Thursday, February 4, 2021

De- and Re-fining Process

 Last week I wrote about Joe Lansdale’s thoughts on first readers and got tangential a few times. This week I have more from Joe’s Facebook posts on writing, dealing with the process itself.


Again, it’s gratifying and validating for someone with my level of accomplishment to see my method has evolved along the lines of one of the greats. I am comfortable with not having the same level of talent or success. What matters is, however good my writing may or may not be, it’s not because of things that are under my control. I’ve done my due diligence.


The topic of Joe’s post was, “How Many Drafts Should You Write?” Joe’s answer fits in with what my practice and research have shown me: there is no right answer. Joe writes: “Each writer finds their path. I do one, and then a polish. Now and again I end up doing more polish than expected, and each day I revise as I go, so how many drafts do I do daily? No idea.”


I’m a bit more OCD, so I have a pretty good idea, but the number of drafts has changed dramatically over the years. I used to keep hacking until I couldn’t bear to look at the manuscript anymore and was spending most of my time adding and removing the same commas. Then I started using each draft for specific things: one for descriptions, one for each character to get their voices right and unique, one for action and narrative, then the overall polishing. That took forever and require too much polishing, as the multiple drafts left me with a story that didn’t seem organic.


I winnowed that down by beginning each day by looking over and tidying up yesterday’s work. This probably saved a draft and had the added benefit of reminding me exactly where I was the day before.


Then I came across David Milch’s concept of “resting transparently.” (It’s actually Kierkegaard’s concept, but since Milch distilled it into something I can understand, I give him the credit.) My version is to think as little as possible about what needs to be written today because that’s the conscious mind looking for a logical continuation of what I wrote yesterday, which is not always where the story needs to go. Now I sit quietly, letting my mind wander until I know what I want to do. At first I’d often as not fall asleep. Now there are days where I sit for as little as thirty seconds before I’m virtually propelled out of the chair and off to the keyboard.


This isn’t much different from Joe’s advice, though arrived at from a different direction: “The most important thing I learned as a writer was to work from the subconscious. This sounds easy, and pretty much is once you are able to tap into it, but it takes practice.” Resting transparently is my way of releasing my subconscious. With practice I find I barely need the actual process. My subconscious now knows when to feed me what it’s been working right when I need it.


What stimulates my subconscious? Many of the same things Joe describes. “Reading novels, stories, comics, non-fiction and viewing films, TV shows, are fuel for the subconscious…” I used to feel like I was stealing when I took an idea from a previous work and adapted to my needs until I saw a d read enough to realize how many stories are adaptations of things that came before. Just because I first saw a scene by Author A doesn’t mean he hadn’t seen a variant of it elsewhere. I used to feel bashful about changing the ending of my first Nick Forte book to use a concept I saw in the movie Three Days of the Condor, especially after it received a Shamus nomination. Now I’m looking forward to thanking James Grady the next time I see him, less for “giving” me the idea, than for putting something out there I was able to adapt to my own purposes.


The subconscious is not as low maintenance as one might suppose, especially when you hope to get some benefit from it. Milch tries never to think about writing except when he’s doing it. Unsaid is that his subconscious, left to its own devices, is always churning away, whether he’s aware of it or not. He likes to operate on faith and I believe a lot of that faith is that his subconscious will not abandon him.


Lansdale has a similar attitude: “But, during the day, if I could learn to relax and think about anything but story, ideas would develop, and certainly at night a seed would be found.” I retired at the end of last year and now, a month or so down the road, I find I’m much more creative. More story ideas, more ideas on how to improve what’s in progress, more ideas about what I might want to revisit. I believe that’s because I’m no longer tied to thinking about workaday things half my waking hours, five days a week, with those concerns also intruding on my “free” time. Now I spend an hour or three most days taking care of household business, then my day is free.


(Next week I’ll conclude this series with a post on pacing yourself to stay fresh. Thank to Joe Lansdale for allowing me to quote from his posts.







Elgin Bleecker said...

Dana – The hardest part of resting transparently is turning off that internal critic. A friend uses the trick of telling himself it is OK to write crap, and that frees him up.

Dana King said...

I think Milch would counter that by saying nothing we write is crap. There are only things that can be better.