23 January 2017

Break It, Fix It, Break It, Fix It Again

by Steve Liskow

Last time, I listed several books that helped me write better. They all tell what to do in order to write more effectively, but no book can tell you how to do it. That's a personal thing.

Grad school rekindled my long buried urge to write, and over the next nine years, I wrote five atrocious novels. All I can say is that I learned to produce junk more quickly. When it came time to produce a thesis/project for my sixth-year degree at Wesleyan, I decided to rewrite one of those train wrecks based on what I'd already learned from hundreds of mistakes.

I chose Dr. Joseph Reed as my adviser, partly because I knew he didn't give a rat's ass about hurting my feelings. When I phoned to ask him if he would be my adviser, he said, "Probably not, but come in tomorrow and we'll discuss it."

Because of his response, I did two things I'd never done before. I wrote a 2-page summary (Now I know enough to call it a synopsis) and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the events in my story.
Joe looked them over as though he saw checkmate in three moves. When he learned that I wrote everything out longhand and re-typed it for him--this was 1980, pre-computers--he shook his head.

"You're wasting time," he said. "Compose at the typewriter and don't worry about typos. You're going to revise everything to death anyway."

An outline and typing the first draft changed my process radically. Between 2003 when I retired from teaching and started writing full-time, few other changes merit discussion. But here they are.

Jodi Picault once said that a writer must learn to write on demand, and that's another skill nobody can teach you. Stephen King and other writers set word count goals--King's is 2000 words a day--and I forced myself to do that, too. It didn't matter if 1999 of them were crap, I wrote until I reached that number. Some days, I finished by noon and other days I wrote until midnight, but after a few years, I knew I could sit down at the keyboard and produce two or three pages of semi-coherent English is an hour.

Now, I generally write a few paragraphs in the morning and go to the health club if I get stuck. While I sweat on an arc trainer, my mind runs free to figure where I'm going next. But I don't have to write in the morning. Remember that write on demand thing? I wrote the first draft of this essay at 4 pm.

Do you outline just because your teacher told you to do it in school? If so, have you found a more flexible way to do it? If you do some form of pre-writing, is it words, diagrams, phrases, or something else? What really works best for you? I used to doodle on separate sheets of paper and move them around to figure out my basic plot and character relationships, but now I use a dry marker board. At the end of the day, I photograph it and stick it in my picture files so I can start with a fresh board the next day and still refer to the previous work.

The only other major change is my outline/synopsis. Somewhere in those years of wood-shedding, I started doing what the screenwriters would probably call a verbal story board. I list fifty scenes in order. The character name in bold type is the POV character, and I tell the essential action/change of the scene in a sentence or two. The number at the end is its order in the MS.

The storyboard tells me where I need to do research and shows if I have too many expository or action scenes together so pace is an issue. It takes me several weeks to develop fifty scenes (although I'm getting faster) and that's my first draft. Writing those scenes out as real prose is my second draft, and always shows where I've left something out, repeated something, or put events or information in the wrong order. I correct the scene list ("Chronology" in my terminology) as I go, each change a "save as." By the time I have my first full MS, I'm usually on at least the twelfth draft of the scene list. That continues through the next several drafts, and my record is 31 scene lists.

That first full MS has to come fast because that's how I find the rhythm of the story. It helps me feel when a scene is in the wrong place. I wrote the first "full" version of Dark Gonna Catch Me Here in 33 days (I didn't plan it, it just gushed out that way) and it had over 92,000 words and 57 scenes. The final version a year later lost four of those scenes, added an new one, added another POV character, and cut about 8000 words.

Through my first four or five drafts, each scene revision is a separate word file: Scene 1-A, Scene 1-B, Scene 1-C, Scene 2-A, Scene 2-B, etc. I keep them separate because it's easier to change the order by renumbering a five or six page scene than it is to cut and paste in a 300-page document. If Scene 12-C needs to move, "Save As" gives me Scene 22-D.

None of this means you should do it, too. But if you're in a rut or things aren't working, maybe put a few new parts in the machine and see what happens.

Do you write at a particular time of day because you need to get to work or the kids have to be in school? If not, try earlier or later. Try in a different room. Walk around outside before you write, or go to the gym, or listen to some music. Do you write with music? Try a different kind (baroque instead of jazz, for example) or silence. Do you hear the words better?

If you normally outline, write a scene or two without planning and see what happens. If you don't outline, try it. This is a huge change, and it's hard, but you might discover something.

