On the Joys of Being Wrong

Dcp_0384I literally just bought this computer a month ago, so it’s very important that I not punch the screen. I’ve had to remind myself of this a few times today, because I got about halfway through my latest book and decided that my whole concept is incredibly stupid. The plot isn’t any good, the characters are unlikable, the premise is borderline offensive – oh, God, what am I even doing trying to get this abomination to market?

I had no interest in the actual answer to that question: I was doing the same thing that my readers loved last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. Nobody in the midst of a Very Important Writing Crisis wants to hear that they’re doing just fine. If we’re doing just fine, then we’re completely wrong about all the horrible things we’ve been saying about our work, and I have never met a writer who will just accept being wrong when they have their blood pumping.

So, instead of continuing to wring my hands and berate my poor little novella, I went fishing. I got the first mosquito welts of the season, I aggravated my chest cold, and I didn’t land a thing longer than my ring finger, and it was fantastic. I got to ruminate on the weather, on keeping my lure out of the weeds, on the exact identity of that smell coming from behind that concrete thing – in short, on anything but my Very Important Writing Crisis.

When I returned, it was as if a miracle had happened. I could pinpoint one spot – a dialogue between two characters that doesn’t last 250 words – that had created the sense of weakness I had about the whole narrative. With a few lines deleted and a few lines added, I had the passage carrying the information it needed to get across. It turned out that I was wrong about the Very Important Writing crisis I’d been having, and I was distracted enough that I could finally shrug and say, “yeah, okay” about it.

It doesn’t always take a fishing trip to resolve my Very Important Writing Crises. Sometimes, cleaning the kitchen or taking a dance break (or both at the same time!) will get me removed enough from my pity party that I can take a more objective look at the piece. I’m sure different people have different things that work for them – the important thing is that you eventually accept that you are, in this instance, wrong. 

What Do We Really Get from an ‘Ugly Draft?’

ToadWe don’t become writers because we want to produce a piece that is ‘average,’ ‘OK,’ or ‘up to basic standards.’ We want greatness. From our high school love poetry to our expansive series of novels, we writers tend to crave confirmation that we have at last produced something perfect. Faced with the drive to create perfection and unable to produce it, we instead create nothing at all.

It is at times like these, when we want so badly to write, that we need to write badly. I’m not talking about a metaphor that misses the mark a little bit, or about a piece of dialogue that’s just missing something – I’m talking about sloppy, half-thought-out, ugly writing. I want you to cringe when you go over it the next day, hoping to salvage a line or even a paragraph from the stinking heap you produced.

I also want you to realize that you won’t always be able to salvage parts of your ugly drafts. It’s nice when you can, but you must remember that the purpose of an ugly draft is not to produce something you can use later. We use ugly drafts (also known as pre-drafts, or cognitive drafts, or don’t-bring-this-back-into-my-office drafts) simply as a means of getting our thoughts down on paper. This may seem like a pointless exercise, but you must realize that very, very few people can turn their thoughts into a coherent sentence on the first go-round. If it sometimes takes you two or three incoherent sentences before you write what you mean, then congratulations! You’re still well ahead of someone who hasn’t practiced the craft of writing.

The English language is not a perfect reflection of our innermost thoughts, but rather a shorthand for them. When you produce an inelegant, poorly-organized piece of writing, you are still far from the final product. However, you’ll have a much better idea of exactly what you’re trying to say with your piece, and you’ll be one step closer to breaking through that writer’s block and producing something that people will want to read.

In Praise of Outlining

Purple salsify seedheadThere’s been a nasty rumor going around the world of creative writing for years. People have been saying that if you do it right, a work of prose will just come to you. The plot will flow through your mind, the characters will spring to life of their own accord, and your role in the whole process is simply to provide the “creative energy” – whatever that means.

It’s untrue that a piece of creative writing will never flow to you like this. However, it is just as untrue that you can expect such a wonderful thing to happen every time you sit down at your desk. A large part of the craft of writing is learning how to get through those dull, mundane days when the vivid story in your head does not want to effortlessly transform itself into a written work. Outlining is one of the most valuable tools available when this happens to us.

Every writer completes their outlines a little differently, but most writers begin their outlines by deciding to send their characters on a journey from Point A to Point B. Point B doesn’t have to be the end of the book; it could be the end of the chapter, or the next sex scene, or the next big plot-driving revelation. Once you have a Point B in mind, it’s a little easier to track back and write down events that need to happen to get you characters there.

It may not come quickly, and it may not come easily, but you will eventually have your outline – that is to say, you’ll have a list of small, sequential steps that your story needs to take between Point A and Point B. If you’re having a good, easy day of writing, you might find that a sparse outline is all you need to guide you through your day’s work. If you’re having a not-so-easy day, then writing a detailed outline and tackling steps one at a time can help the task of composition seem a little less daunting.

Although many of us are most familiar with the outline from our days composing essays in the schoolroom, this tool has its place in creative writing as well. Outlines can hep you flesh out your ideas, strengthen your plot, and help you overcome writer’s block one bullet point at a time.

When you least need Writer’s Block

Sink Plunger

A useful for tool for unblocking

Writing, in its broadest sense, is probably the last civilized tool to abandon a human being. I’m picturing here the educated prisoner holed up for decades in a dungeon, scratching poetry on the damp walls with a chip of stone.

Writing liberates; it gives a window beyond the present situation. It also gives substance to transient feelings, like love or despair. It’s the way the human mind gives shape to its thoughts, tracks them and gives them a certain permanence. It can stop people going mad and bring them back from madness, or sometimes it’s the outward manifestation of madness.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a prisoner, deprived even of scratchable walls, who composes pieces in his head and commits them to memory. I would love to know how it works. Would each morning consist of a review of all the finished material followed by creating new work? Or would there be some compartment in the brain where the finished parts were stored so as to be retrievable at a later date?

There’s a Spanish poet called Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer whose volume of poetry, finished and submitted to a publisher, was lost in a political revolution. Not something which ought to happen these days if things are backed up properly! Anyway, he wrote out all his poems from memory. I don’t think many poets these days, when set rhythms and rhyme schemes are unfashionable, would be able to do the same.  (The original function of rhyme was in fact to make sagas memorable.)

People can achieve extraordinary things when they’re pushed into it. Like writing by batting an eyelid when the rest of you is paralysed. Or telling yourself stories when you’re supposedly brain-dead but in fact still very much alive in your coma and just not able to communicate.

The worst scourge to afflict anyone whose circumstances were so reduced would have to be Writer’s Block. There would be no alternative activity; nothing to distract. A person would surely go mad in such a situation.

But Writer’s Block in my experience is a mixture of boredom with the task at hand and self-generating demoralisation at lack of inspiration or success. It isn’t even because the job is too difficult; without the handicap of Writer’s Block multiple ways of circumventing the problems would present themselves.

To return to our prisoner, inspiration is like the plant which blooms in an adverse climate (for very sound biological reasons – the plant hopes its progeny will experience better times). Discomfort, loneliness, misery of every kind, can squeeze the best out of us. The important thing is to keep a spark alive because depression and dehumanisation are powerful enemies.

There’s another piece of Spanish literature – a medieval ballad supposedly written and sung by a prisoner who “doesn’t even know when night and day are except for a little bird which sang to him at dawn”. The bird has been killed by an archer; the ballad finishes by cursing him. There may be symbolism behind that bird and that archer, but I prefer to interpret them literally. Out of terrible, bleak circumstances has arisen the most beautifully poignant of poems which has survived down the ages and which must have accompanied many people through dark times.