Hey fellow Scriveners,
I’m kinda stuck and am looking for some advice.
I’ve been writing a story on and off for about 5 years now (maybe more I’ve lost count) in-between the usual distractions life likes to throw at us. I’m finally in a position where I can start dedicating a bit more time to writing and I’ve sat down in front of my work and found myself somewhat paralysed by what lies before me.
So here’s where I’m at:
- 55k words
- To my mind about half way through or just over
- remaining chapters roughly sketched out
- fairly solid backstory underpinning the project
I originally wrote the first 6 chapters in succession. Deleted the first three as they were naff (I’m sure Ursula K. Le Guin called it when she said you always bin the first few chapters you write ). Tightened up the others until I felt I had a solid start to the story. As I continued writing I found that my story needed to start much earlier than my opening chapter to better establish some of the characters. So I wrote another 4 smaller chapters and added them at the start.
So today looking at my work this is what I see: A half finished first draft with a slightly discordant opening, overall 60% needing light edit, 40% needing heavy editing / re-write, placeholders to flesh out scenes. (The usual mess of a first draft I hope!?). My real question, finally, is this: should I get about and shore up what I have until I’m happy with it, or should I just ignore the fact it seems to be sellotaped together against the storm and just finish the bloody thing, then set to work straightening it out in the second draft.
As a writer I’m not a ‘bash out the first draft quickly’ kind of person. I continually revise until I’m happy then move on, which I feel is probably what has me stymied at the moment.
Psychologically, I’m not sure if it would be better to finish so I have something whole, but not good, or half of something which is fairly solid!? Ahhh the dilemma!
Thanks for your time people.
As usual, I agree with UKL.
It’s a familiar problem; every writer I’ve talked with recognizes it, but not every one attacks it the same way. What I do now is plow on through, get a totality to work on. Wasn’t always that way: years ago, I’d drop back and keep on editing/revising/polishing until the first half was wonderful, at least to my prejudiced ear. Then charge ahead.
What often happened — and should have been recognized the first time — was that the narrative, about three quarters of the way through, took off in a new and un-prepared-for direction. (Truth finally hit, I think, when I discovered, three quarters of the way through a mystery novel, that the guy I’d lined up as killer was actually OK, and that cheerful dude off to the left was the villain.)
But again, that’s just one POV. Not everyone writes or thinks the same way.
I haven’t completed a novel (my work in progress is not as far advanced as yours) but I have completed other works, including a doctoral thesis. So, with that disclaimer, my advice is: write the sucker now, then edit as needed once the story is complete.
I have two reasons. The first is that unless you are a master plotter, you will likely want to delete, add, change and rearrange far more than is healthy. There’s not much point in getting the text perfect now because you will change it later anyway (even if it is perfect it might not be needed and so will have to go, or the names might change which changes the rhythm and cadence of the sentences, or structurally it belongs in chapter 5 instead of 3 so the part about the dog no longer makes sense, or what seemed brilliant in May appears dull now, or… you get the point). Edit later when you know what the structure and story need.
The second reason is that it seems like you’re polishing a draft rather than writing one. Given your statement, “I feel [that] is probably what has me stymied at the moment” I suspect that “continually revising” as you go is a very effective avoidance technique (I say that with compassion: I was a master of it).
The best writing advice I ever received was “Write shit” (an impolite paraphrase of one of Natalie Golberg’s writing rules. I think her version was, “Be free to write the worst junk in the world,” but my version is more memorable). The point is that if you allow yourself to write horrible, awful, junk that you couldn’t imagine being worse, then you don’t need to fix it straight away. In the meantime, it moves the story on so you can write more junk. Once you have enough words to see the entire story then it is much easier to see the underlying structure and what it needs (which may not always be what you expect). At that point you will know what needs to be kept, added, replaced, moved or deleted. The skills that are avoidance now become helpful assets at that point (so good thing you’ve been practising them!).
EDIT: It seems PJS said much the same thing while I was writing this, so at least two of us agree.
Cheers Nom & PJS I really appreciate your advice.
I dont know why i didn’t reach out to the community earlier!?
It sounds silly but I’ve not had anyone to talk to about writing for such a long time, so I’ve been having somewhat schizophrenic journal writing sessions where I ask and answer questions of myself as a means of working out problems with the storyline. I’m pleased I have finally bitten the bullet, especially after having been given such friendly and useful advice!
It’s often lonely work, as I’m sure you’ll agree, and just having someone else say “yeah I had that problem” or “that’s normal” is very reassuring.
Thanks again, I guess now I’ve actually got to do some writing!
Finish it first; then revise.