Try writing character bios for your main characters before writing your story. Figure out what's at stake or what that character's weakness is. I do bios for my major characters and have a file so I have ages and major events consistent (like when Zach Barnes stopped drinking or Chris Guthrie almost lost his leg in the shoot-out), but the minor characters change as I need them, especially names.

Try writing in pencil or roller ball or ballpoint or fountain pen (my fave for early planning) or even crayon or dry marker instead of the keyboard. If you write longhand, go to the keyboard first.

Do you write a few pages, then go back and revise before moving on? Try writing the whole work before you go back. If you usually do a complete draft, try revising scene by scene.

Do you have a word or page goal for the day? What happens if you raise or lower it? What if you write a scene instead of a word count? If one scene is four pages long and the next one is ten, can you still do it? That's my only solid rule now, I have to write the complete scene in a day because the rhythm won't sustain overnight. My scenes average about 1600 words, so if I write one a day, that's about 50,000 words a month (Hello, NANO). And I no longer have to write every day. The point of the fast and messy first draft is that it gives me something to fix. A first draft is like a block of marble: once you have it, you have to chip away the excess to make a statue of an elephant. Or Michaelangelo's David.

When I finished that MS in 1980, Dr. Reed encouraged me to send it out, and it collected a stack of rejections. I knew I'd revise it yet again someday--when I'd learned more craft. When I looked at it again a few years ago, I understood that the opening dragged because the important subplot took a long time to develop. Re-sequencing with several overlapping flashbacks helped, but that created another problem. For the first time, I listed all the events in the story in chronological order before I wrote the new outline so I could keep the back-story coherent. I've only done that with two other books (one of them is currently a WIP) because they had more history to them than usual.

I added a couple of scenes and expanded one character, but beyond the re-sequencing that demanded some new transitions, at least eighty percent of that book is what I wrote in 1980. That astonished me. I finally self-published Postcards of the Hanging (Another Bob Dylan allusion and not the title from back then) in 2014, 34 years after it was a thesis and 42 years after the first version began in the back of a spiral notebook.

Gotta keep it fresh, right? My next project is to learn to write with my left hand...while standing on my head.

What have you changed since you started writing? What do you wish worked better?


Paul D. Marks said...

All good advice, Steve. And it's always interesting to see other peoples' process.

janice law said...

I'm convinced that to succeed in the arts one must plan for a long haul. Longevity helps too! Live long and prosper as Mr, Spock says.

Eve Fisher said...

Good post, Steve. I agree with Janice - you have to be in for the long haul, prepared to work every day (give or take the occasional catastrophe). And I do think that mixing it up helps. Trying something new. And I always take walks when I'm stuck. That's why I have a treadmill! (Hey, I live in South Dakota...)

Elizabeth said...

You'll probably laugh at my process, such as it is! Whenever I get around to doing any writing, it's always during the day because I don't see very well at night. And I do have a big monitor & daylight bulbs in my office that burn blue rather than yellow or white & are much easier on the eyes. Anyway, I write short stuff, I never outline, & I always need to have the title before I start writing.

I do write mini-biographies of major characters. Always figure out what they look like, their ancestry, astrological sign, & what their name anagrams to.

One last thing, I'm very very slow, so you probably wouldn't want to take advice from me!

Steve Liskow said...

Elizabeth, if it works for you, nothing else matters. Writing's a personal thing.

And Eve, I just got back from the health club, where I was trying to come up with a second option for that stuff in the picture of the dry marker board on my post. It sounded good at first, but it seems to be a complete dead end, so I need to start from scratch again. This happens a lot, but it's usually a good sign because it's my subconscious telling me there's a better idea out there.

Jeff Baker said...

About characters and outlines I have a short fiction series going where I have the characters and plots already plotted out. But I posted a Christmas story in the series on my blog bringing a bunch of the characters together before they ever appear in the unwritten, plotted-out stories!

Leigh Lundin said...

I don’t necessary diagram or outline for small projects, but I tend to for large. I even wrote a piece of software to shuffle our my virtual 3x5 cards!

As mentioned a few months ago, for the first time I wrote a story out of sequence. In that case, the six sections were clearly delineated. I’ve attempted that recently with a more amorphous topic, and it’s trickier, making sure a thread you need in section 9 gets mentioned in section 3.

A friend sent me some articles by author Michael Lewis who not only writes technical books, but sci-fi and crime novels, and speeches and lectures. Lewis was chastising himself because he’d written a ‘not great’ 403,000 words in 2015 before discovering his fatigue came from anemia. Pretty amazing.