Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Madwoman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge--the personalities of writing

This week my internship brought me to the Writing Staycation at the Writer's Center of Bethesda, where my supervisor, Zahara Heckscher, is leading a dedicated group of writers on a 9-5 retreat with the goal of sharing ideas, considering mission and goals of writing, and most importantly getting some words down on the page.

While I'm there to perform a number of internship duties (the staff at Trader Joe's are becoming familiar with me) and to assist with the Staycation--which has included the chance to talk shop and exchange advice with the 2 or 3 science fiction writers at the retreat--Z is also fantastically supportive of my own writing, and has given me a lot of time to concentrate on my work in between other tasks. Because my primary goal for this year, getting One Hundred Days revised and out to agents, has been nowhere near complete, I decided to use this time making edits rather than writing new fiction.

The first day, Monday, I edited one short story completely and wrote 1100 words of a new one. No work at all on One Hundred Days.

When we had our roundtable lunch Tuesday, I brought up my editing woes and asked if anyone had any tips. Lots of commiseration resulted--generally citing figures like '6 months to write, 3 years to edit.' Aqua Vitae was written in 2 months and took 3 years of editing, including removing and adding new material. Adding new material was always the easiest part. One Hundred Days was written in 6 months and so far has taken 3 years of editing. I wondered how National Novel Editing Month participants manage it, until I looked the challenge up. The goal isn't actually to edit an entire novel in a month, but just to put in 50 hours of revision. But of course, I was hoping for more than agreement that editing is hard. I wanted to learn a way to make it easy.

Then Zahara asked another participant if she remembered what they'd discussed earlier in the day.

"Oh, yes, how did it go? -Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge."

I looked between them, wondering if this was a major misunderstanding of a John Le Carre novel or its recent film. But no, it has nothing to do directly with Tinker Tailor or with the Mad Men TV series--unless screenwriters experience these states, too, which they probably do. Mad(wo)man, Architect, Carpenter, and Judge are modes of approaching your writing, and each person will experience them in a different proportion and with different feelings for each.

Madwoman-- "The muse is riding me," I say to explain this one. As if I'm a car, or a horse, or perhaps demonically possessed. The "Madwoman" has the inspiration side of the inspiration, perspiration equation.

Zahara makes a hobby of asking writers, especially professionals, how much of their work is produced through this fun, creative fugue and how much is...well, work. The answer is always heavier to the side of hard work, with inspiration being less than 30%, and sometimes 0% (yes, zero, nothing, nada) of a writer's career.

My own answer would be at least 25% inspiration/madness, 75% hard work. This doesn't reflect the amount of time I'm actually inspired--sometimes when I'm inspired I don't get the chance to write because of scheduling (and that can lead to a different sort of madness) and often months pass by without a good strong bout of inspiration. But when it does come, I can get massive amounts of writing done.

Two ready examples are the writing and revision of Aqua Vitae, and a short story I wrote while in Ghana. Aqua Vitae's original 15,000 word draft came out in 3 weeks or so, a pace which shocked and delighted the newbie writer I was then. Revisions took, as I've said, far longer, although I got a massive boot to the bum from the insightful reviews I received through the Critters sci-fi critique group. The feedback and suggestions got me to do the final revisions over the course of one summer. This included a point at which I realized a lot needed fleshing out. I added 3 new chapters, about 9,000 words, in 3 days. Then I had to revise the new additions, which took the next 2 or 3 months. I'm only exaggerating a little.

More recently, and with no exaggeration at all:  I had a remarkable Easter Sunday, 2013, at Mole Park in Ghana. It started at 7 am with a safari. I could wax lyrical about elephants, antelope, and the troop of baboons, but that's not what this essay is about. Suffice to say it was a busy morning.

When we returned from the safari, I sat in my motel room meaning to take a nap. But instead, I wound up picking up a notebook and started drafting a story idea that had followed me for the past week, ever since my class took a nature hike along a polluted, indeed a 'dead,' river and waterfall. The story incorporates some characters I've been carrying around for over a year as well, and between the shiny new idea, the familiar protagonists, and something more...maybe the environment, the relative peace, my lack of access to the Internet, the Muse coming down from the heavens, I just kept writing. I carried my notebook out to the motel pool and wrote there, with the help of a cool beverage (non-alcoholic, indeed Milk Malts are far more interesting than any alcoholic drink ever could be). I took a break for the afternoon safari, which got rained on, but that wasn't a problem as the cool water was a blessing. I wrote on the restaurant porch until dinner, at which point the sun set. No problem, I'd write by electric lights.

