Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When to take a step back

Ask any author whether they have novels they’ve shoved beneath their beds or buried in the deepest hole in their backyard, and you’ll have more than a few cringing visibly and telling you about that novel they never want to think about ever again.

Sure. I have a number. None of them were bad stories. In fact, some had some pretty memorable characters and some lovely descriptive passages. But they were flawed and, in most cases it was because the plot just didn’t happen. Kinda like a lead balloon, okay? My earliest pieces were thinly veiled fanfiction, but now we’re talking about the material I wrote during my teen years, which I’ve thankfully put far behind me. If I even get a vague urge in that direction, I write fanfiction. I do not try to dress something derivative in original trimmings.

As much as people love to pooh-pooh fanfiction, it has its place. It’s fun, and it gets any ideas of clones out of my system if I happen to fixate on an existing setting. Mind you, I don’t write this kind of stuff often, but sometimes I do feel the urge to play in Pern a while, or spin a yarn based on The Crow’s milieu… Hell, I even wrote a Highlander fanfic recently. It was fun and a bit of a holiday from my commercial fiction, which I needed to remind myself that I write primarily to offer entertainment, not only for my readers, but for myself. It clears my head and I move on. Writing is supposed to be fun, okay? Remember that. Tattoo it on your left hand. WRITING IS FUN.

But, it brings me back to my stories I abandon. Mind you, this is not a decision I take lightly. Usually by the time I shelve a piece, I’ve already invested hours of my life in a story—hours I won’t get back. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that sometimes it’s the best thing to pull the plug. It’s not as if I’ve thrown away the story or the characters. These lie fallow for me to return and dig out the gems among the dross and, at times, I do recycle characters or routines I like.

And realise this, none of the writing you shelve is wasted time. I have no idea who said it but there’s this statement that a good writer will need to churn out a million mediocre words before they write a great novel. Okay, I’m probably paraphrasing horribly but hell, it’s true. When I think back to all those abortive short stories and partial manuscripts I’ve hidden in boxes to eventually find their way into the trash, I don’t weep for those “lost” hours. No matter how dreadful the execution, these malformed creations were an important part of my development as a writer.

It took me a year to write my first novel and the initial manuscript was well over 100 000 words long. My crit partners and editor helped me pare this down to just over 96 000 words and, since then the logic behind constructing a novel seems to have taken hold. I get my ending first, work in approximately three climaxes then look for a suitable beginning. I work backward now, embroidering around the core of an idea. I'm not scared to throw away words.

Because I’ve written enough clunkers, I have a better idea of how to structure the novels that will sell. So, my advice to beginner authors: Don’t be afraid to put something aside if you’re starting to get feedback that the piece isn’t working. Establish why it’s not working then create something new you can invest your time in. I’ve seen good writers get bogged down because they fixate on a magnum opus they’ve reworked so many times they’ve gone word-blind, and all that joy has fled from the writing, resulting in ponderous prose that just doesn’t sing.

So, ja… go on, take the plunge. It’s a breath of fresh air that may just communicate through your new writing. And, given a few months, you can go back to that old manuscript and you may just have the key to unlocking that story.


Julieanne Lynch said...

I totally understand what your saying. I find it so easy to get 'bogged down' with plots that just don't ever seem to move on from the original concept.
I find it helps to walk away from a project if I find I can't come up with something original and works for me!
But, like always, you sometimes come back to that 'bogged down' first love!

Nerine Dorman said...

The trick is not to let it mire you hopelessly then want to give up because you don't feel like you're moving forward.

Allison Lee said...

Great post, Nerine!

Although I have only written fan fiction rather than published "real" fiction, I believe my time experimenting in that world has been well-spent. I have learned when/how to step back when I hit a roadblock, sometimes shelving outlines and half-finished pieces that just didn't work. Rather than see any of it as wasted time, I know it has all been a learning experience. And I know I can always call back those characters and plots someday to find life in another story. Perhaps in that great first bestseller of mine, right? :)

Nerine Dorman said...

Allison, practice is possibly the most important gift a writer can have. Those million words...

Brooklyn Ann said...

I love the dialogue punctuation tip. I used to do: "Blah Blah Blah." He said.
So at least I always had the action part right when it was She laughed. "Blah blah blah."

A goddess of a critique partner cleared it up for me straightaway. :)