Thursday, November 5, 2009

Some Thoughts On Writing

This post got me thinking about the Inner Editor — that irritating fiend that lurks inside me and gobbles up all the protein from my numerous mid-paragraph muffin breaks like a tapeworm coiled round my guts.

I wanted to post something in the accompanying comments trail, but the inner editor worm-thing’s constrictions squeezed only drivel from my keyboard (another great ‘ink & pen’ analogy ruined by the onward march of technology, btw).

In the comments there, the Inner Editor conundrum (and for those of you who don’t know it, it’s like Rubik’s cube crossed with the dire essence of a phantom Sudoku puzzle) was raised by the spookily chirpy JaneyV and picked up on by guest blogger Nate Graziano (who normally resides here).

I won’t reproduce the conversation verbatim as the words are not mine to quote willy-nilly, but the distilled essence of it is here...

Nate: Nice hair.
Janey: Nice beard. But what bothers me is this. I try to stall my inner editor so I can get the first draft out. Difficult, though.
Nate: Yes. Best to get stuck in and draft. You're still at the discovery stage. John Irving, I know, plans everything out first, but to me, that’s not so much fun.

(If either of you are reading this and don’t appreciate my paraphrasing, here are some other lines you can insert:

“Some days, I’m possessed by a literary wanderlust I can’t control.”
“Obama should grow his fingernails long, like an Eastern potentate.”
“I love the way haddock crisps up when tossed gently in a wok.”
“Get lost, Whirlochre!”

:) )

I have moments when I’m plagued by the Inner Editor, and I think I may have figured it out. What follows is not a hard boiled thesis on the craft of writing, nor a hissy dissing of others who favour different methods. Just a few thoughts I’m having now.

Most of the time, I think I’m with Irving. I separate out the thinking and the writing, casting for plot and character as I idle through laundry or tackle the hordes of alien invaders that battle daily to seize control of our tiny dimension from the portal over my bathroom mirror. Editing thoughts is easier than wrestling with gerunds and spatchcock advectival nethermewoes in a linear progression of words, and by thinking through the essence of what happens, beholding the images that hopefully one day will burst forth unaltered and still vivid from the page in spite of numerous subsequent chops at the language, I can arrive at a shopping list of things to write about. So, a while ago, I had this...

Haloumi and Dann-Glarr throw Orb Lorfd into the waste disposal. leg and a wing. He screamsto reveal plot thing with clock then is gone. H reconstitutes quiche and dg is a pain. H in boots“Might I suggest that thing you call moussing?’

Nonsense, badly written, and full of spelling mistakes, I know — but it crystallises the picture I have that flashed into my head as I ironed, without the tedious business of having to write it all out as a line-by-line narrative. When I have something like this, I can re-run the scene, and add in further detail, with no heed paid to the Queen’s English, and no need to be witty/pacy/descriptive/killer/etc. It’s as anal as trainspotting.

After I wrote that outline, I changed a few things, but it remained the same writer’s building block in essence — a summary of what I wanted to write ABOUT. Having an ABOUT is very useful when you’re trying to summon the words — like a showroom dummy for a pile of clothes. I find it helps to have a lot of work done before you put pen to touchscreen. Creating too much of a scene or character as you’re simultaneously involved with the psychomechanics of typing or scribbling, and trying to pin amorphous blobs of think-stuff to the blank page or document with hard fixed words is to engage in two different processes at the same time, I think. Chinese circus acrobats can do this kind of multitasking seemingly effortlessly, often with four different parasols and weird shaped vegetables grown only in the Yunnan Province — and maybe some of you can do this too. But I can’t. And as you saw from the last post, I’ve got big feet. And would look ungainly in a spangly acrobat’s uniform.

