Warm up vignette first. It will remind you to love your writing and will take some of the droll that can come with the wrong approach to writing.
Don’t edit something just because it needs to be edited. It all needs to be edited. Read and do the work that calls you. Think of it like a conversation. You don’t have to drive through every topic that comes up. Drive through the ones that draw you. And stick with the conversation long enough, and you’ll have driven through each and every section of your book.
Don’t postpone something you want to do because it will take time. Do it now, while you want to.
Try not to get too bogged down in grammar and polish. At the same time, don’t necessarily ignore them. They just have a tendency to bog things down. To make you too linear and not nearly as right-brained and emotionally involved as you should be.
With that said, don’t get too linear. Feel free to jump around. Stop wherever you feel led to. Start over whenever you want.
Read what you’re editing a lot. Read perhaps more than you write. Read over and over. Read sporadically. Read in order.
And think. Read and think. And when I say think, I’m really talking about active quiescence. Daydream. Let your mind wander as you read and think about what you’ve written. Wait and let thoughts come to you. Read slowly.
Remove distractions, so those thoughts can come to you.
Unfinished things don’t have to be finished right now. Leave them unfinished until you’re led to do something with them, even if that’s to delete them. Also, whatever is next (after editing something) doesn’t have to finished right now. Work on whatever you’re led to. I relate it to writing a poem. You find bits that don’t really fit, but because you don’t know what will fit, you don’t necessarily have to replace those bits right away. You might reshape them some, but it’s in the reshaping of the whole poem that you find out if they fit or not and how you can change them to fit. So don’t feel like you have to know or polish what each part is when you come to it.
I have been making a lot of “development documents” for the novel, but I typically just draft when writing shorter pieces. I know I have a tendency to do development documents for things I’m afraid of getting wrong, and I think I also do it for the novel because I haven’t wanted to do “unnecessary work,” knowing how much time might be “wasted” if I write things that’ll just be thrown out.
In my drafting process, I read what I have over and over again, and when I do, if something strikes me as needing to be changed, I do it. Often this brings something else to mind or sight that needs to be changed, so I do that as well. And I keep reading and changing. And as I do, my vision for the piece changes. I can start with one idea or right side image or left side pattern and end up with something completely different because of how the little changes end up redirecting me. It’s a lot of work. It can takes hours upon hours for a single poem. I have started poems that didn’t rhyme and were about one thing that end up rhyming and being about something else—all because of adding individual changes and finding other things that match them or need to be thrown out and feeling what things go together or not.
And another description of the drafting process—sitting there, active quiescence, reading, mulling, until something pops up to add, remove, or change. Lots of reading, sitting, thinking, mulling.
Pre-thinking looks different. It’s all about finding things I don’t know or don’t know how things fit and then trying to figure out how they do before actually making changes in the draft. It ranges from figuring out how sin works in my world to figuring out what the theme is to figuring out how to make the parts I know are there fit with other parts to fit the theme, even if it means changes things or adding things to do so. But it all happens outside of the draft.
I think I had forgotten what it feels like to draft. I’ve been doing semi-daily poems, and I’m getting back into what it’s like to go from clustering to polishing in a day or two. It’s kind of addicting. Depending on how well a piece clicks, I get to a point where I just don’t want to put it down until it’s perfect. It hasn’t been the same with much of the book (though it did happen sometimes).
I doubt either one is the only way to do it or the best way to do it all the time. I suspect there are times when one is better than the other. But I know that I pre-think whenever I’m afraid. I do it in all kinds of contexts.
One of the worst things is writing when I’m not feeling it. It kind of just drolls on. But one of the best things is writing when I’m feeling it. I can’t stop it.
There are some benefits of the drafting process that I’m missing. For one, it means reading the piece over and over, which means knowing it very well. That’s a good thing, given how long it is and how much stuff is in it. It also means I’ll only change or add or remove things when I get the feeling things need to be changed. This means no droll writing. The book may not end up where I planned or plan, but it will end up at a place that’s polished and that I become convinced is what it should be. I think that conviction will go a long way.
