Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Falling Off a Cliff

Sometimes I'm a serious wuss.

When I feel like I've written a keeper I have huge amounts of faith in the story, in my prose, and I'm willing to do all kinds of things to improve the writing so that the story's heart shows more clearly.  Much as I dislike editing, I look forward to what the editing does to the story.  In painting I set out to render something and, through the limitations and advantages of medium, skill and surprise opportunities, I end up with something usually better than I imagined in the first place.  Sometimes it doesn't match up to my expectations, but that just means I'll try again.  Surprisingly often I'm happier with where I land than where I set out to end up.

Unfortunately there are days when I feel everything I've created is no more substantial than a web.  It looked like art when it was fresh, but after a few bugs have hit it and the wind has blown through it, it not only becomes an eyesore but it isn't even functional anymore.  

I've written about good days and bad days and how they're both uncertain ground for a writer to stand on.  Today is definitely a bad day.  I look at what I'm working on and think that I've taken a perfectly good story and a great character and smeared them with crap through my lack of insight and my clumsy ineptitude.  This is not a good day to judge my own writing. 

If I was sure that what I'd written would be the next great American novel or an international classic, that would also be a bad day to judge my own writing.  I can't always take the middle road.  The middle road is for people who don't want to make mistakes, and also people who don't want to discover anything new.  But I shouldn't try to practice my craft while I'm flying or falling off a cliff.  Those experiences can inform the story, but they can't edit it.  I need to have contact with the ground when I'm traveling (editing,) even if it's bounding like I'm on the moon or tumbling down a steep slope.  

So here's to taking a night off, or at least the next hour off, of editing in the name of not butchering what might be perfectly good writing.  It may be, though, a great time to write something new.  The words will be windblown and wild, but as long as I'm fearless maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and find something unexpected and fun to edit on my hard drive.


Steve Perry said...

Now and again, it's better to put a story in the drawer and let it ripen.

You might be able to grok it in the fullness of time. You'll never be objective about it, but now and again, if you put it away and read it later, some things might make more sense. (Or less, but either way is a help.)

The first story I sold had clunk in it, but I couldn't see what it was. I shelved it, came back a few months later, and came to realize I had to do a one-eighty on the ending. A character who, in first draft, had committed suicide, in the next draft, decided he would not. Pretty big change. Worked well enough to snag a sale.

The subjectivity comes back fast -- I can read a piece I wrote twenty years ago, and pretty soon, I'll shift back into the mindset I had when I wrote it -- I'll miss the same typos, and read what I think I wrote rather than what I actually did, and that's a problem. But stories do sometimes ripen in the drawer. You do have others to tell. Start one of those and get back to this one with a fresh view later.

C.S. said...

Sounds like you had the same kind of day I had. After the third (or is it the sixth?) rewrite/edit of chapters 1 thru 3 of The Car Novel, I think the story sucks hard. Last week, I thought it was fine. Next week I might be in love with it again which is what I'm shooting for because this one has sat fermenting in a drawer long enough. If anything has taught me anything, it's that things always look different in the morning.

Kami said...

As far as drawering it, this novel has been around for a long while. It's sat (festered) for months at a time, maybe even a year once. The very good advice definitely applies. In this particular case I just had to wait to let my down feelings pass. One wild salmon fillet and good conversation later, and I'm back in the saddle again. Yay!