Sunday, February 26, 2017

Give your muse wings

Even an apprentice muse (think of Clarence in It's A Wonderful Life) can help you find the creative impulse in yourself. Remember, writing is like playing an instrument. You're not going to be a brilliant guitarist the first time you pick up a guitar, no matter how good the instrument is. When you're starting out as any kind of a writer, you have to give yourself permission to suck. Badly.

One thing I've learned about writers is that even the best think they've completely lost the ability to write while trying to finish a book. Steinbeck wrote in his Grapes of Wrath journals that he had completely lost the ability to write and that the book wasn't good enough to keep working on it. Twain put Huckleberry Finn aside for years before giving it a try again. Douglas Adams was a notorious procrastinator who suffered from crippling writer's block and had to be locked up in a hotel room with somebody who made sure he'd write.

None of us is Steinbeck or Twain or Adams, especially when we first pick up our instrument. But if they can have those doubts and that loss of confidence, it's OK if we do too. We just have to follow their example and keep plugging away anyway. It comes together eventually. Few writers publish their first complete works, or even the first three. The actual number depends on the writer. The only way to learn to write is to write, so those first efforts are going to be bad, maybe embarrassingly bad.

If you're writing, even badly, you're a writer. Fortunately, if you're writing, you'll get better (at your own speed, of course). Allow yourself to be A Writer. Make a deal with an apprentice muse that if she'll help you, you'll give her something back. If you need to create a ritual sacrifice to your muse, go ahead. Offer her a drop of your of your favorite drink if she'll help you get through an hour of writing, even if it's not very good. Or whatever works for you.

Every time a writer writes "the end," a muse gets her wings.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ditch the chapters--for now

Many of us think and write in chapters. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a common way to think about your story. What's more, if we're in a critique group, our chapters have a habit of being about the same length as the number of pages we read at each crit session.

I'm guessing many of you can't easily imagine writing a book without doing it a chapter at a time. Today, I'd like to present an option that I've found freeing in my own writing:

Ditch the chapters. For now, anyway.

The basic building block of any story is the scene. According to many writing teachers and books about writing, a story is a string of scenes joined by sequels. You most likely know this, and you might use a certain number of scenes in each chapter.

But what if you don't worry about chapters while drafting your masterpiece? What do you gain?

Freedom. Freedom to end your chapters where they make the most sense later. Freedom to skip a difficult scene and move on to the next one. Freedom to concentrate on your scenes and worry about the bigger structural pieces later.

We've all rearranged the order of our chapters at some point in our writing. If you concentrate on chapters, this can give you a plot where the chapters make sense, but some of the scenes seem wrong. It's much easier to move scenes around than chapters. You probably do that anyway, which makes it so you have to redo several chapter endings.

You might insert new chapters, and have to renumber everything.

If you're having trouble with a chapter, you might skip it and move to another chapter. If you think in scenes, you can skip to a new scene.

If you think about scenes rather than chapters, if you keep each scene in a Scrivener file instead of a chapter, you can concentrate more on that basic building block, and you free yourself to reorganize and rearrange in smaller bits. You start to think more about your scenes and sequels and make sure they work, rather than thinking about your chapters.

Writing scenes and ignoring chapters can also help you plow through the story while keeping your inner critic in check. If you tell your story without structuring it like a book, you free yourself to write that crappy first draft without the additional mental pressure that comes with writing a "book." You're just writing. A story or a project or whatever is much easier to grasp than that monumental book concept. Just get it down and structure it later. Let it be messy. It might even be helpful to use a simple editor that discourages you from thinking about your formatting, like some of the distraction-free writing programs that are growing in popularity.

Later, when you revise (I recommend waiting until a draft near the final one), you can put in your chapter breaks. You might discover that you can come up with more effective chapter breaks if you wait. Like cliffhangers? Break your chapter mid-scene, or between the scene and the sequel.

Try this approach, especially if you struggle with structure or plot. Enjoy the freedom it gives you.