Over the last few years, I’ve struggled to complete stories I start writing. I’ll outline, plan, world-build, and it all seems interesting, but nothing gets produced. Then, a few months ago, I started co-writing a screenplay with a friend who has more of a ‘pantsing’ style of writing –– writing a bunch of drafts, with each one better than the last.
I’ve always had a problem pantsing it. Not because I can’t do it (it’s the only writing I’ve ever completed, actually), but because I hate going back and rewriting the same story.
It’s like when I saw Jurassic Park for the first time. A friend had read the book and thought it was better (they usually are, I suppose). He lent me his copy, but I couldn’t get through it. I already knew the story, and I hate retreading old territory unless I absolutely love it (like the Ranger’s Apprentice series, the first book of which I’ve read a half dozen times or so).
But the main reason I can’t rewrite stories is because…
My Critical Voice is Too Critical
If a story gets better after a single rewrite, then why not rewrite it twice, or three times, or ten? Why not spend the rest of my life making that story the best it can possibly be?
I’ve got too much I want to say to get hung up on a single story all my life.
After Benjamin Feehan, of Grapple Gun Publishing and Reroll Productions fame, got me into writing flash fictions again –– stories that you can’t really outline –– I started enjoying the pantsing life once more. My critical voice still got in the way, but I knew I wasn’t going to publish flash fiction, so I might as well just throw it up on my website after a bit of editing and move on.
I felt like I was moving forward, though I still didn’t enjoy the prospect of rewriting an entire novel, but my ‘voice’ didn’t feel right yet. I needed to read more. Fortunately, I cracked open my Kindle and found a book by James Scott Bell about writing pulp fiction. (I don’t get affiliate fees, just FYI. What I share I genuinely find valuable.)
Growing up on comic books, I’ve always been interested in the idea of the old pulps. Fiction that is finished incredibly fast for nothing more than entertainment. No lofty ideals, no “themes”, just good old hard-boiled fun!
Needless to say, I downloaded a few pulp fiction authors, like Raymond Chandler, and dove in. What an inspiration for a unique voice in the modern drone of like-sounding fiction writers.
Naturally, I got curious about how pulp writers were so prolific. How many words a day did they write? DId they not have lives? As it turns out, if you aren’t rewriting twenty times, sending your work to four editors and a politician for “approval”, then you have a chance of being quite prolific with even a moderate word count.
Through my searching, I discovered Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark, where he describes a process of producing a “clean first draft.”
A clean first draft? For someone who hates rewriting, that sounded fantastic. So I dove in and read the book in one go.
I don’t think I’m going to take his process wholesale. Even though I don’t like revisiting old stories, I’m one of those people who thinks up a clever thing to say after the conversation has ended. So I do like going through what I wrote the previous day and adding a thing or two.
That said, most of his process is being tested out in a new story that I’m already 5,000 words into (more than I’ve written for a single story in two years). The key bit of it is a process called ‘cycling’.
Editing as You Go
Cycling is pretty simple. You write 500 words, then go back 1,000 words and edit until you get to where you left off. Then write another 500 words and go back 1,000 again. If you do the math, you’re writing a “first draft” of the 500, then going back and editing the same words twice. That’s three times you went over the same words. Three drafts are good enough for Stephen King, so why not the same for me?
The thing I like about this method is that it melds the author’s creative and critical voices. When you write, you’re using your creative voice (almost a subconscious mind unto itself) to create a story. When you go back through your writing, you’re using your critical voice (the analytical mind that’s designed to protect you from danger and embarrassment).
Critical voices destroy creative voices on purpose, to protect it, of course. If the critical voice reads something that sounds funny, cool, or whatever, it warns us that others might not see it that way. What we see as funny others might see as dumb. So it protects us by encouraging us to “murder our darlings.”
Whatever Works for You
This post isn’t to put down outlining as a method, nor to discredit someone else’s process. Hell, I don’t even know if this will be my process going forward. There are certain things that I’m already changing, as I’ve said. I’m just documenting my own method.
What this method is doing for me right now is putting words on pages, and helping me clean them up to publishing quality without losing my mind or wallet with full rewrites and expensive editors (editors didn’t save me from being criticized for terrible grammar in the Jadepunk core book, so their results are limited, at best, anyway).
But what about story structure? You might ask.
I’ve studied story structure for so long that I’m naturally including it into my story, but I’m also not disappointed when I skip a supposedly necessary plot point because my characters have other ideas. Cool. Rules are for sheep anyway.
I’m gonna do me. How do you do you?