The One-Day Stand: Cheating On My Manuscript

I knew that story was trouble the second it walked through my door.

Confession time: I’m taking a day off from my manuscript.*

Not because it’s not going well. Actually, aside from a few surprises—where did that guy come from? Why does she keep flirting with her? What the hell happened to that guy’s head?—it’s chugging along like a well-run train filled with liars, killers, and the occasional standup guy who’s wondering how he got there.*** Things are coming together.

But the day off is neither congratulatory nor a desperate attempt to break free of the project before it destroys me. It’s necessary.

This is a trick I learned from some writing book a long time ago. I can’t remember which one, though I’m tempted to say it was something by James Scott Bell. I can’t check, though, because a couple of those books got lost in one of the many, many moves in which I’ve participated. I tried Googling, but either my Google-fu is weak today or it’s just not out there.

The advice is this: when you reach a certain point in a manuscript, take a break. One day away. Step back from that relentless forward momentum. Then, after that day, look at what you’ve done. Is it living up to your expectations? Is it following the path you laid out in the outline, or the re-outline? Is it shaping up, or is it just plodding along?

And of course the big question: what’s wrong with it?

I find that a good place to take that break—at least the first time—is right around the time when the first act ends. That’s usually at somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 words. If you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell and the monomyth, it happens when the characters leave the old world behind and enter the new. It is the tipping point. And as such it suits the needs of this break very well.

I reached that point the other day—27,000 words, for anyone who’s interested—so I’m taking the break to review what’s happened so far. Do I need to make a new outline? Do I want to keep this character that just kind of popped up last week? Should I make those world-building changes I was thinking about yesterday? And so on.

This is why I distinguish between the zero draft and the real first draft. The zero is all about forward motion; never look back because you don’t know what might be gaining. The first draft, when you go over the path you made before and make it something worth following, benefits from a little backwards gazing. You can check to see if others can follow. You can make sure the right elements are introduced. If anything strange comes up in the first draft, you can decide if you want to carry it through to the end or kill now before it has a chance to breed.

And once that planning is done, you can move on with confidence.

*”Day off” in this context meaning “day where I work on a different project like the no-good, roundheels** bitch that I am”.
**I was made aware the other day that no one else has used this word on a regular basis since 1956. That’s what I get for reading all that pulp noir fiction.
***HAHA I PUT YOU THERE. SUCK IT.

Hesitation Marks: How I Finally Started That Goddamn Rewrite

I have all the pieces…(Photo credit: wikipedia)

Last week, I was working on the new outline for the Novel Rewrite. I had index cards and a sharpie and a bunch of notes, and was happily laying them out in different patterns on the living room floor. Since more than one of the cards reads Some Dude Dies Horribly, it was a little serial killer meets Kindergarten art class.*

I finally found a pattern I semi-liked, one which made sense and that I could work with. I took a photo of it, made some more notes…and then just stopped. The cat came to sit on the index cards I had so thoughtfully laid out for her. I did a couple of blog posts.  Checked out some new short story listings. Whenever someone stepped near the cards, I’d have my Archimedes moment and tell them to not disturb my circles. And if they asked, I’d say it was going…well.

One thing I didn’t do was actually start the damn rewrite. It’s not ready yet, I told myself. I don’t want to rush this part. I have to make sure everything’s ready.

Eventually, I realized the problem: I was stalling.

Those of you who have met me in meatspace probably know that stalling isn’t my deal. I’m that person who loses patience with the never-ending discussion of where to go for dinner after ninety seconds of “I don’t know, whatever you guys want to do.”** The most polite term is probably ‘decisive’, the least polite ‘bossy and arrogant as hell’.

And here I was, vacillating like a thirteen year old girl trying to choose between two colours of mascara, Carbon Black or True Black.***

Thankfully, I figured out what was going on before I lost too much time. I was only stalling because I didn’t want to fuck it up. So I argued with myself that it was already fucked up; the zero draft is proof of that. After that, it was easier to put on my Big Girl Bra and get started.

Lesson of the day: the quest for perfection is a pointless waste of fucking time.**** All it will do is run out the time clock on your life and leave you with nothing.

Better to just strap down your important bits, grab the chainsaw, and dig in.

So? What are you waiting for?

*Kindergarten Killer, coming soon to a cinema near you.
**I’m starting to think that my friends do this just so they can watch me have one of my Hulk moments.
***The fuck does this even mean, cosmetics companies? And don’t get me started on Blackest Black, Deep Black, Jet Black, or Black Out. It’s fucking black.
****This might have also been one of the themes of the Lego movie I saw over the weekend.