Sunday, 29 November 2015

A description of my writing process. by Matthew Presley

My writing’s terrible.

When I first write down an idea, I’m usually rushing through to get it down on paper before I forget things. My sentences run on, description becomes a torrent of florid adjectives, as superfluous and unnecessary as X-Factor contestants in February. Dialogue isn’t there; I have lines of exposition between speech marks, but characters aren’t talking to each other. They’re talking to the script, hitting a bunch of marks before the next set piece lumbers in. Because I write by hand before typing up, I’ll equate that 1 page will be 500 words, but this is rarely the case. Speech lines of two or three words are common. Hyperdense black holes of description can be so tightly written as to exert gravitic mass. I’ll write scenes out of order and guess what the characters will be talking about, or sometimes who’s in the scene, so the first draft is often an incomprehensible mess of one liners and exposition over the same point as well as sentences going on for too long while making similar points to however I started the sentence.

So once I’ve got the first full-length run-through of the story, I print out the lot, and edit. Once I’ve got a sense of what the story is and where it’s going, I know which bits to cut. Sometimes information needs moving round; plot important knowledge is needed at a certain point in the story, so I have to find a space to slip it in. One thing I’ve found recently is that I’ll repeat the same idea. For instance;

                Run Away! => Escape => Caught => Escape => Caught => End of Chapter

I do this when I’m writing a scene and I’m not sure when the chapter ends going to fit in. It can be simplified to;

                Run Away! => Escape => Caught => End of Chapter

No matter how interesting the second escape and capture are, they’re not needed for the story. I might even question if the character should run away in the first place if they’re going to be captured again in the same chapter.

Also once I’ve got a full run-through of the story, ideas may change. Characters won’t blindly follow the story just because it’s the simplest course of action. Occam’s Razor has no personality. It doesn’t get angry, frustrated, scared, or doubtful; it just does. Unless you’re writing about Terminators, your characters should have their own downfalls. As snappy as the one-liner I wrote a year or two ago was, if it doesn’t fit the character, it goes. Lines I stole wholesale from somewhere else? These don’t often fit what’s happening after rewrites. And then there’re characters who, in the grand scheme of the story, are utterly pointless. Plots that go nowhere, or little details I added thinking it’d lead into something else, often have to be cut or reworked to have a pay-off. Sometimes its intentional; a character will be working on something meaningless to the story, a gunsmithing contract for some guy called ‘Chekhov’. Other times, it’s more like Chekhov’s discarded armoury. Sometimes a character in story one is more important in story two; either they should be made important in story one, or cut out entirely.

At this point, I’m ready to read out my stuff at writers group. I have deemed it not as terrible. If I have time, I’ll do minor adjustments before the read-out. Sometimes stray run-on sentences crept through. Sometimes a suggestion was made in group at the last meeting and I decide to follow it. Often I’ve changed details in the previous chapter that need changing from that point on.

Then comes read out; I have to say, even though the writers group is very supportive and encouraging, until I’ve read something out, I don’t know if it works or not. I’ll never forget the first major time I read something out that fell flat; it was the first scene I’d written in that story, and the point to which the story had been working towards. I’d been so happy with it, and in my arrogance I thought ‘this can’t be improved!’

I read it. There was an awkward silence. I recognised that silence immediately; everyone was trying to think of an encouraging, constructive way to say ‘that was terrible’. It was a wake-up call, and that’s when I started editing and redrafting as heavily as I do.

I rewrote the whole scene; all the dialogue changed, for a start. I thought hard about each line the characters said; each line had to be important. I cut out an unnecessary description at the start, to make the scene flow a bit faster. The ending punchline remained the same, as did the basic topic of conversation, but there was more character to it. I reread the same scene at the group a few weeks later, and got a much better reception. Since then I’ve realised that yes, my writing’s terrible. That’s why I keep working on it until it’s not terrible, occasionally to the point of being okay.


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