Is this thing done?

Not my story, I’m still drafting big pieces of it. I was just thinking about this because I just read a blog post from Patricia C. Wrede (http://pcwrede.com/writing-is-like-weather/). A point she seems to make in there is: Don’t sweat the small stuff. I like it, but made me question part of my process. I often go back to previous chapters to make sure characters and events are consistent. Often, when I do this, I revise what I’ve got there, sometimes dramatically. So, how do I know that it’s good enough for now? Well, I have no idea. The answer to the question is this thing done? for me, and I expect most writers, is NO. That applies to each sentence, paragraph, and chapter.

I try not to focus on looking for problems or things that don’t work so well, unless I’m making a specific effort to revise based on feedback or changes I’ve made to the story. This seems to work fairly well. If the prose is bad, I’ll be forced to stop and fix things as I go along. Occasionally, I’ll find myself being drawn into my own story, as if it were a favourite read rather than something I’m actively working on. These are the rare points where I decide it’s ‘good enough.’ It doesn’t mean that I’m calling it done, just that it’s good enough for now, and I can think about on other stuff.

I think the point of this rubber-ducking exercise is to remind myself to focus on the big picture right now. I can always go back and fix the technical bits of my story whenever, and as many times as I like.

Rewriting the first chapter

Great, now I’ve got to rewrite the first chapter. The driver of the whole story as it’s written so far. Do I just trash the whole thing? Yes, I think I have to, maybe I can keep a little bit.

This is where I was a couple of months ago. It sucked. 15 chapters drafted, and I realized that the first chapter may have launched the action, but didn’t fit with the rest of the story. (At this point a professional writer might say: How is that even possible? – Well it is for me, because I’m not a pro.) That chapter started life as a bit of back-story for a supporting character. The idea was a tragic and secret love-story to explain his motivations. I had a lot of attempts to get my story going and I had characters and a general story arc, just not a good starting point. All I needed was a place I could launch the action that needed to happen. When I made the decision to swap the supporting character for the main character in that first bit of back-story, doors opened. I had motivation for the main character, a way to introduce the antagonist and an excellent introduction to the world.

From that first chapter, the second, third, and fourth chapters came easily. They were horrid the first go around, and I spent a lot of time rewriting them. I like them now, and liked them a couple of months ago. At that point I was ready to share the work, and the immediate feedback was that first chapter was good, but the story of it didn’t really fit with the direction of the rest of the story. In order to make it work, I would either have to expand chapter 1 into at least one more chapter and change significant plans for the main character in the future, or do something different. The conclusion I came to is that I had to scrap that first chapter. Well, that dropped me into a lurch. The action after just didn’t go and those subsequent chapters didn’t make a lot of sense without a launch point significantly similar to the original first chapter.

After throwing a tantrum for a while about having to throw away what had amounted to weeks of writing time – which translates into years for me given all of my other commitments – I spent some thinking about the problem, and managed to find a suitable revision. It was still a complete re-write, but it kept all of the key plot elements necessary to move the action forward. In fact, as far as story structure goes, it’s better. The style of that first chapter is more like the rest now (which was a related problem I’d been struggling with), the introduction of the main character was generally better, and the conflict I was trying to explain seemed to make more sense. The best part of this revision is that it didn’t require huge changes to subsequent chapters. However, there is a major drawback – the first chapter as it is now still needs a lot of revision and polishing. It’s nothing I can’t deal with though.

This experience has taught me an important lesson, one that I should already know: If most of the plot is working, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to rewrite major portions (all?) of early chapters and still salvage the majority of the writing.

Managing my writing ego

Managing my own ego is hands down the toughest part of writing. I want desperately to finish my story, and also, eventually, share it. However, in order to do that, I’ve actually got to write a story that doesn’t suck. The mechanics have to be decent, and the story itself needs to make sense and be compelling. In my mind, my story is a best seller. In reality, it’s an amateur hack, and if I’m super lucky some of my friends might read it all the way through. With that little reality check in mind, it’s only only my ego that keeps me going. Unfortunately, that ego is also a major roadblock because it gets in the way of taking advice. It’s hard to accept that what you’ve done doesn’t work, even when you know you need to listen to advice.

It’s easy to say: “Well you just don’t understand what I’m trying to do,” in response to advice that’s difficult. Particularly when it brings problems to light that would require major changes to plot or characters. Sometimes, though, the knee-jerk reaction is “Darn, now I’ve got to trash all of this work, I really like because it doesn’t work.” In truth, both of these are extremes, even when there’s truth in the reactions. It’s made more complicated when you have very supportive friends or family who encourage you to keep work they just told you was bad. At those times, who do you listen to – the bold self-assured ego, the the overly critical ‘throw it all away’ ego, or the supportive friend who insists you just need to rework a few things?

I can’t say I haveĀ  solution. Ego is a double edged sword, I both need it to proceed, and also keep me inside reality. All I know is that I have to make a focused effort to accept all advice and assume that even if it’s off base it’s pointing to a real problem and I need to understand the root of the issue and resolve it.