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Writing the Wrong Words
I am at one of those scenes that I have to write wrong in order to get through it, in order to keep moving, in order to get eventually to the end, at which point -- theoretically -- I will have figured out the details that are preventing me from making this scene I am currently writing work correctly.

I am not a writer who must get every word right in the first go round. Who writes achingly slowly for that reason. Because the way my mind works has to do with the layers and interconnections, the consequences and back splatter. What this means is that in certain books (The Law of Becoming being a classic example), I spend a lot of time writing wrong scenes--that is, a scene in which I know certain general points that have to be flagged or set in motion but I don't comprehend quite what where how and why--just to get through those scenes, knowing I'll come back later and fix them when all is made clear.

In other books, like The Sword of Heaven (duology) and Traitors' Gate, the story is such that before writing it I pretty much know what has to happen, so it's a matter of layering in necessary scenes in the right order to get the cadence to work at the end. In such books I actually have very little leeway, and for that reason they tend to write fast.

The book I am writing at this moment is definitely not one of the latter kind. It is one of the former kind. This means I slog. Repetitively. And go back and rework, and write forward through murk.

That's all right, though. Because what that means is that the revision process will be Just That Much Sweeter, when I get there and finally know how to make everything fit.

This ramble brought to you by the unusually cold weather plaguing my state. Don't pity me, though. I won't tell you what temperatures pass for brutal cold here.

Do tell me about whether you have to have a scene right the first time you write it, or whether you can write the wrong things and go back later.

Your timing is impeccable.


2009-03-03 08:12 am (UTC)

I've spent the last day and a half pulling my hair out because I was afraid of doing this very thing. I've rewritten this scene twice because I was afraid to move forward until this was "the way it would be." I was afraid just slogging through and writing something that I'll hate later was a waste of time and unprofessional.

Thank you. I feel so much better!

Re: Your timing is impeccable.


2009-03-03 08:14 am (UTC)

Oh, and I can write the wrong things and go back later, but I just don't always remember it. I don't know if it's because I'm still a novice novelist or whether it's something else, but I'll entirely forget that I can edit later.

It definitely is brutally cold here lately :(

I am so tired of wearing long sleeve shirts!!!

I have to get it right enough. In other words, I need to get the shape good enough to support what will come after, and then I can keep going. But -- if, somewhere down the track, I suddenly realize that a previous scene is wrong or missing something, all momentum comes to a screaming halt so I can go back and fix it on the spot. Once the light bulb's gone off on a scene, I can't make a note and come back to it later because the idea for the fix is an organic part of the process. That means I have a real '3 steps forward 1 step back' approach to the first draft. I also find that when I'm approaching the end I can't do that, and I just have to barrel through to the end, just to reach the end, so my first drafts are very uneven. Reasonably polished for 3/4 or so of the journey, then rushed and potholed in the closing stretch. But I've learned not to panic about that, because the end depends on the beginning and the middle. It's the icing, not the foundation. By the time I reach the final draft it's all evened out. In theory, anyway. *g*

I do that, too, actually.

I find revising interesting because I'll have entire scenes that I barely touch except for light line editing and others I completely rewrite.

Ah, Other People's Process: always interesting.

Me, I read your post and thought "Actually, I'm a little of this and a little of the other." Then I read karenmiller's comment above and thought "Ah. Actually, I'm just Nothing Like That."

What it is - and I do blame this entirely on the technology - is that I grew up in the age of typewriters, when a rewrite meant literally retyping every word. So I tried to do as little as that as possible, come as close as I could to getting it right first time. So my set pattern was painstaking, running everything through my head a dozen times before anything got down on paper; it was almost better not to write, than to write the wrong thing.

Then computers came along and suddenly there was no such thing as hard copy, everything was soft; and of course my habits have changed to meet that, but not on a macro level. I am still a one-pass writer, as near as I can be. I'll fiddle with sentences and paragraphs on screen instead of in my head, and - occasionally - I will clatter on leaving ungood stuff behind me, in the knowledge that I can fiddle again and fix it later. But I still set my sights on the end of the draft and head straight for it. If I've made a mistake in plotting, if I've changed my mind, I don't go back and fix it till I'm done with the first draft. I hate that sense of retreat, of retrenchment. Which is why some of my first drafts - particularly the early crime novels - don't actually make sense, because I had rethought plot twists halfway through and then carried on writing as though I'd made the changes, when in fact those changes were waiting on the next draft to get made...

