Dealing With Works In Progress 4/18/2012
Some of my writings will always be works in progress, never reaching the status of completed works. As of today, I have 12 incomplete poems, four incomplete short stries, two novels, and a play in my files of works in progress. I have found over the years there are some practices that help keep the number of incomplete pieces to a minimum.
1. If one work has a deadline that demands it push your other work out of the way, try working on both projects at once, even if the project without a deadline can only be given a few minutes per day. Better some contact with a project than none. Nothing thrives on complete neglect.
2. If that's not possible, return to the original work within 24 hours of completing the high priority assignment. In the case of writing, absence does not make the heart grow finder.
3. Whenever a project is completed, before starting something new, take a look at your incomplete works. I seem always to have several of them filed and waiting for attention. I never look at them when working on something that is perking along healthily. But DO return to them whenever there is a lull in your creative force. Often, I find that the breather I have given a project pays off with new-found focus some time later.
4. When a writer hits the proverbial wall with something, meaning that the work was compelling right up to the point where the author realized she had no idea where she was headed, don't be too quick to consign the file to the annals of your incomplete work. Sit with it a while. Literally. My job as a writer is to keep the page open even as it defies me to write another word. Sometimes I find that if I show my fidelity to an assignment by staying with it even as it mocks me, something in the silence clicks and I am able to move forward.
5. Read your work in progress out loud. Often, for me, that is the way back to the core of a plot and the hearts of my characters. Hearing my characters speak reminds me of who they are and where they are going.
6. When I am really desperate to see an undertaken composition progress and none of the above techniques are working, I bring in outsiders. I have to be really desperate to do this because I am not usually very receptive to the artistic input of others. I am not ashamed to admit that, where my own work is concerned, I am convinced that I know best. But, once in a great while, it has really paid off to hear what others think I might do with a piece. For the record, it is very rare that I hand over a copy of a manuscript to someone else to read in my absence. If I resort to seeking outside help, I take the work to a writers' workshop of some sort and share it there. That way I hear several opinions in a short period of time and no one person can see herself as my work's fixer.
6. If I find I just cannot make a story move or a poem sing, I accept that for the moment and put the work aside. It does not mean I will never return to the piece, only that I have given it all I have to give and need a break from it. Think of this as trial separation, not as divorce.
And now, having given y'all the pep talk I needed myself, I return today to one of my own works in progress. Wish me luck!
To Outline or Not To Outline, 3/19/2012
Generally speaking, organizing my words on paper is not problematic. Sometimes, I make a few notes, especially when I am writing nonfiction that needs to be factually accurate in a way that fiction does not. Other than writing a note that will remind me of an idea I have had, a starting point usually, I never plan poetry or short stories. They pretty much write themselves. Even my plays have not required much by way of a grand plan. This is probably because each scene in my dramatic works stands on its own. My previous plays have been vignettes linked together by a common theme but having no connective plot or characters.
The novel I am currently writing is the first piece I have done that is long enough to need a master plan. I started without one and found that there were just too many details to keep track, from character descriptions to minor plot twists. Letting the muse flow as I usually do was not working.
Over the years, I have read a lot about writers and writing. I have taken many writing classes and attended several writers’ workshops. I have actually taught English Lit and Creative Writing. Teaching techniques for writing is a great way to learn them! I can safely say I know a thing or two about how one can organize one’s work. When I started this novel, I was sure I had all the skills it might take to get the job done. I am still sure of that (proof is in the progress) but am amazed at how easily I have become tangled in plot line.
I seem to handle character development well and I am having no trouble writing individual sections, scenes in the book, especially when they can be handled as short stories themselves. However, I don’t want this book to feel like a short story collection. I want it to have clear and believable narrative that flows from one section to the next without feeling like each chapter is a new start.