The motel at Mole lost power. It didn't regain it for the rest of our time there. As we finished dinner, the staff thoughtfully distributed candles and matches for us. I found that it was fair easier to write by candlelight than I expected. With my story almost complete, but a wind rising that made my candle flame flicker, not to mention turned pages most annoyingly, I got up to go back to my room. On the way, I looked up and saw a sky crowded with brilliant stars. The image was so beautiful it even terrified me. I returned to my room, encouraged my roommate to go out and look at the heavens, set the candle down and wrote another page. The stars haunted me. I went out to gaze at them. The absolute darkness on earth made them gleam as if they were close enough to touch. I was standing out in a clear spot, not far from the edge of the ridge the motel rested on, and while I was mindful not to stumble too far in one direction lest I fall off, the sight above me as so disorienting that I began to worry about falling up more than down. I thought of the 19th century romantics and realized maybe they weren't so crazy after all.

Then I returned and finished the story, by candlelight, at around 8 pm. I'd written 7500 words that day. Without missing a safari, and despite losing light and air conditioning. I think that's a wonderful sort of madness.

[Page 13 of 18, and a Milk Malt]


Architect--So much for inspiration. Now for the rest of it--for the working part of writing. While the Madwoman just produces, the Architect drafts and designs stories. She's a planner, an outliner.

Logically, I know outlining is essential to the success of any story. But I can't convince my gut that it's really writing. Which is perhaps why I find it so much fun. I outline stories before I begin them, while I'm in the middle of them, and when they're done (then as part of the dreaded writing of the synopsis, which if it really is just an outline with storytelling flavor, perhaps shouldn't be so dreadful after all).

Architects are also editors, going over the finished story and decide if scenes are out of order, missing, or extraneous. This aspect of story architecture is not as much fun for me, especially because when I dictate that scene needs to be moved, removed, or rewritten, I know exactly who has to do it down the line.

Carpenter--the Architect makes the blueprint, the Carpenter hammers in the nails. And gets battered thumbs for her trouble. The Carpenter is the one who rewrites sentences, cuts & pastes, does that dreadful bit where you have to search and find every example of an overused word and remove 50% of them, rereads trouble paragraphs until her brain goes numb, and basically commits all the drudgery that makes a story worth reading.

It's really satisfying to fix a problem sentence here or there, and I love the Track Changes strikethrough as I hunt down pleonasms (as Alan Guthrie would want me to), but...to do that over an entire story?

I don't like being a carpenter.

Judge--the Judge is the last of the editorial roles. After the Carpenter shapes the Architect's vision, which makes sense of the Madwoman's creation, the Judge is the one who reviews each line and fixes or improves the use of language.

Judges are in love with words. I am in love with words. I enjoy weighing and balancing, deciding and choosing, picking out the right words for a given sentence. I enjoy it so much that I'm guilty of giving overpassionate line-by-line critiques of other people's works. Although I've also received many compliments for my critiques and my work as both an Architect and Judge (I credit myself with helping at least one friend edit her way into publication, to say nothing of my editorial clients). Both the large-scale vision and the small-scale polishing can become an almost meditative exercise. Ever since I was a kid I could get lost in a piece of writing, all the more so when I'm allowed to share my thoughts on it and help make it that little bit better. But when you're beta-reading someone else's work, you get to do the jobs of the Architect and the Judge while they're the one who does the Carpentry. There's also a lot less pressure--I can make whatever Judgements I like, in the end it's not on my head what the writer chooses to do, or how the story turns out. Except when it's my story. Then it's all on me.

And I have to go get the hammer.


Learning this about myself might not cure my editorial woes, but at least I've pinpointed where the problem is--the basic paragraph-by-paragraph drudgery of fixing obvious problems and picking nits in the prose. Lunch was wrapping up, so I didn't have time to compare among the group and see who else finds Carpentry to be their bugbear, and who, if anyone, actually enjoys it (and if so what their secret is and/or their drug of choice). That may be a discussion for the coming days. For now, I'm hoping diagnosis is the first step towards a cure. If not that, at least I can console myself by remembering I still enjoy 75% of my roles as a writer (even if I don't spent 75% of my time on them).

Exciting update 3/2014: The information from this essay--plus much more--can now be found in The Starter Guide for Professional Writers, a step-by-step handbook through completing, editing, publishing, and marketing your writing!