Stubborn To a Fault – How to know it’s time to let go

I have this idea that every new thing I write is going to be better than the last. It makes sense. Practice makes perfect and if you do something long enough you’re going to get better at it. I also have the idea that anything can be made interesting if one is a good enough writer. If you are like me in these beliefs it’s time for both of us to do ourselves a favor.

Realize that not every idea is worth the effort of trying to save it.

Consider the plight of our friend and mentor Natalie Goldberg. On page 83 of Wild Mind Goldberg shares a story about seeing an accident involving a cow and a semi lying in the road, both on their sides, facing each other as though they had run head on and knocked each other over. The image was a moment of inspiration for her. After a few weeks of working over the image she hadn’t gotten anywhere. The inspiration was gone and she couldn’t make it work. She wisely gave it up.

Sometimes we find ourselves really trying to communicate something, stopping all progress in the effort of getting it right, and still it never manifests the way we want it. The importance of understanding this concept applies especially to revision. We all know that when we write something for the first time we are free to let it fly onto the page. We understand that we are not to worry (as much) about grammar, diction and syntax, not the way we will worry about it later in revision. So when we are cruising along and our hand writes out something like, “The night that Jason found his grandmother’s diary would have been a watershed moment in his life if he had had the courage to take the key from his mother’s hand and unlock the book to reveal the secrets inside about how he had the inherited the curse of the wolf” we know we have to fix that bit later (and how).

So later comes, and it’s time to revise that hideously long sentence for the sake of informing the reader that Jason had a chance to learn the secret of his past early on if he had only had the courage. We begin by moving words around like so:

“The night Jason found his grandmother’s diary was important . . .” No.

“If only Jason had taken the key to his grandmother’s diary he would have learned the dark secret . . .” Not what we want.

Meanwhile, all of the narrative leading up to this stupid sentence, and a good chunk of what follows, is spot on! In fact, it might be so good that we don’t need the long complex sentence in the middle at all. There is a very simple trick to figuring out that it’s time to cut an idea and move on – read the passage as if the sentence was gone already and see if the story lives on.

This tip applies to any part of the writing process and is key to revision. Simply put, if something isn’t working it isn’t worth the time to make it fit. I couldn’t tell you how much time I have wasted playing with snippets of a story that were more “snip” and less “pet.” Very much like pruning a plant, however, once we identify the dead branches of our writing and cut them out, the story and we ourselves feel suddenly healthier and more vibrant for it.

There is a companion notion to this idea of knowing when it’s time to let something go and it all has to do with that key writer organ covered recently in another discussion: the gut. You will recall that the gut is where our truth and intuition reside. We must recognize as well that the gut also informs us when the writing is bad, and by learning to listen to our gut we can find many more dead branches during our pruning process. The way it works is that during the re-reading of our work-in-progress we will come across passages that don’t “feel” right. The reasons are many, and the goal of revision is to find these passages and make them better. But sometimes they never feel better and this is when it comes time to realize they never will. We cut the passage (or sentence, or clause, etc.) and instead our gut, and the story, feels better.

All hail the gut! The writer’s organ!

Stubbornness can be a writer’s great ally. By being strong we ignore the negativity of others who tell us we cannot succeed, or should not tell our story, or must go here, be that, give up this, etc. When it comes to making good stories, however, we must be prepared to exchange stubbornness for success. We must know when it’s time to let go.

The No Hurry Schedule – Writing takes its own time to mature

I’ve been away. I found myself back in the workforce after two years of setting my own schedule and working piece-meal on various projects, mostly in the non-profit sector. And by non-profit I mean “no profit” . . . not because non-profits don’t pay, but because writing, so far for me, doesn’t pay.

So I am back in the workforce as I said and I have to admit I’ve got a really great job. Five or so days a week I drive to the edge of the Pacific Ocean and direct the day-to-day operations, big and small, of one of the west coast’s still operational lighthouses. I get a good salary and the work is awesome.

Prior to getting this gig I was putting a lot of hope on my writing. I’d love to be a successful full-time writer just like most of the rest of you. It’s a dream, a goal, and a passion. But with all of the hope I’ve been putting on my writing there has also been a lot of pressure. And this is why, to-date, it’s failing.

Nooooow, that isn’t fair to say. My writing isn’t failing. In fact, I’m making a lot of small in roads on the dream, such as being selected for the Ekphrasis project (see post here). Furthermore, I’m getting more and more editor commentary on my stories. The writing itself isn’t bad, they say, but the storytelling has a ways still to go. Simply stated, my stories just aren’t ready.

When I was working before, and wishing I was writing and not working, I imagined one day I would climb out of the working world on the backs of my fiction and then revel forevermore in the success of a dream fulfilled. When I left the workforce, not on the backs of my stories, I still had a lot of story writing work to do, so I gave myself a small window in which to make the dream happen. I didn’t exactly meet my goal nor did I hold out as a starving artist and eschew my responsibilities for the sake of my art. I think it’s a good thing I didn’t (or I would truly be starving).

Now that I am gainfully employed and the pressure to sink or swim is off, I have come to the realization that it takes a good long time to get a story right. The urge to revise once and ship a story off is probably the biggest mistake unpublished writers make. We want that sweet nectar so bad that we’re willing to lie to ourselves in order to move the process along. And then we’re surprised when things don’t go the way we want. We blame idiot editors for being short-sighted rather than recognizing for ourselves that we have not done our due diligence.

