Fast Drafting

From Angela Quarles:

I realized that I should sign up precisely because it scared the heck out of me. I’d found out by doing NaNoWriMo that writing 50,000 words in 30 days was totally doable. What if it was totally doable to do it in half the time and I was just too chicken to find out? I’d also realized that I had begun to find excuses not to start my new novel idea STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY a steampunk romance set in 1890 Mobile, Alabama. So I signed up. And I did it! Last night at 9:22 I typed THE END and had written 56,267 words in 14 days!

That’s a crazy amount of writing in two weeks.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: A is for Ambiguity

Ambiguity is one of the many antagonists you’ll have to face in your development as a creative writer. You can think of it as an evil fairy that sits on your shoulder, reads your sentence-in-progress, and tells you, “Yes, don’t worry, you’ve said it the best you could. There’s no better phrase to describe that feeling and no better image to convey that idea. Maybe you didn’t get it exactly right, but don’t worry, you came as close as you could, and you should be happy. Time to move on to the next sentence.”

If you want to improve your writing, you have to do everything you can to shut that evil fucker up. Because ambiguity doesn’t want you to succeed as a writer; it only wants you to get to the end, get to the end!

Unfortunately, if you’re striving to get to the end rather than striving to use the right word at the right time, then you’re not really much of a writer.

This is not to say that ambiguity doesn’t have its place in literature. It absolutely does. But its place comes at a higher level than the sentence. You can be ambiguous when it comes to plot and character. You can be ambiguous when it comes to theme.

But when it comes to the words you use, to the metaphors you create, to the sentence-by-sentence experience of your text, ambiguity has no place at all. You can use words and sentences to create ambiguity, but within the words, within the sentences, you must be as exact as possible.

Instead of writing that the door is red, you need to describe what kind of red it is. Instead of writing that your character looks angry, you need to show us how she looks angry. Words like “red” and “angry” don’t actually do anything. At most, they give us a range of meanings, but they don’t actually mean anything in and of themselves. They are, in a word, ambiguous.

“Red” and “angry” are the kind of words about which the evil fairy says, “Don’t worry. Everyone knows what red is, what angry looks like. You can move on to the next sentence now.”

The trick to avoiding ambiguity’s false prompts of self-satisfaction is to recognize its soothing words for what they are: cowardice.

Ambiguity comes from writers not being brave enough to push through the crowd of words that gather around the center of what they’re actually trying to say. And when that evil fairy sees all of those false words clawing out at you, crying “Pick me! Pick me!”, it tells you that you’ve gone far enough, and says, “What’s the point in soldiering on when any of these words will do?”

But it’s all just a lie.

You haven’t reached your goal yet. You can still see, just beyond all those crowding and crying words, the lightning strike at the true center of your idea. You haven’t reached it yet, and you know it because you haven’t felt the wonder of its power surging through your mind, the glorious sensation that we all, as writers, strive for, the sensation that tells you, “Yes, I’ve got it!”

Instead, all you have is a voice — not a sensation, but a voice — telling you that this word or that word is good enough.

Be brave in the face of that voice. Tell it to shut the fuck up. And then turn your back on it and soldier on, not letting up until you capture the lightning.

Grand-Theft Author

T.S. Eliot said, “Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” But the question is, what’s the difference?

When you borrow in writing, you allow the originator to maintain ownership of the idea by providing an allusion to the original text or giving the source as a direct quotation. You let it be known that this idea you’re using, it’s not yours; you’re just borrowing it.

But when you steal in writing, you take the original idea and make it your own. I’m not talking about plagiarism or copyright theft, both of which are unforgivable; instead, I’m talking about letting the original idea marinate inside your soul until it takes on the unique flavor of you.

Let’s put this in musical terms by looking at two different covers of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

The first cover, by Richie Havens, increases the rhythm a little bit, but the song remains essentially the same. Havens borrows the tune from Dylan, rather than stealing it.

Jimi Hendrix, however, steals the song outright.

Comparing Dylan’s version to Hendrix’s for the American Musicological Society, Albin Zak III writes:

There is little in Dylan’s recording of the song—a spare, folklike acoustic rendition—that would seem to have invited either Hendrix’s flamboyant electrified version or its eclectic attitude. Although Hendrix’s “All along the Watchtower” contains all of the song’s basic elements and retains its theme of alienation and apprehension, its affective sense is altogether different. While Dylan’s is a stark glimpse of an overheard fragment reported in the third person, Hendrix’s is wrought in large dramatic gestures in which he, though ostensibly the song’s narrator, appears to have an overtly protagonistic role. In both versions, the song’s characters, a joker and a thief, may be seen as facets of the artist’s persona, two sides of an internal dialogue. But…Dylan’s arrangement imparts an air of detachment, while Hendrix, in deepening the musical problem both sonically and syntactically, situates himself firmly at the center of the song.

In taking on Dylan’s song, Hendrix does not provide a veritable note-for-note remake like Peter, Paul, and Mary’s covers of Dylan’s songs, nor a slightly stylized remake, like Richie Havens. Instead, he takes the song into the core of his being until it becomes his and his alone, a sonic scream that Dylan couldn’t have pulled off in his wildest dreams.

And now when people do covers of “All Along the Watchtower,” they bypass Dylan’s original and aim instead for Hendrix.

Because he stole that song, claimed ownership, made it his. And that’s what makes it great.

You should do the same.

