Monday, June 28, 2010

Berry Face + Writing in the Spirit of Discovery

A lovely weekend. More berries were picked, and more importantly, more berries were eaten:
hee hee hee. I was carrying Clementine on my back, and I couldn't see her face, just her little hand reaching forward to take the berries I was passing back to her, and at the end, this is what we found. You can imagine the back of my shirt looked much the same! Luckily I was wearing burgundy, ha ha.

It was also another amazing weekend in secret news, soon to be shared, and I got some writing in too, of course. My tiny writing cafe is ultra dead on Sundays. Yesterday I was here for four or five hours and maybe four or five people came in in all that time. The barrista sat in an armchair reading The Road!

But speaking of writing, a few posts back I think I mentioned an intention to write about "writing scenes in the spirit of discovery" and I haven't done that yet, but I think I'll take a [brief] stab at it. (Isn't that an odd and kind of awesome expression, to "take a stab" at something? Where does that come from? Is it, like, the vampire-slayer equivalent of "the old college try"?)

Writing scenes in the spirit of discovery.

Early in my blogging days, I recall that I came across a post on writing where the [now forgotten by me] writer said, "You write to find the story." And I don't know if I really knew that at the time, at least not on a conscious level. I thought you wrote to tell the story. And you do, of course, but you are also finding it. As I say in Not For Robots, it's not like picking up somebody's grocery list off the sidewalk. It's an entirely new creation of your brain, and for most of us, we're not downloading it directly from the ether, or whatever. It's a process of discovery.

Early in my own process of learning to write a novel, I came to a point (in Blackbringer, the first scene in Never Nigh when the crows are performing) where I was trying to make characters interact and bring a new place to life, and it was really really hard . . . and I gradually realized that it was really really hard because I didn't know the characters OR the place yet, and so I couldn't expect some perfect scene to just roll of my fingertips that did everything I wanted it to do. I had to get in there and kind of mess around. Like, I don't know, you know how photographers and documentary makers say that if you stick around a place long enough with your camera the subjects will start acting natural and kind of forget you're there? That's sort of what happened once I just stared playing around in Never Nigh, telling myself it didn't matter if these scenes ended up in the book or not. And many didn't! But I did start getting to know my characters, and that led to the actual scene. Ta da!

This has happened many times since then, and you'd think I'd just learn to be free and always write in "the spirit of discovery" like it's my default setting, but I don't know if you can change your default. It's like changing your height or something. You could do it, but it would involve chopping off your legs! I can't change my writing brain. I am a perfectionist, I want each scene in my books to be its own multi-faceted, highly polished jewel. And at the end of the day, I'm glad my brain works the way it does, because I really really like my writing! But I have to constantly remind myself to have a spirit of discovery. I have to force myself, every time.

And sometimes it's not intentional. I might think I am writing The Scene, you know? But after the fact, I realize it's not right, and I have to be willing to set it aside and keep trying. That's part of the process of discovery: realizing when you're not there yet. The story veers in a direction that, while cool, minimizes the overall narrative momentum, or any one of a million other reasons why it's not the right scene at the right time. Where I'm at right now in my current novel, I've laid aside a succession of chapters, each of which I thought was "the one" until a day or so after I finished it. But each time I set one aside, I understand the story better. The jewel becomes more complex and sparkly, if you will.

Not every scene you write, not even every really beautiful, cool scene, needs to be in the book. They might be stage hands instead of actors, you know, and do their important work behind the scenes. In fact, the important work performed by some scenes is in the very revelation of their wrongness! Sometimes you won't find the perfect way to move forward until you've found a few wrong ways and learned their lessons. This gives you depth. It's nothing to be down about. I think it was Thomas Edison who said, "I have not failed. I have only found 10,000 ways that won't work."

We just hope it's not 10,000!

