Because not writing at all leads to nothing

A few weeks back, Lisa pulled a bit of the newspaper out and left it for me to read. It was an interview with Anna Quindlen, and Lisa had marked one question and answer in particular.

Question: Do you ever have writer’s block?

Answer: Some days I fear writing dreadfully, but I do it anyway. I’ve discovered that sometimes writing badly can eventually lead to something better. Not writing at all leads to nothing.

Today I’ve been diligently, dare I say desperately, struggling to finish Episode 8 of my fantasy serial. I so, so, so, wanted to call this thing finished. I have, therefore, been pounding the keyboard pretty much all day since shortly after 8:00AM. It is now just past 5:00PM as I put these words together. Alas, my brain is now moving into that numb state where I am merely kind of slinging words around, so I believe this story will remain in its state of incomplete for one more day.

We shall see.

Perhaps the evening will bring additional energy.

If you’ve followed along during my meandering posts for any real time, you’ll know this particular episode has been a total pain. You’ll know that I’ve “finished” it twice before, but not been very happy with it either time. Writing is like that. I mean, trust me, I believe totally in the whole idea behind Heinlein’s rules of not editing something once you’re finished, but I also think one has to take a pragmatic approach to deciding when to call something finished to begin with.

Life is too short to let go of a piece of work that you know has not yet achieved what you were trying to say, and unfortunately the essence of this story only came to me in stages (which is, let me tell you, a very painful way to receive a story).

I knew from the very beginning, for example, the base events that were going to occur in Episode 8. They came to me immediately upon finishing Episode 7 (Lord of the Freeborn). In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that this episode was created by the one before it. But when I finished the first draft of Episode 8, it just kind of sat there for me.

When I complete a story I usually get a little kick at the end, a little buzz in the back of my head that says that even if the story in question never goes anywhere else, the thing is good for me. But it wasn’t there this time.

I didn’t like it. It didn’t feel right.

So I pondered over it until it struck me that the piece didn’t really have anything to say. I mean, it was supposed to have something to say, but I didn’t feel it.

It was only then that I was hit by the obvious, and it was time to go back and redraft.

So I did.

I did not want to do it. I wanted it to be done. And in the middle of all this, life kept rising up and taking time, and it would have been so much easier to just say it was done and move on. I started and stopped several times. I threw away words (again). There were days where I did not want to work on it at all (and some where I could not work on it very much). But I wrote anyway.

It took two or three weeks. And then …

It still, it didn’t feel right.

Yes, it said something. but … man, oh man … it just didn’t say it very well. At least I didn’t think it said it very well, anyway. At best I thought it was a sledge-hammer upside the head. At worst it felt trite. Or smug. And I don’t think trite or smug works for this piece. It’s meant to be a fantasy, you know? And then I went for a walk and talked it out. And in talking it out I decided that my “validation” character had to be totally redone.

When it hit, I was like … well, duh, Ron. That’s a very annoying feeling. Seriously. Why couldn’t I have discovered this a long time ago? But that is a loser’s question, I suppose. The answer lies, perhaps, in the difference between art and engineering, the difference between invention and design. Let’s not go there for fear of lost sanity.

So it was time to redraft again.

Two and a half more weeks.

Sure, some of it was fun, but mostly I admit that my enjoyment at this stage came not from actually doing the work, but more as a result of giving the characters the respect they needed from me. I did it because to not do it would have led to a metaphorical nothing, and because I felt that, after all this time together, I owed these characters their due.

So, here we are. It’s almost done.

And I am 99.9% certain this will be “it”–at least for the basic story. It feels right now, anyway (though it remains the artist’s prerogative to change their mind, correct?). I will, of course go through my standard line edit pass, and then I’ll read it out loud as I do pretty much everything I “finish” now. But I think it’s in the form that it will be in when it’s published.

Heck, it even has a title (which I’ve decided in my own arbitrary style) to reveal only when I’m actually finished with it. “Episode 8” has been a worthy opponent. I shall continue to call it such until it is wrangled down.

I cannot tell you, though, how much I’m looking forward to moving on.

So, I’m sitting here this afternoon, brain-mashed and zoning and thinking about how stories come to me and thinking about Anna Quindlen’s words, and I’m struck again by the idea of what it means to throw away a draft and start over. It feels so wasteful, you know? By my very unscientific count I have probably written (or rewritten) about 140,000 words in the process of creating what will probably finish at about 20,000 words of prose.

Why couldn’t I have just sat down and done those last 20,000?

Could I have just waited until the whole thing gelled for me?

Possibly. Who can say, right? I mean, stories are weird. I have had them come to me in single, glorious, rapid-fire drafts before. Maybe this one would have, too. Perhaps waiting around would have led me to this crisper piece that I’m now growing to love in its own way.

But I doubt it.

Instead, I think that if I had not written the 120,000 not-so-good words that proceeded the 20,000 I will hold onto (or at least the 120,000 words I didn’t like very much), that it would much more likely have led to nothing at all.

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