Monday, November 17, 2008

Taking a Break

I’ve dusted off an old story that I started maybe four years ago. I read it over and thought, “Not too bad. I can work with this.” I started writing it again, finished a draft, and gave it to my trusty reader, Liz, to get some feedback. “I like it. It’s interesting,” she said, but she went on to point out that there wasn’t a lot of conflict.

In my story the tables are turned on my protagonist and things aren’t what they originally appeared (I won’t bore you with the details). That part's fine, but when my protagonist doesn’t get what he was hoping to get, he doesn’t really care. Liz’s comments made me take another hard look at the story’s structure. Yes, strange things happen and there is plenty of opportunity for conflict, but I realized I missed the opportunities. As Ms. X is fond of saying, “The conflict is there, you just have to find it and bring it out.” I’m paraphrasing. Ms. X is much more perceptive and charmingly off-the-cuff than I.

So, I agreed with my insightful reader, and the ghost of Ms. X (she is not dead, just off in self-imposed exile working feverishly on a second-novel deadline, and remains unavailable for comment). I started working on a second draft by trying to pin-point the areas that needed some trimming, rethinking, and restructuring. I added more back story for my protagonist, cut one character while moving a secondary character into primary position. The story follows basically the same path, I just reconfigured the algorithm.

Or so I thought. The past couple days found me antsy at the keyboard, harrumphing the thought of spending more time on this story. Something was wrong. With the story or my approach to the changes. Hard to say. In a novel when the writing isn’t going well, the scene I’m working on becomes bogged down, and I rewrite the same sentence ten times before moving on, this signals that I’ve run off the rails. When this happens, and I recognize that it’s happening (this ah-ha moment usually comes after a couple days of head banging), then I back myself out of the scene until I hit that spot in the narrative when things started to go wrong. I right myself (the scene, the writing), remove the offending pages (or chapter, hopefully no longer than that) and start writing from the time just before things went bad, continuing into the scene in the new way.

Sure, great for a novel. But does this approach work for a short story? I can’t go back to the beginning of the story and cut out all the offensive stuff. Because then I wouldn’t have a story. I’m not sure what to do. I’m stuck in the middle to last third of the narrative. I’m at a point where I’m about to introduce a fourth character into the mix. I admit I don’t know all the characters that well. I’m a little flummoxed about how old this fourth character is, what she will mean to the protagonist (mother/sister figure, or possible girlfriend), and how the story will play out after I add her.

I’m too close to the story. I need to step back. It’s time to put it away and work on something else for a while. I’m a big advocate for taking time off from any writing. When I come back to a piece after a break (week, month, year) my emotions are drained off the prose; I have no sentimental tie to the narrative and can cut judiciously and objectively. A sentence that once made sense because of my emotional frame of mind stands stark and affectless, ready for the chopping block.

It sounds a little harsh, but it’s a necessary part of writing. My story will be better off collecting dust while I go off and cozy up to another piece of old writing whose time has come. Then, when my sub-conscious has worked out all the difficult bits for me (because that’s the way I imagine it goes down) then I’ll open up that document again and read it over and hopefully know just how to finish it.


Liz's Mom said...

You explain a writer's struggles so well. I love reading your blog, I always learn something.

Dell Smith said...

Hi Liz's mom. Thanks so much for reading.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Great description of the rewriting and revision process. Certainly never easy, but can be exhilarating. :)

Neil Everett said...

Puff is the name of the cat that my family got as soon as I moved to Amherst. After the first blog, in which I mention it, I thought it would be funny to just have it as a keyword for every single entry. Thanks for reading!

Dell Smith said...

Puff, wearing your clothes, painting your walls.

Dell Smith said...

The revision process gets exhilerating when It's over. (Which feels like never.)