Silencing the Monster
I owe much of my writing development to two professors who taught me the value of editing. Before, I would occasionally toss a word out, or rewrite a stanza or paragraph, but only if the writing was desperately bad, or someone that read it pointed out something ridiculous I had written. For years, I was convinced that what I wrote was the pure text, and beyond fixing a spelling error, writing was to be left alone.
When my poetry professor ripped apart, then helped me recreate a poem, and that piece became the most incredible and complete thing I had ever written, I was convinced. My fiction professor taught me that a writer needs to pay just as much attention to line construction when writing fiction as when writing poetry. The length of the writing should have nothing to do with the attention the writer gives it.
For years, that philosophy helped me write more succinctly, more clearly, and I believe, more potently. I used to write first, edit second. As I became more skilled at editing my own work, I started writing and editing simultaneously. For many years, this was how I’d compose-write a line, edit as I went, change words, change direction, alter the form, finish the text, breathe, edit again.
Somewhere along the way, I got lost. Editing became more important than writing. Files full of half completed stories, random lines or paragraphs became the normal. I couldn’t finish a third of what I started writing, becoming frustrated with the way I was expressing, not what I was expressing. Form becoming meaning, not the vehicle to meaning. I was losing my writing edge, and while the writing I was able to finish was still, in my view, top quality, it was frustrating to watch so many ideas sit unfinished.
There are at least three longer pieces, novel ideas, sitting in files, in similar states of frustrated incompleteness. I have rewritten the same chapters so many times that I finally quit trying. In one story, I wrote myself into a corner in the first five pages. Another, I can see the ideas, how they fit together, but I am not talented enough (yet) to execute them. Going on almost three years since I left the library, and my first book is no closer to completion.
November came rolling, and along with it, National Novel Writing Month. Last year, my brother in law started the challenge to write 50,000 words in one month, and while he did not complete the story, he did complete the words. I am amazed at that! So many words in so short a time. Break it down to just under 1700 words a day, and it seems just as daunting. Still, I wanted to try it, wanted to give myself a tangible goal. I had not been able to write more than 700 words in one sitting for quite a long time, and if I did write that many words, it was never done on consecutive days. I would edit myself out of half of them. I determined to try anyway.
On November first, I sat at my computer and pulled up a blank page. Bad idea. Nothing came, no idea, no words. I pulled up the story I’d started the week I quit the library, read over it, liked the tone and the direction. I could see the corner I had written myself in, but better yet, a way to get out of that sticky place. I started writing. After forty minutes, I had left a little over 1000 new words on the page. Combined with the original writing, I had just over 3000 total words. I was off and running.
On day 2, the old habits started creeping in. I deleted an entire page, rewrote it, then stopped. I couldn’t let this go on. I was my own worst enemy, my need for a clean text, a near perfect page, was like a monster eating at my creativity. A perfect page was an impossibility and the search for it would never lead me to a complete book. I needed to silence that creature, find some means to lock it up until I finished my goal, finished the story. Then I could let him loose to edit his hungry heart out. I needed rules for writing, something I could come back to when I was frustrated or stuck. They had to be simple, clear, few in number, effective. I came up with five.
1. Remember, you don’t have readers yet (thanks for this tidbit of wisdom, Josh Hanagarne).
2.This is NOT about a perfect text, this is about telling a story.
3. Even if you hate it, write it. You can fix it when the story is done.
4. Trust your ideas, they are good ones.
5. Do NOT harsh edit.
And with those rules written, I was able to shut off the critic in my head and write. I still have moments when I get stuck, need to take a break, but I refuse to re-read what I have put down. I will read the last few sentences from the day before to maintain the tone, get the story back in my head, but I haven’t deleted anything more than a sentence or two in 12 days. I’m on pace to finish. The story is coming, the ideas are there. I’m going to do it, finally.