Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writing Method

How long can a writer be away from a work without losing momentum to finish it?

That depends, of course, on the writer and the work. It also depends in part on the writing method. If you know exactly what comes next in a novel -- in other words, if you're an outliner -- perhaps you can leave a work for months and then pick up where you left off with no trouble. Or perhaps not -- I'm no outliner, and so wouldn't know. My working method (and I hesitate to dignify it with that term) consists of feeling my way through a novel by a combination of (1) becoming the characters to figure out what they will do, (2) visualizing no more than two scenes ahead of where I am now, while simultaneously craning my metaphorical neck for glimpses of some eventual end, and (3) blind luck.

This method does not lend itself well to leaving a novel-in-progress for long periods, and I have been away from mine for over six weeks. A week to prepare for Clarion by reading, line-editing, and wiriting critiques of student stories; one week teaching Clarion; a week to prepare for Taos Toolbox; two weeks of teaching at Taos; a week of picking up by normal life and writing several neglected small commitments (an Appreciation of Connie Willis for the WFC program book; proofing a book for e-Pub; stuff).

Six weeks is too long. I have lost the momentum, forgotten where my complex cast of characters each is located and what they're doing, slipped out of identification with my heroine. So I've had to do what I never have done before with a novel: start over. Each chapter must be read, thought about, revised. Slowly the book is coming back to me. Again, this is not just a matter of mental reminder, but of emotional investment.

It causes me to question, though: How do writers like Connie Willis and George R.R. Martin, who write a novel over a period of YEARS, manage to do it?


Mark Andrew Edwards said...

I don't think there's any other way than the way you're doing it. You have to read your previous work and get into 'the groove' again.

Good luck, I'm sure you'll get it back.

EA Hirsch said...

I'm so glad you took the time to come to CW and teach. It was awesome. But oh, six weeks is a very long time to be away from a piece of work. I think I would be in the same position you are, and I do outlines. Getting back into the world, the character's heads, the tone of the story...all that stuff gets lost. I find that if I go even a week without working on a piece (and its worse with short stories) then it takes me a good while to get back inside. But as Mark said: Good luck!

L. S. King said...

I agree with Mark's advice and good luck! :)

Bryan H. Bell said...

I'm a reader, not a writer. But I think what you describe is more universal than a writer's dilemma. It's difficult for humans to "change worlds". If I return to reading a book I hadn't finished earlier and enough time has passed, it can be tough to get back into its world. Sometimes I have to re-read the previous chapter. Sometimes I have to just start over.

Bryan H. Bell said...

Also, think about how difficult it is for people to get back into work mode after a vacation. My personal rule for that has always been: the amount of time you were gone is the amount of time it takes to get back into work mode.

Jim McClanahan said...

What a fascinating revelation. When reading a story with a complex scenario(s), I often stop to imagine the thought process used by the author. And I always assume that the author has had a specific ending in mind all along. So the trick is just to flesh out the detials and keep the reader in suspense. What a surprise to see that you just do it "commando" style. Or maybe that's Indiana Jones style, i.e., "I'm just making this up as I go!"

In any case, it reveals a much more focused mind than I could ever strive to attain. Kudos.

Thom said...

I still wonder how long form writers can even do what they do. I spent my career writing television--highly outlined, under deadline, and no looking back. It was hard enough keeping 56 pages straight, even with an outline. How, oh how, do you balance 100,000 words?