I tend to just write, then segment, revise that and write more. I have no set system, just do what the mood takes. When I look over a piece I’ve just written, I tend to revise anyway. Proofreading your own errors can be ‘fun’ or is that written with tongue in cheek?
When I write by hand I tend to finish a piece first, particularly if it’s a short story or an essay. Writing fiction tends to need more idea-germinating. Writing by hand is a great way to deal with the writers block…just write…
@Primus: Your approach to writing seems very similar to mine. I used to like writing with pen and paper as well, especially brainstorming early on, but I found as the story progressed it was harder to keep track of what was going on without all the details to hand. Plus my constant re-writing meant that i had literally erased holes throughout my notepad.
Saying that, I might go back to it, especially as I sit a the computer all day at work, and the old pen and paper is a refreshing change.
Unfortunately since I started this thread I have written nothing as I have a 6 month old who has decided to stop sleeping through the night. My writing time has now become try and catch up on precious sleep time!
One habit I’ve been trying lately is to leave a small chunk of text that must be rewritten/edited as the last thing I do (preferably in an otherwise blank text doc) before knocking off writing the previous session. I find this has three advantages for me:
- It addresses the re-write itch first off, but limits the scope of what I’m rewriting.
- It addresses the writer’s block/fear of blank canvas.
- I already have some thoughts and notes and jumbles in place, so I can more easily pick back up momentum and get writing.
When I awake, and the coffee begins to kick in, I rewrite everything I wrote the previous day–snipping and primping and theoretically improving the flow and weeding out that which yesterday was eloquent and inspirational and today is just a sad cluster of twaddle, leaving myself notes to look at this or check out that in some indefinable future. Then by the time the coffee kicks in and the brain properly works, I pitch in on what I’d planned to write today. Unlike revision, which is mostly editing, creating something new requires a whole new area of my brain, one not fueled by static mechanics but by flushes and gushes of original thought, fueled primarily by walking around and around in random patterns muttering to myself.
This keeps the two processes separate, but the one fuels the other, I’ve found, and without them working together, writing doesn’t work at all for me–not even churning out cover blurbs for OPNs.
I know I’m finished revising when (as someone once said) I spend all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out. Typically after five full drafts, at least on my nonfiction. My fiction, currently floating around Midtown, may have been a few full drafts short of completion, for all I know.
I do believe that was Oscar Wilde.
“This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.” — Oscar Wilde
Real authors ship.
If $BOOK is turning into hard work – by which I don’t mean, skull-sweat, but I mean a totally impossible uphill struggle (and I’d characterise 55,000 words in 5 years as an uphill struggle) – then it’s turned into a roadblock in your writing path.
I’d shelve it. Don’t abandon it; that’s not the idea. But it’s probably too hard for you to finish right now. Instead, archive it; take what you’ve learned, move on, and start a new project.
When you’ve finished something – your next or next but one project – then go back and take a look at Novel Number One and see if you want to finish it and get it into some publisher’s submission queue. It might have been a learning experience, of no merit – which you’ll only recognize once you’ve got enough experience to know what a viable product feels like, from the inside. Or it might be that it just needs a bit of TLC and experience that you don’t yet have in order to make it shine.
Either way, though, it sounds like it’s turned into an obstacle rather than a part of your personal highway. So your job is to find a way forward that works for you, rather than to keep chipping away at the same goddamn mountain with a wooden mallet. That might mean redraft it again, or writing your way through to the bitter end – but it might mean, go and do something else instead. Only you can tell. But don’t make an either/or choice of it: there’s always more than one way to do it.
Repeat: real authors ship. Good luck.
Great advice and thank you for taking the time to post.
For me, I started writing in earnest when I lost my job. For me writing was a way of keeping me sane, keep my mind exercised, making me feel like I was still being a valuable member of society as well as being a source of potential future income. I was under no illusions about the potential of getting published (or the income), but like all of us who embark on such a project, we have enough self belief and determination to go through with it anyway!
So I was applying for jobs and writing at the same time, to a fairly regular schedule. So far, so good. Then out of the blue I finally get a job that I never thought I would and the novel fell by the wayside, where it still sits today. It probably doesnt help that my work now involves technical authorship as well as writing lots of copy and press releases, so time and enthusiasm for personal writing is often at a premium after a day at the office!
I think because I have plowed so much time and energy into this book, it seems like a terrible waste to not finish it, hence my original post. However, I seem to recall an interview with Eoin Colfer (of Artemis Fowl fame) saying much the same as you, in that after much soul searching, he decided to shelve one of his early manuscripts and start on the next project. For him the manuscript ended up serving as a lesson on how to not write a book, but as it was a valuable lesson, he kept the unfinished work in pride of place on his bookshelf as a constant reminder.