Monday, February 2, 2015

Start Now

The hard part is getting to the top of page one.”—Tom Stoppard.

That's it. Start now. There is a lot to be said about technique and process and the art of what's interesting, but you'll never learn any of these things if you don't actually just start writing.

One of the best favors I ever did myself was decide to start writing at sixteen. I liked sitting down with something to drink and some music, and making something that wasn't there before. I even managed to bang together a few coherent sentences, I think. Moving on from writing isolated scenes that didn't go anywhere, I started a bigger project that didn't go anywhere either, but I was writing, and writing was fun enough. A year and a half later I pieced together a short story that wasn't very good, but it was the sort of thing I wanted to read but couldn't find, and it had potential. That story was the beginning of my first novel.

Now, at twenty-six, I've re-written that novel three times, revised it even more than that, and worked on a bunch of other projects along the way. After everything, and with much help, the novel is fit to read, and I'm even happy with how it turned out.

If that time frame is enough to scare you off, then you want to write for the wrong reasons. But that might be unfair of me. It may not take you ten years to write something good. Those weren't ten years of nose-to-the-grindstone writing, and starting at sixteen is its own disadvantage in terms of life experience. Your trajectory will undoubtedly be different than mine.

Age is not the issue either way. You can't be too early, or too late. My friend, who is sixty-five now and a retired teacher, has been walking this writing path alongside me the past eight years. The fear of wasted time weighs heavier on him than me, but he's getting there all the same, in spite of the doubts.

Whatever it is that you want to do, if it's write a novel, or a podcast, or make a comic, or open a bakery, you're never going to know everything you need to know. You're never going to get any closer by daydreaming about it. The fastest, most effective way to learn is to do. This doesn't mean you have to sit down at chapter 1, page 1, “It was a dark and stormy night...”, and start sprinting through the pages. But decide what you need to do to get moving, and then do that. If you want to sketch out a few plans, then sketch them out, but start. 

The hours add up. You learn. You get better.

I'm not as good of a writer as I want to be, but when I look back at work I wrote two years ago, five years ago, I see how far I've come. I don't know if I can say I understand this whole writing thing, but I understand it better than I did.

When you sit down to write, the tendency is to do it to find out if you're any good—if you have some hidden writing aptitude. But the reality is if you like writing at all, if you're interested, if you want to make things, that's all the aptitude you need. It's always hard at first. The words are slow and strange. Sit down knowing you're not going to get it right the first time through. Sit down, instead, with a mind to learn. Take your small victories to heart. Be proud of your time spent working, but know you still have more to do and farther to go. Know that tomorrow you'll always be glad you started now.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Revision & the Diagonal Rule

“The goal is perpetual motion. […] At every corner you leave yourself an alternative.  You move diagonal.  You turn the wheel when you hit a red light. You don't drive down Broadway to get to Broadway.  You move diagonal, you're gonna get perpetual motion.  That's what you want.”—Copland.
Reading your work as if you hadn't written it has a lot to do with being forgetful.  That's why you want to put a project out of your mind for a period of time before you pick it up again, to foster impartiality.  The challenge of revision, however, only partly depends on distance.  What the task really comes down to is asking questions.

What am I trying to do with this moment?  What does this bring to the story?  Does it fit? 

You should be able to justify any part of your story.  If you look at your writing and feel lost, it is likely because you cannot answer these questions.  Consider them at every level, from the broad movements of your story down to the individual images.  You'll usually know when you've written something wrong, because you won't be happy with it.  This should help you explain why.  That, or beat off the perpetual self-doubt that plagues our fugitive kind.

Sometimes once you've identified a misstep in your writing, a solution quickly presents itself.  You make the change and continue.  Other times, you struggle. 

In these moments remember: there is more than one way your story can come together.  Unless you enjoy staring out the window for twenty minutes at a stretch and sucking all the momentum out of your process, take the block as a sign.  Instead of forcing the issue, come at the problem from a different angle.  Move diagonal.  Surprise yourself, even, but keep your goal in mind.  Whether for sentences or a whole scene, try out enough approaches and one is bound to stick.

Don't be afraid to do something you didn't expect, even if you're not sure where you'll end up.  You try things.  That's your job as a writer.  Let your writing push out into the dark.  You'll be pleased how often you can bend what at first seems like a tangent into the overall scheme of your work.  It is all you, after all.  Let your brain make its subtle connections—your storyteller's intuition.  Blind intuition, misguided maybe, but at least you're moving.  Inertia kills creativity.  I'll gladly write 500 words to cut them all when I find 30 that are gold.  Prospectors dig in the dirt their whole lives and don't enjoy that sort of return.  I'd rather keep typing and get close than stare out the window and have nothing to show for it.

Sometimes your goal is itself the problem.  You may need to rethink what you initially intended.  It seems silly to have to say it, but your first thought is not always your best.  Here we stumble across that famous line “kill your darlings.”  Some struggles are worth the fight.  Anyone who has fruitfully banged their head off a keyboard feels this in their aching bones.  You don't have to cut out the things in your story that excite you just because they're flawed, but if you can't make them work, you have to be honest with yourself about it and let them go.

It's a shame if an otherwise good idea doesn't fit in with the rest of your story, or you can't quite find the right shape for it, but you shouldn't be distressed.  You're a creative person.  You can drum up a thousand thousand such ideas.  You got this far, after all.  Why wouldn't you have more in you? 

The core of this whole strategy is that it lets you to see just how many ideas you can generate.

In short, don't railroad your work.  Don't feel tied to any draft or plan.  Jag.  Move diagonal.  If you surprise and excite yourself, there's a good chance you'll do the same for the reader.  The opposite is also true.  If you're bored with your work, consider that a red light and turn the wheel.

Try it.