Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ways to Not Invent a Light Bulb

My co-author, Faith, told me I should do a blog about all the ways to not invent a light bulb.  In writing terms, I'm comparing this to the willingness to throw away everything you just wrote.  When Thomas Edison was interviewed by a reporter who asked if he felt like a failure and should just give up, Edison said, "Young man, why would I feel like a failure?  And why would I ever give up?  I now know definitely over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work."  (After over 10,000 attempts, Edison got one that worked.)

It can be very hard for a writer to let go of what they write, especially if it's a scene they love.  Maybe you just wrote a fantastic bit of character interaction with some very witty dialogue.  Maybe you wrote an action scene that totally blew your mind.  Maybe you just wrote the climax to a romance and you're so thrilled and giddy that you bounce around your living room like a rabbit on steroids. (Of course, the rabbit-on-steroids effect could have to do with how much caffeine you've had, too.)


Maybe, two chapters later, you realize your story is not working out.  The direction you took it in isn't right.  There's a better path for your characters.  But this means you will have to remove that fantastic bit of character interaction.  The action scene has no place anymore.  The climax to the romance would work better a different way.  You're no longer bouncing around like a rabbit on steroids, but deflating like a leaky balloon.  You don't want to have to go back and rewrite.


(It is possible to be hyper and tired at the same time.  Trust me.)

But eventually, you begin to realize you have to do some rearranging and reworking if you want to move your story along.  You have to do what is best for your story.  Sometimes that means cutting something you really loved.  Whenever I have to cut something, I paste it into an "excerpts" file, because maybe later, I'll be able to use part of it, even if it's just a paragraph.  I'll never know until my story is over.

Once you take the plunge and decide to change things, sometimes it takes a while to figure out what the right path is, and this can be very frustrating.


This is usually when my support system comes to my rescue.

Every writer has their own process of getting the story onto paper; I talked about this in a previous blog.  My stories are not written in an entirely linear fashion.  Yes, I often write from scene 1 to scene 2 to scene 3, but sometimes a random scene from way later in the story pops into my head, and I have to write it so it will leave me alone and I can get back to the linear story.

This can be very helpful to me, because sometimes it helps me develop a character and see where they will be ten chapters down the road.  Sometimes it's helpful to the plot, because even though I have no idea why I just wrote a scene where Character A and Character B are eloping, it gives me a different perspective on them.  Maybe they really want to elope and it will be an adventure to see how that works when I get to it.

Some of the time, though, these future scenes don't end up working once I reach that point where they would have fit in the story.  Sometimes only half of the scene works.  And sometimes I can take the whole thing and plunk it right into the story.

Let me take an example from some years ago.  At the end of 2004, Faith and I were halfway through writing our first novel, Awakenings, and we were stuck.  Man, were we stuck.  We had written everything we had plotted, and we had no idea how to finish the novel.  What was the climax going to be?  We had no idea.

So Faith suggested we take a break and start writing the second book in our series.  We learned a very, very important lesson from this: never start the second book in your series when you don't know how the first is going to end.  We wrote a lot in book 2.  Then we finally figured out how to end book 1. We finished it up in 2005 and then took a look at what we had written for book 2.

Guess what we discovered?  Because of the ending of our first book, everything except about 500 words of what I'd written for book 2 was completely irrelevant.


This did not bother me, believe it or not.  I'd learned something of the characters I'd written.  But I know that some people would probably freak out at the thought of just deleting 22,000 words.  (For the record, that is the most I've ever cut in one fell swoop.)

Being a writer is not just writing scenes and never looking back.  Once you have a first draft, you have to do so much editing and rewriting.  Some people work best by finishing the first draft and only then doing any changes.  But for other people, it doesn't even have to be once the draft is complete: sometimes they'll just realize in the middle of their book that something isn't working.  I'll sometimes hit a point where I'll realize my story is not working, and I have to go back and find out where the point is where it stopped working.  Sometimes I have three versions of the same story on my computer, until I can decide which version is working best.

Another example.  Last year, I participated for the third time in NaNoWriMo. For those who don't know what it is, NaNoWriMo stands for "National Novel Writing Month". It's actually world-wide; people from all around the globe sign up to undertake a monumental task: in the month of November, start and finish an entire novel of at least 50,000 words.

It is insane.  It is full of caffeine and sugar and frantic typing, and the excitement of doing it with thousands of other people all over the world.  One of the huge "DON'T DO IT" rules of NaNo is do not erase anything and do not rewrite.  You only have a month to write, after all, so it is expected that you will write awful things.  You will change your mind about something in the story, but that's okay!  Leave the inconsistency there and keep writing!  Fix it when November is over!

But last year, I couldn't do that.  One day during NaNo, I wrote 4,000 words, got through this scene that had once been Very Important in my head, and discovered that it wasn't the best thing for my story.  My novel had to go a different direction.  So I cut everything I had just written and I rewrote, and I was much happier with my novel.

None of the scenes I write and then cut are a waste of time.  In some cases, they show me the directions my characters are not going to go.  They give me more ideas.  Other times, a character will tell me something about himself/herself that I didn't know before, and I have a new dynamic to my story.


And sometimes you just have to write something to know that it's not going to work.


If something isn't working in your book, it doesn't mean you're stuck forever.  Sometimes you have to find an alternate path.  This might mean deleting your favorite scene or one that you spent ages writing, but you might find that you write another scene that works better and is far stronger.

Let me make one thing clear: I'm not talking about chopping anything that doesn't come out perfectly or that you're not totally happy with. I know some people will cut anything they write if they think it's awful, but the fact is, we all write awful things and these are not always the things that need to be ditched.  They often  need to be left alone and fixed up later.   I'm talking about how sometimes you have to chop something if you learn that it's really not taking your story where it needs to go.  (I will do a blog post at some point about how it is okay to have things in your first draft that are terribly written.) 

Test things out if you need to. It will take time and energy, yes, but if you have to write a scene three different ways to see which one works and which ones don't, then take that time and energy.  You may be surprised at the things you learn about your characters and story.  Or you may find out that the original way you wrote it really was the best way.

The willingness to throw away everything you just wrote can save your novel.  And sometimes, leaving it alone is the best thing you can do.  But you won't know until you figure out how you work best, and you will find that every book you write will have a different process.   (If you do cut something, don't be too quick to completely ditch it!  Save it in another file in case you find you really do need it later!)

Eventually, with hard work and persistence, you will find a balance that works best for you.  You will have your working novel, and you will know all of the little secrets about your characters and scenes that almost happened.

You never know what your writing, rewriting, cutting, rearranging, editing, more rewriting, and more editing will lead to.  Just like Thomas Edison had to go through thousands of experiments before he found one that worked, don't be afraid to write a scene to see if it will work.  You have a world of possibilities in your imagination--have fun exploring them.


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