Seeing as I’m still learning about my own creative process, this is by no means an instructional list. Rather, these are observations I’ve made on issues I’ve encountered as I’ve transitioned from the first to the second draft of my novel.
1. If something is tedious to write, it’s probably going to be tedious to read. (See also: what I call the Breaking Bad kick in the pants.)
If I spend an entire day trudging through a scene and I’m not finished by dinnertime, that’s usually a sign that I’ll be cutting significant portions of it in my next edit, or taking it in an entirely new direction. If I’m having trouble getting started at all, I take a step back and consider why this particular scene seems like such a chore.
That’s where Breaking Bad comes in. I remember the shock of watching the first few episodes for the first time: it was like being punched in the face in rapid succession. One issue would get resolved as three others hung in the air, meanwhile the plot would ripple with a new development; devastating, outrageous, utterly relevant.
So I take a tip from the Breaking Bad rulebook and think: how can I kick this scene, this series of events, up a notch? Sometimes this involves adding action, upping the emotional ante, pitting the characters against a deadline, setting an inevitable course for disaster. Sometimes it involves skipping the mundane, condensing hours or days of filler into a few words and pushing forward. Most importantly, it is an exercise in being ruthless, trimming everything but the vibrant, lean meat that makes the substance of the story. It forces me to work harder, to seek out potential beyond the ordinary. If I’m not invigorated by what’s happening, why would a reader ever be?
2. Don’t summarize; just write.
Sometimes a scene hits me and I know exactly the way I want it to play out. I know where I want my characters to start and where I want them to end up—I’ve even got a decent sketch on how I want them to get from point A to point B. In my hurry to pin down my ideas, I “download” my thoughts onto the page as they occur to me, concepts tumbling one after the another. Next thing I know, I’ve got 900 words, except what I’ve written isn’t even first draft material; it’s notes, meaningless to anyone but me. There’s no dialogue, no action, just an explanation for what I should write later.
At first I saw no problem with this, which is why I had my entire first draft outlined, down to each scene—everything from details to overarching themes—long before I’d even gotten around to writing half of it. “I’ve got my entire draft outlined!” I’d say, as if I’d already done all the work. “All I have to do now is fill in the blanks!”
Except the work isn’t in the ideas; it’s in the labor of sentences, laying words like bricks. Ideas are fun, dynamic, exciting; labor can be just as rewarding, but it requires a bit of suffering. I’d stripped the fun and left myself the suffering, doubled—since mentally I was restarting work I’d already finished. All I had to do was fill in the blanks, indeed, but I’d forgotten just how much of a joyless, tedious activity that is.
In my second draft, I learned to prioritize productivity above braindumping. Even if I feel the momentum to describe an entire scene in one frenzied sitting, I force myself to slow down and write it out instead, and jot down whatever’s left as points to hit as I continue. That way, I convey everything I wanted to, but I’ve got a draft-worthy scene I can present for my troubles. Which leads me to my next point…
3. Don’t worry so much about forgetting ideas before writing them down.
This is what drives a lot of point number 2: the need to record everything before it slips my mind. One idea leads to another, and I have to catch them all before they flit away. The next thing I know I’m typing a stream of consciousness for the entire afternoon. I thought ideas were wily things, ready to sneak away the moment I turned my back, never to be seen again. What if I lost sight of a great one?
I realized that throughout this process, I’ve yet to forget a worthwhile idea before I’ve gotten a chance to note it in some way. Now I take my time, give my thoughts a longer lead, let them process a bit on their own. And if I do happen to forget one or two, maybe they weren’t that great, anyway. Maybe they just made room for something better.
4. On that note… Leave room for the organic.
I framed my first draft in a collection of goals: a daily word count, and a project word count. They’d change, depending on how things were going. Sometimes I’d set a project deadline and psych myself out and watch the numbers pile up every day I fell short.
I imagine I’m 25% of the way through my second draft, but I’m not sure what the final tally will be. Maybe 60,000 words, maybe 80,000. I’ve decided not to stress about the numbers, but to let the story breathe. It’s allowed me to be more flexible and my work more dynamic; whenever I want to make changes, big or small, the process isn’t nearly as daunting as it used to be, and I can focus on writing instead of maneuvering.
5. Dory proves to be a fountain of inspiration, time and time again.
Let’s face it. Stephen King’s got some great advice in his memoir On Writing, but this fish has nailed the mantra to inspire a generation. Just keep swimming.