Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Only writing the awesome stuff

Alright. Alright. Everybody calm down. I just experienced a revolution.

Since I first read Dean Wesley Smith's Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing back in June, I've been writing as though under the influence of powerful, alien narcotics. The first two chapters of Dean's work--on speed, and re-writing--are what most inspired me. Since then, I've churned out a veritable corpus of weird literature.

But lately I've been noticing all these holes in my writing. Great beginnings that turn into poor endings; fabulous plots with pitiful characters; work that falls somewhere along the continuum of too-long-too-short-too-deep-too-shallow. I didn't understand where the mistakes were coming from, because every time I wrote a story, I would come up with a basic recipe for what I hoped to accomplish, a recipe that was both reasonable and challenging, a recipe with clear weights and volumes and ingredients and directions.

But what I ended up with each time was not what I had hoped for; neither was it the gleeful surprise of finding out you produced something superior to your original ideation. It was the rancid burnt cookie, the self-consciously oily potatoes; it was the flavour of disappointment.

So I started discovery writing, something that I found nearly impossible and totally frustrating back when I started writing a few years ago. When I got back into discovery writing, I still made basic outlines, and tried to "discover" the characters within the movement of the plot. But something wasn't sticking right. I realized that in my constant attempts to move from point A to point B in a clear and decisive manner, I was amassing tons of absolute garbage. My characters were dragging rattling, rusty tin cans behind them on strings, tin cans made not of actual tin or any metal at all but of "the exigencies of the plot." And I had the gall to call this "character development."

The big catharsis came the other day when a story I had begun to discovery write--which, for the first two-thirds of the project, was looking like one of the most splendid pieces of work I think I've ever done--completely fell apart--utterly shattered--upon impact with the climax I had pre-fabricated for it.

I was, basically, heartbroken. It was like I had built a runway out of gold, jewels, champagne and virgins; but the runway led off a cliff into a gravity well that plummeted to a wall made of acid.

So I decided I'd stop outlining stuff, take my ideas, and turn them into stories ex nihilo--or, rather, ex nihilo with a short, but by no means well articulated, string of ideas vaguely attached to the nothingness. And what's surprised me is how insanely awesome the product of this strategy is.

There's a second aspect to this success, of course; it might even be more important. Basically, I've stopped writing the lines that draw together points A and B. I just write A, and then I write B. I write the meat. The protein-rich bean curd. The goods, the shiznit. If, at the end of the draft, I feel like the story needs a little more contiguity, well, it's not hard to string things together with a sentence or two. But I'm developing an appreciation for the fact that a great deal of the writing I was doing before all this was just stringing things together--frequently with long and annoying phrases, big paragraphs, and disastrous results.

I've also decided to take more time and care with the writing. Whereas the last two months I strictly held myself to a single work-in-progress at any moment (in the name of completing my work), now, if I don't know what comes next in a given tale, I put it on pause and do something else until the answer arrives. Or, start something new, and see if my brain can chew something up for it later.

I'm not sure if I can continue this; surely, brilliance can't be as simple as just writing whatever I want. But I just wrote one of the best stories I've ever produced, without a doubt; and it broached topics I normally would be unable to attack, because, in actively thinking about them (rather than "discovering" them), I would come to doubt my ability to write from such-and-such a point of view.

Anyway, if brilliance really is this easy, that would definitely be a lot cooler than all these hand-written notes, whiteboard-illustrated plot arcs, and autobiographical character sketches I have laying around my apartment.



  1. Good to hear that you're constantly trying out new methods of plotting and inspiration. I, too, have begun to take a more careful approach to the craft, trying to eliminate the number of revisions necessary to get from a workable first draft to a polished, submittable final draft.

  2. Nice post, Ben. Your blog is always fun to read.

  3. Oddly enough, I had the "discovery writing" brainflash writing non-fiction in university when I realized that I wrote more readable and better all-round term papers when I just obsessively read all the sources I could and then sat down and out and out wrote it down until I hit an appropriate word count. The fact that this applied to fiction only struck me later.

    It's a lot easier to make quick-fixes after you've got it all written, and it's faster when you're on a deadline.

  4. Somewhere, I think in the preface to his short story collection, "Burning Chrome", William Gibson describes how his inability to write transitions directly led to cyberpunk.

    He's like: "Well, that sort of page-and-a-half per scene choppy structure was just a result of me having no idea how to get from here and deciding instead to just jump to the next part."