Friday, March 14, 2014

"Did I Write That?!" What Happens to Your Writing as You Grow in Skill

Practically every week, I get an SOS email from one of my students.  They've just discovered a clue about their book manuscript.  A light bulb has gone off--they realize something they didn't know before.  That's very cool.

The SOS is a cry for help, not because of this newly realized writing skill, but because they've read back into earlier chapters.  "I can't believe I really wrote that crap," they say.  "And now I have to redo it all."
Maybe poets and short-story writers and essayists don't run into this desperation.  A book writer will, certainly.  Because a book manuscript is a long writing
effort.  It can take a year or three or ten to get it tight and right.  We begin writing our book with a certain raw understanding of the story. 
Most times, we have a limited view of our characters, plot, or topic.  We have no clue how appropriate page-turning tension will manifest on the page.  

This is good and necessary.   Growth has to happen.  The writing process isn't static.  As time passes, as we learn new skills, we see our book in a new light.   

I remember hiking the Grand Canyon.  There was the trail, then there were plateaus or ledges where you could rest and admire the view.  Book writers are on the trail, then they are standing on the plateau.  They look at what they've done and see it differently.  That's absolutely required.

But the depression sets in because we see how rudimentary our early drafts are.  We think:  Was all that hard work wasted?  Should I have gotten the MFA, taken the writing classes, upgraded my skills before starting out?

It's never wasted time.  We acquaint ourselves with our own stories--fictional or non--by immersion in them.  By practice.  Like becoming fluent in a foreign language, each book requires our time and loving attention.  If you consider it a practice, it helps relieve the sense of pressure that you have to get it right the first time through.

Allow yourself room to grow.

This Week's Writing Exercise

Here's what I say to my students when they ask what to do with those SFD (shitty first draft) chapters that are so below their current skills.  

Consider them in three levels.  Ask yourself these questions about what can be salvaged.

1.  Content: Is there content here that I can still use?  Perhaps the scene itself, the research, the idea is intact.  Maybe it's OK, content-wise.  That's a huge step.  Continue to question #2.

2.  Structure:  Is it just a matter of placement (structure)?  Maybe this particular section needs to be located elsewhere in the book, and I didn't see that before.  

Many writers pile backstory into the beginning of a manuscript, as a way to establish the story's credentials.  Once the story is strong on its own, the writer sees that background information is less needed.  But it's still good, and it can be moved to a later spot in the manuscript, where it flows better.

3.  Language:  Is the content OK and the placement (structure) working fine, but the way the writing comes across feels awkward?  

When we begin a book, we often "tell" ourselves the story.  The narrative is dry, less scene-oriented, less demonstrated (shown) than delivered.   It's simply a question of taking the good material you already have in place and reworking the language, the balance of scene and summary, the show/tell ratio. 

Writing a book is an act of discovery.  If you know it all before you begin, there will be no surprises.  And if the writer is not surprised, the reader won't be either.

Keep your early drafts--there's often gold in them.  Or at least enough shine to capture and build on.