I was thinking of a metaphor when I was playing with my daughter during her bath. She has those foam letters, and she was sticking them on the wall one random letter at a time trying to make a word. She didn’t know what word, she was just sticking them up there one at a time until she got an idea for one and then finishing that word off. We started with EAT, then EATFOOD, then EATFOODISKR3M (eat food ice cream—we supplemented unavailable letters with numbers), and on until it became EATIC6CR3M (eat ice cream). She knew more and more what she wanted to write as we added letters and then words. That’s just about the best metaphor for the generative process that I could ever find. You don’t know where you’re going. You just go. You add. You rearrange. You throw out. And when you get the little light, like a match on a fuse, it just goes, and it gets more and more focused until you have it. But you got to keep putting stuff up there until you do. And isn’t that light just the trial-web shift? The random letters is the trial web. It shifts as/when you focus.
What about when I come across those things that I don’t know and just feel like I have to know before I move on? It’s like if I was writing about God and came across something about him I didn’t know—something like “Does God change? Depending on the answer, what I’m creatively connecting could either be really great or heresy.” It seems like in those cases I need to know the facts first. Who is Lithoth? What are h’lae like? What happened to Gus to make him who he is? What did the fall look like? Those all seem like prolegomena upon which the generation of the story depends.
Surely that part of me that finds connections has to be convinced of the truths behind those connections before I can comfortably make the connections. Else I’ll wonder, “Can these be connected, or is this completely wrong?” And since my world is supposed to be a realistic world, it seems like a lot of things need to make sense before I can creatively connect them in a story. Lots of things need to be worked out logically before they can be acceptable within my image.
And to some degree, that’s what I do when I’m drafting. If I find that a stanza needs something to introduce it, I write another stanza before it. I do that kind of thing with the development documents sometimes.
The big difference is when I use the development documents to figure out the themes or plots or character arcs and then rearrange things so that the themes make sense—without ever make changes in the text. It helps me understand how things fit into the themes (organize), but it lacks the spontaneity and feeling of the drafting process. It feels wrong, but I don’t know why.
I wondered if perhaps my distaste for just writing where things “need to be changed” (as a result of my development documents) is a sign that I should stick to poetry or other shorter things. That novels are just too long and dull to keep my interest—too much busy work (though I should point at that this was not as much the case when I was writing the first draft—it was the case sometimes, as I suspect it always is when just putting foam letters up without feeling any light is). But perhaps it’s more of a sign that I should be drafting more. There’s definitely no life in taking those logically developed changes into the text. Not in and of itself.
I’m glad this came up. It may mean I’ve done a lot of not so great or productive work—at least as far as the novel is concerned—but it means that I’m learning. Or perhaps relearning.
Also, even if I didn’t learn anything when writing, say 10 chapters that I end up deleting, it’s still worthwhile. It’s not wasted time. It’s a necessary part of the best process for writing. So when I’m afraid of not being productive, I need to remember that it’s less productive to only develop logically than it is to develop with both sides and delete three quarters of what I write. That’s the only way to grow and flourish and focus what the writing is to become—to cut and polish the gem.
Another thought. If I compare my poems to my novel, if I am drafting, I should be writing scenes, or units, all out of wack. Moving them around. Writing out of order. Writing up ahead or behind. Removing scenes by the armload. Interchangeably writing scene-focused and multi-scene-focused.
One thing comes to mind. Me developing apart from drafting reminds me of how I wrote that first short story about the magician and how my reader said it was super predictable. I had concluded that I was writing mostly left-brained and that the development outside of the writing was one way I was doing that. I wasn’t exploring or playing. I was trying to make things fit without exploring or playing. I was afraid to play. I think it takes both—both exploring and trying to make things fit. But it’s trying to make things fit as I explore, and I think the exploring comes first.
