Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Trying to Learn the Art of Not Tinkering with Shit

There are a million blogs about how to craft a story. There are so many articles about plot structure, character development, and scenes that ‘a million’ might be a reasonable estimate rather than hyperbolic. But I’ve got a problem that none seem to have addressed—how to stop crafting a story.

I re-work projects to death.

I get 30k words into one story, decide it should be something entirely different, and go back to tinker. And tinker. Fiddling with a story, for me at least, isn’t about the drive for perfection. I’ve got no internal copy editor demanding accurate comma placement. For me, it’s about embracing the excitement of inspiration, the organic growth of plot and characters that occurs during the writing process, when characters’ interactions show you an entirely new side to the person you’re writing about.

Thanks to my fiddling, my current work-in-progress has grown a smidge. It started life as a mystery centered around an on-campus murder, and the university gardener who has to work with an old flame to clear his name. It’s somehow evolved into three different stories, each with entirely different characters, themes, settings, and romance tropes. And none of them are going to be ready to submit any time soon, because despite the fact that I’ve written over 150k words this year, I keep tinkering with the stories themselves so much that those words don’t actually come together to make a whole book, much less the three I intended.

I’m doing a watercolor class that’s really driven home how deeply ingrained my urge to tinker with things is. Watercolor isn’t like other paint, where you can add white or lighter values as needed. Nope. In watercolor, you must plan out your highlights and white values in advance. You have to carefully craft shadows so you can see the light. Unlike with stories, when you screw it up, there’s no going back. And maybe that’s a good thing. If I could erase paint and start over, I might never actually finish a picture.

My attempts at painting have all ended up a lot like my fiction—a little bit too much here and there, until eventually it feels like a muddy mess. It’s taken practice to be able to stop myself from adding more shadows, more color, one more glaze, etc., but I finally managed to keep a bit of empty paper on a project this morning! It’s still an overworked mess, don’t get me wrong, but it’s progress.

When a painting is saturated with color and quickly blending into mud, it’s painfully obvious that you need to put down the brush, go grab a beer, and maybe try a fresh start tomorrow. When you’re crafting a story, though, there’s no easy way to see when you’ve gone one insane plot twist too far, given a character too many potentially issues, added too much sex, or just dragged a scene on too long. Once a story is coherent enough to sell, there are editors who can tactfully make suggestions about where you’ve screwed up—but until a writer gets to that point, it’s all a question of personal judgement.

I stopped painting! Not soon enough, but still....!
If I can learn to walk away from a watercolor and leave it the hell alone, I think there’s hope. If I can apply that lesson to writing, I might finish an entire draft without tinkering with the story itself, then I can finally share these three couples with the world.

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