So my choices are twofold. Either I can write blindly and churn out loads of stuff I may end up not using, or I can find myself something to write, and layer on the detail, refine in subsequent drafts. A lot of the early stuff from my WIP was generated using the first method and I’ve got all sorts of stuff lodged into the fabric of the book like shrapnel that’s proving a swine (oink oink) to unarticulate/excise. With method two, I’ve produced clearer stuff, and quicker too. But the downside, as Nate noted, is that the potential for spontaneous fun is diminished by this draconian approach. Unless — you imbue the thinky-generaty moments with fun (and if you’re in any way theatrically-inclined, you can impro the voices, walk the walk — you’d be surprised what shocking stuff comes out); and in the draft notes like the H&DG one above, add frequent comments such as FUCK ABOUT WITH THIS, MUCH SWEARING or SOMEONE MUST DIE.

Hmm, a roundabout post, this. And not entirely nailed. In coming clean (or filthy as a heifer’s backside) about aspects of the writing process as I see them, I hope I’ve not bordered too much on the supercilious. As I said, I’m not in command of The Golden Rules Of Writing (though this radio-controlled beetle swarm — such fun when unleashed on my heighbour’s teenage son...).

Just to say, on reflection, I don’t think I’m a Dorothea Brandesque writer-into-empty-space. Looks like I’m a megalomaniac Stalinist overlord with shit taste in shirts and an addiction to linguine. But I think I can live with that.


JaneyV said...

Editing thoughts is easier than wrestling with gerunds and spatchcock advectival nethermewoes in a linear progression of words, and by thinking through the essence of what happens, beholding the images that hopefully one day will burst forth unaltered and still vivid from the page in spite of numerous subsequent chops at the language, I can arrive at a shopping list of things to write about

I think that's about the crux of it although I did have a lot of trouble with spatchcock advectival nethermewoes - but I translated it as "the other crap that comes up" and it worked for me.

I don't write in a stream of consciousness. I do have a fairly good idea in advance where it's all going to go but if the characters are coming to life they do often surprise me with what they come up with. My problem is that I then angst about whether or not what I've written is good enough and I keep reading and re-reading it and changing bits which cause me the change bits further back and then before you know it all I've done is re-written the bloody thing and the story is still stuck. What I'm trying to switch off is the need for it to be perfect before I move on - just so I can get on with the bloody thing. I'm pretty well mapped out in a general sense. There are quite a few bits of annotation that go need to get from plot point A to B in as non-boring a way as possible, pref with kissing. By not being too rigid I'm hoping for that spontaneity that Nate was talking about. I do feel that the thinking I do when I walk the Pooch is the essence of the story that needs to be told actually telling itself.

blogless troll said...

I agree 100%. Possibly more. When I know what I'm writing or trying to achieve, the words come fast and the challenge/fun then is to arrange them in the most effective way. And you can always change your mind halfway through if something better turns up.

sylvia said...

I don't outline. I have notes, I have ideas but it's not really sensible and I can tell you that Sophie is going to lie in bed with a vodka bottle and cry but I can't tell you WHERE in the story that scene is. I have no idea what the scenes directly before or after it are. I think it's probably in the last third but maybe it should be earlier, maybe I should have put it in already, it's not really a scene you can work towards and maybe it shouldn't even be in there at all. OK, today I'll write a scene that includes a vodka bottle and see if maybe that will help lead the way to Sophie taking it to bed.

That's how I write. It's not really a useful process to try to explain.

BUT coincidentally I've seen three or four different essays lately about writing something like what you describe. *tappity tap*

(I'm drinking red wine as I look for these so forgive me if this goes incoherent)

Nano Tip #1: Dialog Spine « westerblog
Many writers use the so-called “dialog spine” as a way of mapping out a scene. As a sort of “zero draft,” they write just dialog, with no setting, action, or even attribution. It’s a quick once-over of conflict and resolution in a scene, without any tricky bits to slow you down.

