I recall the frustration I felt when, after having worked on my first novel for over two years, I was still able to sit with my printed pages and create a mess of red-line edits for myself.
No, this word is better.
This sentence is drivel.
Move this graph over there. Nope, nope—there.
She would never say that, ug.
WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?
Was I beyond capricious? Hard-core stalling? Lacking in the ability to know when done was done enough?
Then, a miracle: a day when I read through my printed pages and left far fewer notes for myself. Some scenes had only a couple of red-pencil markings. Some none at all. That day turned into a string of days, and the pile of pages for which there were few if any notes grew.
Had I become less picky? More eager to move on? A far better writer?
Nope. Nope. And (mostly) nope.
Imagine two people out on a boat on a lake at sunset. Later, you’ll ask them: What did you see? And you’ll receive different reports, be informed about different details.
There was a barking dog. A face-planting skier. A huge spider somewhere in the boat.
Huh. I forgot my glasses and saw only muted colors in the sky…
These different perspectives make easy sense to us, as those two people climbed into that boat with different eyes, minds, dispositions, attention spans, angles, meals in their stomachs, aches and pains in their bones, visual acuity, and so on. But here’s what you may not realize: You, too, are like those two people on the boat. Yep, both of them. Or maybe there are thousands of them.
On any given day, you are seeing your work from a singular angle—a day (hour, minute) that will never be again, with a you that will never be quite the same again. This is your perspective on day 16,885 of a life, perhaps, or day 488 of your wip, or day 1,309 of a marriage, or day 3 of really crap sleep (which is barely distinguishable from hour 3 of a diet). These versions of yourself will continue to change, and hopefully to evolve, just as your story will change and evolve.
And it’s all good.
Because unless you’re a truly miraculous writer, your best ideas will not come when you’re staring at the blinking cursor of Draft One. In fact, they will not come on any single day. Rather, a symphonic effort via your many shades of self will be required to evolve word craft, three-dimensional characters, and out-of-the-box ideas.
You will change.
Your voice may shift.
Your tolerance for sub-par writing may become less tolerant.
You may have epiphanies over lunch, at dawn, or as you’re about to fall asleep. They may come while you’re in the shower or out walking the dog. On the other side of it, yesterday’s epiphanies may look sophomoric and wind up alongside a hundred other possibilities in your computer’s trash bin.
But, if you continue through all of your shades-of-self work—the crossing off and rewriting and doubt and angst—you’ll find it: the center of that thought you’d been trying to capture, smooth and vibrant and true from all angles. Your story has become three-dimensional, refined via the daily grind of seeing and unseeing, and making change or deciding the work can stand. And you have sanded down those lumpy parts with the best tool imaginable: the energy of your own mind.
HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF IT:
- Know that dissatisfaction about the quality and/or ‘rightness’ of your work is actually a good thing. It’s this restlessness that will push you to clarify your thoughts, and bridge the distance between what you want to say and what is currently on the page.
- Look at your work on different days and while in different moods. There’s only one mood that should grant you a day off writing, and that’s the ‘I’m going to delete the whole thing’ mood. Otherwise, bring it to the page. Your writing can be made more powerful by employing your full self.
- Know that every moment comes with a blind spot, and that the deviant day might be the one you’re currently in rather than the one you were in when you wrote an offending passage. Use track changes, lowlight text in dark gray, or keep a ‘killed darlings’ file so you can revisit at a different time.
- Stay open to the possibility that ‘the girls in the basement’ know something you do not. I’ll never forget the story Brunonia Barry tells about The Lace Reader–how there were strange details that continued to find their way into the script, and she had to continually yank them out. They did not belong. Until they did…
About two-thirds of the way through the draft, the ending I’d planned changed. I’d had it outlined, but it didn’t matter. I remember getting to the big surprise—a surprise to me as well—and yelling, “No!” In retrospect I would say that I’d always been writing it so that the true ending would work—I just didn’t know it. I had to leave the story for about two weeks. I got up and walked away, and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.” When I came back to it, I saw that all of those extraneous details and clues that I’d been bewildered by earlier now worked.
So embrace your 365-day self and 360-degree approach. Throw down ideas that are brilliant or bad, and sometimes both. And know that you will improve over time, once you’ve found your voice and developed the confidence that comes through regularly using the delete key. If, however, you feel doubt on more days than not, it may be time to get some feedback. Just remember that beta-readers have changeable perspectives, too.
Are you a changeable writer? Do you write in all moods? What have you learned about approaching the work at different times? What’s your most memorable killed darling? Have you ever written something, axed it, then realized it was exactly right for your story? How has being a changeable writer surprised you?
Other thoughts? The floor is yours.
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