I used to do that more than I do now. I wrote my first 5 or 6 novels in longhand, but over time I've increasingly given up the straight through push to the end toward more of a retrenchment style. I've also learned where i need to keep going and when i need to go back.

New reader here. I find hearing about the writing process from those who actually got published (and thus must be gods to the rest of us unwashed masses) utterly fascinating.

I, when I manage to scrape up the time (and find my muse wherever she is hiding), tend to just slog through and get it done, in order to move on to the next scene. My reasoning is that even though the scene may not be right for this section, I have it down on 'paper' and may be able to use it elsewhere. No written word is ever wasted in my world. I also write in popcorn fashion, where scenes just pop into my head and get written down randomly. That doesn't really do much good unless I have a general idea of where I'm going with the draft, but as long as I've written SOMETHING down, I call it a good day.


and yes - exactly. I personally would rather have written something than nothing, just for the emotional boost it gives me.

otoh, as I mention above, my process has changed over time as well, and it changes between books as well.

I call 'em placeholders. Sometimes I know they're placeholders, sometimes I write it and feel vaguely that something is amiss, but keep going to get done what I see clearly. But on the 5,785th time back through again, realize that there is placeholder stuff where there needs to be scene, or reaction, or whatever. So I do it, and then have to trace that thread onward, to get all the reactions to align.

I call them placeholders, too - probably I stole the term from you! *g*

I sometimes do a realignment right away and other times wait.

If I do that, it messes up my ability to get it right, ever. The wrong words get in the way. Usually the best I can hope for is that the scene happened offstage. So I try to avoid it. I've got better at that, but it still snarls me sometimes.

I go back and change tiny bits to put in set-up sometimes, or to mention something I want to have always had there, but mostly my first draft is what ends up being on the page.

Michelle Sagara once told me -- I'm paraphrasing wildly -- that she wrote paragraphs and scenes as discrete entities with a specific internal rhythm, that once laid down she could only change the content by deleting and then writing that para or scene from scratch.

Me, I can totally change things up all the time, with the exception of those scenes that I totally nail the first time through.

I wonder if you do more work in your head before the words come out on paper? I'm a very kinetic person, so I think I like the more physical back and forth of interaction on the page.

Like you, I will sometimes write a 'placeholder' scene, provided I know enough of the skeleton of the necessary scene. I use Scrivener, which allows me to write a scene-specific note off to the side, so I can flag the scene and add my thoughts on it for when I come back through.

In fact, of late I've discovered I can even skip a scene entirely and write a scene further along in the book (one that is complete in my head) while the subconscious works out what I need.

But I suspect that relatively newfound ability is a function of the tool I'm using more than anything else. Back when I used a word processor, I really wanted to draft things out in a straight linear fashion. I didn't like skipping scenes because it was difficult for me to "see" those skipped scenes and I was afraid I'd miss them or forget what I intended in them.

I rarely skip a scene entirely. I try to get in that skeleton of what needs to be there, surrounded by a certain amount of pointless verbiage that is more a conversation with myself about the story than the story itself.

I have Scrivener but haven't been using it. Do you have 1.5? If so, what's up with the changes?

also - what a gorgeous cover on your new book!!!!

This sounds very much like my writing process. Sometimes it seems I have to write not only the wrong words but the wrong book to get to the right one. And the layering thing--yeah to that, too.

I haven't yet gone so far as to write the wrong book in ordr to get to the right one. I salute your fortitude.

I can - and do - write the wrong words, just so that I can progress a bit further in the WiP (bizarrely, it's usually the first four chapters that need attacking with a machete rather than a pruning knife). Like desperance, I'll sometimes change my mind about what's happening as I go along (or change someone's reason for doing something/ their background). When that happens I make a note of the change (I tend to work with a plan - I like manuals, so a plan appeals to me) and then carry on from that point with the change in place. When I do the first revision it will get tidied up then.


My openings usually go through multiple changes before I settle on the right entry point. but beginnings are always the most difficult part for me.

Not so much with the layering (at least, not yet, that I can see) but sometimes with the Wrong Stuff, yes.