So there's that. I don't know if it helps anyone to know this, but almost every single scene in my current novel is a not-first-effort. As much as I have bemoaned perfectionism, I truly believe there is a huge benefit to having this kind of brain. It may not be joyous in the moment, but it gives us the focus and will to keep working toward the best possible resolution to our stories, and the very best configuarions of language to convey it as directly as possible to our readers' brains.

I'm not going to edit this post because I need to get back to work instead. And THAT is a difficult thing for a perfectionist brain to do!

15 comments:

Olivia J. said...

Yesterday I was thinking a lot about getting to know your characters and your setting before you can write about them. For the heck of it, I wrote a little 3 page description about a character who lives in a tree just so I could figure out if I wanted to write about her or not. Good to know the authors I love do that, too! (Clementine is adorable.)

Stephanie Perkins said...

I always love your posts about writing! Another great one. :)

(I am thankful for my perfectionist brain, too! Usually.)

Amy said...

I recently found this fabulous list of failures and musings on 'failures'

http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/OnFailing.html#

that has encouraged me so much. I'm writing a novel in verse, which presents special challenges...I've set aside 4 poems for every one I've kept. And it's my first, so the learning curve is almost inverted. Ah well. I also have a perfectionist's brain...need to learn when to let it off the leash and when it belongs in the kennel.

tone almhjell said...

Your advice on writing is always, always useful. I'm also at a point where I've written many versions of a chapter, but just can't seem to get it right. Yet. I hope.

Clementine, Magnus loves you.

Anonymous said...

Awesome and inspiring post. Incidentally, you were spotted Saturday morning with supermodel, Alexandra Saperstein aka "Porkchop Saperstein." From what we could see, she was the only one doing any writing. You were gabbing up a tornado on the telephone and I could see her beautiful, luscious frame bending over her notebook, arms contorted over ears, struggling to drown out the chatter and write. Please don't disturb Porkchop again when she has pen in hand.

Kayla said...

love this post. any advice you ever give my perfectionist-self always helps loads, i hope you know! Not For Robots has become a sort of Bible to me as of late! So thank you, thank you ever so much for your kind and patient wisdom :)

Anonymous said...

I am sooo much like you. Except I'm a newbie, starting my first book. But everything you say resonates and I experience all the same things. Your advice is the absolute best. Thank you! Good luck with everything!

Heidi said...

I'm going to deny ever having said this but you and Clem make me want to have children! Hm maybe a boyfriend is necessary first. Don't tell anybody.

Thanks for this post on writing today, it was exactly what I needed to hear, as I am struggling with this very thing and have a reocurring fear of writing wasted words. I can do a brutal chop later but in the moment it's so hard to motivate yourself to push forward when you know it's not going in the book, and you feel like such a time waster.

persnickety_jen said...

There are so many points in this post when I want to clap my hands and yell out, "Yes! That! That right there! That's exactly how I feel about writing!"

Sometimes you just need to leave the trail and hack through the weeds a bit before you can stumble upon the waterfall.

And that quote by Thomas Edison is one of my all-time favorites. :)

Chandra Rooney said...

This is the second time your blog post has been exactly what I needed when I read it. Don't know how you're doing that, but thank you.

Katie said...

Oh God Laini, I so needed this post today. Thank you so much for this awesome reminder that I don't have to tell the story, I can find it!

YAY!!!!!

Laini Taylor said...

Amy, love that list of "failures"! Thank you! It's kind of unbelievable, all compiled together like that.

Steph, I am thankful for your perfectionist brain too. Because your books are SO AWESOME!

Tone, Clementine loves Magnus back :-) I can't wait until they get to play together some day!

So glad these thoughts made some connections out there. Write away!

Catherine Denton said...

I love the idea of discovering a story as you go. I think the first time I was introduced to this idea was by you and the jungle path image. That has stuck with me. Thanks for the reminder. I tend to get bogged down figuring everything out instead of enjoying the journey.
Winged Writer

Amber said...

I have waited and come back to read this when I don't have ADHD. LOL! Because I love when you play teacher. :) Thank you yet again.

:) ox

Linda May said...

Berry Berry Beautiful little girl you have.