November 7, 2017 § 18 Comments
Last week in my workshop on self-editing at Mid-American Review’s Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, writer Terry Korth Fischer asked a great question:
How do you stop editing as you write?
I was a little confused by this question, because that’s normally not my problem. (My problem is Ass In Chair.) But everyone else in the room nodded–How to avoid editing ourselves in early drafts? How to keep the writing flow going without second-guessing every word?
Online, there’s some common solutions to compulsive self-editing:
Turn off your monitor. I think I’d freak out and have to keep turning it on to hit “save” every minute. For fabulous touch-typists maybe?
Start each day with a fresh page–at the end of a writing session, copy the last sentence into a new document along with some instructions to yourself about what’s next. Next session, start from there.
Write with a timer. Don’t stop or go back until the timer rings. Suzanne Roberts does a variation on this: for dedicated writing time, she sets a timer for an hour. If she checks social media, gets lost in research or leaves the chair, she restarts the timer. Maybe restarting the timer on each edit could break the habit?
Write by hand. It’s harder to delete pen on paper.
…I don’t do any of those things. What keeps me from self-editing too early?
Whether we’re quitting smoking or unhealthy eating or nail-biting (guilty!), it’s hard to replace a habit with nothing. First ask, what problem is the existing habit fixing?
Our brain nags to edit because we’re afraid. Anne Lamott says,
I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying descriptions […] and no ending to speak of. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.
We’re afraid if we don’t stop and fix it RIGHT NOW, it’s going to be terrible forever. How can we reassure our tiny, frightened lizard brain, “It’s OK, I’m going to come back to it, I promise”?
What works for me:
- Edit first. For ongoing projects, I spend the first 15-20 minutes reviewing yesterday’s work. Tweaking words and sentences helps me get back into the flow of the story. I rarely do a massive rewrite–if something’s pretty bad, I’ll start the scene again from a different angle, or accept the challenge to write a new scene addressing the problems in yesterday’s work.
- Work on deadline. Most of my Brevity blogs get written about two hours before going live. My newsletter stories go out bimonthly. I feel worse about being late than being imperfect.
- Placeholders. More research needed? Type LOOK UP COURT MANNERS. Not emotionally ready to dive into a memoir moment? NEED SCENE WITH MOM IN KITCHEN HERE. Sometimes I highlight the placeholder, or put XXX on either side so it’s easy to find in the next draft.
- Look ahead. The work I did yesterday can be bad–terrible, even. Because I’m not promising every word a place in the next draft. I already know I’ll be cutting whole chapters and rearranging paragraphs. That lowers the “fix it now!” urge.
- Plan to practice. Musicians painstakingly learn plenty of music they’ll never record. Artists fill pages with drawings they’ll never work on again (in fact, they have pads full of newsprint to sketch without wasting expensive paper). Dancers who don’t perform classical work still show up at the ballet barre to maintain their technique. Why should writers be exempt from skill development? Why not write pages and pages of a novel or memoir that are simply “practice” and not an early draft of something great? Why not intentionally write some essays that never get edited, that stop at a first or second draft? Every other artist spends time on foundations that don’t directly build a final piece, why should we get to skip skill development?
Whatever tips and tricks we use to stop editing as we go, it boils down to this: Let go of the dream of being perfect. Inside all our hearts is a tiny hope:
I’m going to make something beautiful, on the first try, without working very hard for it. My emotional experience and love of story will compensate for any lack of skill or coherence. I’m entitled to have my thoughts come out exactly right on the page, the first time, and as long as I’m still messing with it, it’s still the first time.
It doesn’t work that way.
We know it doesn’t.
Let it go.
Let it flow.
November 15, 2016 § 10 Comments
The hare finally woke from his nap. “Time to get going!” And off he went faster than he had ever run before! He dashed as quickly as anyone ever could to the finish line, where he met the tortoise, patiently awaiting his arrival.
An author I work with sent me another draft of a scene from a book she’s writing. I sent it back with more notes, for the third time. She wrote:
I love diving in deeper and hearing where things can get amped up. Am only worried it will take another year to edit the book if I do this for each scene 😉
She’s probably right. It may well take a year. Yes, some writers write much faster. But for most of us, polishing each element of our book–scene by scene, character by character, sentence by sentence–takes time. Time at the page. Time ruminating while walking, or gardening, or staring into space. Time away from the book and working on something else. Time at our day job, where one day someone says something in the break room that snaps a recalcitrant plotline into place. Time absorbing the world.
I wrote her back that yes, it’s time-consuming,
…but bear in mind that right now you’re also learning more about writing, and everything you learn will go much faster on the next round! Plus, material at the beginning of the book goes slower than the end, because things are being set up and you’re building the world. And as a human functioning in the real world, you’re probably already changing how you look at things and record details in your head, and being more aware of what makes a scene/character/world will speed up your process, too.