Ecstatic Days » Blog Archive » How to Write a Novel in Two Months
(1) Make sure your initial synopsis is detailed enough that you can divide it into chapters when you start the actual writing, and, if possible, make sure at that point that you have a one- or two-line description of the action for a particular chapter or scene. Know going into the writing for a week exactly what each scene is supposed to do and why. If you know that, you will find it is still possible to be highly creative and surprise yourself in the individual scenes. If you don’t know that, you will spend most of your creative energy just trying to figure out what should be happening. (UPDATE: Jay Lake notes that if he he knew “exactly what what each scene is supposed to do and why” it wouldn’t work for him, so your mileage may vary. Perhaps I should clarify in that I just needed to know the action that would occur, more than anything else.)

Alexandra Sokoloff: The Index Card Method and the Three Act, Eight Sequence Structure
Get yourself a pack of index cards. You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its to identify various subplots by color, but I find having to make those kinds of decisions just fritzes my brain. I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cats to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method - experiment and find what works best for you.

The big benefit I see with these systems is that it *must* be easier to do the actual writing bit because you know what you need to write.

I have to admit, none of these are as mesmerising as :

Haloumi and Dann-Glarr throw Orb Lorfd into the waste disposal. leg and a wing. He screamsto reveal plot thing with clock then is gone. H reconstitutes quiche and dg is a pain. H in boots“Might I suggest that thing you call moussing?’

But separating it out makes tons of sense am I'm showing these links off not because I want it publicly known how much of my day is spent reading what other writers have to say about writing but because I feel deep down that having more of an ABOUT would be a wonderful thing and I'm trying to find some way of integrating that into what I do.

Damn, I'm out of wine.

Whirlochre said...

Thanks for your considered comments.

A much better standard than the usual drivel we get around here.*

I suppose what matters is that somewhere along the line, we all have to suck out our phantoms from within us and convert them into words. And it's an alchemical trick, a conversion of one thing to another in order to have meaning, in much the same way that a sound wave striking your ear drum has to transform into an electrochemical signal in the brain before you hear the man with the banana catapult yell, DUCK YOU SUCKER! When these moments of transformation begin for all of us (and there are no hard and fast cut-off points like there are with the ear/brain example) differs widely, it seems. For me, the process of 'writing' begins as soon as I have the idea. For others, it's the moment when the words hit the page. For yet more, it's the moment when the ideas hit the page at the same time as the marks on the paper. And for some published authors, of course, it could be argued that the process never truly begins at all.

What's certain is that the Inner Editor fucks things up from time to time. He's a useful ally if you can muzzle him and stop him making off with all the chocolate, but the rest of the time, he's a swine. A small thought beheld once that stopped you in your tracks, and which (thanks to the speed of nervous transmission), you now think in an instant without witnessing the thought.

Thanks for the copious links, Sylvia. You really are a star. I've just emailed NASA to suggest the next Milky Way type galaxy they discover be named after you.


Robin S. said...

It’s as anal as trainspotting. Gems like this are worth reading for. You kill me Whirl, in only good ways!

Now, onto the topic at hand. I write in a variation on the theme you've mentioned, blended with Nate's, I guess. It took me a while to just let go and let my brain do the telling it wanted to do.

I wrote the first chapter to my novel (after a few months or writing scenes and things) after I woke up one morning, having grappled the night before with 'where do I begin, though, what's this novel actually about?' running through my head. I had a hard time falling asleep that night. When I woke up before it was all the way light outside, words were in my head, running like a tickertape. I repeated them to myself and I lay there for a few minutes, repeating them, until it hit me that I'd given my mind nightwork, and it had done it for me - written the opening paragraph - fully formed - of my novel. Absolutely intact, an din the voice of my narrator, the one I'd been working to find.

So I guess I'm saying that both writing into a good vein and letting my mind do freelance on the side are the things that work for me. i also write a lot in the car - I keep a pad and pen handy. Some of the best writing I've done has been from snippets I wrote down in the car at stoplights, etc.

I haven't quite gotten where I wanted to go with this, but I need to leave for the dreasded 'office' now...

I'll be back later.

writtenwyrdd said...

