Your Mum is an Idiot
When you hand your shining new story over to a workshop, editor, beta reader, spouse or mum, you may feel a natural tendency to defend what you’ve written.
“Your honest reaction is wrong!” you will think. “You are clearly a fool!” you will think (possibly of your mother).
I have come to suspect that these entirely natural responses are to be rigorously suppressed — because they are quite possibly wrong.
The State of Being: “To Be” or Not “To Have” a Case in Point
I remember a time when beloved fantasy author and one-time writer’s group-mate who shall remain nameless (Steven Erikson) expressed the feeling that I had overdone the passive voice.
Well! I looked closely at the text. I ran the style software over the thing, and I discovered that he was wrong. Wrong! I had not used the passive voice. Never! The fool! (The passive voice is not frequently used by yours truly). I felt vindicated — but I was fundamentally wrong. You see, while the writing wasn’t technically in the passive voice, I had chosen to avoid active verbs every time I could. He was there. She was that. They were boring, boring, boring.
Steve’s reaction? It was worth listening to.
Every reader’s reaction is information — and information can sometimes be quite useful. (Not always, mind you).
It was my mum who asked, “Don’t these fantasy novels sometimes have women in them?” (The fool). And, while I had a perfectly reasonable explanation for the sausage fest I’d written, I also had to admit that she might have had a point. (Many rewrites later, I’d put in a girl — the third book has three!).
Grin & Bear It
If you want a story to get better, you need to must learn to take a punch. (And respond after careful consideration alone at your keyboard).
Everything anyone says to you in a writer’s workshop (or anything said by a beta reader or mother or spouse) is information. You cannot argue someone out of their reaction. (That horse has already sailed). Ignore the information or not, it’s information.
I have given myself permission to nod understandingly and to ask few unloaded just-clarifying questions (such pain!).
But, once I have gathered the information, then, (after the fits of Faulty Towers clenched-fist rage at the unfairness of such things) I decide what to I must do next…
(You must, of course, make up your own mind).
It’s not uncommon for writer-types to advocate the carrying of notebooks. Ideas, though they may seem as ineffable as the pyramids of Giza, are effing evanescent. (There’s a line for you!)
Case in point…
I’m clever enough to know that I am often interrupted in my attempts to pen the perfect novel. (I’ll be right in the flow of things when two parent-teacher conferences and a bit of emergency dentistry will pop up and knock the flow off track — what was it doing on the track in the first place?). You would think people would give me a nice smooth two-year patch so that I could finish the job, but do they? (They do not).
So, I write notes. (Sometimes quite dutifully).
In this case, I wrote the following sentence: “The Lady of the Bower gets to the point where she realizes who Durand is — but I’m thinking she……………………”
The dots (above) represent the moment when someone walked in. It was only a moment. But, when I looked back at my page — pen still poised — I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember what, exactly, it was that she…………. And I still haven’t.
Amatuer students of psychology (with the same possibly-crucially outdated understanding of the field as myself) will recognize the oft-cited George A. Miller’s Seven Plus or Minus Two. I will include a reference to the relevant, ancient study (and not the Wikipedia article where I found it — a guy must have some pride).
For our purposes, it must suffice to say that the little jugglers of our minds can only keep so many big, jagged thoughts in the air at the same time before they lose a finger. And clearly, my little jugglers dropped one. (And I bet it was going to be good, too!)
At this point, I feel that there ought to be some sort of conclusion to this piece — something uplifted about how there are always more, better ideas. What care I for the transitory motivations of fictional persons?
But I had my pen right there! It was poised!
Keeping the writing warm (on those ever-important back burners of the mind) is a toughy during the school year. Teaching is a busy job that, if done reasonably well, involves a considerable part of a person’s creativity. Still, if that person wants to finish a book, writing must get done.
This year, I am wrestling with the problem in a more bloody-minded way than I have for several years. (The logistics of having a school-age child are getting complicated. Apparently, being somebody’s dad seems to require a little time and attention. Who knew?) I have written on family trips, in a McDonalds on the way to work, and today….
About today. Today, my daughter is in “camp”. The day cost $55. The daughter has a bit of a cough. There will be swimming. It’s probably nothing; she looked a little peaked as I sent her off. (Her friends called her name when she arrived. That’s good, right?)
I am revising page 525 and posting this nonsense on a blog.
(There may be guilt).
Since my last report, I’ve been plugging away in stolen moments. (The best ones seem to be on the weekend– though there is a price to pay for holing up with a keyboard on a family outing while one’s wife entertains one’s five-year-old on a rainy day).
As time gets harder to come by (with the planning and marking and deadlines of a teaching day job crowding things out), I find that the toughest thing is to keep the book clear in my mind so that I know what the next steps were meant to be and what the current puzzles are.
We have all had moments where we’ve been stuck on a problem only to have a light bulb moment in the shower or the grocery store or some other place nowhere near a desk. We fill our minds with our work and then find that the ingenious gnomes who populate the unconscious corners of our minds are working through the night.
My current challenge is keeping my head full and the gnomes gainfully employed.
Wish me luck!
PS: The book is tight to page 504 and we’re in the midst of the most muddled.
Your author is striving to maintain something like progress as he makes the transition to moonlight part-time writer.
It’s fourth day of the school year (if you’re a teacher in the New York system responsible for various things), and the rewrite of the ghastly haunted forest scenes is underway.
On page 493, the characters have put their noses in the terrible forest. And, while you and I know that scenes have been moved and motivations are shifting, the characters are only just getting started (the poor dears).
If you work in a creative field, you will know that it doesn’t take long to get your head out of a project.
My characters might be lost in the woods, but, if I don’t keep pushing them forward, it’s likely that I’ll be lost in the same woods until the Winter Break. (And that really can’t be how this turns out).
[Author shakes fist at universe].
Revisions of Dave’s Third Book, have reached the middle of the manuscript’s biggest muddle — just as the school year is beginning.
The situation: My characters have blundered into a terribly, repetitive and deeply confusing series of chapters in a haunted forest. Readers are in grave peril (should they somehow encounter the book). The thing needs some real adjustments. I’m cutting scenes, remotivating nearly everything and moving the beginning to the end. (Or nearly).
It’s fiddly work and will take concentration.
The danger here is that, as school sucks up time and attention, the whole project vanished (with the characters) into the mists and trees and repetition.
Is there hope? This weekend, I worked in stolen moments during a little family getaway. (We know these lovely people with a pool and a house in a patch of woods on the side of a hill — it’s a bit of the gilded age up there). This was actually something of a test. I managed to keep chomping through scenes as friends and family swirled around me. (I’m not usually able to do this).
Now, the big challenge starts. School kicks off. I’m already fielding email and sending information to teachers. I’ve got to find a way to hang on (and hit the manuscript daily to keep things alive in my tiny mind).
Wish me luck! (Except reports as news is available).