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.

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