I don’t know about you, but I stop in my tracks when I come across a decision I can’t make. Writing is a series of decisions. For a ‘writer’ as indecisive as me, that’s quite the hairy pickle.
What’s weird is that when I’m telling a story to a friend or family member, it flows. Everything’s perfect. I know what to add to keep things interesting and everything connects to everything else.
But when I sit down to write, it all comes to a screeching halt. I worry about word choice. I worry about the story making sense. I put in too many or not enough detail. And I have this pesky habit of rereading and endlessly revising my work.
But how else is the story going to get written? Rereading is what helps you situate yourself in the story and ensure continuity in its tone and pacing.
For shorter works, you might be able to get away with jarring scenes because it can be easily patched up later. For longer works, too many zigzags can make a mountain of a mess.
But having a huge mess is better than having nothing at all, right?
Maybe that’s true. But you can only repeat that little nugget of wisdom so often before it loses its value. It definitely won’t last long enough to carry you through the entire drafting process, which can last for months or even years.
So what can be used to get through it?
Pretend like you’re telling the story to a friend.
Telling a story to a friend is easy. Everything flows. There’s no second guessing or backpedaling. Just plowing straight ahead, with no thought or care.
And that’s possible because it’s a short run down of what happens and why. You can’t overcomplicate it because if you do, you’ll lose their interest.
So you can’t say something like, “Oh hang on, before Francesca went to college, she actually had a drink with Ben. She was underage. So that was a red flag. But then way before that, remember when she went to go see Freddy? Well there was a bloodied sock there on the floor. I forgot to mention that too. That’s important, ok? Remember that.”
Your friend would probably stare at you puzzled, doing their level best to make sense of what you just said and going through the laborious task of incorporating it into what they’ve heard previously. Or—and this is more likely—they decide to stop listening altogether because they’ve caught on to the fact that it would be easier to just nod and smile for the duration of the conversation.
You know why? Because the spell is broken. They’ve been pulled so far out of the story and so abruptly, that it’s like they’ve been birthed back into the world again. How awkward and unpleasant.
All that momentum you had built up with the story washed away when you backtracked.
That’s what happens to us when we stop writing to go back and add things in or edit as we go. We lose that reader experience. We lose track of the story. And that happens when we start rereading our work.
But what if it’s a long piece of work and you can’t finish it in one sitting? After all, you are 35 going on 67 (or 25 going on 50 or 15 going on 30) and you can’t keep your all your marbles straight anymore, so you have to reread to remember where you left off.
It’s not that important. Getting the pacing, tone or even the series of unfortunate events right in the first draft is not worth not finishing at all. Work off memory instead.
Think about how you would do it in a conversation.
If you’re out with your friend telling them your story over dinner and get interrupted by the waitress bringing you your drinks or you’re on the phone and your kid rips open a bag of flour behind you and starts throwing it around with abandon. Whatever the circumstance you find yourself in, when you come back to the story, you would most likely say something like, “now what was I saying? Oh right. So they got stuck in a cupboard and there were rats on the other side in their dens just waking up for the night.”
When writing, do something similar. Write a quick sum up of what you remember from your previous writing session and use that to launch you forward.
Pretending like you’re telling a story to a friend also helps eliminate analysis paralysis. When you’re telling the story to someone face-to face, you’re getting immediate feedback. You can tell exactly when you’re losing their interest and you know the only way to keep that interest is to maintain a fast and interesting pace. You can’t correct yourself, you can’t add detail. All you can do is accept everything that’s happened in the telling of the story so far and think up:
- the next interesting thing that would make sense
- is most likely to happen and
- takes you closer to the end (i.e., has a purpose)
Once you’ve reached the end of the story, you now have the core. You have laid out your story’s main thread. You can now choose to flesh it out and weave in more if you like. But this one thread is what will pull the reader through all the twists and turns, the subplots and side adventures, and the ups and downs to the very end of your story.
Getting that one thread figured out is easier to do when telling it verbally (or even texting it since you can’t edit sent text). When writing it out, you have time to overthink. You worry about the logistics. You worry about how each decision impacts the rest of your story. Because you can go back and edit as you go.
If you force yourself to write as if you’re telling a story to a friend, you can’t go back. You also don’t have time to worry about the logic of the story. And in the first draft, you shouldn’t. First drafts are for fun. They’re a playground for your adventurous side to run free and not look back. It’s where you keep going until you reach the end. The end gives you insights. It’s the Holy Grail. Except, you know, you actually get to it. (On hindsight, I should’ve picked a better analogy.)
But don’t worry. Your inner critic will have its day.
After you’ve put your story away for some time, you can come back to it with fresh eyes for the editing phase when you finally let your inner critic reign. Here you are free to pick apart each scene and question whether the logic is sound. Whether the things that happen should happen and if they should, do they carry through the story appropriately and have the correct foreshadowing in place. Not to mention, you get to tinker with your word choices. Now doesn’t that sound like a good use of your time?
With all that’s said and done, the truth of the matter boils down to this: writing happens in phases. To get a story written, you must separate the two and complete them in the proper order. First is the
dreaming drafting phase where you essentially tell the story. Second is editing.
Writing gets hard when you attempt to do them both at once.
What are some tricks you use to get through a manuscript? Do you write straight through or do you edit as you go? Is rereading a problem for you or is it something that actually helps you move forward?
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