Years ago, I read a collection of short stories by a southern author who will remain nameless. I loved this author’s short stories. Each one spoke to me, so when this nameless author released her first novel, I rushed out and bought it in hard cover even. Boy, was I disappointed! It turned out this “new novel” was really the short stories linked together. There were a couple of chapters that had not appeared previously as short stories, but essentially I was rereading what the author had previously published as short fiction. Each chapter of this novel, including the two new ones, read like short stories. The voice was consistent but the resulting narrative was disjointed. I have never purchased another work by this author.
I want to avoid short story syndrome in the writing of my novel. I figured knowing the potential hazard would be enough. And, for a while, it was. I wrote 20,000 words or so of smooth and logical narrative. My characters grew as their story told itself. Then one day I realized I had no specific idea where the story was headed. I had a general notion of how things would turn out for my main character, but really not a single clue as to how he would get there. I sensed that if I kept working as I had been, sort of freestyle fiction, the plot lines were going to tangle. I was going to need a plan.
I loathe outlines. LOATHE is almost not a strong enough word. I have taught outlining to many students over the years. I see it as an annoying but useful tool. For other authors. I believed I could make myself get organized, but not by using an outline.
I started by making note cards with a plot point written on each. (I also had a set of note cards for character descriptions and another for back story.) The note cards for plot development were nice in that they could be put in any order I wanted. Just because I wrote the card mentioning my main character’s shooting lesson first did not mean that had to be the first event in the book. I could move that note card wherever I wanted in the stack of cards, thereby reordering events in the novel any way I wanted. That was a very handy tool indeed.
The problem I had not anticipated was that even having the cards, essentially a list of significant plot points I wanted to include in my novel, did not assure that they would connect smoothly. I found myself writing what were really individual stories, exactly what i did not want to do.
I decided I would have to outline after all. So I did, hating every minute of it. I felt like I was prepping for the GRE not telling a story. I love telling stories, but detest test prep work, so this was not a fun process for me. Still, I did it, sort of like taking medicine I knew would gag going down. Now, on a single sheet of paper, I could see all my planned plot twists. Yay me.
I went about the business then of writing from the outline. Individual chapters were working but linkage between them was still shaky. I was flunking narrative continuity and I knew it. Not sure how to proceed, I put the story aside for a couple weeks. I worked on some other pieces, generally giving myself a chance to decompress from the pressure of work that one senses is not going as well as one would like.
Then, one day, the light dawned. More than an outline, I needed a timeline, but I needed it to be flexible so that I could follow the story where it lead me. I tried a number of approaches to creating a timeline, first attempting to do it in a word processing file, then putting it on notebook pages. I found by trial and error that visual cues offered by the timeline were very important to my process. The more of the time line I can see at once, the better it works.
The timeline that works best for me combines my earlier note card method with the traditional outline. I rewrote what was on the note cards, the individual plot points, on post-it notes. I posted them on a wall in a possible order for events as they appear in the book. Following is a picture of my timeline as it stands today.
I say as it stands today because some of the points have been reordered several times already and because there will be more plot developments added as they become necessary to getting my characters from point A (West Virginia in the year 2000) to Point B (Florida in 2010). I will be adding some developments in the middle section of the timeline, The Road, and adding some to the very end, once I settle on a resolution for this first book in what will be a trilogy. I also allow for the fact I may reorder what has already been written and will no doubt deep six entire sections as it becomes clear they don’t work or are superfluous.
My answer to this column’s title question, To Outline or Not To Outine, is yes and no. There is no one right way to write anything. For me, when it comes to novels, it seems a sort of outline works well. What is your process? What works? What does not? Please share your comments below.
The Daily Commitment, 3/15/2012
Process varies from writer to writer, but there is one fact that seems universal: if a writer wants to be a writer, a productive author who turns out a significant body of work, he or she has to actually write. Obvious as that may sound, it is not always easy. In my own writing life, which stretches back over four decades, there have been productive times, which I have referred to as fertile periods, and times when my well has not just been dry but completely absent, not even appearing as an occasional mirage to goad me on, teasing me out of a slump. Most writers experience such dry spells, some lasting longer than others. (My longest was about 12 years.) If we are to survive as authors, we find ways to get out and stay out of the darkness that is not just writer’s block but a complete lack of energy for writing. Creative inertia must be avoided if one is to be a productive writer.
