Tuesday, April 5, 2011

At Sixes and Sevens (or, Accepting Bad Writing)

I've begun work on a new book while my lovely and charming agent shops my novels around. I'm told that this will keep the insanity away. Also, I'm a writer, or so I tell people, and that means I should be writing. So I am. Writing, that is. Or at least that's what I pretend to be doing.

In truth, I started the new book about two weeks ago and have made very little progress with the narrative. I've made any number of outlines and drafted notes to myself about scenes in the middle of the book and have read some of my research materials but as to actual writing as in putting words on the page? Not so much. Oh, a few thousand words, maybe even the first half of Chapter One. But mostly I've been stalling and decidedly not writing.

Why? It occured to me today that the first chapter of this book is a bit of a mess. It's going to need some work when I get around to revisions and it's just rougher than I like my writing to be, so I've sort of been avoiding it because I have my standards, you know, and I'm not living up to them with this draft, or what I've got of a draft just now.

My choices are to either write miraculously shining prose on the first go-round or to just put my head down and write badly, just to get the shape of the story on the page and have something written that I can revise. My belief is that most of the art actually happens in the revisions and not in the drafting anyway, not that I really see a lot of difference between writing and rewriting but that's a different topic.

No, I need to just accept that this first chapter--maybe even the first couple of chapters of the new book--are going to be a lot of bad writing, and just get on with my bad writing so that possibly I can eventually get to the good writing.

Which gets to the real issue: I took some time off after my last book and got out of the habit of writing prose almost every day. Now my normal routine doesn't make any room for regular prose writing and I have to change things around to accommodate it again. The first thing that has to happen is to get excited (or at least grudgingly willing) to commit to the sustained effort it will take to write a book-length story. For me, this has always meant just being hard enough on myself that I start in on it and accept that, for the next six months, I'll give over my lunches and evening commutes to the new book, and I won't be reading much or thinking about much except the novel. Basically I engage in psychic arm-twisting.

I know that a lot of people start new projects while the idea is fresh and magical and use the energy gained from learning about the ideas while writing them out as a way to get hooked into the effort. But for those of us who do a lot of pre-production work, outlining and research, that is, it might sometimes be harder to get the ball rolling and gather the necessary momentum to jump in and get a good start on a new project. I'd be interested to hear from that group, the planners and outliners, about how it goes with you when you start in on the actual writing of a new project. Does it seem like a big effort is required? Do you drag your feet before starting in earnest? Or do you just happily jump in and start racking up words?


  1. Scott, when I start a big new project I'm like one of those old old cars that had that crank stick thingy in the front. You had to crank it and crank it until the car coughed once...then coughed twice...three times...and finally it caught, chugging slowly along until it gathered more and more speed.

    There's always a lot of "real writing" time between my big projects, and it takes a huge effort to crank my muse up. Usually it weeks of stop/strat BAD writing and then all of a sudden I give a crank and she catches and off I go...!

    So keep cranking and eventually you muse will kick in and run as smooth as Amarula liquer!
    Judy (South Africa)

  2. I have outlines for the rest of the books in my series, but I'm not working on those yet. I've been writing (or working on writing) for the last three years straight and I need a break. I want to read (I can't read when I write) and get real life situated before I tackle another book.

    It sounds to me, you're not excited enough about this new book yet. It sounds to me like you need more of a break to get that itch to start scratching again with pen to paper, to make you feel if you DON'T write, you'll wither away and die. Either that, or you just don't really like this book.

    But this is only my opinion.

  3. Just a quick word of advice, revise the first chapter last.
    In the last three novels I've written the first chapter, that originally wrote was either rewritten to the point that if you read the original and the final side by side other than the character names you wouldn't know they were the same chapter. In one I turned the first chapter into the 3rd chapter.
    Your problem is that you've hit the point where you know how important the 1st chapter is, how it has to set the tone for the book, grab the reader, insure world peace and all that and you are trying to do that before the rest of the book is finalized. Some writers can do that, I'm not one and it sounds like you aren't either.
    So don't worry about the 1st chapter until the rest of the book is done.

  4. Looking over my comment I can see I shouldn't be commenting before I finish my first cup of coffee, sorry about the poor grammar.

  5. As an in-betweener (meaning I'm a combo pantser and plotter), I am going to jump in here with my $0.02.

    For me, I do enough research to get started. For my current story I'm working on, that basically was nothing when I wrote the short story this is being adapted from.

    Until I got to the end and I needed to figure out what my MMC's uniform would look like. And whether my FMC would have access to the people she needed to accomplish the ending of the story.

    But I pretty much just jumped straight into that story.

    Now that I'm adapting it out to novel-length, there's more research there. The story is taking on a new shape as I write and research to make that writing feel more realistic. To get those sensory details that I'm not familiar with (i.e. Kevlar, war zones, searing heat of a dry desert that hasn't been irrigated for farming, etc) requires research before I can write those passages.

    I guess what I'm saying is that maybe it would work better for the story you're working on to get a little of the research out of the way. Just enough to be able to get those details right as you go. Then when you hit a scene that needs more research, pause for the research just long enough to get it done well, then get back into the writing. Maybe that's the way to capture the writing enthusiasm this time around.

