No, I’m not talking about 50 Shades in this episode! Although, that could be fun…
No! No. Get your head out of the clouds and get back to work.
For this installment of The Writer’s Maze I want to talk about our WiPs (for those of you who don’t know, these are not long leather straps that writer’s hit each other with. They’re our ideas, our babies, our Works in Progress). I have about a million of these lyin’ about on various computers and thumb drives. And here’s where we’ll start this maze…
Those very first intimate moments, between writer and a new idea, are glorious. It’s like new love…only better. Because in that first instance when a new idea strikes you think, “Well, that’s it! I am brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. That idea is just so freaking clever, no way anyone’s ever thought of it before.” You walk around in a cloud, putting the milk in the cupboard and the toaster in the fridge, because your left brain is so engaged in the creative juices that you can’t possibly function in the real world. You scribble notes on everything, including the chalkboard on the fridge, the grocery list in your purse, you child’s drawing, until you finally have to begin the outline.
Ugh. The outline is where the euphoria starts to wane, but you still think your idea is epic and fresh. You ignore the nagging voice that pipes up saying, “That’s not going to work,” and you fight to keep the initial adrenaline alive. Because you remember what the beginning felt like. And then you wonder, after scrounging all of your scattered notes, what am I forgetting? Was this my original idea? Where is the brilliance?
And this is where the chains begin to cinch around your wrists, holding your fingers on the keyboard in stubborn bondage as you kick, scream and cry to make that first idea a reality of literary perfection (NOTE: If you’re chasing literary perfection, give up now, it doesn’t exist). The middle of this maze is the development, the exposition of characters and plot. The setting and world building (because you ignore the giant gaping holes you discovered in your outline phase) where you catch small glimpses of your beginning genius. Your characters might be sound, your dialog intriguing, your sentence structure purple and flowing, but you haven’t yet admitted to yourself that none of these things will matter once you enter the next tunnel of the maze.
The story arc.
And here’s where we grab the eraser and smudge out the notes still glaring at us from the chalkboard on the refrigerator. Once we have grown attached to our protagonist and antagonist and we’re invested in their lives, we realize that our plot and/or subplot don’t really work. There’s no way event A would lead to event B, at least not believably. But, if you’re like me, you tell yourself, “That’s a bunch of crap. Believability comes from good writing. I just have to write it better.” So, on you trudge (ignoring the little voice calling you a fool), peppering your WiP with eloquent prose and vivid details. Though, even your characters are trying to tell you it’s not working.
And when you finally reach the page where you get to write THE END, you only feel empty. “I’ll fix it in revision,” you tell the computer screen. But the roiling pit in your stomach begs you to just junk the entire manuscript and save yourself the months of head-banging frustration that is sure to come with plot holes the size of the Hoover Dam. In the end, whether the manuscript is good or bad, you set it aside (because this is the best advice, honest) and put it out of your head for a month or two (or longer depending on if you’ve moved on to your next WiP or not).
This is a very long (for some, not for all) process, because in this portion of the maze you find conflicting directions and can actually find yourself roaming around in circles with no idea of how to get through. In the revision phase you tweak and fuss, cleaning up every little corner, but no matter how much you sweep away the garbage and fluff up the grit, you still seem to find something else that could be improved. It never ends. But BEWARE you can tweak too much and do more damage than good. The best idea is to revise with intent.
Revising with intent.
· Allow yourself a set number of revisions before you send the WiP to critique partners and beta readers. I do about 3 revisions for this phase.
· One, big picture layout. Does the story follow the formula for that genre? Is the story pacing right for that genre? Is the story following the arc, or does it meander off track (my nemesis)?
· Two, authenticity of character and dialog. World building. Is it all believable?
· Three, tidy up grammar and messy tidbits left over from previous revisions.
Now, send it off to someone else. This is, perhaps, the most important part of the writing process. The part where you, the writer, do nothing but chew your fingernails off while you wait – stalking your inbox hourly – to hear what your trusted friends and allies thought of your “brilliance.” Again, I must warn you. DO NOT OVERTHINK this. You want your crit partners to rip it apart, of course we all hope they don’t need to, but the reality is that if they don’t they’re probably not being honest (in which case you need new crit partners). Yes, you want to know if your WiP has potential and yes you want to know that your idea – the one that got you jazzed enough to write it in the first place – is solid and worth continuing the revision process. If you get the go-head once your baby comes home, you’re good to begin revising from their notes. And here is my advice on that.
· DO NOT (under any – okay, most – circumstances) GET OFFENDED. These are the thoughts and honest opinions of people who took the time to read your work (and at this stage it isn’t always easy to get through someone else’s unfinished work) and make detailed suggestions. They are not trying to hurt your feelings or insult you. They are trying to help you find the spots in your WiP that could be stronger. That is all. The best way is to read the comments with an open mind and then walk away. DO NOT go right into revision. Let the comments sink in first, let that knee-jerk reaction settle, and then come back to tackle the process of fixing problems areas.
What to do when you get multiple suggestions. This is inevitable and difficult to navigate. Once you’ve sent your WiP to a handful of people, you’re going to get a bucket-load of conflicting advice back. Some people are going to like your writing just as it is. Here’s where you get to take creative control. That time you took to absorb all of the advice, that’s going to work in your favor here. Now you get to chose, either you’ll decide that first person (the one who insulted your ego) was right, or you can snub your nose at them and ignore their advice. This is entirely up to you. I will tell you though, that some of my best writing has come out of the changes I’ve made to a WiP that I was resistant to. Chose carefully. Don't chain yourself to only one possibility, you might find greatness if you cut the old idea loose.
And now you’ve done it. Congratulations, you’ve clawed your way through this phase of the Writer’s Maze.