Text: Solveig Hansen, 2016
Binge writing won’t get you there faster. That’s one of three writing tips I’ve picked up on the way.
Are your Twitter and Facebook feeds filled with quotes about writing? Golden quotes might be inspirational, but if you’re serious about that book you’ve long wanted to write, then just sit yourself down and start writing. The best writing advice is to write, not wait for inspiration to kick in.
I prefer more real, tangible writing advice about the craft of writing. The writing process and the creation of characters intrigue me – writing long novels… not so much.
I’ve tried on the author’s hat just to experience first-hand what it’s like to carve out characters and a plot. My conclusion following that writing experiment was that it’s highly unlikely I will ever produce a novel. It just seems too vast and insurmountable a project for my patience span. The initial excitement quickly fades away and I lose interest and put the script away. I need to adopt a more disciplined approach, or maybe I’m just better suited for short-short stories.
Are intuitive ideas untouchable truths? That’s another question I’ve toiled with. How heavily can the text be edited without losing its authenticity? For the writing experiment above, the character appeared fully drawn in front of me, with mustache and all. A fictitious author and publisher in an epic story spanning more than 150 years, with the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary written all over him. I was in awe and diligently recorded his story as it was presented to me. The only detail I changed was the location. Lake Balaton didn’t appeal to me. Dubrovnik felt more exciting for a research trip, should that ever be required, so that’s where I relocated him. This rather banal reason for altering the setting caused a minor “disturbance in the force,” a conscious decision that slightly affected the flow of writing. At the same time, however, I felt that I was in control, that I was the one who had the authority. But just to be on the safe side, I sent him to Lake Balaton for a reunion later in the story.
(The short story documenting the above writing experiment, called Person in Search of an Author, is only available in Norwegian.)
I’m gearing up for a new writing experiment, Author in Search of a Person. This time, my mission is to take a more methodical approach to develop a character and storyline. I realize that stories can come about in different ways, from pure intuition to using more systematic techniques – or a combination of the two, outlining and intuitive writing. I still believe, however, that over-thinking and over-editing might weaken the voice of the story.
So, writing nausea, structuring of ideas, flexible intuition: I’ve scoured my way through writing manuals, webinars and blogs to find tips from more seasoned authors. These are the three most important things I learned:
1. Avoid binge writing.
I know I probably shouldn’t, but I still write for hours and hours and then some more, just to finish more quickly – which I often don’t, because I suddenly get bored and put the whole thing aside. Binge writing can be counterproductive and is recommended against by many writers. A much more productive practice is to write for maybe half an hour or one hour or two hours a day or write 500 or 1000 words. It’s not the number of hours or words that counts but the fact that you write every day. 500 words a day mean a 50,000-word script in three months time. Maybe a flash fiction story in a week or a 100-word story every day.
I like the idea of comparing writing to exercising. You don’t exercise for hours and then stop for weeks. You make it a habit and plan it into your daily or weekly schedule. Do the same with your writing to keep the writing muscle in shape. Discipline is a matter of practice.
As publication coach Daphne Gray-Grant writes in 7 reasons why you should avoid binge writing, “Why would you turn writing into something that you want to avoid?”
2. Think in scenes, not a whole book.
A book has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m good at beginnings. From there, I jump straight to the end. The middle – the book itself, so to speak – doesn’t happen because that’s where most of the detailed writing is required. It’s easy to lose track if you think about the book in terms of one long story. Instead, think in scenes, I’ve learned. A book is built up of many scenes, one leading to another until the story is complete.
You don’t normally write a story linearly from beginning to end, but jump back and forth. If you already have some key scenes you want to include, then write more scenes leading up to and around those. Scenes are easy to move, whether you jot them down on yellow post-its that you stick to the wall, or use a tool like Scrivener to outline your ideas.
3. Everything has to be negotiable.
Is intuition something sacred, or to what extent can the author edit? “Everything in the story has to be negotiable,” according to creative writing professor Robert Olen Butler in his webcast Inside Creative Writing. In the course of 17 two-hour sessions, he wrote a 4000-word story live. The viewers could watch the entire process from the conception of the idea to the final draft. He wrote every night six days a week, some nights 300 or 400 words, others close to 600. Describing his own writing process, he explains that the goal is to create an organic whole where everything resonates with everything else. And everything has to be negotiable. Don’t tie yourself to a certain idea or ending, otherwise you risk losing the organic flow.
Some writers write a raw first draft and leave the editing for later, while others edit while they go. Like Butler, I belong to the second group. Writing and editing in tandem is a combination that works for me. Plus, now I know that ideas, no matter how intuitive, are not written in stone.
Three worthwhile pieces of advice. One advice surpasses them all: Write. Just write.
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