I am now on the “no hurry schedule.” I’ve been on it for about a week-and-a-half. I just made up the name tonight. Anyway, the “no hurry schedule” is just what it sounds like. I am in no hurry to send anything out. I am willing to think, and think, and think about my story until I can find a way to push the whole thing to a different level. As satisfied as I might be with the current project, I know in my heart, and yes, my gut, that things can go beyond everything I’ve imagined to this point. The thing is, we all have a notion of the story we want to tell. It has a feeling and an energy and is dead-on a great story. But getting it to the point of our ideal is akin to mining for gold ore. We know there’s a sweet spot under all that dirt, but we’re not going to reach it without doing a lot of digging.

I said “a lot,” and by that I don’t mean “not a lot.”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever composed a story, just one story, that reads like it felt when you first imagined it. Now put your hand down – I can’t actually see you. If you did raise your hand then good for you. You are probably published, even if it’s in some obscure college lit. mag and we’re all proud of you like Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. For the rest of us, however, I’m pretty sure we’ve never gotten there. Close, maybe, but this ain’t hand grenades.

The point is, writing takes time to mature. It matures in our minds after we’ve written eighteen drafts and left it alone for three weeks. It matures in the re-reading we do when we go back for draft nineteen. As long as we’re asking hard questions then the writing is maturing, and so are we.

It’s the “no hurry schedule.” Better not to hurry, but to be fair to your craft, and in time to reap the rewards of all that work, than to usher your fledglings out of the nest only for them to fall into the drooling maw of house cat hellions. None of us are so good we can’t benefit from easing off a little. We didn’t mature in a week. Our writing isn’t going to grow much faster.

Key to the Craft – Writing Character Backgrounds

I do not know, but have often wondered, whether visual artists ever do personality sketches of their subjects before creating the visual image. Does the paint or pencil artist consider the history and psychological make-up of the subject about to be painted or drawn? I would like to know.

Meanwhile most fiction writers spend some sort of time outlining backgrounds, histories, and family lineages before ever sitting down to write an actual story. But many amateurs skip this step, assuming that the words inside their head will do the work that sketches and outlines might otherwise cover. For my part I have written plenty of stories without drafting character histories. You have never read any of them, however, because none of them are any good . . .

I suspect there are a few reasons that beginning writers don’t draft character histories. For one thing it seems like a lot of work that no one is ever going to see. It’s a lot of time spent making up useless information that goes to waste. The joy, we tell ourselves, is in the discovery of writing the story.

But writing character histories is an important part of the story writing process (and it really is a lot of fun). Consider how much time you have spent sitting idly at your computer, or with pad of paper in hand, not sure of what to say because, frankly, you don’t have any idea who your character is. Knowing a character’s intimate thoughts, their passions and desires, fears, issues, mental health status, physical ailments, love life, place in the hierarchy of their family, position at work, type of job, mode of transport, favorite dessert, etc. adds up in the creative subconscious so that once you do sit to write that story, the wealth of their background is at your immediate disposal. With the work all done up front (in terms of knowing your subject) you are free to draft the story you were meant to write.

If you have never tried to write a character history consider the following exercise. Write your own history as if you were a character in a work of fiction. The details of your life, which you know better than anyone, are the exact sort of things you would imagine for a completely fictional character. Every interesting and sordid detail should be there. Not each and every day of a life lived, but rather the curious points. As you examine your life from the outside you begin to see things that excite your senses, rev the pulse, and when you come across those things you know you’re getting it right. Write about the things you don’t like about yourself as much as the things you do like. Remember that writing is about truth and honesty, and by getting down to the gritty things you are walking that razor’s edge that you hope will appear later in your fiction. My bet is that a single afternoon spent sketching out your life as a character will open the floodgates for future character sketches in all of your stories for the rest of your career. And while you will never use every detail in the sketch, you will have the confidence in knowing that the full palette is there for you, like a painter, to add and mix any color, in any shade, for just the right image.

Here, for example, are some character notes I wrote for Jillian – a character in one of my first novels:

Jillian Marie Kircher (Barnes) – 31
Pastor’s Wife – Mother (Kylie Jean – 4)
“The Faithless” “The Ghost”

She is the most difficult to write about.

You want to demonize her. Cheater, unfaithful, adulteress. Do you understand what motivates her? Jillian’s parents divorced when she was ten. The event left her stoic and emotionally unbalanced. At her worst she is suspicious, moody, depressed. But she has her bright side. She is kind to others. She dotes on Kylie. Let’s go back to her earliest years, before she was ten . . . Jillian is a complaisant child. You can tell already looking at her in her crib. She’s quiet. Of course, she is asleep, but see her awake. She looks around, but is quiet. When she cries at all it’s the hoarse rasp of a sick child. Nothing shrill, nothing red-faced and bloody murder. Her expression is wide-eyed; she looks shocked. She does not readily smile. She watches. It’s as if she knows, over and over again, there will be disasters in her life.

This is not the whole sketch. It goes on into her adulthood, into her marriage and the birth of her child. It also covers the day her mother killed her father, the realization of the disaster she had always sensed from the earliest days. In the sketch a psychological profile emerges.

The entire sketch of Jillian is fourteen pages long. Handwritten in a composition book as one of six (one for each of the primary characters) I wrote before starting the novel. The first try of the book took three years and ultimately wasn’t the book I wanted to write, but the sketches remain, and I will write a new version one day, prepared as I am with all of the characters detailed and standing by.

I encourage all fiction writers to write up character sketches. Whether an entire life or just the details of what is going on at the time of the story, the things we learn through this process are the things we need to know to create memorable stories. Character, after all, is key. Character is really all that we care about.