Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Parentheses Are My New Best Friends

Last week I was working on 1794, trying to add in a new chapter. I sort of knew what I wanted to happen, but I was getting bogged down in the description. And then I had a breakthrough.

Those of you who follow this blog probably know by now that I hate editing. I hate it sooooo much. I pride myself on having fairly clean first drafts so that I can keep editing time to a minimum. Yes, I know first drafts are allowed to suck; I just don't want to have to clean them up later. So quite often I will spend a good amount of time thinking about exactly how I want to word the next section before I start typing.

I also have a problem with getting started each time I sit down. I'll open up the file, read over the last bit to see where I was at, and then sit there thinking for ten or fifteen minutes. When I have hours ahead of me this isn't much of an issue, but when I only have 40 minutes, as I do after work waiting for The Husband to come pick me up, it severely cuts into my productivity.

So last week I was staring at where I'd left off, trying desperately to get started up again. I was heading into a section of serious description—lots of inner turmoil and wasted energy for my main character, but I just couldn't pick up the thread. I'd been staring at this section for three days straight with almost no progress.

Suddenly I said "screw it, I don't want to write this section right now, and I don't have to, this is a first draft of this chapter."

I started a new paragraph, capped it with an open parenthesis, and started summarizing. This was totally freeform, including thoughts about what other characters not in the scene might be doing and how that would affect things, notes about character motivation, and even things like (T says something clever. Probably innuendo…T goes to (official's) house. There was a wiff of magic about the place. Ok, maybe not that, but something cool.)

I was able to drop in and out of the narrative as I chose, and after only a few minutes I knew where the scene was going, how it was going to tie into the next chapter (which was already written), plus I had come up with some cool subtext that needed to be worked into the preceding chapter. And once I had that down, I'd already been writing for awhile and was able to jump back to the descriptive bit that had derailed me originally and start pounding that out.

I think the reason this worked for me, when all other attempts to "outline" usually fail, is that I was working within my draft, within the story, but what I was writing wasn't actually first draft. My first drafts are not allowed to be throw-offs…but this? This wasn't even draft. It was just summary. It didn't even have to be coherent, which is good because it jumped around quite a bit, including sentences that stopped in the middle because I was done with that thought now. And typing it, as opposed to thinking about it, kept me on task and focused on one thought at a time. Normally when I "outline" in my head my thoughts tend to wander and not accomplish much.

The key for me seems to be not overthinking it. Write until I get stuck and then stream-of-consciousness for a bit until I know where I'm going again. And absolutely no editing the stream-of-consciousness. Bad grammar? Fine. Bad spelling? Not a problem. Don't have a name for that minor character yet? Skip it and use a placeholder. Overusing certain words? Who cares? It's all going to get deleted once I've written out that bit anyway. When I got to a place where I had an idea for what I actually wanted to say, I could just cap off the summary with an end parenthesis and start writing the narrative until I got hung up again. Then new open parenthesis and start summarizing again. I never had to stop typing, and as long as I'm typing I'm being productive.

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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