In time you can hope for all kinds of complications with your writing process! *g*

Slightly breezy today, then? ;)

You know, this is something that I have to work on. My current WIP is kicking my backside, and I think it's because I'm doing exactly the opposite of what you mentioned about The Law of Becoming...I'm spending too much time with the details when I really should be just writing the damn scene and being done with it for the time being. I think it's due to the fact that I'm used to writing fast and furious, but this is a completely different writing style for me. Guess it's something to get used to... :)

I hate wearing long sleeve shirts!

How is your current WIP a different writing style? Because you're spending a lot of time with the details in the first draft?

I write thousands of words of utter crap because I have to get it all down first. I can't put in a note "fight scene goes here" and move on. I write a crappy fight scene knowing I'll fix it later and move on. I write whole chapters I know I'll cut out because I have to imagine what happens between the the chapters I know I'll keep. To get to 123,000 words I'll write 250,000 crappy ones.

It then gets distilled and distilled and distilled and distilled until there's acutally something worth reading.

Occasionally I get a glow of satisfaction when I find a few words have remained in place from that first dash through. I treasure those few, golden morsels.

Yes, that sounds a LOT like how I'm writing these days. I cut 50,000 words from Traitors' Gate, and that's not counting words I cut during the first draft process or the final pruning (not very extensive, I admit) that I did on the copy edited ms.

Also? Meant to say ... good luck with your scene!

It sucks! but it covers the main points and emotional flags that need to be there, so I can move on.

Good question, Kate!

For me, it bugs the heck out of me to write a scene 'wrong', but sometimes I do rush through scenes in my hurry to get it all out before I lose the thread of inspiration in what I want to happen at the end (or next)

So, there are times when I rush through scenes and don't take the time to do them right the first time, and then there are times when it bugs me too much that I can't continue until I get the scene right.

Then there are times when I get hung up on a tiny detail, like how to get from point a to point b in a scene, or a street name, or a location for the scene, and I can't do any more writing until I figure it out and put it in there.

I do that last bit sometimes, too -- although why one detail hangs me up while another I can flag with a note and move on, I don't know.

Other times, if I don't know what NEEDS to be in a scene, then I am stuck until I can figure that out. It's if I do know what needs to be there but don't know how to shape it right that I keep going.

Kate, I must have been catching your vibe today, because I've been working on something I'm writing and I just can't get the voice and the feeling of the scene right. It's driving me crazy, to be honest. I admire how you manage to work through the "wrong" scenes and just decide to deal with them later - I should definitely try doing this!

It's always worth trying. Then if it doesn't work, you haven't lost anything, and if it does, you have another trick for your writing bag.

Heck, whether or not I think a scene is right when I write it the first time around, I'll generally go back and change something later to make it "righter" thanks to something I wrote later illuminating it for me.

Oh, yeah. That, too. Definitely.

I never write a book by starting at the beginning and going through to the end. I weave back and forth, writing scenes here and there, and then filling in between them once I have enough bits in place. Often I write the ending first, then some stuff from the middle, then the beginning . . . and so on.

Occasionally, like with the New Project, I will get a beginning that amounts to a good number of pages. After that, I'll start to weave.

If I try to fill in scenes that aren't ready to be written, I get brain freeze. I will at times put a quick note in brackets [they get first look at fortress], that sort of thing.

Yes, but you are just strange.

In fact, I use you as an example all the time--of how all the so-called Rules new writers hear from Experts only go so far because in the end each writer has to figure out what works for her. It actually is very heartening for people to be told that, no, they don't have to do it One Way.

Coming in as a straggler here.

I'm in the middle of a scene where I keep getting it wrong, but since every scene I write is a stepping stone to the next one, it's hard to move forward until I get it right. Which really means I'm searching for the core, for what it's supposed to be _about_. Sometimes I know that going in; other times I don't. Though oddly enough, that has no impact on how hard a scene is to write. I've sailed through, and struggled with, both kinds.

And I would like to know what passes for brutally cold in your fair state. :)

Well. Low 60s? *g*

Sometimes I do hit a scene where I can't move forward until I get it right. Sometimes I know what needs to be in the scene, but I won't be able to get it right until I've hit the end of the draft and come back, so in the latter case I'll write a placeholder scene. But definitely, it depends.

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