A Journal Entry

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Photo by ed_needs_a_bicycle, via Flickr

I try not to write about writing too often, but I hope you’ll indulge me this once. I’m in transition right now. My last novel is finished and in the query phase, but its first forays into the hands of the industry were not as successful as I hoped, so I put the brakes on. My last novel I sent out repeatedly, thinking I just needed to find the right set of eyes, and I collected a full file of form rejections. I’m not about to make that mistake again. So I’m in the process of finding fresh eyes to help me revise yet again.

I set aside the first couple of months of this year for fiction work, so I don’t have any looming deadlines right now. But I’m finding it difficult to get started. I have a new project, but I am not a pantser who can just take a good idea and dive in, see where it leads me.

When I write music, I spend very little time with a melody or lyric before I know it’s a keeper or not. I have a lot of musical ideas orphaned in my staff notebooks, because I could tell they were trite. But fiction is quite different. You can spend hours crafting ideas into scenes and putting words together, only to find that it has to be lopped unceremoniously from the piece.

I never mourn the loss of material, but I wince at the hours I lost creating it. I try to tell myself it isn’t wasted, that everything is a learning experience and I can use that material somewhere else later, but it rings hollow.

I don’t have enough time as it is; I loathe wasting it. So I’m turning into a confirmed “plotter.” I want a good solid outline to work from before I dive into drafting a novel.

But I’m afraid now I’m crossing from prudent planning to procrastination. I’ve been in revision phase for so long that I feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the act of creation. In many ways I find the revision phase much easier; I can break it down into smaller pieces, some of which can even be done with little people around.

Mostly, though, fiction requires concentration. To wit: at least a solid hour in which nobody is climbing up on my lap, shouting at me or each other, or getting into the refrigerator without permission. But between Christmas break, snow days, and random appointments, I just can’t seem to get back to a good routine. Writing keeps getting pushed to the side in favor of parenthood. Some of that is inevitable (dental visits, IEP…) and of course, my children are my primary responsibility. Still, it’s hard to know I’m spinning my wheels and wondering how much of it is because I’m using distraction and tiredness as an excuse not to dig in.

Over the weekend I resolved to get up early and work with pen and paper on a short story revision. But it took three full days to get through those 2000 words. And I think better with fingers on a keyboard, so what was sketched out on the page in pen and paper was only a framework. Yesterday when I tried to put the changes in the computer, I found that my brain was full of cobwebs and crying out, “Nap! Nap! Nap!”

Perhaps unstructured time is not a recipe for success for me. Perhaps what allows me to succeed is the stress of having multiple projects on tap at any given time. Perhaps the need to stay focused keeps me productive.

To the handful of writer buddies who read this blog, I’d love to know how your process works when you’re starting a new project. How do you get from the germ of an idea to a full-fleshed outline? How do you get to know your characters? How do you flesh out subplots? For me it’s always started with an extremely immature first daft requiring many, many major revisions. It’s quite inefficient. For my new project I have all the elements in mind, but I’m having a hard time plotting the structure to incorporate them. I’d love to hear how other people make it work. Care to share?

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2 thoughts on “A Journal Entry

  1. I’m always asking the same questions. Like you, I’d love the luxury of starting a project with a solid outline, but I’ve found that if I wait until I have one, I’ll never start. I simply can’t know more than the most basic brushstrokes of an outline before starting. Once I’ve begun writing, I find out whether my project stops at the 10,000 (or so) word mark with no where to go, or whether by 10,000 words, I can see the ‘path’ ahead. That seems to be the magical number for me. Then the outline begins filling out as I go.

    I have always felt that I’d be an excellent writer if someone handed me a complete, detailed outline with everything plotted and said, ‘go’. But of course, the actual wordcraft is only part of the deal. Structure is so much harder for me than writing a few pretty lines.

    Then there’s TIME. I mourn the loss of it when a section has to go, too. And like you, I need at least one hour concentration per session to get anywhere at all. Two is better. I have all my kids in school, but do work full time on other writing projects that always take precedent. It’s so hard. Maybe when we’re little old ladies and retired? I remember Louise Erdrich once saying she wrote in solitary in a cinder block hut in the woods. Sounds good to me.

    • Even the woods could be distracting for me–and you, too, I suspect–but less so than little kids shouting “Go tell it on the mountain!” in the bathroom or “boodee beedee!” just because they don’t like silence. And sometimes when the tree whisper, they whisper answers…which virtually never happens with children. They offer other inspiration–for funny blog posts, for instance–but never plot and structure answers! LOL

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