Monday, July 20, 2009

Distance and Finishing What You Start

I had planned to give my recent short story The Silent History at least two weeks before revising it, but I noticed that my brain kept working on it, even when I was trying to think of something else. I kept jotting down revision notes to myself. How to fix this scene. How to make this or that make more sense. Bits of dialog I needed to add. So I decided that after a week of not looking at the manuscript, I might as well proceed to the second draft.
Now as you may recall, I didn't like large chunks of the story as I was writing it. I have learned that this is pretty standard for writers. A writer tends to be the worst judge of his or her own work, particularly while he or she is still writing it. You're just too close to the material. That's why it's best to get some distance from the manuscript. I usually like to leave something alone until I've almost forgotten it before doing any revisions. However this story had something of a deadline, so two weeks was really all I could spare, and that turned into one week. I should point out that some sections, the first three chapters to be specific, had three or four weeks because I didn't reread them as I worked. I wrote the last three chapters, the second half of the story. almost in one sitting, without referring back to chapters one, two, or three. I did throw out most of one chapter and almost completely rewrite it as well because the forward momentum of the story had become derailed.
So anyway, Friday I printed out the full text of The Silent History and took up my red pen and started marking things up. And you know what? I no longer hated most of the stuff I had hated during composition. I marked up the usual things. Some repetitious phrases and words. Adverb abuse. Moved some comma around. That sort of thing. I read the whole thing aloud so I could see how the dialog sounded and made some changes there.
But overall I didn't have to do nearly as much revision as I expected. As usual I found some of those things that always amaze me. Mostly bits about the characters. things that I hadn't known until the moment I wrote them. That's one of the things that makes writing fun. It's almost like magic in that stuff you don't really know how you came up with just appears on the page.
John D. MacDonald once said that sometimes he went to the keyboard all fired up with inspiration and then some days writing was like pulling teeth. Six months later he couldn't tell which parts of a book he'd written when inspired and which he'd written when totally uninspired. It really is like that. But somehow I never seem to remember that when I'm writing. There's always the point where I think "This is the worst thing I've ever written and I should just stop right now and start something else."
But I have learned that giving up on something just because it's not going well is a bad idea for writers. I'm not saying you can't have false starts. I had three on Silent History. But I kept coming back. You can give up on approaches, but not on stories, because if you do, you'll end up with a file full of fragments. I'm speaking from experience here. I use to bail on anything once I hit a road block. I try not to do that these days.
I think F. Paul Wilson said it best when he said:

"You come to learn that finishing is the work of writing. The great fun of writing is inventing the story and working out the problems. But once you've gotten that done in your head, then you have to stay with it and get it all down on paper."


lk said...

See, I get intimidated by the plotting itself. I am afraid to move in any direction because I'm afraid it will be the wrong one and I'll get confused.

It's a good story. I liked the protag.

Just finished listening to the audio of THE ANGEL'S GAME. Bah. Talk about going into the dark basement alone...the main char in that one is such a chump and a loser I wanted to shoot him myself.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Thanks, I'm glad you liked Vanessa. She struck me as a heroine you'd enjoy. Choosing a plot IS intimidating, because if you later decide it's not working, then it's major rewrite time.

I bailed on Angel's Game about midway through. I liked the guy's writing and thought he did a great job of establishing mood. Unfortunately the mood he established was one which made me want to jump off a high building...

Jeri said...

Congratulations on finishing! At least one of us is getting back in the game. ;)