It’s worth remembering those things for my own work. Every time I write–whether a blog post, an essay, a memoir, a how-to book or a novel, I learn more about writing. The lessons from failed work, bad drafts and trashed sentences inform the next attempt. The end of a book may not be “fast” in terms of creative choices, but it’s definitely faster to finish typing a project than it is to start from an empty page. And certainly, as a human moving through the world, I’m noticing more of what physical situations and gestures trigger my judgment, so that I can “show instead of telling” on the page.
It’s OK if it takes ten years–or twenty!–to finish a book. Great work is often made with care. Right now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) sees more than a million writers around the world tearing through a first draft. Agents dread December: it’s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Inbox Hell, as enthusiastic writers skip the all-important revisions and multiple drafts in their eagerness to share their work with the world.
That doesn’t mean don’t finish a novel in a month, or “don’t write fast.” But if you are a slower writer, or have finished a first draft, allow yourself the patience to let your work blossom both from your tending and your absence. Trust that building a network of literary support also happens one meaningful interaction at a time. That being open to the world for inspiration also sometimes includes shutting down, putting up our shields, and listening to our inner voices for a while. In our most recent Brevity Podcast, Andre Dubus III says it takes him five years to write a book–during that time, he shows it to no-one.
I am over 40. I see round-up lists of exciting new (always young) authors and it hurts to know I have missed that window. It’s weird to be both proud of a published book and sad that it’s not the book I thought I’d publish first. I’m a tinkerer, and tend to move slowly through a draft, revising as I go, rather than tearing through to the end and then going back. It’s hard to see friends finishing November with 50,000 words and realize that I have some blog posts and most of another how-to book and five more pages of novel but nothing is done. But the difference between a parable and real life is that the tortoise and the hare can both win at their own speed. I’m tempted to say “I hope” after that, but finishing a book is not a hope. It’s something I can control, and the only choice is whether or not to be OK with the time it takes me.
See you at the finish line.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity Podcast.
November 3, 2016 § 8 Comments
The first, of gold, who this inscription bears,
‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire;’
The second, silver, which this promise carries,
‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves;’
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt,
‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’
How shall I know if I do choose the right?
~The Merchant of Venice, Act II sc. VII
Recently, a writer friend agonized over the start of NaNoWriMo–she had three ideas for novels but also meant to write a memoir; should she pick something fun or something that felt more purposeful?
And an acquaintance lamented in a Facebook group,
How does everyone decide what project comes first? I write regularly for a couple of websites, freelance, blog, and am toying with three memoir ideas. What I love is personal essays, but I keep feeling like there’s something I “should” be doing more of. Do I forget the blogging and pitch more essays? Stop pitching and focus on finishing a memoir? Expand my freelancing so I make more money and maybe have more time off?
These may not be your problems. But you may well be gearing up for the holidays and thinking, “I have some time off, and not all of it will be occupied with rugrats and cranberries, is there a project I could be working on?”
You might even be thinking “OK, I could finish my memoir…or that long-form braided essay I’ve been wading through…or write some flash pieces and submit to Brevity (please do!)…or pitch an essay to a magazine…or write the first chapter of that novel I’ve been wanting to work on…or get caught up with some blog posts…” Like Portia’s suitors in The Merchant of Venice, you’re faced with (at least!) three caskets, all valuable, but (seemingly) only one of which contains the prize.
How to choose which project deserves your focus today? For that matter, how to fill your precious, limited writing time, all the time?
As a freelance writer and editor, I face that question a lot. I do work I love, work for prestige, and work for money, and while those things often overlap they are rarely congruent.
I’ve also discovered I already know the answer–and I bet you do, too. Sure, you can use Jessica Abel’s funneling process to figure out what you want to work on, or think about which project most strongly pulls your energy, or envision your many caskets and see which one gleams with a radiant inner light. But if you look at your list, or your pile, or your closed laptop, you probably know in your heart. And while the part of an artist that loves to dither, that loves to see infinite potential in every project (“Well, yeah, but if I work on that other thing, maybe…”) is pretending to have a hard time deciding, that dithering part of us is basically a three-year-old negotiating between a sundress or their superhero suit for preschool today. Mom doesn’t really care, as long as we get out the door.
Whichever casket Portia’s suitors choose, the end result is the same: Shakespeare has written a play. Then he wrote more. Choosing a project doesn’t make it the last thing you’ll ever write.
Your choice doesn’t actually matter. It only matters that you make a choice.
And once you’ve made a choice, there’s one big secret to getting your project started, middle-d, finished, and out the door in a reasonable (to you) amount of time:
Do it first.
It really is that simple. Look at your pile/list/laptop/casket, and begin working on the thing you most want done, that you will feel the best about doing today. If you have fifteen minutes, do your fifteen minutes. If you have an hour, or two, do that. If you have time today to finish a whole chapter/section/discrete unit, then finish it. Maybe you only have five minutes. That’s OK. Do it first.
