Clearly, writing and editing are not separate aspects of writing as process, even if it appears that way when teaching students about writing. Indeed, as mentioned in my previous post, research and writing and editing are recursive and reflective activities. Having identified that some characters lack depth or currently display a lack of conflict (either within themselves or with others), I began free writing short scenes to add depth. I reverted to longhand. I found it quite satisfying to quickly gauge my achievement for the day, especially as I tend to format dialogue and paragraphs so there are often many pages. However, the expectation of a set goal in word count or writing time is more difficult when editing a whole chapter, or considering a whole novel.
Since my writing break after completing the second draft, I have struggled to return to a fairly rigid daily writing routine. Reading, with close attention to emotional revelations by characters was helpful, as was highlighting my scenes for emotion. Imagine my delight when ‘In Defense of Slow Writing‘ by Michelle Richmond (shared in an online writing group) seemed to articulate my difficulty in resuming regular writing:
If your goal as a writer is simply to be productive, you will always let yourself down. If your goal is to do your best work, you will be a much better, more genuine writer. Maybe what we need, to go along with slow food and slow living, is a slow writing movement.
It made sense to me to take the time, now, in the editing and shaping stage to let things settle, to allow changes to percolate down and coalesce. I found this slowing down approach also triggered ideas that had me reading back through my research notes and incorporating details into my writing. This back and forth between fiction and fact deepened my understanding of what I’m trying to achieve.
‘In Defense of Slow Writing’ contained an activity was taken from 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Writing Challenge. So, I signed up and received a daily writing prompt. For me, it went something like this:
Day 1 – start before you’re ready
Write for ten minutes in response to this sentence starter prompt: I want to write a novel about _____________ because …
This freed me up to consider wider implications of my key themes and I realised the timeframe for Woven is quite tight. Why does it take place over several months? It could actually encompass the whole length of the Second world War, rather than just the beginning. Even though this would make some chapters redundant, they seem quite weak now and require a deeper edit than my original idea of simply removing a few characters and scenes.
Day 2 – what does your character want most? Write a scene in which the character fears that they will never obtain that desire.
Building on my expanded understanding of what I’m actually writing about, I identified that Ruby wants a family, a sense of belonging. This led me to begin with a series of ideas in how this desire could be suggested in scenes already existing in my opening chapters before I began writing a scene where Ruby is part of a sewing circle. I realised that Ruby is surrounded by women, usually older, and is both interested, but ashamed of, her desire in men – does she long to be a woman with her own family?
Day 3 – cultivate curiosity: list 10 things you’d like to know more about. Choose one and write a series of questions you have about this subject. Spend 30 minutes researching the topic online. find one book that will help you develop a deeper understanding.
I chose to more fully investigate the life of women in the 1930s. Yes, I’ve taught History in junior high school, and watched films and read novels of the period. But now that Ruby will spend more time in the suburban world rather than the welfare institution world, I wanted to check what she might do with her time when not working. Fortunately, the entertaining ABC TV Further Back in Time for Dinner will also provide context.
Day 4 – add a new thread to your story: find a way to incorporate something from yesterday’s research into what you’re writing.
Continuing with my work in building emotional depth in my characters, I chose to write a scene set at a Christmas dance where Ruby learns that Jack has a violent reaction to his older brother’s behaviour.
Day 5 – slow writing.
I felt a little let down as this was essentially the same exercise that had me interested in the whole notion of ‘failure’ from Richmond’s article. What happened, though, was that I chose to capture some of the conversation topics and my emotional response to a few comments that had occurred in my beginner’s crochet class. There really is nothing quite like capturing authentic dialogue, or at least my memory of what was said. It led me to consider the internal pressure to behave in an acceptable way within a small group of women.
Day 6 – do something you’re not good at in terms of your writing, or take this beyond writing. Try something new.
This was really quite annoying and I chose to spend time perfecting my crochet stitches. Had I developed a level of complacency that each day of the failure challenge would serve up a prompt or activity that actually helped my writing? Maybe I should have focused more on some aspect, but I felt that everything about my writing is under scrutiny now. And this Covid year (in particular) has been all about ‘trying something new’. I did spend some of this crocheting time thinking of a name for the sewing circle that Ruby joins.
Day 7 – strip away the inessential for one week and commit to finishing the work that matters to you.
I finished the sentence: The work that matters to me is getting this novel back on track by editing the first five chapters so I can submit my application for a mentorship opportunity.
I have actually worked quite hard at removing those things that no longer serve me in the lead up to my year off, while gardening and sewing give me time to let ideas settle. For me, it’s about breaking up the day into different activities for my body’s physical benefit. There is a deadline for the application process – nothing like a little external pressure.
Day 8 – resubmit a rejected story or novel.
Impossible. Hasn’t happened yet. I took this to mean keep working on the mentorship application.
Day 9 – grasp the nettle you’ve been avoiding by considering what it is you’ve been avoiding in your writing life.
I translated this to: It’s okay to fail at a failure challenge. Seriously. Isn’t it?
Then I clicked on the link at the end of the email titled ‘3 Rules of Writing the Workshops Get Wrong‘. These ‘rules’ were a pleasant surprise and allowed me to further tease out some writing dilemmas. Essentially, Richmond discussed genre, sentimentality and why ‘show don’t tell’ is a simplistic admonition. Sentimentality and telling are two hurdles I’m dealing with in my editing process (I hope).
Day 10 – write for one reader because if you write to please a million people, you may never reach a single one.
Ah hah. Timely advice. It seems obvious, but giving this some thought is quite beneficial and has meant I can continue with more clarity. I write for myself, and if pushed, I write for my sister. We both like fiction that features competent, responsible women across different genres like crime and history. That’s what I read when I want to escape and that’s what I want to write.
*image: postcard from Newcastle Art Gallery – Bill Henson, Untitled, 1994-95, photograph.