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The Importance of Flexibility for a Writer

As readers of my blog know, I've been spending the past few months writing a novel. (Will this become yet another unpublished book? Stay tuned!) Today's page production reminded me of the need to be flexible when writing, and I thought I'd share that with you.

Let me start off by describing my usual method of writing. I tend to think of myself as a "non-linear" writer, which means that I don't usually sit down and write a story from beginning to end. I keep an open document for the story in my computer, and as I write, I find myself jumping back and forth between scenes. So, for example, I might be working on an early scene in the story, and then a line of dialogue that would fit a later scene perfectly pops into my head. I'll go forward in the document, write down that line, and then perhaps a few more lines in that scene. Then a line of description that makes sense for an earlier scene will occur to me, and I'll jump back to jot it down. Etc., etc., and so forth.

Consequently, my works in progress are usually a mess. They are filled with lots of empty spaces, and asterisks marking places I need to fill in with more writing, and notes to myself like ***FIX THIS*** or ***DESCRIBE BETTER** or ***THIS SUCKS, WHAT EVER CONVINCED ME I COULD BE A WRITER?*** You know, stuff like that. Trying to read one of these "decimal point drafts" (called such because they come before my first draft) would be difficult for anyone other than me; I know what the connections should be between stuff I've already written; I just need to write them.

(At this point I should publicly acknowledge gnomi, who somehow manages to read through every day's production with enough understanding to give me coherent feedback. Despite the asterisks.)

So...getting to flexibility. Today I was in the middle of chapter 8, planning to write my six pages. And after writing my first three pages in the morning and running errands (including a spiffy new haircut, if you must know), I came back to the computer and found myself stuck. I know what has to happen in the rest of the chapter; I just didn't feel like writing it.

Now, some writers might decide that means the writing day is over; three pages is a respectable amount of work, and I know of at least one professional writer who only manages that many pages a day, and yet has won Hugos and Nebulas. But I had set a goal of six pages for today (okay, okay, actually I had set a goal of eight) and I didn't want to just give up.

The problem is that I haven't quite been using my natural style of writing, as I described before. Part of me has been trying to work on this novel from beginning to end; so each day I've been opening a document for the current chapter, then jumping around in that chapter. But what I realized today was that the current chapter didn't fit my mood anymore; I really wanted to work on a major confrontation scene that takes place in chapter 11. (***Bankruptcy joke goes here.***)

So...that's what I did. I created a file for chapter 11, blithely ignored the fact that I haven't even written chapters 9 and 10 yet, and started writing. And this time, the writing flew, and I got my pages done within an hour.

I highly recommend shaking things up like this when one's writing stalls. But there's also a trap to watch out for. If you're writing a section which is dragging you down, it might be because that section itself is dull or boring. Watch out for the clues that the scene is dragging, and make sure to spice it up with tensions and vigorous verbs.

Which is probably a topic for a later post...


I've heard of this style before and of the associated "drabble" method, of just writing scenes/random characters when stuck. They may not be related to the current story, but eventually you have a lot of those things and a choice of what to work on. You might realize that two or more of them are related and combine them into a new story.

Me personally? I can do the drip/drabble thing kinda. But I like writing stories from start to end. Though I have a current block on a story that might benefit from me taking a later scene on. But I often don't want to do that 'cause I don't actually know how to get from A to B until I write it [even outlining and notes aren't helful] and so writing B often means that now I have an A and a B that cannot be connected easily, which puts further blocks on my path.

I think this is also why I'm better at short stories. A longer work means a lot more knowledge of the overall storyline, and I just don't seem to have that.

Your last comment rings true with me; I've always been more naturally a short story writer, and trying to figure out how to write a longer work like a novel, where every scene was necessary and nothing was padded, always seemed more challenging to me. I've managed to do it, but that novel didn't sell, and it took me the longest time to figure out how to rewrite a longer work. (Said understanding I will eventually apply to the current work in progress, and then I'll go back to the unsold one.)

I once collaborated with a very linear writer on a novella, and we had to figure out how to mesh our styles. In the end, we wrote an outline (and I do prefer writing from an outline) and split the scenes. I wrote my scenes my way, he wrote his in his way. And we were delighted when we made odd discoveries, such as the extra thing he put in a later scene which we were going to need to set up in a scene I was writing...and then he discovered I had already set it up.
I've rediscovered a similar technique for writing school papers and have long used it for songs. Sometimes it's better to go where the muse wants to take you.
I agree about needing to follow the muse properly. But sometimes I worry that she's leading me astray...
So interesting how that works out. I'm the opposite: If I jump around, I run out of steam and just have a hodge podge of scraps that don't transition into each other and no impetus to write the connecting scenes. You gotta go with what works for you.
Wow. You mean I write "like" you?!

I jump all over the place too, for what I call the zero draft (tho I actually got the term from Roberta Jean Bryant) which is scribbled longhand to save me from the dreaded Quit Without Saving key that's apparently hot-wired to my internal editor. Then in the "true" first (when it's all typed in to PC, during which a =lot= is usually added) and later drafts, I piece together and write a lot of connecting stuff. I like using a construction metaphor for my writing: I refer to it as applying heavy spackle/drywall patches for the added bits, and a belt sander for the transitioning.

So I'm "odd" but at least I'm not alone. ;)
Thank you, this is really helpful!

December 2016

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