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Am I Following the Rules?

Thursday, April 23, 2009
I'm in the process of (slowly) writing a novel, one I've wanted to write for years. I got off to a decent start I think, writing 2 chapters in 2 months - not bad for somebody who has a full-time job and only has about an hour a day free, I think. Unfortunately I have not maintained that pace and lately I've felt a bit stuck.

I've been letting Brazen Hussy take a look at each chapter as they're finished, and while the first one looked fine, the second one needed a lot of work. I realized that I had to do a major revision of one of my 2 major characters , which required a lot of background research. That resulted in an entirely new second chapter (the previous second chapter became the fourth), which I have a first cut of and am currently making a second version. Then I realized that the changes required a re-thinking of my other major character, which required more research and a few revisions of the first chapter. Generally I've been allowing myself one major edit for each chapter before I move forward, but I've been spending an awful lot of time on these first two because they introduce all the major themes of the book and set the tone for the rest. It doesn't have to be perfect (far from it), but I want it "good enough".

The upside of this extra work is that I think the beginning of the book is shaping up quite nicely. The downside is that I've spent so much time on minor edits and background research, as well as just a lot of thinking, that the actual process of putting words to paper has gotten pretty difficult. I suppose in a way I'm just out of practice. Also, I've been working on this for almost six months (!) and only have about 70 pages, which seems like a glacial pace.

Which brings me to something I stumbled across today from this website:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.
— E. L. Doctorow (1931– ), author of The Book of Daniel

Heinlein's Modified Rules for Writing
1. You must write frequently.
2. You must finish what you write in a reasonable amount of time.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
6. You must start work on something else immediately.
— Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988), author of Stranger in a Strange Land

I've clearly been violating Doctorow's rules, and I'm concerned that I've also been breaking rules 1, 2, and most especially 3. So my question - do you think I'm doing it wrong? Or is my current method just a more deliberate way of writing?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:59 AM
  • I'm not absolutely positive about this, so don't think I'm trying to claim expertise in this matter. But I believe I read somewhere once that you are not supposed to edit the 1st draft hardly at all. You are supposed to get it down as quickly as you can, then go back and fool with it.

    I think the point of that is to get the story out. You can continue to fiddle and revise, make major edits. But the first draft is supposed to be just pushing the story out.

    Isn't that how NaNoWriMo came about? To get everyone to just put all those words down to begin with?

    I do have to say I would probably do it the same way as you have been. And I know I've also read somewhere that an outline goes a long way to preventing writer's block because you aren't just staring at a blank sheet wondering where to go every day.

    And then, of course, there's that whole "just open a vein thing".

    So there does seem to be some variation in the "rules". In any case, I wish you the very best of luck with it!

    By Blogger Rebecca, at 11:44 AM  
  • Rules were made to be broken.

    I don't know crap about writing fiction, but Paul Silvia's "How to Write A Lot" has been useful to me for working on academic writing. He considers anything related to getting the writing done to be "Writing." This includes research, outlining, editing, etc.

    Having said that, I live with you and I know how obsessive you can get. You do need to focus more on getting the words out now and editing later!

    By Blogger Dr. Brazen Hussy, at 1:30 PM  
  • Writing doesn't have any rules; that's why it's so unsettling and tough. You can't fuck it up (you can produce crappy writing, but that's different).

    And Heinlein wrote to support himself on the money. Meaning, he had to pump out X words at Y cents a word per day in order to make rent and beer money. If writing for the pulps isn't your job and main way of supporting yourself, you don't have to follow his guides.

    Do what works for *you.* The hard part of that is that you're going to have to be honest with yourself about what works, not just what's easiest and comes most naturally.


    By Blogger Sisyphus, at 8:16 PM  
  • I'm not a writer, but I am a painter. And while a painting probably doesn't take as long as writing a novel, I imagine some of the creative process runs parallel. These are my thoughts: Research, prep-work, layouts, sketches, are no painting, but they are often necessary steps to completing a painting.

    And I would tend to agree with the not taking too much time to perfect small parts as you go along. You'll get more out of it, and improve more by doing a lot of really bad work than working one piece to death... Point being, you'll probably write better if you write a lot. It might be rough at first, but just keep going. You can always fix it later. Also, isn't that what editors are for?

    Oh, and 2 people stating rules for a creative process are not making rules. There is nothing to break there. There is no consequence for breaking rules that aren't real. The creative process is different for everyone, I think rules are dumb for the creative process.

    All you need to watch out for is cause and effect. If you write a lot, you will have something written. If you don't write, you wont have anything...

    I possibly have no idea what I am talking about.

    By Blogger Jesse, at 10:40 PM  
  • From your description, your existing rewrites are important. If your characters are well drawn (yes!) then you'll be on track. I'd suggest sketching out your characters elsewhere and then building them from those pieces as you need to? Does that make any sense?

    Who gets to decide 'reasonable'?

    By Blogger Belle, at 11:02 PM  
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