Last weekend, I had the privilege of hearing Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford series of books set mostly in Florida, speak at the library in Cocoa Beach. White is an extremely prolific and skilled writer, one of the pantheon of successful Florida novelists that include the likes of John D, McDonald, Elmore Leonard, Tim Dorsey and Carl Hiassen. He talked about his own creative process, saying that there is only one way to get the job done and that is to do it. White told those gathered, a handful of whom admitted to being aspiring novelists, that he writes every day, no matter what else is going on in his life. He shuts himself in a room, closes the door, shuts off the Internet and the phone, ignores anyone and anything else demanding his attention. He told us this is how he gets the job done over and over again.
Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep, put it succinctly. “The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at the least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything but write.” (Source: Timothy Hallinan) My own experience has born this out. For me, it’s not just the amount of time I devote to writing that matters, though that is important if I want to complete anything. It’s also the routine of when and how I write that makes a difference. Isaac Newton said that a body in motion tends to stay in motion until something stops its progress and that a body at rest will stay at rest until something makes it move. This is Newton’s first law, the law of motion and inertia.
Inertia is this writer’s greatest enemy and, as I have heard from many, many other writers, it is theirs too. The periods of my writing life that have been most productive have been times when I was willing and able (sometimes required) to write every day or close to it. These were times when I was in school, so writing was a part of my “job,” or when I had not much of a social life or when, as now, I have been able to write full-time. I will admit to all of you that I have never been able to maintain family, friendships, writing and an outside day job simultaneously. There are many who do. We have all heard the tales of how John Grisham wrote The Firm, the novel that made him famous, while commuting by train to and from his job in Chicago and how J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter while working in an eatery. I am impressed by these people, even a little awed by them, but I will never be one of them. I am someone who needs sleep and a limited number of priorities in my life. I do have some health problems that may make my case different from theirs, but I think we all have a thousand reasons not to write. We have lots of commitments, reams of distractions. The trick is finding the way to not let distractions take us away from our work. For me, the only way to get the words on the page is to put them there and that means I have to take the time to do it. The only way to be sure that will happen frequently enough that I might produce something of worth is to make sure I write a great deal.
The Daily Commitment, 3/15/2012
At least two thirds of what I write is crap. I may not know it as I am writing, though often I do, or even when I am done writing, though often I do. But in order to get to the one third that is not crap, I have to plow through the first two. This takes time and a commitment to showing up each day to face the words written the day before and the blank pages that lay ahead of me. For me, it really does seem to take writing every. single. day. no matter what else is going on. If I miss even one day at my keyboard, I lose sight of my creative well and it can take a long time to find it again. I do not believe I am alone in this. Establishing and maintaining routine is as important to authors as having pen and paper or keyboard and electricity at the ready.
These last two years have been transitional ones for me. I have written about that in A Poet’s Diary on this blog. Now, I am in a stable position, possibly the most stable of my lifetime. As a result, I have produced a great deal of verbage and seen some publishing success in the last 12 months. Still, I struggle with routine, with keeping the well from running dry.
Recently, I have made the commitment to do exactly as Randy Wayne White and Raymond Chandler insist writers must: I will write every single day, no matter what. I am finding this easier than I thought it might be, possibly because I have been getting closer and closer to this place over the last two years, not that two years ago I had even the slightest idea where I was headed, literally or figuratively. For whatever reason, I am finding it very easy to fall into a routine that results in my writing roughly four and a half hours per day.
I invite other writers here to discuss their own writing habits. What works for you and what doesn’t? Who inspires you and how do you stay on track? Please post your comments below.