Everything else can wait.
Check your email later. (Wouldn’t they be able to wait if the power went out?)
Return your phone calls later. (Wouldn’t they manage if you lost your phone?)
Tidy your house later. (Wouldn’t you leave a bit of mess if you were sick, or had to leave the house for an urgent appointment?)
All these small, busy tasks can be done after you spend the first and best flush of energy on your top project. Don’t waste your morning urgency on things that may be important to others, but don’t move you forward on the thing you care about most. In the Brevity Podcast episode 2 (coming next Monday!) Suzanne Roberts suggests telling yourself it’s a class, scheduled for that time–“You wouldn’t blow off class.” Andre Dubus III says he writes as soon as he’s dropped his kids off at school.
There is nothing more urgent than doing your most important project first. If your child must be rushed to the emergency room, take your notebook because there will be waiting.
The casket with Portia’s offered prize isn’t shiny gold or sparkling silver, it’s (spoiler!) the casket of lead. The inscription reads “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
Yes, you must.
Go for it.
October 31, 2016 § 5 Comments
Guest blogger Sarah Sennott Cyr reflects on the opening of NaNoWriMo (for novelists, but nonfiction writers have been known to ride along):
Natalie Goldberg calls it monkey mind. Steven Pressfield labels it resistance. Elizabeth Gilbert describes it as fear. Regardless of the name, the concept is the same: it’s the thing that stands in the way for so many of us wanting to accomplish a writing goal. It’s why only a small percentage of the predicted 500,000 people who sign up for NaNoWriMo – which begins tomorrow – will nail the 50,000 word count by November 30.
The idea relates to creative pursuits – writing, painting, sculpting – but it can be applied to any self-motivated endeavor, like losing weight or launching a business. It’s the voice inside you that casts doubt on your ability to execute your dreams. It makes excuses – so convincing at times – to block you from putting the necessary time and effort into accomplishing a goal. You know the voice. You need more sleep. Come on, just hit the snooze button. Sound familiar?
“Most of us have two lives,” writes Steven Pressfield in The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
Maybe you thought you were alone in your struggle. I know I did. I seriously thought I had some rare disorder – inherited from my mother, of course – that kept me spinning out anytime I set my eyes on a big life goal. But when I began seeing this pattern where creative giants were pointing out this apparently not-so-rare disorder, it dawned on me. I’m not alone. (In fact, yay! I’m in the company of brilliance.) And the empowering part: I have the ability to get out of my own way.
What drives us to self-sabotage? To give up on the novel we’ve written halfway, the memoir we so desperately want to write. Fear. “Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. “This is all totally natural and human. It’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something that very much needs to be dealt with.”
At the heart of what she teaches, both in books and workshops, Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) arms writers with some of the most effective tools I’ve come across to address fear and doubt. Her rules for writing practice give a structure to follow that organically burns through any resistance. Set a timer for ten minutes. Keep the pen going. Write first thoughts. No editor or critic. Go for the jugular; if it’s scary, dive in.
Goldberg labels our fear monkey mind, borrowing a concept from Buddhism. (Her 40-plus years of Zen Buddhism practice are the backbone to the writing style she teaches.) Goldberg envisions monkey mind physically living in the right hand corner of her forehead. “Finally what happens is, we shut up and we listen to this monkey mind as though it were God and we let it run our lives,” says Goldberg in the audio book she co-authored with Dosho Port, Zen Howl. “We have this true heart that wants to write and instead this little mechanism that follows us around, we listen to and it keeps us from what we want to do in our life.”
To combat monkey mind, Goldberg has created the sweetheart, a voice that lives in the opposite corner of her forehead that encourages her anytime monkey mind starts acting up. “She says, it’s OK, keep going, sweetheart. Finish and then you can have your cheese sandwich.” A spin off from Goldberg’s imagery, I give my monkey a banana anytime I sit down to write. That’ll keep her busy.
Of all the authors I’ve read who touch upon this subject, from Goldberg to Gilbert and everyone in between, there’s a theme that runs through the solutions they propose. Work. Discipline. Applied effort. It’s by getting your butt to your desk – or wherever you write – at whatever time you’ve allotted and sticking to that commitment, over and over and over again. No excuses. OK, if your daughter needs stitches, bring her to the emergency room. But bring your notebook with you. The fun part? When you do this, you’re rewarded with that magical feeling of divine inspiration. Not every day, but often. Somerset Maugham once said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
So what are you doing reading this article, and what am I doing writing it? Go write.
Sarah Sennott Cyr’s work has been published in Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Cosmopolitan and ARTnews. Two years ago, Cyr began a writing practice inspired by Natalie Goldberg. She now leads workshops based on this practice for writers, artists, and others.