Saturday, April 11, 2009

revisions, revisions

I got stuck on a chapter last night. I can usually tell when I'm stuck because I'm avoiding writing, or when I try to write I get nothing done (but sometimes I get so little done even when I'm not stuck). Last night I was trying to revamp a scene in a chapter that needs lots of work.

Group scenes are really hard for me. Parties. Crowded rooms. That stuff is a touch easier in first person because it's all being streamed through one voice. Third person, though...even if it's fairly limited, it's still something I have a hard time working with. All those bodies, what are they doing? I wrote a scant paragraph but no more.

Then I took a walk. Getting up and leaving the room is dangerous. When you're struggling to write, sometimes it works best to push through it, whether by giving yourself an arbitrary word count (500 more, = 2 pages) or by giving yourself an arbitrary time you must write until. I tend to try to stay in the room, even if it's not doing me any good. Even when I give into the urge to google this or that information that I really need to know, really before going any further. Getting up and leaving the room brings the danger that I won't sit back down at all. And leaving writing dissatisfied doesn't make me want to sit back down the next day.

Sometimes it also works to close the computer and let everything marinate overnight. If I've taken my characters up to the edge of a cliff, but not over the cliff, if I've started a new scene, gotten everyone into the next room, then I've got something to mull over and I've got a jumping-off point for the next day. This wasn't going to work because I knew the room they were entering, and they were all bottled up in the hallway.

So I took a walk with my dog, down to the public garden. I thought about the scene I was struggling with. I thought it through enough that when we got home, half an hour or so later, I made a few notes on a post-it and got back to work, and finished the scene.

By and large, characters make rational decisions. They might not be rational to you, the reader; if so, the writer didn't do her job well enough. Stylistically, sure, sometimes we choose altogether unreliable, irrational characters. Logic will always play a role. If I choose an unreliable narrator, I've got to use my logic to demonstrate her total unreliability at some point in the story. If my narrator is confused, heartbroken, manic, earnest, what-have-you, but otherwise trustworthy, he or she will make a rational decision. Additional characters will react in time. Raymond Carver is so skilled at showing these decisions with such sparse language. Writers who clutter their pages (Dave Eggers comes to mind) likewise have to justify their decisions. I walked through the garden at night, took away my fear and frustration and anxiety, and laid everything out straight. What did my character want? Who was going in that room with him? What other characters would hover on the periphery? How could I introduce tension, foreshadowing, doubt, anything for his to react against? How could I introduce information about minor characters that could be useful in future chapters?

Sometimes, but very rarely, we need to leave the room and walk about. That scene is finished, almost. Tonight on my drive home I realized I need to spend a little more time on something. Always writers have to think about how we can raise the stakes, introduce more tension, cut closer to the bone.

That is, if we're writing about something honest and true that we care deeply about. It is infinitely easier to put words on a page if our hearts are not behind them. They lose a degree of power. Choices get abstracted.

1 comment:

MB said...

I like reading your thoughts about writing. Glad you are finding time to do so. MB