I fear that I am in the same boat now. And I think fear is probably the culprit. I’m afraid of it not fitting or making sense. I’m afraid of the theme not being robust or complex or impressive or beautiful or emotional or rich… And in fear, I’m trying to force it to fit instead of playing with it. It takes both.
Another thing. I remembered (and developed) all this as a result of regularly writing poetry. It reminded me what the process is like when it clicks. I should keep doing this short, experimental practice stuff. It well help sharpen me and keep me sharp.
Could the other come first at times? When would it be good for the making things fit to come first? Perhaps when there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. And maybe that’s it. Those problems come up as your exploring-fitting. It seems like you’d be vacillating between exploring-fitting and fitting-exploring. I think I remember Rico even saying something about that. But unless it begins with a problem that needs to be fixed—and this novel did not—then it begins with exploring-fitting.
A portal threat (in a narrative) seems to assume that danger is only external to one’s own world. It’s just not realistic. And it has more in common with a simplistic and separatist worldview—that we will cordon ourselves off from all threats in order to be safe—than a truly good one (a godly one).
In the good one, the hero enters into the darkness and faces danger, even at her own expense, in order to save the rest of them. Or to save the ones on the other side of the portal. Or simply out of faithfulness to a godly call, which is just faith working through love.
In the good one, the hero assumes the threat we already pose to ourselves—that even with portals closed, our doom remains—and the need to dialogue with philosophical and theological opponents in order to grow.
And so there is no, “We have to close the portal!” There is only, “Enter the portal! Enter all the portals!”
I am convinced that God delights in our continued and ever-broadening engagement with his creation. And I suspect the answer is never separation. At least not fully or permanently. It’s always connection.
I’m not sure if I want to have it or not. Tolkien doesn’t have a strict routine with it, though I believe he does have some commentary on things. Rowling also uses inner dialogue.
It seems that you can do a better job showing the progression of learning and feeling in the protagonist if you show not just how he or she acts but also how he or she thinks and feels. It’s a strength of writing that you can do this. It seems like it’d be a more fertile soil for showing the changes in the character, which is what the story is all about, really.
Are there any benefits to not having inner dialogue or commentary? It seems like it’d be harder for the reader to interpret what’s going on in the POE character. Readers would have to spend more thought on doing so, even if I wrote subtext masterfully (yeah right).
Perhaps one benefit would be greater show-don’t-tell and the effects it brings. It’d be like putting readers in the scene but not being players in the scene (even though I try to only show what the POE characters perceive anyways—just without their commentary). Whereas telling readers the POE characters’ thoughts is like giving them a view of the inside of the characters. What comes to mind is “Hills Like White Elephants.” But something to be pointed out is how hard it still is to know what’s going on there. You can do it, but you either have to be a good interpreter already, have that topic on your mind, or spend a lot of time and thought trying to figure it out (like me, and I still didn’t get it without help).
So this again brings up the topic of how intellectual should I try to make this? Assuming I could do it well enough, would it be better to make this more accessible or to make it more “masterful?” The latter seems a bit pretentious. I shouldn’t make something of the harder-to-do-and-harder-to-get without a good reason for doing so, and I think the reason that matters most to fallen me is because it’s the harder (and more prestigious) way to do it. At the same time, I do like the challenge, and it’s challenges that make me a better writer—“What’s the least that I could say with the greatest effect on the reader?” That’s always been a goal of mine, though I tend to still make things inaccessible to non-interpreters. Even trained interpreters have trouble with my stuff—even my professor. And that should say something (probably that I suck at subtext).
I really don’t know what to do.
Perhaps the answer is to have inner dialogue but to have action that speaks for itself, as if the inner dialogue wasn’t there. It seems like it’d be easy to use the dialogue as a crutch and to avoid trying to show through the POE character’s action at all. I think this would be a mistake. Indeed, it seems like I could do some interesting things with telling his thoughts and feelings and then having him act apparently other things—shows subtext.
