sometimes we get an idea that seems brilliant, but then we think about the torture it will take to squeeze all the right words out of us and we leave it as just that, an abbreviation of an idea scratched out in pen in our notebooks.

It happens all the time.

But getting past that one hurdle is the hardest part. Once you've committed your first words to paper, finishing is no trick. It doesn't matter if the piece doesn't take the shape you thought it was going to. It doesn't matter if the endgame doesn't resemble your idea in any way, shape, or form. What matters is that you've committed to start, and committing to start is the same as committing to finish.

Personally, I try not to have more than two outstanding projects unfinished at a time. If I have more than that, unless it's for a paid deadline, one of them tends to fall by the wayside. It not only allows me to focus on a very narrow band of writing projects, it allows me to know exactly what I'm working on when I fire up my computer, or open up my notebook, or twist a new page into the wheel of my typewriter. But the key is forcing myself to finish them before moving on to the next thing.

I have so many ideas swimming around in my head, I could start a new idea every day of the week, but if I did that I'd have a thousand beginnings and no endings. So you really do have to treat the beginning of every story as a commitment to finish that story.

As I write this, I'm this close to writing "The End" on the novel I'm working on and I'm halfway through a short story that I think is shaping up quite nicely. And I have three or four ideas of what I want to work on next, but I can't. I jut can't do it. I've committed to finish, and no matter how much it drives me crazy, I have to do it. I let the madness that comes with ideas flowing over the brim of my imagination fuel the need to finish these stories, so that when I get on to the next one it's a refreshing exercise and doesn't feel like work.

Getting to that starting line with a story you want to torture yourself with is the hard part. Finishing it and moving on to the next is a piece of cake.

We do this because we love it and because we have to, not because of some flight of fancy. If we don't start things we want to finish, we're not doing anything but kidding ourselves and everyone else.

32) Qui-Gon Jinn said of pod-racing, "Feel, don't think. Use your instincts." The same is true of first drafts. 

Qui-Gon Jinn is a fount of knowledge in the living force, sure. And the beauty in his wisdom is that it can be applied to everything, including writing.

In The Phantom Menace, when he tells Anakin that he needs to feel his way through the podrace with his instincts instead of his brain, a light bulb appeared above my head. That's exactly how we have to be to work on our first drafts.

Stephen King said of first drafts that we have to, "Write with the door closed, edit with the door open" and I think these two concepts, Qui-Gon's and Kings, fit together nicely.

It's incredibly difficult to pour our hearts out when we're exposed. Writing is a vulnerable enough thing, we need to imagine that we're doing it with the door closed, away from critical, prying eyes. And we need to trust our instincts to put down what's in our heart and our head down on the page first. Our minds and the critical gaze of others can enter into the process after we've completed our draft and made those first choices.

Our instincts will take us to places our logical mind will never let us go. Too many of us self-edit and say things as we write like, "That might be cheesy," or, "That bit of prose might be too flowery," or, "This piece of story is too serious for a joke or a bit of romance," and on and on and on. Turn that off for your first draft. I've found, over the years, that the things that I self-edit before they make it onto the page usually have to be added back in later in revisions anyway. Or I find that when I trust my instincts and go with something that I might think is silly, or too over-the-top, it finds its way of making every cut of the piece with only minor alterations.

And from these instincts our stories sometimes take turns we didn't expect. We need to follow these side-paths and just write.

We know story inside and out. There's no reason to drown that voice at the earliest stages of work. We need to close the door on the critical part of ourselves every bit as much as we close it on everyone else, in order that we may get the purest words and story on the page. We might have a lot more work to do in the editing phase, but it will be worth it.

33) 32 is only true if you have an outline and a roadmap. Otherwise it's just meandering drivel.

I think this is also true.

You need a skeleton to flesh out, otherwise all of your instincts will take you on a flowery journey to nowhere. You have to know something about your story before you start. You need to know at least who your character is. What's the setting? What is the plan for the end? These are questions you have to know before you start, otherwise all the best instincts in the world won't serve you one bit of good.

This, like everything in writing, is also a careful balancing act. You need enough of a structure to hang your story, but it can't be so rigid that your instincts aren't given room to move to around and to breath. It needs to be loose enough that the direction is the same, but a couple of turns down the road aren't going to screw everything up completely.

And who knows, maybe your instincts throw you enough curveballs that you find that the story you set out to write isn't really the one you wanted to tell. But you wouldn't know it if you didn't have a baseline to start from.

The bottom line is that you have to have some sort of plan. It doesn't matter if it's an interesting conundrum for a character you just sketched out or a scene by scene breakdown on 3x5 index cards, start with the structure, then move to the prose.

With a map you can always find your way.

And that concludes another session of these writing rules. Please don't hesitate to let me know if these have been helpful, and any suggestions for more rules will be greatly welcomed.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6Part 7Part 8, and Part 9. If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. 

And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.
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