Getting It Write

"You'll never stop writing. You might stop selling, but you'll never stop writing."

Robert A Heinlein

Honestly - and I don't mean to disparage my fellow authors in this - some of what I've seen out there, even from the New York press, is not very good. Some of this can be excused as the fumbling efforts of newcomers (and my own early work will testify to that!) but much of it must be attributed to a lack of self discipline. Stories don't just happen. Even short form is demanding, and novel form is a major challenge to pull the plot together, work out the characters, the flow of events, and the dramatic arc - not to mention basic wordcraft which can render all your best efforts in vain if you fail to deliver.

So how does one write a story, anyway? Thus far we've covered many of the nitpicking details of the craft, but now let's look at the Big Picture, the actual writing process itself. Writing is a slow, often frustrating process where progress is measured in paragraphs and there are no end of distractions to tear you away from your efforts. As much as anything else, writing is a relentless slog, especially when your creative well has run dry and your Muse hates you. Yes, there are times when creative lightning strikes and the words flow out of you. Those are the good times, and we authors live for those moments like an alcoholic craving his next drink. But all too often writing is a job, even a burden.

There will be days when you can do no wrong, when the prose comes pouring forth in an almost orgasmic experience. And there are days when you can't even write your name, when each sentence is a term in purgatory, and what you do get down on paper is an embarrassment. Don't let it get to you! A successful writer, one holding finished work in hand, is different from the wannabe simply because they didn't give up, didn't get discouraged, didn't listen to their nagging doubts, and kept plugging away.

As for my associates (mentioned above), part of their problem is they quit too soon. The story doesn't end at 'The End'. Odds are your MS has no end of spelling errors, incomplete thoughts, loose ends, and just plain sloppy concepting. This is what editing is for.

Consider my own writing experience as a case in point.

My early efforts, thankfully, have been buried where they aren't likely to be found (save perhaps by Jimmy Hoffa). Thank Heaven for the 'delete' button! Did I get discouraged? Truth, my big angst at the time was the seeming epic challenge of a 100,000 word manuscript. (And, yes, that can be intimidating.) Later, when I went through those early files, I was well and truly chagrined, but by then I was hooked too deep to save myself.

One good thing about experience: it burns your hand often enough to teach you what works. My method of writing, evolved by painful example, is slow at best. My goal is a mere 500 words a day (supposedly allowing time for editing, pasteup, graphics, etc), and often I have to struggle to get that. I do have good days on occasion where a slot in the story line practically fills itself, and I have to struggle to keep up with the enthusiastic flow of words - oh, the pleasure! But for the most part, my daily grind at the keyboard is a grind, indeed. This is what works for me, which is why I use it.

Why does my writing take such effort when authors I know boast of 2000, 3000, even 4000 word days?

My usual method when tackling a new scene or chapter is to go through and write down what comes to me quick and easy. There are always some parts which practically write themselves - times when I rack up my 1000+ word days. But the result is filled with gaps, partly completed thoughts, sentence fragments, incompleted dialog, and more. They are, at best, an extended outline of what I want to really say.

Then comes the hard part.

I agonize over every gap, every line, every sentence, every word. I rewrite, and reshuffle, and move paragraphs to other chapters. I split chapters up, and fuse others together to improve the plot flow. I create new characters on the spot, and throw monkey wrenches at them to trip them up. I change narrative to dialog and dialog to narrative. By time I get the final rough finished, I have something which has already been through editing until Hell won't have it.

And, of course, we're not done yet. Writing first draft is one thing - and enough of a challenge that you struggle to fill word count with anything you can grab hold of. Editing is another matter entirely. The focus now is to take this diamond-in-the-rough and polish it into a finished work. The two are completely separate functions, and cannot really be combined.

This is the time to worry about character development, atmosphere, plot flow, and repetition.

This second stage eduting differs from what you did before. Your initial edit was intended to smooth the lumps out of the material and make it into something which at least makes sense, grammatical or not. This second edit is to take that semi-refined material and apply the ol' Shinola which, hopefully, will make it sellable. I will add that your second edit can go through many iterations. Keep doing it until you know you've ironed all the bugs out, no matter how long it takes. (For the record, my first novel, In The Course Of Diplomacy was finished in draft - the first time - in 2003: its final edit was released in 2010.)

As was said before, writing is a slow, often painful process. But keep in mind you are creating a literary masterpiece, something which will bring hours of reading enjoyment and bold new visions to hundreds of people, hopefully forever. This doesn't just happen, which is why there is so much poorly crafted dreck from the wordsmiths on the book shelves. So don't be intimidated, don't be discouraged. You have taken up the challenge of one of the most difficult, individualistic, and creative art forms out there. So hang tough: you can do this.

One good thing about the writing game: it gets easier with experience. That first MS will seem like you're giving birth to a cement truck, but after you've done this a couple times, it gets to be routine and all the little tricks you learn kick in. Your first MS is your education in writing. From there it gets simpler, and those massive MS won't seem so massive after all.

We'll see you on the Other Side!

Related Topics:

The Writers' Worksheet
The Virtuous Villain
Info-Dumpster Diving
Character Matters
Slinging Slang
Getting It Write
Setting The Pace
Hitting The Atmosphere

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