Movies come to mind for showing through action only. I haven’t seen any (that come to mind) that use inner dialogue well. But there are many that do well without it. But a key difference is you get to see body language and facial expressions and you get to hear tone, which indicate a lot about inner dialogue, and which would be difficult to show without some kind of interpretive language being added concerning how they speak and act (in written form). This is actually something that came up a lot when writing my first draft. It’s hard to say how a person looks mad without having that interpretive description (or something like it or an interpretive metaphor for it), “mad.” It’d be lots of cues that could be interpreted a lot of ways, making it really hard to interpret. Doesn’t fit into “clear and concise” for any but the most patternistic and interpretive of persons. Not good.
Another thought. It seems common to think that persons naturally identify with the protagonist—they get carried through the protagonist’s journey and in some sense experience it as if they were the protagonist. It seems only natural to need to know what the protagonist is thinking as part of that experience. And again, for all but INTP literary persons, it’s much easier to know what he’s thinking to have his thoughts on paper rather than having to merely interpret them from actions and dialogue. I guess it depends on my audience, though. But I don’t want only literary types.
It seems like having no insight into the inner dialogue of the protagonist would work better in situations where readers weren’t supposed to identify with any single person, or something.
Another thing. It seems like readers would gain an intimacy with protagonists by learning their thoughts, whether those thoughts concord with the characters’ actions and words or not. And that’s a very good thing.
But I think I’ve stumbled into a muddled dichotomy. Writing an inner dialogue and revealing a character’s inner dialogue are not the same thing. Correlative–not causative. To the degree that a person masters subtext, and to the degree that readers can interpret subtext, an author can communicate a character’s inner dialogue. So regardless of which path I choose, 1) I need to get better at subtext (and never stop getting better at it) and 2) I need to think about what audience I want to pursue and what level of interpretive powers I should expect that audience to have. This second one is true of any communication. Duh, Patrick.
Some of my impetus for how I’ve been developing my world depends upon my inability to create without placing the gospel in whatever world I create. I feel like this is a shortcoming in me. I love a lot of worlds that don’t seem to incorporate the Gospel, like Harry Potter and Star Wars. They typically still have good versus evil, but there doesn’t seem to be any presence of God in them (and so no grounding for their good and evil—making them some kind of floating, rootless things, or making them dependent upon the audience’s assumptions about good and evil).
In the real world, good does not exist apart from God. If I am to write about good and evil, how can I not at least underpin it with God, if my world will be a secondary world? I’d have to be contextualizing my stories differently with the assumption that they aren’t like our world—at least not in all ways but only those ways that deal with whatever I would be trying to say. I don’t know if I am a free enough artist to work like that. I don’t know.
So if the central message of Harry Potter is that love wins and ambition loses and yet it doesn’t underpin love as proceeding from God, is it wrong? It’s true that love wins. But is it true “enough?” Is it not just another moral story, feeding moralism, unless a person has all the necessary underpinnings already? But that’s like saying any work of art has to require all prolegomena for their messages. A painting of two lovers on a picnic would have to somehow show their love starting with God to be “true enough.” Or paintings like “Icebergs” would have to show him as the creator to be “true enough.” That’s just silliness.
I wonder if this is some vestige of my legalism, attaching itself to my limited understanding of art. Can we not appreciate the beauty of aspects of life without incorporating all the elements that make those aspects inherently “Christian?” Is love not beautiful even if it’s not visibly connected with God at all times? Is it not beautiful even to unbelievers, and does it not draw unbelievers to God because it’s first beautiful without reference to God?
That’s an interesting idea. It’s beautiful without reference to God.
The reason it’s beautiful is because God is beautiful and because it is like God, so (5/30/2017 given the absence of sin and its perversiveeffects)the further into the search for beauty a person goes, the closer he comes to God. It’s the foothills, the distant view through a fog, of God’s character when it’s not visibly connected with him, and it becomes more beautiful as a person comes to see the two in conjunction with each other.
And I think I nailed my problem. I feel the need to make these things “Christian.” Whatever that means. I lack the freedom to appreciate them in and of themselves. Perhaps.