It's all very messy and complicated, isn't it? And sometimes (for me, usually) it involves lots of extraneous world-building stuff getting written that I cannot use. And I also write plot notes and scene outlines (often bulleted lists) for going back to later.

In fact, just freewriting a scene in a messy fashion without bothering with paragraphs and punctuation can net most of the scene for me.

Right nwo, I am barely chugging along, less inspired than I can sometimes be. I feel like the inner editor is howling, "It's all crap!" and that my plot is dull. I'm ignoring it, though.

stacy said...

I haven't written in a while, but in my composing my process is definitely changing. I do a lot more planning now than I used to. That might work with my writing as well—as sometimes I don't even have a solid idea when I sit down to write.

Whirlochre said...

Late back to my own comments trail. Must be how it is with telepahy, that feeling of coming home after being away for a while.

Keeping a pen handy is essential — but there are drawbacks. I used to keep a pad by my bed, just in case I woke in the night. Then I'd write something down by the light of the moon (as I couldn't be arsed to get out of bed). One night I was visited twice by the muse and wrote two great poems on the same sheet of paper. 25 years on, and I'm still trying to figure that one out...

World-building is a nightmare. And even though my current WIP is low on that sort of maintenance, there are sections which definitely need thinking through first.

If I sit down without a solid idea (or even a soggy one), that's when I tend to end up with very little.

Robin S. said...

Damn, Whirl. You are SO CLOSE on your edits. I'm impressed, and I'm not even remotely kidding!

Robin S. said...

P.S. I just put a note on my blog that you're having a good discussion over here, on writing.

One thing I've found is - the process changed when I went from actually carving out and writing the story inside my novel. Now that I'm editing, it's a lot more of a settled down thing.
I take roughly 1000 words a day, and 'sculpt them up'. One thing I've found is, at first I fought this, thinking my first blush take on this or that scene was 'pure' and true somehow, because it came out unedited. Then I edited, and found that since I hadn't sculpted - but had instead - mainly just let it bleed - my best stuff was surrounded by too much extra packing.

I credit working to write flash fiction pieces as showing me the way to edit.

What's you editing process been like, Whirl?

Whirlochre said...

My first flush (so to speak) varies.

When I'm at my best, the first draft is pretty much the final edit. Loads of my Haloumi chapters were like that. It's just been a case of trimming adjectives and paring back, adding in things to advance the plot etc. Other times it's not so straightforward.

And I know what you mean about flash.* Chipping in to EE's writing exercises for a year has really shown me how to trim the fat.

My problem (as you may know) is plot — and I promise my next book won't be so convoluted. At the mo, the real beef with the editing is cramming in the plot so it doesn't override the narrative or the image. That's when I hate the writing bit — trimming, pruning, polishing so hard at the spatchcock advectival nethermewoes (to re-coin a phrase) that you lose all sight of the character, the image, the "-ness".

WIPwise — one half of one chapter to go. And it's a swine. But — it's all heading synopsisward.

* he's the saviour of the universe...ah-aaaaaah

sylvia said...

WIPwise — one half of one chapter to go.

Woohoo! That's awesome!

Whirlochre said...

** Hot shit! **

Robin S. said...

Whirl, are ya there?

How are those edits coming (or going?

Because you were perilously close(the good kind of peril, like when you're standing on the edge of a cliff but you know you're not gonna fall, but still, you've gotten to touch your mortality, seeing that huge drop and the air in between, and make it back alive, because you're holding onto the national park's strong iron handrail, embedded in the cliff stone) to being finished.

Whirlochre said...

Still perilously close — but each word is counting for 10 or twenty at the moment as I struggle to beat out exactly what I'm after.

Robin S. said...

Have at it.

And for what it's worth, my word verification this time is: motiond.
Reads to me like a good omen for you.

Whirlochre said...

As long as it doesn't foreshadow too many spelling mistaks.

Or I shit on my keyboard with relief when I'm 'all done'.