Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 10th, 2013

Learning to love every stage

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Scene cards on the author's desk

A while back, I wrote that the one tangible form of progress in a writer’s life is the fact that your first drafts start to look as good as your final drafts from a few years ago. I’d like to add another sign of growth to the list, and if it isn’t as visible, it’s just as important: as time goes on, you come to love every stage of the process, not just the elements that drew you to the profession in the first place. Looking at my own approach to writing, I’d say that the average project of any length falls into six distinct but overlapping stages. There’s the search for an idea; the research, background reading, and brainstorming that fleshes out that initial concept; outlining; writing the first draft; revision for style, otherwise known as polishing; and revision for content, which often means rewriting entire sections or adding new material in response to reader comments or your own shifting sense of the storyline. All have their own pleasures and pitfalls, and not every stage will seem as appealing as every other when you start to write seriously. Yet I’ve come to believe that it’s good for a writer to derive satisfaction from every aspect of craft, at least enough to pass with relative ease from each step to the next.

There are three reasons for this. The first is that each stage exercises a different part of the brain, or, more accurately, a different range of mental states from intuitive to analytical, and a writer needs to be comfortable in each mode as much an athlete needs to be in good shape overall, even if he tends to exercise one part of the body more than others. The second is that there’s no way of knowing how long any given project will spend at any phase. You always start a novel with a general sense of how much time it will take, but in practice, the three months you’ve allocated to writing the first draft can easily expand into six, and revision, in particular, can drag on for much longer than you expect. If that’s the case, you’d better enjoy the trip—you’ll be in this stretch of territory for a long time to come. The last reason is possibly the most subtle: if you enjoy every stage of the process, you’re less likely to get caught up by one at the expense of the others. Research, for instance, can turn into a drug, and the only way to move beyond it when necessary is to be actively looking forward to the moment when you can begin to put words on the page.

Initial notes for my second novel

My own history as a writer is of gradually coming to love each phase, even if I still feel like tearing my hair out over the particular problems they present. When I first started out, I loved the research and brainstorming stage above all the others, which I could take or leave: writing was largely an excuse to explore the world and investigate interesting ideas, and the story itself seemed like an obligatory chore to postpone until the last moment, as Hitchcock is reported to have felt of the filmmaking process after the script was complete. Later, I came to love outlining, which was the only way I could see a story through from start to finish, and once I had a complete manuscript in hand, I was a quick convert to the pleasures of polishing, since it’s great fun to refine material that already exists. As more time has passed, I’ve started to enjoy the initial search for ideas, with its sense of infinite possibility, as much as anything else. And writing the first draft has turned from a slog into an opportunity to realize the story itself, as well as a stimulating confrontation with language and tone—although I only began to enjoy it after I’d learned not to look back at what I’d written until the entire story was finished.

I’ve even come to enjoy what is easily the most frustrating stage, which is revising in response to comments or the discovery of unforeseen problems. My patience isn’t infinite, and after the fourth or fifth round of rewrites, it gets a little exhausting. Still, there’s something about scrutinizing a finished draft and trying to address its shortcomings that feels like the ultimate test of a writer’s ingenuity: it’s the point at which all the design and debugging metaphors I like so much come to the foreground. There’s an indescribable satisfaction to be had from finding just the right tiny fix that will clarify the spine of the entire story, or writing a new chapter on the demand to fill in an emotional beat you never knew was missing, and the greater the pleasure you can derive from such tinkering, the happier you’ll be as a writer in the long run. And that’s true of every step in the process—you might as well learn to love them all, because you’ll be spending a good chunk of your career on each one. (That said, there’s still one area of writing I haven’t learned to enjoy yet: the long stretches of waiting after a submission has been sent. If I could figure out how to take pleasure in that, I’d be set for life.)

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2013 at 8:03 am

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Quote of the Day

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Eric Shipton

After that I was infused with a pleasant sense of abandon. Our rope was not long enough for us to abseil down the red step, and the idea of climbing down it without support from above was not to be contemplated; therefore we just had to reach the summit.

Eric Shipton, on climbing Mount Kenya

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2013 at 7:30 am

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