I have found my ability to appreciate art that does not speak of God more and more as I have grown in my belief of Christ and of grace and of the freedom we have from being sinless, from acting sinless, from making ourselves sinless. I have also learned more about what art is—what artists try to do with their art—which is not always representation of the way the world is—at least not in its entirety.
Art that is good, beautiful, and true doesn’t require those things that make it “Christian.” And if it is good, beautiful, and true, if it is subcreation, the creation of cosmos from chaos, it accords with the character of God, even if it doesn’t contain Christianity (or the Gospel, or the Scriptures, or history/future according to the Scriptures) or if it has things that, in and of themselves, do not exhibit Christianity or Christ.
What does “Christian art” even mean? L’Engle says there’s no such thing. There’s just good art. There’s cosmos out of chaos. And if it’s cosmos out of chaos, if it’s true and good and beautiful, it’s closer to God than art that’s “Christian” but that’s not true (or good or beautiful).
So what makes “Christian” art “Christian” to those who feel the need to make it, like I have tended to be? I used to not want to sing non-worship music. I also have not wanted to create worlds that ignore Christ or Christianity without reason that makes sense within our own world. I have not wanted to write about “good” characters who weren’t believers—characters who exist at the same time as us or after us. I think the feelings there had to do with not believing a person could be good without being a Christian and so feeling dishonest in making a story about them. It’s like writing a story about a dog that purs (when the whole world thinks it’s normal for dogs to pur) without explaining why he purs and that dogs should really bark. I haven’t wanted to write stories that ignore Scriptural prophecy about the future or history about the past, creating stories that contradict what really happened.
Perhaps it’s a fear connected with our (mainstream American Christianity’s) defensiveness against those who purport that we are wrong. Any breath that what we believe is wrong, and we become militant—even if people aren’t necessarily attacking us. Even if it doesn’t matter whether they attack or not.
Here’s a thought—people readily acknowledge that sci-fi, that fantasy, that even simple drama is fiction. They don’t take it as real—as depicting real life, reality, what’s real. Why can’t we write fiction that doesn’t include Christianity and be okay with it?
Can a sunset be beautiful even if it’s not overtly connected to the Creator? Can a dollar given to the poor be kind even if the Gospel isn’t spoken? Can an orphan whose parents were killed by AIDs be tragic even if sin’s precedence is never mentioned? Can a story depict good actions without mentioning Christ-like character and those actions still be good? Can a story praise love without naming the one from whom love comes and still be right to do so? Is love not praiseworthy in and of itself, even if it’s God who sits on the throne of praiseworthiness? Who sits on the throne of beauty? Who sits on the throne of goodness? And from whom all these things flow and on whom all of them depend?
Why do I sometimes, or in some of these things, feel the need to qualify them all with “only because of God!” without being able to appreciate them as they are? It’s not like me saying that makes me appreciate God more or appreciate those things more. At least I don’t think it does. It’s like a Christianity censor or something. If it doesn’t explicate Christianity (in all of its parts?), it’s wrong, or bad, or something.
Sidebar: If I’m wrong, and if I’ll change, it’ll be by grace through faith. Just saying.
You can write a story that includes God and Christianity and still be wholly untrue. You can write a story that doesn’t and is wholly true.
Fiction uses untruths to tell the truth. It could be fake people, fake conversations, fake fights, fake worlds, fake races, fake laws of nature, fake histories, fake futures, fake WHATEVERS. It’s fiction. It’s just that whatever you are saying should be true, if it’s to be good art. Cosmos from chaos.
This isn’t to say that you can’t have these “Christian” things. But why the compulsion to have them? Is it just a poor understanding of art? It’s not like I want to say things that have as their meaning (never finished this thought, apparently) …
Esther says nothing really about God or the covenant or anything really. It talks about the Jews, about circumstance (providence—Mordecai’s “for such a time as this” explanation), about the good choice of a woman and how she saved her people by her courage. It doesn’t really talk about her godly character, her faith. AND IT’S IN THE BIBLE. Why was it included? Because its message is true. Because it praises Esther’s courage. Because it’s part of Israel’s history (though not all of their history is included!). Because it hints at God’s sovereignty and his salvation of his people.
