A Summer Of Writing Craft
Here in Northern California we've been sheltering in place for five months now. It's been a blur with time at first seeming to slow down and then picking back up but life settling in a a slower pace. Without a huge amount of variation it has flowed together and without the usual markers of travel or get-togethers I have a hard time remembering what I did two weeks ago, let alone two months. But one thing has been consistent - I've spent more time developing, editing, and writing the second draft of one of my manuscripts than I ever would have been able to with all my regular competing priorities. It's allowed me to connect with my process in new ways and go deeper into writing craft than I ever thought I'd go.
Craft is a essentially a toolbox that gives you different ways of putting a story together so that it flows, maintains tension, and pulls the reader through to the end. Up to now, however, I have never really been able to connect with it. I would read craft books, nod knowingly when they gave examples, and then look at my own work and have no idea how to apply it. Or I'd nod off, completely uninterested. Putting those tools to work is hard. Some people have a natural knack for it, but I'm not one of them. It's taken a pandemic to give me the time, space, and help to really give it a go. Plus the challenge that is the second draft.
What's your book about? It's a question that a lot of writers absolutely hate. Funny thing about writing a book - just because you have an idea for a story, have written at least one full draft, and can talk about what happens to your main character does not mean you know what it's about. Because to answer that question you need to know the essence of the book. Take the plot, characters and their arcs, themes, conflicts, etc. and boil all of that down until you can describe it in a short sentence or phrase, or even a word. That's the essence of a book. Getting to that point takes time and patience. And it's hard.
Writing the first draft of a book is all about getting the rough strokes of the story and characters onto the page. My friends and I like to remind each other it's like putting mounds of clay onto a table. Tight scene transitions and gorgeous language are not things that you need to spend a lot of time on because you're probably going to cut a bunch of stuff in your next draft and there's no telling what will stay and what will go.
The second draft is about getting the story to work, getting plot points into the right places and replacing ones that don't fit. To do this you have to start to understand the story, and this is the part that continuously makes me want to tear my hair out these days. What do your characters want and how do they transform at the end? This is where the boiling down starts and craft comes in handy.
A couple of my best friends, who are also writers, and I started doing weekly Zoom calls a few weeks into shelter in place to talk about our stories. It's also turned into a craft master class. Things like the Forces of Antagonism or the Controlling Idea from Robert McKee's Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting which have always made me scratch my head when trying to apply them to my own work suddenly become possible when I have two friends helping me through the exercises. It's stretched my brain in the best and taught me how to boil things down, to sit with things until I can let go of the extraneous bits and get to the core of something.
It occurs to me that this is what's been happening in the non-writing part of my life over the last five months too. Strip away the excuses and distractions, take away things like travel and my priorities and aspirations have started to boil down into a handful of things instead of a long list. It's hard to sit with that process. It's uncomfortable to sit with a tangle of thoughts, and feelings, and no answers until clarity surfaces. Up until this point I've avoided it by using activities as an escape, a means of running away. But answers take longer to come to when I do this which prolongs the discomfort.
The other thing I've learned is the my writing process isn't linear. It's not neat and tidy. I think in many directions at once. It's more like looking at overlapping circles instead of a line. It means I often end up tangled, looking at something I've previously worked out questioning it several times before I can truly settle it. It also means that having the reflection of others helps me to focus my efforts. I have felt bad about this in the past, like I'm not good at writing if I need help, but my perspective is shifting on this. Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Sharing it with people I love and trust makes it fun and enjoyable, even the hard parts. Especially the hard parts.
As my friends and I have been reminding each other lately - the action is here. It's a quote from the Rob Bell episode of the first season of Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons podcast. As long as we're doing the work we're taking action. We are the action. We are writers. And that's pretty, damn cool.