Friday, May 11, 2012

Know When To Fold 'Em


I admit it. I’m a Kenny Rogers’ fan. A 1940s femme fatale in a short story that I wrote for an anthology was inspired by one of his songs. The name of the victim who died in the first chapter of my fourth mystery owed his name to another Rogers’ songs. I mention this because recently I had occasion to think of the lyrics from “The Gambler.” You remember. That song about an old gambler on “a train bound for nowhere” who trades some words of advice about life for a taste of the narrator’s whiskey. Anyway, I thought of the song after I had offered some advice – no whiskey exchanged – to a yet-to-be-published writer. We were chatting, and she told me that she was working on her first book but had hit a wall and had not been able to move forward. I assured her that happens to us all now and then and encouraged her not to give up. I suggested some tricks that might get her started again. For example, sitting down at her computer and typing the first thing that came into her head and going on until something clicked. I encouraged her not to worry about getting it right, but instead to push through. Get that first draft completed and then she would be able to see the shape of her story.

The problem with this good advice is that I myself can’t write that way. I revise as I go along. Rewrite the first fifty pages over and over again until I get my rhythm. Keep revising and rewriting and dragging it out until I finally get to the end. And then still have to revise some more. So the advice to push through that first draft is advice that I’ve never been able to follow.

On the other hand, the problem this writer was describing seemed to be writer's block related to uncertainty about her ability to finish the book. So maybe it was the right advice.

But the conversation did get me thinking about ideas that work and ideas that don’t. It’s important to know when a story simply isn’t working, isn’t going to work, should be discarded because even though it seemed to be a great idea when you started, the reality is it was more flash than substance.

As I thought about this, I realized that I am not the best person to advise someone about being able to tell the difference between a good idea and a bad one. I may discard a bunch of ideas before sitting down to write, but I've never had to stop mid-book. This is not because I’m brilliant. It’s because of my process – or maybe I should say my nature.  As a writer, I’m a magpie – omnivorous, not above scavenging for scrapes and even “road kill.” What I mean is that I pick up bits and pieces. An idea here, another there. Something read, something heard. And I do that for weeks, months, before starting a book.

Not everything will fit. Some of it actually gets entered into that file I keep on my computer for stray story ideas. But the story that comes together is made up of the scrapes, the bits and pieces, that are floating around in my head and the one thing that connects them. And that’s why when I do sit down to work, I don’t have to ask myself if the idea is a story. The question is whether I can write this story that I can see in my head. But I look at my cards and wager that I can because I’m excited about the story I want to tell.

I did go back to a few random writing books from my shelves for words of wisdom about how to evaluate an idea for its viability. I like a suggestion that Laura Whitcomb offers in Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques That Ensure A Great First Draft. She suggests that one way to find the “core” of your novel is by “writing your jacket copy as revelation.” Writing jacket copy should force you as the author to think about the “big question” in your book, the important events, and the tone of the novel.

If you’re unable to come up with jacket copy this might suggest that the idea needs a bit more work before sitting down to try to write the book. More work . . . not the same as throwing in your hand and walking away. Just a sign that you need to play magpie and do some more scavenging before gambling that your plot will come together. 

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

I guess I'm a scavenger too, Frankie. For some reason every thing I come across seems to fit whatever book I'm working on.