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what mood is that, sir? the subjunctive?

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writing from the inside out
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I just finished a book called "Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting" by Robert McKee that articulated something I've been trying to say for a long time about writing and rewriting.

So there's this piece of advice on just about every writing advice list ever that goes: don't worry about quality, just spit out a crappy first draft and make it good when you rewrite. I've known for years that this doesn't apply to me. When I write something without worrying about how good it is, and then try to turn it into something good, I can't. I just start hating the project altogether and wind up giving up on it.

The prevailing advice on that issue is: let go of your words. Figure out what you're really saying, what's important about each scene, and start over with that in mind. Don't hang onto individual sentences or phrasings just because you like them. Find your story, and rewrite with the story in mind. And that makes sense, for someone whose process of figuring out their story requires writing it, as I gather many people's do. Mine doesn't. I can't write my story until I know what it is.

This book I just read advocates my way. It actually does so in kind of a douchey holier-than-thou way, but I'm so fed up with people being douchey about this the other way around that I'm fine with a little douchery in my favor. Anyway, he thinks stories need to be written "from the inside out"--that is, from act structure to scene structure to full treatment (essentially not!fic), with actual wording as the very last step. He says two-thirds of the time he spends writing a screenplay is spent on this part of the process, shuffling around index cards and summarizing scenes and such.

I'm working on a novel right now, and people keep asking me how much of it I've written. And the answer is: twenty-eight pages of outline, five pages of character notes, two pages of meta-planning, two pages of notes on style and voice, a page and a half of worldbuilding notes, two fanfic-style pieces working through character backstory, a physical bulletin board full of index cards color-coded on three levels... and one chapter of actual novel, in need of a major rewrite to fit the changes I've made to the outline. And I sure as hell don't feel like I've barely started to write. If I have a scene fully planned from start to end complete with overall tensions, emotional arcs, actions and reactions, that's not a scene I haven't written yet. It's a scene I'm in the middle of writing.

Not that wording isn't important. It is; it's one of the most important aspects of writing to me. I think that's why I need to do it like this--because this way I can rewrite everything else without getting stuck on the words. I'm still going to need to be able to edit and cut my words after I've written them, but (if done well) this strategy keeps that to a bare minimum.

There's another piece of writing advice I see a lot that goes: don't get stuck endlessly tinkering with your outline. At some point you just have to sit down and write. And that's true, if what you're doing actually is just endless tinkering. But if you're actually rewriting, and making important changes to improve the story, and getting more detailed as you go--that's not tinkering, that's writing from the inside out, and there is nothing wrong with it.

(I highly recommend that Robert McKee book, with the caveat that the guy is a douche. But if you can hold your nose through all the white straight male privilege, there's some awesome writing advice in there that applies to all forms of storytelling.)

This entry was originally posted at http://jedusaur.dreamwidth.org/101995.html.

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