Going Back a Few Steps

I mentioned Marshall J. Cook a few posts ago, and with good reason. I have been writing for about a decade, now, and have read a lot of advice about writing. In the creative writing courses I’ve taken, I’ve read essays on writing, books on writing. In my free time I fall for the click-bait titles such as “10 ways to improve your writing,” and I thumb through blogs of writing advice when I am in a stint of avoiding the actual act of writing, itself.

All of which is to say, I’ve found a number of how-to’s regarding writing, and how it’s done. Most of them, honestly, I found trite and reductive.

At its worst, I found writing advice straight-up irritating–like the ample adages I have read regarding “said,” and whether you should never use anything but the word “said,” or if in fact you should refer to an extensive list of eye-catching words which take away the redundancy of using “said” for every bit of dialogue. I find, in fact, that neither the said purists nor the thesaurus enthusiasts are wholly correct. I use murmur, and interject, and retort–and, yes, said. The trick is, of course, not overusing either one, and knowing why you are using it. (And, of course, giving your characters distinctive enough voices that you don’t always have to pepper your paragraphs with dialogue tags.)

At its best, then, writing advice is… quite honestly forgettable. Though I am very certain I read at least half of a how-to book on creative writing during my high school career, I am hard-pressed to remember a single piece of advice it gave, a solitary instruction that snuggled into my memory. There may have been something about scene vs. summary and point of view–and that, frankly, I remember more because of the writing exercises we did in relation to the reading, more than due to the reading itself.

I was fairly pleased, once, coming across a piece of writing advice that said “take all advice with a grain of salt.”

But, with that said, I have found one book that really connected me to the writing process, helped me think of writing in new ways, and honestly prepared me for many of the challenges (both practical and emotional) that I found myself facing. And that book was written by Marshall J. Cook: Freeing Your Creativity.

It’s out of print, now, and the copy I found, I actually found at a free book exchange at the local dump. But this book has stuck with me, and when I need to read something that encourages my habit, my proactivity, and my creative health, I always go back to this volume.

I imagine I will take a few blog posts over the next few weeks or months to discuss different passages which have stuck out to me when reading Cook. But the one I want to discuss now is one I mentioned in my very first post: going back a step.

This isn’t a “distance yourself from the work” step back, or even a “take a new point of view and get some perspective on the piece” kind of step back. It’s actually a fair bit more concrete than that, which I appreciate, given the nebulous and messy nature of the writing process: namely, if you are struggling at a step in the writing process, go back to the step which will prepare you for the one that is currently being difficult.

If you are having trouble putting the story down, go back a step and organize your thoughts: check your outlines, check the big picture, check your notes for the scene. If you find that challenging, go back another step. Gather more information, gather inspiration, do your research. If researching proves difficult, go back to your main ideas: recall your themes,  and the driving purpose of the work…

So on, and so forth.

Again, very concrete advice. It can help me identify where my writing block is coming from–if I am blocked at all, or just nervous about putting the words down–if there are blind spots in my research–if I haven’t developed my themes sufficiently. The process reveals the building blocks of the work: each piece contributes to the integrity of the whole. You can find where the structural instabilities are. You can rehash and rebuild. You write the story. You write the book.

I’m actually taking Mr. Cook’s advice a little differently, too, though hopefully I keep to the spirit of it. I have, in the last year and a half, written three (very rough) novel drafts. I had a purpose in mind, which has shifted some along the way. I had themes, which changed a touch. I had organization, which took some surprising turns and now could use nips and tucks to make it tight and cohesive, again.

But, more importantly, I’ve started to run out of steam. I have two more books tentatively planned for this series (for a total of five), but these last two books are like a desert to me. I know there are events–oases–that lie between me and the horizon, but the space between is long and vastly empty. The books risk being vast swaths of empty words punctuated by an important scene here, a climactic moment there.

It is not time to give up. But researching and planning these two books would be, I think, preemptive. I’m going back a few steps further than that.

Book one sets the story into motion. It sets the stage for the rest of the series to follow. I wrote book one only with book one in mind–but now, having the far-flung events of books four and five in my head, I think that I can write book one much better this time. I can expand the world. I can set the stage. I can lay out the pieces and set all into motion.

I will confess to feeling a bit oddly about backtracking this way. Why not give books four and five a shot, after all, and let the editing and re-writing all happen later, when the pieces are laid out before me? Part of it is my own process. I believe in strong first drafts–not perfect ones, but ones that are as whole and coherent as I can make them in that moment. Part of my reasoning does go back to the difficulties writing. Sometimes when the words do not flow, it means that there are necessary pieces missing. Organization, investigation, theme and purpose. I have tried organization, and tried even (with limited success) to investigate. But it is the theme and purpose that I lack.

A series, I think, must have a clear through-thread. Each book must be a movement along that thread. And, though I know an event or two in each of the last books which facilitates that movement, the pithy interest around it seems impossible to locate.

So: we start at the beginning of the thread.

I wrote as strong a draft as I could, for book one. Now I know better what it needs to be; re-writing will strengthen the narrative continuity, will open more possibilities and more doors, which will in turn lead to more possibilities and stronger ties that reach out into later books. I go back not to the first step, but to the first thread. Watch: let it be spun.

(An unconventional use of Cook’s advice, I think, but one that I hope he would be pleased with nonetheless.)

(I begin re-writing now, in bits and starts. The main nose-to-the-grindstone effort will happen a bit later this year, towards April, in tandem with Camp NaNoWriMo. I will be certain, of course, to keep you updated.)

Cheers, and here’s to the writing!

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