A follow-up to yesterday’s post about techniques for focusing on the craft:
I can share two techniques I have employed, that have brought me moderate success. The first is to outline. I recently started using a word processing program, Scrivener, intended for creative writing. It’s a fantastic program that integrates outlining (on a virtual corkboard, if you prefer) and makes it much easier to find your place in a long piece of writing. As I’ve grown accustomed to the program, I’ve become more flexible with my writing style. Instead of writing in sequence, for instance, I’ll pick whatever scene appeals to me most at the time and write that, figuring I’ll connect the dots later.
I know some writers don’t like to outline because they want the story to “grow organically” or “let the characters decide where to go.” This is a very romantic notion that I don’t personally feel is compatible with professional writing. The time to let my characters wander free is when the story is first gelling in my mind, and maybe while I’m writing the first 90 pages. By the time I have determined that this piece of writing will reach novel length, I want to be able to see the plot, or a rough sketch of it at least, from beginning to end. I will add here that my outlines are loose enough to allow for a fair amount of flexibility, and I do typically make at least three substantial revisions to the outline as I’m writing.
The second technique is simply to write. Hopefully you’ve heard this one before. The best way to break through a block is to make yourself write. Just sit down, pick up the pen or the keyboard, and hack. It might take an hour to write a single page, but usually once I’ve done that, pages two and three come faster and easier. There are certainly days when every word, from the first to the last, feels like a molar being pulled, but more often that first difficult page leads to 3 or 4 pages that flow more organically.
One technique I avoid, mostly out of fear, is to move from one project to another. For most of my youth, which was largely spent in front of a word processor, I had three to five active fiction projects and would flit from one to another as whim struck. The trouble with that approach was that it was difficult to keep the mood and tone of one project consistent, and tough to remember plot and story. It also meant that each project took far, far longer to finish – and many were never finished at all, but abandoned as I lost interest.
Now, at least when I’m working on a first draft, I like to focus on one project until I feel like I have “finished” it. It seems to me a more professional approach – after all, you don’t see contractors building fifteen houses at once, hammering whatever nail has most recently grabbed their interest. You work on one until it’s finished, and while you’re building the next, you can sell that first house.
I’m certainly open to discussion, though. If I’ve learned nothing else recently, I’ve learned that I’m not right all the time. Do you move from project to project successfully? Have you tried my first two techniques and disagree? Do you have other approaches that work better?