  6. Scott, I don't outline, but I'm speaking up anyway. Because, actually, I do outline. I'm outlining a novel that I'm writing for my sister-in-law and her sister and also partly for someone in the blog-o-sphere, who shall remain unnamed. Because I had these three readers in mind, I wanted to hit some specific plot points, and I so I thought outlining was necessary. What I find myself doing is working on the outlining and then "tricking" myself into writing little bits of the actual prose on the outline. I feel like if I can just get some fingertips under the hood (yeah, great metaphor, huh?) then I'll be able to write more. So, the thought of an official start is daunting, but I feel like I'm sneaking in around the official start.

  7. I'm not here to give you advice, but to encourage you to read while waiting to write. Just that act of entering another world, noticing how another writer weaves in and out of a page is enough to send you back to your pages.

  8. p.s.
    all the writing I've done under duress has been smelly crap.

  9. I'm one of those writers that can't write crap (or feel like it's crap at the moment) and keep writing. I have to have polished everything that comes before what I write next. That's just how I work and how I'm wired and how my brain ticks. No way around it. I've been that way for 16 years of writing and I'm not going to change it now because, well, it works for me.

    I outline more than I used to, but I must say that SCALES has been the hardest book I've had to start. I think it has something to do with pressure and a contract and a deadline. That's not the funnest thing ever. I only have 1,000 words so far and I'm already stuck.

  10. Thanks everyone for the advice, but I'm not actually in need of any! All I need is to just put myself in a chair with pen and paper, admit to myself that I'm about to commit to the work, and just do the damned work. It's always like this for me. The idea of writing an entire book is exhausting in advance and it takes me a while to stay up on the horse/bike/metaphor, even though I've done it four times already.

    What I wanted was to see how it is for the rest of you when you're starting a big project.

    Judy: I like the Model T crank image. I definitely know what you mean there.

    Anne: Partly I want to finish reading the three or four books I'm in the middle of before I start writing this book, because I also have a hard time reading when I'm writing and I know I'll miss it. I'm already in that "If I don't get started with this MS, I'll kill someone" headspace. I just haven't really acted on it yet. By writing, that is. Not by killing someone. Not that I've killed someone. Hey, look: donuts!

    Project Savior: I don't revise/edit in order anyway, so doing the first chapter "last" doesn't really apply to my methods.

    Stephanie: Research? Oh, don't get me started. The research began months ago and will continue all through the writing/revising. I have the first chapter half written and I have found all sorts of historical coolness to work into the story (Babe Ruth retires! The Saarland goes fascist! Ataturk creates Turkey! The Brussels World Fair!); I just need to reclaim the habit of writing is all.

    Domey: That bit about fiddling under the hood here and there is what I've been doing, but at some point we have to say, "Okay, page one. Here we go." Maybe.

    rosaria: Actually, I was thinking I should read the final book in Beckett's Molloy trilogy for inspiration.

  11. Michelle: If I had to polish every word before moving on, I'd never get past the first paragraph! I have no idea how you can write like that. Do you write more quickly as you go along ( in the first draft, I mean)?

    You know what I do when I get stuck? I trust my outline, even if it makes no sense at the time. I have to tell myself that when I put together the bones of the story, I knew what I was doing. So far that's turned out to be the case.

    I also realized some time ago that, when I'm in the process of writing, I can't really tell good prose from bad. I can only tell you how I felt about the act of writing, not about the quality of the writing. Which is weird, but people are irrational and I'm a people ergo et cetera.

  12. Scott, I don't know how I write like that, either, and I must admit I do keep a reservation in my mind that I will go back later and fix things. However, it does have to FLOW right for me before I move on.

    I trust my outline too. The main problem with SCALES is that I haven't finished the outline. Yeah, I shouldn't really say I'm stuck yet. I always write the first few thousand words, then do the outline so I get a feel for the story first.

  13. "I always write the first few thousand words, then do the outline so I get a feel for the story first."

    That's just what I do!

  14. Great writers write alike, Mr. Bailey! I think we write more similarly than we thought.

  15. I, too, write the first thousand words or so and then outline, though sometimes part of that is written in my head rather than on paper. It depends.

    I also, like Michelle, cannot throw garbage on the paper until I have 80,000 words of garbage and then turn it into something I like. There are extensive revisions, to be sure, but I have to be pretty comfortable with what I've written before I move on.

    In terms of how I start new projects, I love that feeling and don't usually get exhausted or intimidated until I'm about half-way through the book and realize how much I've diverged from my outline.

  16. I was a plotter, then a pantser, and now I'm considering defecting again. If I don't outline, I often get lost, but if I do, I often just plan and plan and plan.... and plan... into infinity and nothing ever happens. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so I attempt to get everything right in my outline.
    Needless to say, I currently have an object that vaguely resembles an outline and growls when I touch it. So I'm stalling at the moment.

  17. My outline consists of a couple pages detailing the planned contents of each chapter (I'm using the classic 12-chapter mystery structure that Christie used), and about twenty or thirty pages of notes to myself and a small handful of index cards with ideas scribbled onto them. I also have a spreadsheet I made a week or two ago that diagrams the first two days of the story, because all the tricky action comes during that time span.

    Today at lunch I made myself sit down and write, and I coughed up about 500 words (right now the wc is at about 3200) and I think I've now finally hit my stride because the work was big fun. It helps that there are jokes, too. Yes, some of it will have to be rewritten, but it's good enough to stand for now.

    Current working title: The Bridge To Egg Island. I know, it's teh suxor, but I have to have something.


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