Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Damped Flailing

This is really more by way of reassurance than anything, because it takes me a long time to work things out and I'm trying to convince myself that I'm not a terrible writer.  Over the last few months, I've been trying to work out a way to write which will not require a million drafts, massive cutting, and even more gigantic episodes of rewriting.  I keep thinking there has got to be a better way--I've got to learn how to do this more efficiently and with better quality.  Right now, I'm stuck, and I mean STUCK in revision hell and it's making me think maybe I'm not such a great writer, after all.  I look at my critique partners who started out approximately when I did, and they are all published.  Some are e-published, some are single title published with traditional publishers. 

I'm still lagging behind, as usual.  So what am I doing wrong?

When I first started writing, I plotted out everything very carefully and grew distraught when halfway through I realized things weren't going according to plan and I had to replot.  At the same time, I was attending writing conferences and it seemed like everyone I knew (who got published--this is the key thing for me--I was looking at methods used by those who actually got published) thought that plotters were, well, a lower form of writer.  All my critique partners who got single title contracts with traditional publishers such as Kensington were pansters.

So, I thought maybe my problem was that I shouldn't be a plotter, I should be a panster--one of those writers who just write by the seat of their pants.  This technique slowed me down, though, because I didn't know where I was going with the story, so I sort of compromised by writing perhaps three phrases for each chapter that indicated to me what I wanted to do in that chapter.  Not in depth plotting, but I could stumble along with that.

Then, attending a few more sessions, this time given by plotters, I realized I really did need to plot things out because when I didn't, my writing slowed to a crawl and I thought, if I did a good job plotting, maybe I wouldn't have to cut and rewrite so much.  These published writers who plotted often only did one draft!  Amazing!

Then, to my horror, I realized that a major part of my problem was what I was plotting.  I was plotting scenes or events, not character developments.  In large part, I thought this was necessary because I have a mystery element, so it made sense to me that if the body is found in Chapter 3, I ought to plot out that the body is found in Chapter 3. 

It is slowly dawning on me that this is not right.  I'm focused on the wrong thing.  I'm focused on the plot element happening--the body being found--instead of what is happening to the character at that time.  Here is what I mean.  If your story concerns a detective who doesn't trust women and he's called to investigate a death where it appears that a woman may be the killer, then the discovery of the body isn't the plot point you need to consider--the body is the "scenery" and you wouldn't say for a plot point that they discover a chair in the dining room.  The plot point is the fact that the detective is now involved in a murder which will test him in the way he deals with women. Will he allow his prejudices to influence his investigation?  How will he wrestle with this?  Can he be fair?  Will he ask to be assigned to a different case?

This is much more difficult - it's much easier to focus on what is happening instead of the character's issues and development (I refuse to call it a journey), but that is what is important.

That's why I end up cutting and doing rewrites - because after I've written the book, I realize that I haven't covered the character's development and that needs to be addressed.  (My first draft also consists almost solely of dialogue with small bits of action, so I actually have to add in all the descriptions, emotions, transitions, etc.  I even have to add in dialogue tags.  I remember one scene that went on for several pages with so few "he said" and "she said" tags that during revisions I lost track of who was speaking half-way down the page and had to go through and put tags in so I knew what was going on.  The amazing thing is that when I wrote it, I followed the conversation without any tags at all, quite well.)

I also have to "get to know" my characters and the only way for me to do that is to write.  As a result, I usually throw away the first chapter or two, because those are my crucible where I form the characters.  I can't avoid this.  I can draw all the character sketches I want, do all the interviews I want, do all the things other writers do to flesh out their characters, but until they start interacting with one another and the situation, I don't know them well enough to get a good start on the story.  Now, I have written two manuscripts where I believe I've started them in a place that might be Chapter One in the finished product, but I'm not holding my breath.  I won't know until I'm done editing them.

The bottom line of this is actually several bottom lines.
1)  It's okay to be a plotter, a panster, or something else, like me.  Everyone is unique and you really do have to write in the way that works best for you.  Try different techniques and see what you like.  Throw away the rest.  Don't feel like you're less talented just because you don't follow any of the well-known strategies.

2)  Sometimes, you can't finish a manuscript in one draft with one revision.  That might work for really tight writers--I know several in fact who do this--but for some of us, this just doesn't work.  The process of writing for me more closely resembles something a previous boss called damped flailing.

3)  Damped flailing is my technique.  It's for people who are not plotters and not pansters.  Damped is a term more often seen in physics, but it basically means to slow, decrease or stop the amplitude of an oscillating system.  Your book is the oscillating system and it's a real mess when you're done with draft 1--it's oscillating all over the place.  So, what damped flailing is, is starting out flailing around in a huge spiraling circle, trying to figure out your plots and your characters and get that down on paper as your first draft.  As you work on the story, the spiral gets tighter and your flailing around decreases, but doesn't entirely go away until you're done editing.  The some drafts may even cause you to flail around into larger spiraling circles again until you find all the pieces you wanted in your story, and take out all the bad bits, until you focus it down to a very precise, tight little story--rather like the eye of a hurricane.     

I wish I didn't have to do things this way.  I wish I didn't have to almost entirely rewrite my current manuscript, but this time around, my flailing is definitely damped and I'm hoping to get it right.

I hope this encourages you if you're like me and can't create the perfect masterpiece the first, second or even third time.  Or if you go through the pain of having to cut your first few beloved chapters because, after the fourth edit, you realize you really didn't need them after all.  It's all good.

Here's to all of us writers who flail around blindly, hoping for the best.


Bernita said...

Have just read several of your posts.
You make much good sense.

Anonymous said...

Amy, I loved this post. I used to think I had to get it right the first time, but now I realize at the least one rewrite will be in my future for every book. Because I focus on the action, on getting the book moving, and then need to go back and layer in the things I missed, like more emotion, or a better sense of place. This is not the 'wrong' way to do things. I think Dean Koontz rewrites each page ten or more times before he's happy. I read your previous post and laughed, because it focuses on a similar topic I just addressed in my blog. I'm reaching the end of my book, and I know I have to do rewrites, and I'm thinking up ways to make them spectacular.