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Mental Yoga for Writers

April 23, 2012
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This is a repost from my other blog, Specnology.

I’ve spent the last couple days rewriting rewrites. Last week I wrote a new first chapter, but the final scene was incredibly weak and I ended up cutting it. But I couldn’t end the chapter on the previous scene because I hadn’t introduced enough of the themes, arcs, tension, what-have-you, and there was no way I could without adding a new scene. So now the chapter ends on a note of “something’s wrong here” rather than “I have to take a shower”, which … yeah. You see why I had to write a new scene.

The very first draft of this novel started with my hero lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. My villain was a beat cop who was randomly pulled out of crowd control to assist on a case. There was a third narrator, who managed to talk for a whole third of the book without contributing to the story at all.

My next bit of rewriting is to fix Chapter 3, which was Chapter 1 before Chapter 1 got more interesting. There are five, maybe six, things that I want to get into the chapter, and I’m currently playing with their order to find the maximum awesome. Specifically, when do I want the doom-y email to show up? At the very beginning to set the panicking off immediately? In the middle, as one more straw on the camel? At the end, as a cliffhanger? I’ve already dropped two of the my favourite, long-standing scenes because they don’t work anymore.

I think a lot of beginner writers, or at least I get this impression from other peoples’ blog posts and a smattering of personal experience, get caught up with their original ideas for stories and can’t see their options, even when they’re pointed out. I’m guilty of this. I insisted for three drafts that I couldn’t start with a fight scene because the fight scene wasn’t part of the story, when actually, the fight scene is definitely part of the story and I was being stupid not to include it.

The initial vision of the story is sacred and immutable, you see, and writers can be possessive and defensive when you attack it, but I don’t think that’s the whole reason for why people refuse to change their stories for the better. I think a lot of people just can’t see how a tweak or a twist or a deletion could improve the story. They don’t have practice being flexible.

Flexibility: the ability to change tack quickly; the ability to consider multiple perspectives and options; the ability to brainstorm; the ability to say, “I’ll try it”; an important skill in a writer’s toolbag of tricks. An important skill in anyone’s bag, actually. Rigidity gets us nowhere in the end.

It can be hard to learn flexibility, true, and the lessons usually come through errors. I got most of my lessons early, from my parents’ gentle “What if you did this?” corrections and from extracurricular drama-type programs. When you’re given an ice cream scoop and asked, “What else is this?” or when your set breaks five minutes before a performance or when a cast member quits, you learn to improvise pretty fast. I’d imagine the experiences of raising or teaching children are good for flexibility too, as are … well, most jobs, actually. It boils down to practice.

When you’re stuck on a scene or you’re getting feedback that something’s not working, step back and ask yourself three questions. “Why isn’t it working?” “Why can’t I change this?” “What if this happened instead?” And then follow those trains of thought where they lead. Write them down if you have to. Brainstorm. Do a mindmap. Weigh your options. Your story will be better for it (and if you, then you will. Practice and all that, right?)

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