Saturday, August 14, 2010

Killer combos

A while ago working on Fat Man and Little Boy I figured out a sweet move for writers: when you're stuck in a paragraph and you're not sure what to do, hit enter a few times until you feel like you're in a new place. Then start typing interesting words for later in the story. It can be a bit of description, some dialog, or anything really. This helps me beat "writer's block," which is pretty much a fake idea. It also helps me think about my stories from new angles. If Fat Man is going to be saying X at some point in the future, what does that reveal about him now? What will the other characters think when he says it, and how does that illuminate their state of mind in this section? One of the problems of linear character development, from a writing perspective, is that you usually start out with a guy in a place and then it takes you the rest of the book to figure out who he was in that first scene or two. This is the reader's journey too, so you don't want to excise it completely, but one of my big problems is that this road tends to need a lot of smoothing in revision. Forcing myself to think about character in this way seemed to help me figure things out more quickly, which enriched my first drafts and made revision easier.

This won't work for everybody, but it's been doing wonders for me since I started it. My last short story was written in an extremely non-linear, roving sort of way. Whenever I got stuck in one scene, I would just start working on another. During the best times I was actually buzzing with what felt like too much energy, too many ideas, bouncing all over the place. It was pretty great. The one I'm working on tonight is shaping up the same way.

Another thing I've done tonight that I've read about but haven't tried so often is I just sort of ground my head against what felt like a sort of middling story hoping I would get something out of it in a flash. (It had some fun sentences but I had trouble imagining where it could go that would be worthwhile.) Then I wrote this one sentence that felt better than all the rest. After a few more minutes of screwing around I opened a new window, retyped that sentence, then changed it, then, suddenly, had what felt like a good beginning. It was a sweet move.

A few years ago I gave a speech/presentation to a bunch of students and professors about the graphic novel I'd spent the summer writing. I took three or four hours laboring over the presentation, which was about two pages of single-spaced text. I sent it to my instructor. I read it out loud for practice. Then we did presentations. I was so bored and annoyed with the guy who went before me, who had apparently spent his entire summer preparing to copy and paste Wikipedia pages into a Powerpoint document at the last second, that I crumpled my speech up and threw it in the garbage as I walked up to the podium. (Maybe a bratty move.) Then I spoke off the top of my head. My instructor, who wasn't there, said he knew the speech had gone well because I crumpled up what I had written. That meant to him I was on top of things. There are moments when I'm writing that feel the same way. I know I'm doing something right because I change the manner in which I'm doing it.

Do you have those moments? Something like them?

1 comment:

  1. That was the moment that made me love you, behbeh.

    I've been writing ahead of myself some lately, and that seems to help when I get stuck. I feel like a lot of my writing worries have to do with rhythm, timing, and pacing, so sometimes writing ahead helps show me that the bridge between gaps is pretty intuitive, or maybe I didn't actually need a lot of "time" where I thought I did--ultimately that it's not as hard to get from A to B as I thought, which can really make a difference in a day's writing.