(1/19/2017—I marked out the above because the message of Esther is still overtly Jewish—it concerns God’s sovereignty and Esther’s character; I had that feeling as I wrote the paragraph, but I never fleshed it out; instead, I added the following paragraph.)
Perhaps a better example is a story like Samson’s. The contents include a godless man’s success over the Philistines. 5/30/2017 The message concerns God’s goodness to his people even in spite of their wickedness and his sovereignty even over wicked men. If translated into today’s context, it’d be like a story about Mel Gibson winning lost souls through The Passion of The Christ (hey, there you go). The contents are not Christian. The message is. The message just requires understanding what the author is trying to say, which includes understanding context where necessary.
So I don’t have to write stories that complement historical and organizational Christianity, they don’t have to complement the Scriptures (to the extent that they are orthodox). They aren’t (or don’t have to be) the Gospel, just like not every conversation has to be the Gospel, not every anything has to be the Gospel. In fact, making everything the Gospel strikes me as symptomatic of legalism.
I could write a story that depicts that Christ never existed or was a sham that would still be a true and beautiful and good piece of art. It’s all about what it would be saying by depicting him that way. For instance, “The world would be like this if Christ wasn’t true.” Or whatever.
The issue is, then, what is your message? Is it true? Is it good? Is it beautiful?
I think, ultimately, this is an issue of not understanding art and perhaps defensiveness/sensitivity about my belief system.
Contents and message are different.
With all that said, I am creating a world. I am within my bounds, within the bounds of good art, to create a world that complements the world I live in and has as its underpinnings content that is entirely Christian. It doesn’t necessarily make it bad art.
The question to ask, though, is does the Christian content help it become better or worse art? Does it enhance my message or detract from it? Does it improve the world or not? What’s the message of the world and of creating it as it is (see the document “Thoughts on the Message of My World”)?
1/19/2017 Furthermore, the true message doesn’t have to include all truth to remain true. If art is conversation, and I believe it is, the question should probably just be “What truth do you care to say?”
A rubber-clad fisherman stared into the ridges of a corrugated sea. A filament line speared the water below. He glanced into the sky, squinting against rain droplets, the wrinkles at the edge of his eyes groping toward his gramophone ears like fingers. The clouds had darkened to charcoal. Pulling his raincoat tight, he picked up a Styrofoam cup half filled with cocoa-colored soil. He stood, gathered his line, and turned from the ocean. Drizzle wet his cheeks, and he pulled his coat tighter. A few gulls accompanied him, cawing like lunatics and interrupting the waves’ rhythmic weep. One of them lit at his heels but soon rejoined the rabble, having found nothing but footprinted gull droppings. The man’s eyes passed over splinters and paint peels, and the plunk of his footfalls echoed as he stepped, stepped, stepped the forty feet from the edge of the dock to the threshold of his front door. He leaned his bamboo rod against the hovel, set his cup on the planks below, and disrobed, hooking his coat next to the door under a bit of roof. When he entered the one-room home, his daughter sprang with a shout from the three-chaired kitchen table, tackling his waist with a hug. The musk of wild mushroom soup followed her. The man’s wife, her back turned as she tended to their wood-burning stove, quicked a peripheral glance at his empty hands. He sat at the table, near the stove’s warmth, where he found a crust of this morning’s toast, leathery from the humidity, and chewed on it. His gaze ambled to the peg legs of another chair, where he noticed a jiggling black dot. A spider was thatching a tear in its invisible net. Behind it, a June bug hung, like a Summer Flounder, waiting to be filleted. After mending its net, the spider shouldered its meal and stole away, under the seat and out of sight. It returned unburdened and crept to a corner of the web, where it stilled, waiting.