Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Fresh Start: When Not to Edit, and Start From Scratch Instead

An editor by trade would have to be crazy or willing to commit career hari-kari to say there's ever a time not to edit. But there is a time two in fact when you're completely stuck for an idea and when you want an organic scene that tinkering with what you've got won't do.
Just do it - write!

One of the scariest things for a writer, especially one like me with a background in journalism or any nonfiction form, is to leave the familiar the facts, the outline, the first draft for the unfamiliar. Yet, only in uncharted waters is discovery made. Take that first example of being stuck for an idea. It could be for a story or a scene; it could even be for a character. Recently, a friend told me over lunch that she has a career military officer character for whom she needs to write a difficult scene that reveals an inciting incident from his past. Since she was having trouble with what the incident produced in his life, she was having trouble figuring out what could have precipitated it. My prescription? Just sit down and write it.

At first she looked aghast, but as she stared into space over a plate of pasta a mischievous grin spread across her face. "I have an idea," she said. "Want to know hear it?" "No," I answered. "Surprise me." The more she considered what might have prompted the officer to reach this crossroad in life, the more she looked forward to writing the scene. Writers, it turns out, can enjoy a surprise as much as readers. When the unknown becomes known, it becomes invention and ceases to be scary.

Another instance where you don't want to edit, or continue editing, is when you've written a scene that only becomes more stilted and contrived the longer you tinker. What to do? Stop editing and open a new document. Put the scene away and start writing. This was the advice I got from writer and teacher Peter Selgin on my first novel. "Consider this your master's thesis, put it in a drawer and start over. You know the story," he said. "Just write it." It was true; I knew the story. I was simply afraid of where starting over would lead, like when I learned to swim. To get beyond the shallow end of the pool and the shallows of the Atlantic off Fort Lauderdale beach, I had to let go and get my feet off the bottom. I've never regretted it.

Happy writing and happy Fourth!


Robin Lamont said...

Excellent advice - and applies to writing almost anything that your mind has been trying to get right before you put a word on paper. Sometimes, I think, a scene evolves jsut by putting your fingers on the keyboard.

Adele Annesi said...

Thanks, Robin. Starting over can be liberating and can take the work, and the writer, places she never expected.