I want writing to be about starting at the beginning and writing through until I find the end. When it goes like that I think, “See, I was right, that’s what writing is like!” When it doesn’t go like that I think, “Aaahh, I’m failling*!”
I’ve been writing my fairy story since the beginning of this year. I’ve written somewhere between 15 and 20k words in this story. (It is destined to be a novel, unless I suddenly discover that Lo, there isn’t really a plot where I expected there would be a plot**.) And partway through the summer I realized I couldn’t keep writing the scene that I was trying to write, so I skipped ahead a little. I mean a little, like I skipped over a boring bit that you wouldn’t have wanted to read anyway. And then I was stuck. So I backed up and tried again, this time trying not to skip ahead at all. I have learned, in my years of writing stories, that when I’m stuck it’s usually because there’s something wrong with the story as I’ve written it so far, not because I’m inherently lazy, nor even because the story is inherently flawed. And so if I can find the right question to ask, I can figure out what went wrong and fix it, and then the story will go merrily along on its way. So I backed up a little, and rewrote. And the newer version read better than the older version. And then I got stuck, again. I could’ve pushed on, but I know that pushing is a good way to get a bad story that’ll have to be rewritten. So in July or August, I ripped back*** to a scene I’d written in May (oh, how that hurt), and noticed several plot holes. Whew, that’s been the problem all along! thought I, and happily got back to writing.
In September I went on a (non-writing) vacation for two weeks, and when I came back I couldn’t remember why this story was supposed to be interesting, and ugh who wrote this rat’s nest, and why am I supposed to care about these characters? What crystallized for me was that there were too many complications. Yes, I need to have complications to keep the story going forward. But if I can’t keep track of all of them, then my reader will have no hope. So I simplified. I pulled out an event that happened in the third scene and I made sure I knew, in each scene, what each person should primarily be reacting too. If they’re not, then it’s a problem. These things gave me a lot of clarity, and I am not rewriting. I wrote down what I want to change, and I can see how those changes move forward into the “now” of my story so that I can pick up from “now” and keep writing. I won’t waste time on rewriting that I could spend on writing new words. The first draft will not be coherent from beginning to end, but coherence can wait until the second draft.
In order to make these decisions, to see what needs changing, I needed two things. First was distance away from the story. Second was the recognition that writing is a process of figuring out what the story is—and also what the story isn’t. Just because I don’t always know what the story is doesn’t mean I’m failing. Or falling.
It means I’m writing.
* Not merely a typo, but also “failing” and “falling” smooshed together into one word that should already exist. I’m shocked I didn’t think of it sooner.
** It feels a lot like Columbus sailing and sailing and sailing, and then falling off the end of the Earth because, Lo, there really isn’t more Earth in that direction. Luckily for all of us, there really was more Earth and he didn’t fall off. But there are no guarantees for my story. Mathy philosopher types like Euripedes^ have been positing for centuries that there is more story, but they could be wrong.
^ Was it Euripedes? Who’s the guy from Egypt who calculated the circumference of the Earth to within 5% accuracy based on the fact that a pole in the ground had more shadow at noon than a similar pole 200 miles south? That’s the guy I’m thinking of. Except really I’m thinking of the metaphorical guy, who’s actually just one of the voices in my head, telling me that it has mathematically computed that there must be more story, and its circumference is about the size of a novel. And other voices are pointing out that this mathy guy hasn’t really proven he’s not just pulling numbers out of his hat, so don’t trust him too much. I’m trying to be neutral in this debate until I have evidence one way or another.
*** That’s a knitting metaphor, right there. I’ve ripped back rows in knitting often enough, too. I hate doing it more than once on a project—and again I think I must be failing—but sometimes it’s just part of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But in knitting there is no second draft. (And if your second sleeve looks better than the first? Then your sweater will look funny. :-/)