Sunday, 7 August 2011

Self Correction Fluid


I’ve written a number of posts on the various techniques available to a writer, here I’m going to discuss my own. What works for me. Not that I hold this up as an example for others to follow, if you know another way I strongly suggest you use it. 

I am by nature (somewhat unsurprisingly) a moody writer. When I have an idea for a story, the approach I take to writing on any given day will depend on my mood. I don't mix techniques, I veer wildly from one to the other, often in the same story.



Some days I feel structured and exact and the whole plotline will unfold before me (maybe for the whole story, maybe just for a scene) so I only need to jot down the plot points in short sentences and I have a solid outline to work from.

Mr Man goes to store. Why? He’s hungry. Why Isn’t there any food in the house (come up with reason). He gets his favourite morning snack (which is what? What does it tell us about him?). As he pays for it at the counter a car smashes through the storefront window...

That’s roughly the kind of thing. I won’t care too much about the specifics of what happens or how it happens, mainly it’ll be a bunch of motivations and reasons. This leads to this, leads to that. If it all links in a causal flow I can move from scene to scene very smoothly and quickly.

On another day I may feel more inspired to write a whole scene and it will come out fully formed in a torrent. Mr Man might be hungry because of dramatic events the night before and he forgot to eat, he searches through the house driven by a cancerous hunger growing inside him, he can’t even remember the last time he ate, was it Tuesday? He finds money in a sock stuffed in a sneaker and  bowls down the road eyeing a kid with an ice lolly and has to shove down the temptation to snatch it off him. He makes it to the store and is about to grab a large bag of the unhealthiest snack in the gaudiest packaging when a car comes smashing in...

But there’s a problem with each of these approaches. It’s not the same problem, but they manifest in the same way—I can only see them weeks later when I come to rewrite.

With the outline method it’s east to get blinkered by the rigid nature of having everything signposted for me. You go from point to point like markers in a cross-country race and although it’s great to get to the finish line, you can miss a lot of opportunities for a better story as you convert the outline into a manuscript.

With the winging it method it all flows so effortlessly and feels the right way to go as you're writing, but often the momentum can carry you into being indulgent or predictable. People make the obvious choices and dwell on irrelevant things. And what makes sense in your head as you write may not feel joined up on the page.

As I mentioned, this is not an insurmountable problem. After a few weeks the problems will become apparent and can be addressed. But since I am aware of the likelihood of these problems surfacing (from bitter experience and an understanding of my own weaknesses) I don’t wait for those weeks to pass, I correct for them now.

When writing to an outline, I rush through the first draft sticking to the plot points on the page. I could take a little more time and be creative, but I know from experience how much my writing changes in rewrites (a lot) and there’s no point pasting up wallpaper when there’s a good chance you’ll be knocking down the wall. 

Then, when I have a first draft that makes good sense but reads terribly (it may not seem all that terrrible at the time, but I know it won't be anwhere good enough when I look at it again in a few weeks time so I just assume it needs to be better), I go to the first part and think: how can I make this more interesting, what would make it fun to tell someone about?  By fun I mean attention grabbing, horrifying, exciting, in some way get a reaction. And I work on the scene until it has something in it that will catch the reader by surprise. 

Now, it may be that I come up with something that doesn’t fit in with how I initially planned the rest of the scene (or the whole story) but that’s okay. I consider that a good thing (even though it means more work) and will either redo the outline or wing it (depending on my mood).

With the wing it method I go with the flow wherever that might take me. And then I will outline it. That may seem redundant, to outline a scene/story after you’ve written it. But it’s pretty easy to do (you already have the details in front of you) and it’s much easier to see if a story makes sense, if the way it develops is interconnected, when you have it broken down into easy to read bits. 

When you write without pre-thinking, the logic in your own head isn’t always easy to follow for someone who isn’t you, and that’s now easier to spot. Also, those three pages on the seductive power of a Snickers bar becomes easier to judge as appropriate or not when seen in the context of the other story events. Then I can cut and edit (mostly cut) as I see fit.

Either way it's rather a pessimistic approach, I automatically consider the story doesn't say what I want it to say, in the way I want it to say it, even though part of me is squeaking away in the back of my head that it's fine, it sort of works, people will get what I mean, kind of. Most peopel talk about the voice that tells them they're writing isn't good enough. Mine tells me everything's okay, go have a sandwich and watch the telly. He's fooled me many a time.
 
I’m not sure if anyone writes like this, or indeed whether they should, my approach isn’t very consistent and depending on the route I take, the end result, even if it’s about the same premise, will come out very different. But knowing myself as a writer and knowing the pitfalls inherent in the ways I write, means it doesn’t matter which path I take, I can correct myself as I go. When I'm not eating a sandwich or watching the telly, that is.

Do you have any idiosyncratic methods to your madness?

23 comments:

Nancy Thompson said...

I've never consciously used any method. When I "received" the idea for my book, I took the cue and jotted down a loose outline. When that was complete, I pretty much winged it for 8 weeks. It was like I had someone standing over my shoulder whispering into my ear. I don't know where it all came from, so trying to analyze it is useless.

The revisions have been different. I had to analyze at that point. I took criticism from my crit partners and mulled it over for a few minutes, but when it came to write it all out, I winged it yet again. I think that's what works best for me, because it seems to be a gut thing for me, something visceral yet intangible.

The times when I gave it all too much thought and TRIED hard were the times my writing was at its worst. So I don't try any more. I simply let it come out the way it wants to come out.

Does that make sense? I wonder if anyone else has had an experience like I've had. I'm 47 years old and until last year, I never even attempted writing fiction or anything else for that matter. It's been a very surreal experience for me!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I tend to rewrite my outlines numerous times. I have a couple friends whom I bounce ideas off of and I'll run the outline by them at least twice. Usually, by the time I have a working outline, it barely resembles my original concept. But the bugs are worked out, plot points and motivations make sense, and it flows. And I'll change small things as I write. Most scenes remain intact though, so little rewriting later.
I call it being ambiously lazy.

