Chucking the ballast

What are you carrying around that prevents you from picking up new things?

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If there’s one tip I should take to heart – not only as related to writing, but other stuff as well – it’s that sometimes in order to move forward you need to chuck things out. Even though you’ve put in a lot of work on them. I mean, I’ll keep snippets of deleted scenes for years, trying again and again to include them in new stories – and it never works, because the tone is off, or I’m not thinking through how the old scenes fit into the new timeline.

I know this, and yet I keep making the same mistake. I’m so loath to throw away things I’ve toiled over for hours and hours, but sometimes… you just have to. Put it down to a learning experience and move on.

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I don’t know why I don’t do this more often. I mean, I love writing, and yet it’s like I avoid writing by reusing old stuff. As if I can’t trust myself to come up with new words.

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Or is it just laziness? I don’t know. But today I came across an amazing writing tip on Tumblr that really spoke to my fetish for logical hierarchies, and I decided to try it out. START FROM SCRATCH for once, instead of trying to squeeze a stagnated WIP into a new structure and ending up with an even bigger mess than before.

So. I brought a pen and notebook into the garden and got to work the old-fashioned way. And after ten minutes or so I had to run inside and continue on my laptop, because my longhand couldn’t keep up with all the brand new ideas that kept popping into my head!

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At the end of the day I had an entire new novel mapped out, and it turns out that I can actually use minor scenes from one of those pesky WIPs in this new story. But the thing is that this time I started with the structure, with a departure and an arrival point that guided everything else, so when I use old material I know exactly where to put it for it to make sense in the dramaturgy instead of just cramming it in any old where.

Now, I won’t lie and say that structure is everything. It’s a tool that takes you some of the way, but not all the way. Sometimes you need to break the rules you’ve set up to move forward. The plot is a map that guides you, but sometimes you need to ignore the map for a while and trust the terrain. The whole process is like a pendulum that swings between structure and anarchy. Use the tool until you get stuck, then chuck the tool and improvise until you get stuck, etc.

That’s how you build a story.

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My eccentric app

I’m slowly coming to terms with the dictation app I’m using. I used to go for long walks, telling my story to an mp3 recorder, and then I used to transcribe it, but the method was too time-consuming. So I thought I’d try out a dictation app instead.

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Now, you can’t expect too much of a technology that is still in its infancy, and at first I hated it. Over time, however, I’ve learned its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve discovered what words it misunderstands most often, so that I can change my pronunciation accordingly. For example, “he” often becomes “you” for some reason. Another thing I’ve learned is to ignore most of the mistakes the app makes. When I first started using it, I immediately corrected everything that didn’t turn out the way I wanted. This meant that most of the time I wanted to spend on “writing”, I was rerecording tricky words or even typing them. It made my walks precarious (since I didn’t look where I was going) and ineffective. By now I’ve learned to leave most of the text intact and then clean it up as soon as I come home, while I still remember what I really meant. If I come across totally unintelligible gobbledegook I read it aloud, and that usually jogs my memory.

One funny thing about the app is that it tries to educate me in polite conversation. I use some “vulgar language” in my writing: yes, my characters sometimes curse. So if I say “he was pissed off” or “what the fuck was he going to do”, that’s what I want the app to write. No such thing. It changes these phrases to “he was p*issed off” and “what the f*ck was he going to do”. It even puts in two asterisks in g*d*mnit! Excuse me, but I’m the user here. I think I know what I want the text to say, okay? Besides, I’m writing in a fairly risqué genre as it is. If the app wants to change all that language to asterisks, my books will consist of little else.

But in the end, for all its faults, the app does catch about 3/4 of what I say correctly. It even understands phrases like “question mark” and “dot dot dot”. That said, sometimes it’s like autocorrect gone mad. For example, today I wanted to say “When Jamie went through his mother’s record collection, he discovered all sorts of jazz, bebop and blues.” A perfectly ordinary sentence, right? Well, this is where technology shows that we still have a long way to go before we’ve created Artifical Intelligence. Because what the app suggested was “When Jamie went through his mother’s record collection, he discovered all sorts of Justin Bieber balloons.”