Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Novels Poop Too

Sometimes I feel like I should have a cool job description similar to "Biosolids Management Specialist."

One of the most important writing strategies I've developed is a simple and easy trick, but it has been essential to my progress. I learned to let go of chunks of the story that aren't working, while still preserving them in case they're needed later, by saving them in a file marked "crap." This wasn't a meticulously chosen file name, (more of an instantaneous, first-thing-that-came-to-mind choice I quickly typed before returning to writing) but upon reflection it was actually quite apt. When you've poured your time, energy, and emotion into a few paragraphs, it can hurt like hell to dispose of them-- despite the fact that you recognize that they stink. I mean, they "exceed the odor threshold."

I used to spend copious amounts of time feeling awful, guilty, and foreboding about selecting several lines and pressing backspace. I would try to memorize the words in case I changed my mind and wanted to revert to them later. Often times I would try to get back to the previous version, and I would not be able to remember what I had lost. Sometimes I've made so many changes that desperately slamming CTRL + Z (Undo) does not help in the least.

The trick to writing is preserving everything. I am a compulsive chronicler with neatly-organized archives of just about everything important in my life. If you asked me to find a photograph I took of my best friend in 2002, or any other year, I could find it in seconds. The same goes for letters we wrote to each other. Everything I've ever received has been scanned and tucked away neatly in my gigabytes. Documents, photographs, letters, mementos.

Angry, vicious breakups with internet boyfriends are stored away in files with cool names like "LastConvoWithHim," or "LetterofResignation." I believe the urge to archive is a librarian-type mindset that readers and writers have. This is why I was finding that every time I needed to delete something I froze up and felt like I hit a roadblock. I didn't know what to do, and I panicked, trying to hold on to my words before I lost them permanently. It was definitely interfering with moving forward.

Once I realized what I was doing, I began to keep a second file open beside my main writing file. I copied and pasted everything significant I decided to delete in the "crap" file. It seems like such a basic step, but it has been a huge help in speeding up my writing and allowing me focus. I often tend to go back to sift through passages I "dumped" in the "crap" file and have managed to work them into the story at more appropriate parts. I occasionally manage to recycle a certain phrasing here and there, turning my crap into "regulated organic nutrients," sprinkling the story with fertilizing manure created from its own excretions.

Sorry, I'll stop. It's just such a fun metaphor, yanno? Like any living thing, novels poop too.

Each story I write generates a new "crap" file which usually has about 10% of the volume of the entire story. For a 100K-word novel, I usually have 10K words that I could have used instead, but chose not to. That's a lot of crap. But that's the point of writing, isn't it? We spend our time pulling out the weeds to make the lawn perfectly manicured. We cut the rough stone of the diamond down into the polished, faceted gem. (Except we do that while submerged in our stories, letting our actual lawns grow wild and diamonds go unpolished.)

There are a few other tiny technical writing strategies I use. For example, I have updated the Autosave feature on Word so that it saves my writing once a minute. That way, I'm never worried about losing anything if my computer crashes, or an evil villain shows up and presses the power button. Also, I back up all my writing in a Dropbox folder, so that if the evil villain uses a hammer to smash my computer into pieces, or breathes dragonfire onto the machine and melts my hard drive, it doesn't matter. I'll just raise an eyebrow and tell him that his efforts to defeat me were weak and unsuccessful. (If he gets angry at this and decides to kill me, and if for some reason I can't defend myself while simultaneously cracking puns like Buffy, I generally have one "writing heir" appointed at all times. He or she will know the password to my Dropbox and will be able to retrieve my files and finish and publish my stories. Once they finish avenging me, of course.)

So, dear writers, may you engage in waste disposal with finesse. And, dear readers, be assured that you will only ever get to see the good stuff! Unless you're the kinky type. Then feel free to contact me and I can send you the raw, filthy, novel-poop for you to enjoy in any way you like. Just don't tell me the details, please. 

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