Saturday, February 09, 2008

Of Obsession and Method

WaterBoy posts:
...But it still seems like the differentiator between a successful writer and the rest of the world is in determining which ideas/stories can be used successfully -- does the world really need yet another take on Gattaca?
I think the more accurate differentiator between the rest of the world and the successful or potentially successful writer is that the writer is too stubborn to give up when someone points out, "It's been done already." The Real Writer responds with, "So? My take is going to be better!" Genuinely new and original ideas are very few and far between. Most writers I know are constantly looking at other writers' work, or works in other media, and some little voice in the back of their heads is keeping up the running commentary, "See? That's where Crichton got it wrong. And that's where Heinlein had the right idea, but he didn't take it far enough." Many famous writers began their careers with The Kitchen Table Epiphany: that glorious moment when the Future Famous Writer threw a book or magazine down in disgust, said, "Geez, even I can write better than that!," and his or her long-suffering wife or husband answered, "Oh yeah? Prove it."

After all, that's how Edgar Rice Burroughs started.

That said, the reaction and obsession by itself proves only that you have a short temper and a potential case of OCD. The potential Future Writer also has a desire to keep at it, practice, and improve, even if they know at the outset that the particular idea they're working on has kinda sorta been done before. There is no magical insight that tells which idea will be successful once executed. Most successful writers I know have a bin full of old stories that they haven't been able to sell to anyone, and at least one novel manuscript that they keep buried lest anyone see it but can't quite bring themselves to throw away.

Which segues into Claymore's questions:
What kind of technical thought process do you go through to transfer the story outline into the written word?

How concerned are you with correct punctuation and grammar when you begin writing a story? Is it a concern at all - in other words do you know grammar so well that it isn't an issue? Are you mindful of such things verb forms and shifts in tense, aspect, and mood while you write?
There's a reason why the author photo on this blog shows my much-abused old Smith-Corona Electric portable. I was fortunate enough to grow up in The Age of Typewriters, so that's how I developed my method. I'm always carrying around a small spiral notebook and a pen, or a legal pad and a pencil, or some such throwback analog device. My process is, whenever I get a few spare minutes, I sit down, give a sharp tug on whatever bit of the story is protruding from my tangled ball of thoughts, and write down whatever unravels.

I must work on paper, first. I find it very difficult to compose more than a few paragraphs on a computer. The computer is a great aid to microwriting — getting spelling, sentences, and paragraphs right — but I have to get the story out on paper before I can start seeing it as a gestalt, and start spotting things like, "Oh, this paragraph here on page 5 really would work better on page 3. And this whole scene here on pages 7 and 8, while it's very clever, actually slows the story down and contributes nothing, so it's got to go."

So, generally speaking, my process is to get the rough gist of it down on paper first, then rewrite on the fly as I enter it into the computer, and then print it out and attack the printout with a red pen, editing mercilessly, which provides the grist for a rematch with the computer.

That's the product of having learned to compose on a typewriter, I guess. With a typewriter, once it's down on paper, it's there, and you know from the outset you're going to have to edit it later and rewrite the whole thing at least once. Ergo, during the composition phase, there is a definite emphasis on just getting the dang thing out of your head and onto paper, where you can work with it, and all those concerns about grammar and punctuation, et al., fall into the "worry about it later" bucket. Whereas with a computer — even now, for something as ephemeral as a blog post — I find myself constantly re-reading, second-guessing, and tweaking what I've already written, as I'm writing.

Which, I've noticed, really slows down my rate of production, and also leads to the curious effect of the beginning paragraphs of a piece being written much better than the ending paragraphs. After all, I've looked at them more, and by the end I just want to get the thing finished and hit the "Publish Post" button.