Friday, May 27, 2011

Heinlein’s Rule No. 3 You Must Refrain from Revising Except to Editorial Order

I’d like to think that when Heinlein says “refrain from revising,” he’s not saying “refrain from ALL revising.” Either way, I think this is where I part ways, just a little, from his writing advice.

Again, I see where he’s coming from. Heinlein says, “You must write,” not “you must write the same thing over and over.” How I see this rule is his way of stressing that you must keep moving forward through story after story until thinking of new stories, framing them, and telling them, becomes second nature.

There is another aspect to his statement that rings true for me and it was something I learned when I was an art student. My mom, an artist and calligrapher and my first and best instructor, told me: “The most important thing to know, when you’re working on a piece, is when to lay the brush down and walk away from it.”

It’s so easy to get sucked into the world of whatever it is that you are working on, to get fussy and overwork it. When you’re working in pencil, charcoal or paint crossing that line can happen in an instant and it’s usually immediately obvious. The piece is ruined, and you get to throw it away and start over.

This can be a little more difficult to recognize when writing, especially on a computer where there is no paper to literally wear a hole in. Anyone who’s spent any time writing knows what I’m talking about here. I’ve personally worried more than one piece of writing down to a shiny and useless nubbin.

A short story, a chapter or even a scene; it’s easy to get stuck in a kind of holding pattern endlessly circling over it, making and unmaking little changes. It is such an inviting trap to fall into especially when the way forward is unclear. You can tell yourself that you are working on your story, when really you’re not.

That said, I believe revision is absolutely necessary. To me, it’s is such an essential part of the evolution of any story that I’m writing that it is difficult for me to identify specific rounds of revisions. The key, for me, is to stay focused on moving forward. I revise every day but set some limits. For example, I only allow myself to revise the previous day’s work before breaking new ground. No starting every day by polishing that the first scene one more time.

Some have said that writing is like driving at night. Your headlights can only show you a little piece of the road ahead but if you trust the road and your map, you’ll eventually arrive at your destination. Once there, you can look back over the ground you’ve covered and everything is much clearer. The places you need to rewrite, the set-ups you need to put in place or tweak, the character adjustments.

So, rewrite, just keep driving.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Heinlein's Rule No. 2 - Finishing What You Start

While this piece of advice turns up in most how to write books, I don’t think it gets nearly enough emphasis. I have certainly managed to ignore this idea for years. Not this year. And I’m here to tell you following this one piece of advice has made the biggest difference in my writing to date. Simply committing to each story that I start has changed my whole approach.

I think about my ideas differently now, I gather them in my daily journal the same as I always have, but choosing which ones to develop, and which ones to actually launch into a story is now more of a process.

I don’t think it matters how you decide to see your idea through to the end, if you write from an outline (I do), or by the seat of your pants it’s the commitment to finish that will teach you more about writing than any class.

After the heady bon voyage and the thrilling embarkation I usually sail straight into the doldrums of the middle of the story. Navagational equiment will tell me my destination, but with no wind, I'll have to row. And it’s sweaty, hateful work.

Sometimes when I’m adrift in the open ocean I look back across what I’ve written so far and lose heart. I see that the story is not working, that something is broken. In the past this was often the point where I would abandon ship for another enticing idea and begin another story.

But not this year. I’ve come to realize that it’s my duty to save this story or go down with it. What I’ve found is that no book, class, or seminar had taught me how to manage all the elements that go into creating a ripping good yarn. The only way to really learn is to, you know, get in there an manage the elements.

There is also a reward for committing to the characters. Because I’ve made a promise to them, they are free to become more real and to contribute their own individuality to the story. It becomes a partnership, and suddenly the work is fulfilling enough to be the engine that I need to reach my destination.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Heinlein's Rule No. 1 - You Must Write

You must write. Contrary to the evidence of this blog I have been writing. Or perhaps the lack of entries is proof that I’m writing. So far this year I have several stories in various stages of drafting and revision. I have written more - and more regularly - than I have for years. I just haven’t quite figured out how to plug writing this blog into my process.

You must write. We all know it. This advice is so elemental and we hear it all the time. There are entire writing books devoted to expanding on that one brief imperative sentence. But I like how Heinlein puts it. Rule number one. Three words. Period, end of conversation.

You must write. And I’m here to tell you that it’s really not that hard to write - to write just a little - everyday. Or is it? Apparently it is. Why else would we keep repeating that mantra? Personally, there have been many, many days gone by where I have not written a word. Day’s I’ve spent thinking about writing without ever, actually sitting my ass down to write. All I can do is put those days behind me. Like Tolstoy’s families, the happy families are all alike. Every day that I manage to write is a good day because no matter what else happens that day at least I got my pages done. But every day I manage to avoid writing is unhappy in its own way.

You must write. As I get older I’ve come to know myself better, and by this I specifically mean I’ve come to know just how subversive and sneaky that little do-it-later troll is. He doesn’t live under a bridge, but in my brain. I have veered off the path too many times to count. I used to care about the reasons behind my habits of procrastination and avoidance but I have to tell you I don’t any more. I’ve discovered that I don’t need to know how quicksand works to recognize it, and when I come upon it all I need to do is sidestep it. And by “sidestep” I mean sit my ass down and pick up my pen.

You must write. Because writing isn’t the result, it’s the cure.