Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hysterical Accuracy

by Brenda Carre

Do you write to a deadline or do deadlines scare you? Do you make meeting deadlines into a writer's tool, or do you avoid them like the plague?

Writing fast can be terrifying, breathless and an amazing experience. In my opinion, the first draft should always be this way. You can always go back and clean up the manuscript later. Your first draft is all about belief in yourself. It's about writing to deadline, doing it fast and setting aside worries about historical accuracy for a time.

Deadline might mean one we put on ourselves. I know many writers who set a daily word count for themselves or a weekly one. I know a number of people who write a short story a week. They say it's a practical way to build the writerly muscle. To build trust in oneself and oust fear.
More about this later.

Deadline might also mean writing a 7000 word short story in a week because you had a story proposal accepted by an editor while you were on vacation in Europe and needed to deliver the not-yet-written story in ten days. Which is what happened to me last month. Being away from most of my avenues of research, I panicked. For about an hour. Then I got down to business and set my course.

I reasoned I'd need to do 1000 words a day. Easily doable since I was already journal writing more than that daily anyway. I determined where and when I would be able to write. For me this involved an iPad, the seat of a moving car, or bus, or train and breakfast rooms where I wrote steamy scenes of romance whilst other guests sat and ate their toast and sipped their tea or in the venue of train or bus, watched scenery roll past outside their windows.

It was a challenge, but more, it was a need to do what I might, a year ago, have said was impossible. To write for publication, to deadline, with limited internet, limited time, and the distractions of travel. I had to ignore the protests of family members.

Them: "But you're on vacation!"

Me: "I'm a writer. I'm still on vacation; it just took a detour, that's all."

I fought with myself over the necessity for historical accuracy and determined that my need right then was to write the story and worry about research in the second draft, if needed. I remembered the words of Cherie Priest regarding historical accuracy when writing steampunk: "Steampunk needs historical accuracy like a dirigible needs a fish." Though I was not writing Steampunk, I did reason that to have two people making love aboard a fifteenth century war ship did not involve historical accuracy but an understanding that the mood is more the thing. In fact, had I included historical accuracy, it would have produced a tale more hysterical than romantic given the lack of room and privacy aboard said ship.

Over the period of a week I wrote from the gut. I finished my story feeling like I had just taken a roller coaster ride. I did a second pass to edit and sent it in, meeting my deadline one day early.

How? I set my editor aside. I told myself it didn't have to be good, it just had to be finished. I turned off the inner voice that says, "You can't write that...because," and just let the story unfold as it wanted to. In short I didn't worry about grammar, punctuation or usage because I trusted in my ability as a storyteller to communicate what was right at any given time and let the story and the characters have their own way.

They did.

They surprised me as always. They had opinions, they fought, they experienced life through all their senses and they took me along for the ride.

They filled in everything for me.

Characters are setting. Characters are conflict. Good setting comes to life through the opinions of the operating characters. And, surprisingly, their opinions dictated sentence structure, punctuation, voice and a whole bunch of other things that would have been dashed right out of my story if my editorial mind had gotten in my way.

So, again, I ask you, how do you deal with deadlines?


M.M. Bennetts said...

You're talking about several different things here. The writing to deadline and/or writing well to deadline is an issue every journalist must master. Or lose his/her job. It's that simple. Having worked as a book critic for a couple of decades, I can tell you there never was a time--at least not in living memory--where there was a nice editor who'd fix one's prose and print. It had to arrive perfect. And if it didn't, it didn't get printed. So yes, a certain number of all-nighters plus an ability to write or at least think through the phrasing and structure whilst doing just about anything is an entirely necessary skill.

Writing a novel and researching are a different kettle of soup though. As an author of highly accurate historical fiction--well, I will have done masses of research before I ever switch on the iMac. I will have a timeline of all the pertinent events with who was where, battles fought, ships calmed off Harwich, everything. But the perfectionism of all those years of journalism remains so whilst I might write stream of consciousness when I'm blocking out a scene in a notebook, that gets turned into proper prose for the first draft. And first draft is a misnomer anyway. I write, edit and rewrite every chapter, page by page, paragraph by paragrah, until it's print-perfect before I even let my editor, Red Pen, see it--probably it will have gone through 12-20 edits before it's seen by anyone besides self. And then, even then--up until it goes to press--if I find some error in the historical accuracy, I will rewrite and emend.

Jemi Fraser said...

I've never had to write for a real deadline. (Hopefully that will change one day!) I have done Nano a few times and that gives me a similar feeling - my competitive nature won't let me not win. It's exhilerating writing a first draft letting it all fly out of my fingers. Love that feeling!

Christopher Hudson said...

After spending most of my business career writing to deadlines, my current opinion of them is that if I ever have to cross another line, I'll be dead.

Brenda Carre said...

I will not comment on the nature of editors. Not the point of this post. Nor will I comment on the innate ability of the mind to think through phrasing and structure as we write. However, I will say that it is my belief that once we have a decent toolbox of writing skills, that we should trust them while writing the first draft. I have no problem with the process of gathering historical information pertinent to the topic either. A lot of first draft writing is in the preparation. I did mine before I left for Europe, just in case...

What we do in the clean-up stage of writing is equally important to the outcome of the project. Teeing off editors with a sloppy draft is never a good idea. However, I will state again, first draft is not about teeing off editors, it's about getting it done and giving yourself the opportunity to do what you do best and with pleasure. Tell a story. If you aren't doing this then why are you writing?

Leslie Rose said...

I have to impose deadlines on myself because that's what starts the creative adrenaline flowing. I do my best when I'm like Indiana Jones reaching under the falling wall for my hat. My best work in grad. school was done between 2:00-8:00am on the day an assignment was due.

Tracey Wood said...

I'm more manic. I tend to have periods of thought (time to blog and read and self-flagellate)then write like crazy. Different if I'm working with an editor of course -she says "jump," I say, "how high?") -but in the creative phase I'm one wild woman.

carol said...

Writing isn't my "day" job, so the only way I finished 2 novels in my "spare" time was to self-impose deadlines. I approached my writing time/output like a second job.For me the challenge is to find the balance so the deadlines don't take the fun and joy out of writing.

M.M. Bennetts said...

The processes of the breathless happy writing experience and all that--these often or usually change after one is published, publishing regularly, and authorship becomes one's profession. It's a job. No, it's not like any other job. Yes, one is constantly pulling rabbits out of hats, metaphorically speaking--that's the job. Yes, there is exhilaration, but it's more likely to be associated with something coming particularly 'right' and much better than one hoped. And quite possibly, the scope for just writing a love scene or any kind of scene for that matter and going with the flow depends more or less on how closely to the historical facts one is sticking. I would imagine there wasn't a lot of scope for it in, say, Hilary Mantel's work, "Wolf Hall" (the Booker, Orange and Scott prize winner) but there may be a great deal more opportunity for it in say, Elizabeth Chadwick's work. I can't say for certain though, I don't know either of them personally.