shifting strategies

Someplace or another I read an interview with Gabriel García Márquez, the master of modern day magical realism. In that interview he talked about his writing process, and the thing that jumped out at me: sometimes it takes him weeks to get the first paragraph right, but after that, the story moves.

I think probably a lot of authors have this kind of mental process on one level or another. In my own case, I think of it as the subconscious traffic cop holding up one of those stop signs until I’ve got that one paragraph or sentence down in a way that suits the story as it is developing behind the scenes. If you push ahead through the stop sign, you are bound for trouble.

In my experience it can be the worst feeling, being so close to getting it right… but not quite close enough. Every time you look up from the screen, there’s the cop waving that sign in your face. I have lost many hours of sleep over the years arguing with my subconscious traffic cop. I have gone into light hypnotic trances in places where I should have been paying attention, trying to grasp a sentence by the tail.

A few years ago I broke the established pattern. I’m not really sure how it happened. I had been agonizing over a scene that I just couldn’t do without. I’d start and rewrite and restart and rewrite, change pov, change settings, and pretty much stand on my head but it just would not work. My muse, that insufferable bitch, was having a grand old time making me writhe, and using the opportunity to flirt outrageously with the traffic cop.. And then the most outlandish, most revolutionary idea came into my conscious mind. Without allowing myself to really think about it, I wrote these words on the page:

[market scene here]

And I moved on. Later, a few days if I remember correctly, I went back and tried again without any luck. So I just left it. Then one day out of nowhere, the solution came to me and I wrote the damn scene in about an hour flat.

Where was the traffic cop, I asked myself. The one who had held me up so many times for so long, in league with my muse, the sadistic bitch. Was he just… gone? And why am I so sure he’s a he? What’s a male traffic cop doing in the employ of my subconscious? Dad, is that you?

Never mind, I told myself. Let’s just pretend for the moment that the cop and the stop sign are both gone, and you will never again be blocked by that one sentence or paragraph or scene. From now on you’ll just put the pesky thing in brackets and move on. For example: [civil war here] or [destruction of the solar system here] or [the meaning of life here].

But of course the cop wasn’t gone for good. He’s there, but he’s not quite so ruthlessly by-the-rules as he once was. Once in a while I can pull out the brackets without his whistle rattling my eardrums. As I did just yesterday. This time it was:

[what she notices about the birds in the woods beyond the strawberry fields on this early spring evening]

The traffic cop grumbled a little, and then settled down. So maybe he’s getting more mellow as he gets older. Which is odd, because I most certainly am not.

7 Replies to “shifting strategies”

  1. What? Doesn’t everybody do this? I guess not. In putting together software systems, this is exactly what I did. Couldn’t figure out how to get from X to Z. So I’d put it aside to work on N to P and sleep on the X to Z, maybe more than 1 night. Usually it would come full blown to me when I wasn’t thinking about it at all, like at a traffice light. More often it came to me while brushing my teeth.

  2. I have been doing this with science writing. I find it very liberating. I end up working on the things that I really like and am interested in. Then after I feel like I’ve made sufficient progress for the day, I tackle one of those difficult sections. It really works for me and makes writing not seem quite so difficult.

  3. I’m still learning to not “sweat” it. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying over how a particular scene would play out or how it would work in the scope of the larger picture. Finally, I’d give up — and then it just worked — and I wondered why I fretted so much over it in the first place.

  4. Heh. I too leave “placemarks” in text like that.

    Usually the solution comes to me (a) when I am in the shower or (b) after I have just turned out the light and am supposed to be settling down to sleep.

    Or, worse, when I all I have to write on are 1×2 Post-Its and I have to string about 15 of them together to get the idea down.

    My muse is quite the trickster ;-)

  5. I do the same thing – and if there are words in a sentence I can’t quite think of or decide upon when I’m really in the flow of it, I stick in AAA and keep going. I find all the AAAs later with a quick search, and insert proper words as I think of them. (I, um, do the same thing with formal work documents too – which I then check and recheck with the search function, having submitted a page dotted with AAAs to my boss by accident not long ago. Whoops.)

  6. I know a lot of people find this a really useful technique; it’s just that I could never do it. Not for years. I couldn’t jump ahead or skip difficult scenes. I’ve kinda learned to do it now, but only in a very limited way.

  7. It’s something I picked up at uni, actually – when I was in the flow of an essay but couldn’t remember the exact reference I wanted to make. In the last couple of years, I’ve been using AAA in the place of specific words I can’t quite grasp – it lets me keep going without stopping to agonise over the a particular adjective or place name.

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