Reason #10 : “I need to make some changes.”
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
— Mark Twain
We’re moving into dangerous territory here, because the more you get into a story, the more you’ll be tempted to go back and change things. Modestly sized things are OK; big and little things are a no-no. But how do you differentiate between modest thing, a big thing and a little thing? That’s where it gets tricky.
Lookout, Chekov’s got a gun!
Anton Chekov (1860-1904) is considered one of the greatest short story writers in history. He was a stickler for paring down details and removing extraneous information, once famously remarking, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It’s advice short story writers in particular might like to note, but its meaning has been twisted over the years, and the term “Chekov’s gun” has become shorthand for foreshadowing – the placement of an insignificant object early on that later turns out to be important.
To continue the gun metaphor, let’s say your hero, in a desperate situation, gets out of it by snatching a pistol from the top drawer of her desk. Whoa, hold on a sec. Where did that come from? We didn’t even know she owned a gun.
It’s a simple fix: to avoid startling the reader out of the story, you just need a little foreshadowing. Maybe ten chapters earlier she pushes the gun aside in search of a paperclip, and five chapters after that she sees it and thinks how she really must give granddad’s old service revolver to a museum. These passing hints of the gun’s presence, subtly masked by other establishing detail, make its eventual use much less surprising.
So far, so good. Go back and do a little foreshadowing. Insert the extra lines you need in the appropriate places then move away from the text! That’s it, keep your hands up where I can see them. Higher. Away from the keys. Now raise your index fingers, and we’re gonna do this nice and slow. Place one on the Ctrl key (Cmd if you’ve got a Mac) and use the other to tap the End key. There, we’re back at the end of the document. Easy, huh? Now, as you were. Carry on with your story.
You may not appreciate it, but you’ve just been saved you from a terrible fate. Something that’s ensnared me countless times. The horror of …
Rewriting (and rewriting, and rewriting)
“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
— Dorothy Parker
While you were wandering back through your text, fiddling with Chekov’s gun and looking for a place to put it, you almost certainly spotted a missing full-stop or some other punctuation glitch, a missing or misspelled word and were tempted to rewrite a sentence or two to clarify them. Little fix-ups like that are OK, but you must never let yourself get dragged into the deeper waters of wholesale changes. As I said at the start, this is dangerous territory because unless you’re really careful you’ll find yourself rewriting a paragraph, then a section, then a whole chapter, then the whole damn book to finally get back to the point where you simply needed the gun.
What’s wrong with that? Simple: the story hasn’t moved on. Remember, the aim of every writing session is to keep up the momentum and move the story on.
What’s more, you’ve slipped out of creative mode into editing mode. The two are very different. Creative mode is reclusive, quiet and shy, but it’s the one that makes your writing zing. The very last thing you want to do is frighten it away before the story’s finished!
And what happens when you come to the next “gun” and start doing the same thing? You’re creating a bad habit for yourself. And adding a huge amount of work. And, most likely, squeezing out whatever was fun, original and creative in your story in the first place.
Here’s a classic example of how I went back to place a “gun” and ended up shooting a day’s output in the head …
I keep a timesheet and a writing diary, (you can read more about that process in the bonus chapter at the end of this book – under Treat it Like a Business), and one notorious incident convinced me of the folly of going back and doing fix-ups. I once managed to produce 17 words in a four-hour session. For the mathematically inclined, that’s the heady sum of 4.25 words per hour, or one word every 14 minutes. So much for moving my story on!
I found a couple of sentences that needed tweaking, you see. Then a paragraph, then a description, then a whole chapter. Before I knew it, I was rewriting like a madman – doing second-draft stuff on my first.
It’s tempting, horribly, fiendishly tempting, but you have to resist it. Remember that two-finger salute; Ctrl + End (or Cmd + End) to return to the bottom of your text and keep advancing your story.
A writing secret: Gun safety
There’s another reason to be wary of Chekov’s gun. What if the “gun” in question is something bigger? What if it’s a character flaw, or ability, or something you hadn’t realised about your lead until this point? Perhaps she’s been vehemently anti-guns all through the story. What’s this one doing in her drawer? How does she even know how to use it? Now you’ve got a bit more explaining to do.
(Perhaps her dad was a gun nut. Perhaps he’d drag her off to gun ranges to practise target shooting, something she hated and was hopeless at. But he wasn’t all bad. They had fun times together too, and she keeps that old thing in her drawer as a memento …)
This, obviously, is going to need a lot more work. Not just foreshadowing for the gun, but character foreshadowing too. Whole incidents. Childhood memories. How the hell are you going to handle that?
This is too big, so you’re not going to do it right away. You’re going to carry on.
I’ve mentioned before how I work with two parallel documents; the actual story and a synopsis/notepad that also acts as a dumping ground for plot points, ideas and possibilities. A simple note to myself will do it: “Chapter 40. Foreshadow the gun in childhood, background, etc.” Then I’ll switch back to the text and carry on with the story. Notes like that will be carried to the bottom of the synopsis as the story unfolds, and they’ll become the input for any second-draft changes. The natural places to put them will pop out at you on the read-through, and it’s not only easier but more efficient than wading back trying to fit them into stuff you wrote weeks or months earlier.
Keep your focus on the finish line. Place the occasional modest-sized “gun” if you must, but be careful you don’t blow your writing fingers off.
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”
— Anne Lamott
KEY POINTS FROM THIS CHAPTER
♦ Exercise caution going back through your manuscript to make changes, especially on the first draft. Add or delete a line or two by all means, but avoid the temptation to start making corrections or trying to “improve” your prose.
♦ Getting it down is far more important than making it perfect first time through.
♦ You can polish prose and plaster over plot holes later, just get it written!
 If you’ve got a MacBook I’ll let you use three fingers. Hit Cmd + FN + the right arrow. [return]
Previous Reasons for NOT Writing …
PART I : GETTING STARTED
Reason #1: “I don’t have time!” Reason #2: “I got distracted.” Reason #3: “My mind’s a blank.”
Reason #4: “I need to research this.” Reason #5: “I’m not qualified.” Reason #6: “I’m not in the mood.”
Reason #7: “I can’t get started.”
PART II : KEEPING GOING
Reason #8: “I’ve hit The Wall.” Reason #9: “I’ve got writer’s block.”