Donna K. Weaver said...

"those three pages on the seductive power of a Snickers bar" Love this imagery.

So far I've done some of both, and I'm seeing the same shortcomings you describe. I've learned so much over the last year that it will be interesting when I start my next project armed better than these first ones.

Samantha said...

I have attempted both methods and honestly, I like the wing it one the best. For the longest time I focused on the outline first, but I realized that I was spending way to much time on my outline instead of the actual novel itself. Thanks for the great post!

Samantha

Ted Cross said...

I almost always work from one or two plot points per chapter, then I go into a zone and see what comes out. I'm often surprised by things I never knew would happen.

Misha said...

Hehehe I stick my I.E. in a cage while I write. While I understand your methods, I've found that I sort of *cough* edit the story away *cough*. So now I don't edit until I've finished my rough draft. Then I tighten things up while I rewrite the whole thing.

And then I let my I.E. out. I promise you that by then he's dying to fix things.

:-D

Ryan Sullivan said...

Mood! I just awarded you with the Liebster Blog award.

Go here to claim it: http://thedarkcornerofthemind.blogspot.com/2011/08/liebster-award.html

Karen Lange said...

My writing can be all over the place, organized one week (or day) and completely scattered the next. I keep thinking that I want to be more consistent in my approach, but somehow I manage to get where I want to go with articles and stories. So maybe I'll get organized next week. Did I mention that I am good at procrastinating, too?

As far as your comment at my place - yes, there seem to be some beach goers! It kind of runs in spurts, doesn't it? Fall is coming, and soon it will be too cold to go to the beach, I'm thinking...

Lydia K said...

I think the outline method is actually a sort of pantsing in itself, just takes an extra step. :)

Michael Offutt said...

I form an outline and then just start writing. My issues have to do with becoming frustrated at the amount of material I want to cover and realizing that I cannot just sit down and go to town because I have to worry about word count.

julie fedderson said...

I plan all dialogue by talking to myself to make sure it rings true to the ear. I I usually do this in the car on the way to work. I've started wearing a bluetooth device to cut down on the odd stares I get.

Munk said...

Well written description. I am currently trying to write two or three or four threads at once... which for me anyway, requires a visualized end goal.

J.L. Campbell said...

We have varying levels of methods to our madness, I think.

I try not to constrain myself too much. Next chapter, I decide what the major event is going to be and I write around that. Itty-bitty details would drive me nuts in the planning stage, so I never get that detailed.

I used to write, write, write wherever the story took me, but as I've progressed as a writer, that method doesn't work so well anymore. Having some level of organization saves me time cutting and carving useless bits later.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments. Very interesting to see how you all differ in approaches.

cheers.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I recognise a number of my own meanderings through a manuscript in your description. I am naturally wary of being too structured at the start, thinking that it will inhibit inspiration and creativity. I paid the price for that, having to cut 70,000 words of 100,000 and then construct a new plot with a proper story arc. I did find I was able to use alot of the ideas and scenes from the discarded material, although I had to rewrite them.

Your paragraph that starts 'Either way it's a pessimistic approach' touched a nerve. I know that niggling feeling very well, and I think you have to face up to the need to edit and rewrite and raise the standard of your work. I suspect that when you get through the bramble hedge of rejections to an acceptance on the other side, it's because you have dealt with the stuff that 'is more or less good enough' and made it sparkle.

A comforting and illuminating post; I think you have identified processes we all go through in different ways.

Christa said...

I have tons. My husband pressures me constantly to change these habits. I don't until I revise. They are my Achilles heel. I will learn one day, but it is the way I work so it goes...
I like to outline after I've written the first draft. That's when I see the holes. That's when I can revise effectively. This seems dumb to many people but it's me.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I too follow your pattern. At times my mood takes over and I just write. While at other times I painstakingly plot.

M Pax said...

I will start with an opening scene [which usually pops up full formed] then see where it takes me. Then I stop, think up character arcs and what I'm writing for and write a rough outline. Then I get so far, and will start a process where I'm simultaneoulsy revising the earlier pages and continuing forward. The fact that the beginning is a mess drives me nuts. :)

Michael Di Gesu said...

I usually just go with the flow. I never outline. I usually have where I'm going in my head, but I shift to the left or right depending on how I feel at the time. it usually works well.

Then I go back and beef it up. Sometimes I need to rephrase or edit out. I am a detail oriented writer so the images I paint with words need to be very visual. The reader MUST see what I am talking about.

I also concentrate on chemistry between the characters. There must be a natural ease.

I have a few mechanical issues that I have to correct in editing. That being I tend to switch tenses A LOT. So I have to choose the right tense that works best with the prose and then make my corrections.

narrativesofadreamer said...

When an idea strikes me, I just write them all down. Everything. Even when the sentences aren't coherent, even when the scenes doesn't make sense, I just write and write. I think the process is called 'free writing'.

After I've poured out the thoughts on my mind, that's the time I edit. I arrange the sequence of events until it sounds (reads) good.

The polishing usually takes days before I decide to publish it.

Jen Brubacher said...

I think you should write however works for you. Of course I'm biased in favour of your "wing it and then outline" method because that's what I do too. But I like your description of how to edit: making it more interesting, more original, less predictable. I'm going to keep that in mind next time I go through a MS.

Donna said...

I've tried both and winging it works better for me in the long run, even though I'm pulling my hair out at times!

Stephen Tremp said...

Stephen King says he only does about a handful or rewrites before he's off to his editor. Wow! He's good.

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