Thursday, September 3, 2009

Writing: where I am now

In his amazing book ON WRITING, Stephen King describes creating a story as sculpture. I specifically remember him comparing writing to sculpting an elephant out of marble, but my mind could have added those details (oh how I miss my library sitting in storage in Chicago!). Anyway, what King's basically saying is that the elephant is already there, buried within the marble. It is the sculptor's job to chip away the stone and uncover it.

This gets into all sorts of Jungian philosophy about where story comes from, but the metaphor has stuck with me because it rings true for my writing, especially in the midst of revision.

For me, revision is a fine line between being brutally honest with myself about the parts of my story that don't make sense, but at the same time being true to my initial vision (my elephant). If I don't cut off the nose that's way too long for the body, I'll never discover the short stubby nose in the marble below, the nose that was meant to be all along.

Now that I've probably completely lost you in metaphor land, let me explain what this means for me in a practical sense as I work on revising my current novel's first draft. I have done most of the big work in pulling my plot together. There are still holes, but I believe (hope!) they're not integral to the plot; they can be patched over as I work through the novel a second (or third or fourth or fifth) time. To keep myself on track, I've made a list of issues I need to address for this revision, and have been practicing "revision triage". First on that list was Isabel's emotional development (I blogged about this work here). I went through the first third of my novel, looked at chapters from Isabel's point of view, and made sure her emotions were consistent, developing, and fully explained. While doing this, I realized Isabel's Mom's emotions weren't consistent, so I fixed those next. Then I looked at chapters with Isabel, but which weren't from her point of view, to make sure those were consistent as well. Yesterday I checked to make sure each Isabel chapter had an interesting beginning, an increase in intensity as the chapter went on, and ended on a cliffhanger. Today I'm working on setting and timing. If she gets up at 5:30 AM and sits on the roof for an hour, would her brother be up when she went back downstairs? Would the sun be coming up yet? Also, what does her bedroom look like? I'm hoping to add all these details today. Then comes the moment I'm dreading. Tomorrow I'll need to rewrite all of these four Isabel chapters to make sure everything I've incorporated comes together in one seamless voice and story. Then I'll move on to my next character.

I'm working this way because if I try to do the whole at once, I get caught up in small details and I lose sense of the bigger picture. Starting tomorrow I'll be able to focus on details, knowing the bigger picture (my elephant) is already sketched out.

Meanwhile, I'm also working on two other projects (for someone who's not good at multi-tasking, that's pretty good, huh?!). I'm playing with ideas for a new story and fixing an older piece. I love the concept, the themes, and the story, but as a whole the older piece iss still a bit of a mess. I tried a great exercise yesterday from Donald Maass' WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK (which people kept recommending to me so I finally broke down and bought it!). It involves creating novels (think thrillers) where at the end the three separate plot strands all come together and you realize they're all connected. Maass suggested writing down your five most major characters, plot strands and settings, and then drawing circles and arrows between them. The writer is supposed to look for surprising connections, ways to draw things together that they hadn't thought of before. It was a really useful exercise for me and I learned two very exciting things:
  1. The piece already has tons of connections. The major plot lines are played out, in different variations, amongst all of the main characters. How cool is that? Look at all the lines I drew!
  2. An idea I had had earlier this summer came back to me as a way to connect everything together better. So, not a new idea, but further affirmation that my idea might work.
Again, like with the elephant, I often find that. I rarely have new ideas, just better ways of getting at my original vision.

And now it's almost noon here in Bristol and the predicted rain has not materialized, so I think I'm going to take a well-earned break and go on a walk!


  1. So interesting Anne - I don't do anything as sytematic as this.

  2. Thanks, Keren!
    You're probably more talented than me, that's why! I have to compensate for my lack of skill by tricking myself into writing a novel. =)

  3. It's just a very different approach I think - I tend to jump with very little planning! Is your book first person? That helps with the consistency and timing I find, I imagine it's more difficult in third person.

  4. Actually, it's interesting, the more I write, the more organized I become. Probably because I've written enough to know that if I don't plan, I'll just write myself into a corner. Do you find your jump-in approach tends to get you where you want to go?
    It's first person (which is good), but with three different povs (which is very very bad =) ). You're right, it being first means it's much easier to write, but it also means the voices need to be spot on so they're dinstinguishable. I think somewhere along the line I'll probably need to lose one of them or switch someone to third, but I'm trying to keep them all for now.

  5. Oh that's really challenging. Sometimes I go a bit wrong, but I have a great writing group who tell me when I'm losing my way. I tend to plan chapter by chapter, with just a vague idea in the background. Then go back and reqrite when necessary.

  6. A great writing group is such a blessing. Best wishes with it all!