James A. Michener may have passed away in 1997, but his lessons for the writer are just as relevant as they were 20 years ago. This man was the King of the Saga; he won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; he taught at Harvard University. So before I put James A. Michener’s Writer’s Handbook back on my shelf, I want to share some of his tricks with you.
Michener was altogether aware that his first drafts would barely resemble his final works. He was also aware that his best writing came from uninterrupted thought flow. How did he prevent himself from self-editing too soon?
Here follows Michener’s account on maximizing writing time:
Because in this first draft I am struggling to outline a narrative progression, I do not interrupt my thought processes to check with almanacs, atlases, or encyclopedias to verify dates, spellings, or other data; I am aware as I type that I don’t have the facts, but I am secure in the knowledge that I’ll be able to find them when I go back to edit. So, for uncertainties I either leave a blank or type in what I guess to be the correct information adding immediately after the data a series of question marks: “Magna Carta was granted by King John???? in 1215????,” with the intention of dealing with them later when I have my research books at hand. I advocate this strategy, because the forward motion of the narrative is all-important.
The other device I have used to good effect is to draw a big round penciled O in the left margin opposite any passage that I realize is not what I seek. I rarely stop typing to correct it then, for I react poorly to interruptions, but when the draft of the segment is completed, those big gaping O’s stare at me until the marked passages are emended and improved.
(Note to self: Use the word “emend” more frequently; it’s a great word!)
The idea of Michener’s O makes me smile; kind of like “O my, we still have much work to do!” or just plain old “Oops!” Granted, not many of us work on typewriters anymore, but we can still use Michener’s technique by highlighting a section, changing a font color, even typing in a big “O” beside our enfeebled text. The point is to continue, to let the ideas fall from mind to page without self-censoring, and to give only the briefest nod to the ugly as it plops out as well (“Yes, I know you’re there, and I’ll deal with you later, buck-O.”).
You can try the O method, too, when you print your draft and read through it for the first time. I’m always amazed at how I digest a read-through of my printed wip; why can I suddenly see new ugliness? I will try Michener’s O method myself next time, and perhaps I’ll be able to get through the draft without impeding the flow of the read with a gazillion edits.
Side note: You’ll notice I haven’t included a link for Michener’s book, and it’s because I couldn’t find one. The book must no longer be in print, which is a shame as it offers plenty of insights for the writer. I’ll pull it out on occasion so we can remember the man and his wisdom.
And now it’s back to the manuscript for me; I have many “Os” to tackle.