Lost in Ways

You can read that title over and over, stressing a different word each time, and find the glimmer of another meaning. Even within a single word, the intonation could be subtly altered, and so too would the meaning be altered. I suppose that’s the purpose of punctuation, but they’re never quite right in a title. Besides, I love a bit of ambiguity.

We all have our own processes when we write. I have mine, which I share, but recognise they’re not for everyone. I have my way, and you each have yours. The reason for sharing is I enjoy the possibility my process might help someone else, but it’s far from the only way to write. I won’t run over it in length, but the short version is brainstorm, make notes, think lots, write by hand, listen to music, repeat as necessary. It all varies and is flexible, but it’s enough of a regular thing to be mostly instinctual.

Well, that’s one of the processes – the one that happens when it comes to writing first drafts. When it comes to editing (well, a second draft), which for me tends to be reading what I wrote before and writing a new version, I’m not so agile. I would think about what I wanted to change, then start changing it. That was that. In doing it this way, I’d make notes (that would be constantly referred to), and that would be my baseline for what I had to alter. It was all quite rigid.

Years ago, while working on one of my ‘someday’ novels, I went through the process of editing a chapter, and had it perfect (as far as I was concerned at the time though in hindsight it probably wasn’t). I had it saved to the USB stick I’d always work on. If you don’t know where this is going, STOP READING RIGHT NOW AND MAKE A BACKUP OF YOUR WRITING!!!

Ahem. Well that killed that. I was so stuck in my process, lost in the mire of ways I’d told myself had to be followed to the letter, that I lost all momentum and believed I’d never be able to get it right again.

In working on my current novel, a funny thing happened. Through the course of the editing process, I’d think of new ideas or concepts. I was going through, planning the pacing of new stuff, revelations of older stuff, that kind of thing. I had notes and bits in my head, all about what was going to be changed and how it was going to avoid plot holes and build characters and things like that.

Yet unlike that first story, I know this one better. It’s not that I lived it for longer, but I wrote more for it and worked on it harder. It’s not quite second nature, but my knowledge of my own setting (that I can recall without notes) rivals what I know about Star Wars. Just quietly, that’s no mean feat.

I’ve had big plans for the setting in question, and worked on it on/off for longer than the current novel. Recently at the first writing-group meetup of the year, I rattled off all these different plots and ideas from the setting that I still remembered as though they were a memorised favourite from my childhood. In a way, they were. Returning to the first process I used for editing (the one I’d used to identify what needed changes – short version: read, read, think, notes), I found it easier to hold the reins again. I didn’t need the exact changes I had last time. Maybe I missed some, but I’d also identified new ones. There was no point in my editing/rewriting process that I couldn’t stop and start over with.

We can get lost in our processes. When things don’t go to plan, it’s easy to feel stuck, but they can be so alien to how we start that THIS otherness is not without meaning. They’re different to our process because they’re not the one that got us there.

It’s why the following is one of my most recurring pieces of advice for other writers that’ve found their momentum slow and their long-term projects grow stagnant:

Take your setting. Invent a new character. Put them in that world, give them an obstacle, and write a short story about it.

What’s the reason? You get the benefit of something fresh, the depth of a world you’re already invested in, and the satisfaction of it all happening in a setting that’s wholly yours.

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