Writing A Fight Sequence

Beginning fiction writers have difficulty expressing the momentum of a high-energy fight sequence without their sentences taking on a breathless pace that is heavy in ellipses and light in detail. They forget that fight sequences require the same richness of language as a passage where their protagonist stares out into the rain.

Take, for an example of a fight sequence done right, the outbreak of the battle for Helm’s Deep from Tolkien’s The Two Towers.

In this scene, an army of Elves and men are fighting a fortified battle against a great host of Orcs, a host as “thick as marching ants.” The Orcs come to a halt before the high walls of Helm’s Deep, and the Elves and men “looked out, as it seemed to them, upon a great field of dark corn, tossed by a tempest of war, and every ear glinted with a barbed light.”

Brazen trumpets sounded. The enemy surged forward, some against the Deepening Wall, others towards the causeway and the ramp that led up to the Hornburg-gates. There the hugest Orcs were mustered, and the wild men of the Dunland fells. A moment they hesitated and then on they came. The lightning flashed, and blazoned upon every helm and shield the ghastly hand of Isengard was seen. They reached the summit of the rock; they drove toward the gates.
Then at last an answer came: a storm of arrows met them, and a hail of stones. They wavered, broke, and fled back; and then charged again, broke and charged again; and each time, like the incoming sea, they halted at a higher point. Again trumpets rang, and a press of roaring men leaped forth. They held their great shields above them like a roof, while in their midst they bore two trunks of mighty trees. Behind them orc-archers crowded, sending a hail of darts against the bowmen on the walls. They gained the gates. The trees, swung by strong arms, smote the timbers with a rending boom. If any men fell, crushed by a stone hurtling from above, two others sprang to take his place. Again and again the great rams swung and crashed.

Beginning writers should note that Tolkien does not abandon the powers of metaphor and simile when the battle begins. The enemy “surges”; the arrows are a “storm” and the stones a “hail”; the enemy takes control of the gates slowly, but fatefully, “like the incoming sea”; they hold their shields above them “like a roof” and send “a hail of darts” against the defenders above the gates.

Tolkien does not narrate the action with objective descriptions; he colors his language with the same mythic vocabulary that he has established over the previous 800 pages of The Lord of the Rings. Trumpets are brazen, lightning is flashing, sigils are ghastly, men are roaring and leaping and springing, trunks are mighty, arms are strong, timbers are smote with rending booms, and great rams swing and crash. As in the previous 800 pages, he keeps the action apparent and his adjectives effusive.

Nor does Tolkien increase or decrease the enthusiasm of his narrator just because this sequence describes a fight rather than a fireside tale. His strategic use of passive sentences in the opening of the passage stalls the onrush of the action, freezing time in a lightning flash to describe the size and sigil of the evil horde, and at the end of the passage, he moves his tense to the subjunctive, posing an “if, then” statement that opens the field of his description from the moment-to-moment action and onto a wider range of time periods, one that covers both the current action and its potential: “If any men fell…, two others sprang to take his place.”

The breathlessness of the beginning writer’s fight sequence is probably due to the influence of cinema. Because a movie camera captures “truth 24 frames-per-second,” beginning writers think their fight sequences have to describe every thrust and parry at the speed of time. They forget the power they have as writers to stop, slow down, and speed up the movement of their world.

If the influence of film is to blame, beginning writers should, perhaps, look to the more cinematically-adventurous fight sequences for inspiration. Directors such as Zack Snyder and The Wachowskis capture in incredible sequences the temporal freedom awarded by poetic license (see this sequence from Snyder’s 300). These directors are doing in film what writers from Tolkien to Homer have long since done with words: freezing time to focus the mind’s eye.

So, beginning writers of fight sequences: stop using ellipses, stop using incomplete sentences, and focus, instead, on capturing the beautiful ballet of battle.

Strategize Your Writing Session

“Write every day” might be the only advice we ever need to hear. The other advice can be great, depending on who’s doing the receiving and what kind of problems they’re facing, but “write every day” is the one piece of advice that is absolutely true for everyone.

But when we sit down at our keyboards, we don’t always know what to write.

And so we sit, we fiddle with items on our desk, we pick fonts and fonts again, we play with our application preferences, and when we’re not doing any of that, we just stare at that blinking cursor.

It’s just one of those days. Our characters don’t want to move; our tension seems like it’s fizzling; and “Oh god, wouldn’t a warm cup of tea taste great right now? Let me just go make that.”

Next thing you know, it’s bedtime, and you haven’t done any writing today.

What you need is a strategy, a set of methods to keep you writing. If “Write every day” is the only advice you need, the second part of that advice is, “(and remember, revising is writing”).

Whenever the wind of inspiration leaves you stranded in the horse latitudes, it’s time to break out your revising strategies and row.

It’s best, on the “bad” days, to focus your writing session on one particular strategy. “Today,” you should tell yourself, “I’m just going to improve the liveliness of my settings.” Then, for the next couple of hours, just scan through your existing text and do exactly that. Don’t pay attention to your character descriptions, or your dialogue, or your plot developments, or anything else. Just focus on your settings.

On the next bad day, tell yourself, “Today, I’m going to fix all my tense errors.” If your draft is of any significant length, fixing the inadvertent errors that sneak into every early draft could take you an hour or more. After all, you’ll have to correct them anyway, so why not correct them today, when the muse is off porking someone else?

There are any number of strategies you can use for a writing session, from improving character descriptions to revising dialogue tags to doing nothing else but improving the first and last paragraphs of each one of your chapters.

It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re writing, and as long as you remember, revising is writing.