Over at LifeHacker a recent post by Kevin Purdy relates perfectly to my 10 Minute Writer experience. Although anecdotal, some of the conclusions are similar to mine. In particular – limiting the scope of a session helps you to focus on the task at hand.
A quote after the jump:
In my own case, the BSP [Big Serious Project] is a blog project I’m working on (and not quite ready to link to), one aiming to create a search-able catalog of restaurants in a certain region. If I start thinking about the competition, the design demands, the future technologies I’ll have to implement (“Dear God, what if it doesn’t have static page caches?”)—it feels like something I might be able to do a little on this weekend, or maybe Monday morning, but, wait, isn’t my wife’s flight arriving then? On the other hand, If I give myself 45 minutes at a Panera to pound on the site’s design files, and only those files, I’ve actually accomplished something. The rest of the BSP is still sitting there, it hasn’t melted into a puddle because I refused to quit my day job for it, and I’m a little bit closer to knowing just how big it really is.
So this describes a session, but it also implies a focus. A defined set of objectives for a session. I think I may have missed this trick up til now. I tend to be happy to file my wordcount and move on, pleased with my improved productivity.
Purdy argues that sessions should be associated with clear and achievable goals, even when additional work might be required to add polish to the creative phase.
For a lot of web developers, long before they start integrating a new protocol or platform into their work, they hack together a rough demo over a long weekend to make sure they truly grasp how it works. And a weekend-scale implementation on a personal site usually translates roughly into a 90-day implementation cycle in a business context, which is a reasonably approachable project size.
This reminds me that there are some interesting overlaps between code and fiction, but that’s not my point right now. Today I returned to do a rough edit on a chapter I wrote a couple of weeks ago. It was a shock.
The effect of recent experiments was obvious. I’d clearly had a good time with the minute details of the location. I described the abandoned concrete mall that has become a military HQ. And the apartment from which my protagonist watched soldiers preparing for patrol. I described the curtains. I described the ceiling and its tracery of cracks, like countries. I described the bookshelves, and the rugs, and the doors. I described… a lot.
It’s not that the writing itself is bad. It’s just that most of it is in the wrong place. I have planted a reasonably effective conflict at the heart of this chapter, I believe. But it’s hard to find it beneath the sheer amount of stuff in the way. Then there are the asides. I have more digressions than Tristram Shandy. Little potted bios sprout from the space left by walk-on characters. An ornament on the shelf conjures an interesting tale. The bad tempered cook has a wealth of revealing opinions about local life and mores, and I couldn’t resist spending some time developing her world.
So what went wrong here? In a way, absolutely nothing. I have followed my own advice. I’ve written the scene a number of times with a different focus. First on action, then setting, then gesture. I’ve threaded together a succession of writing sessions, each one creative and interesting. I’ve freed myself from my fear of writing with this technique, but I’m also untethered from goal. I’ve thrown words at the scene without much concern as to whether they really need to be there. Let the editor sort it out.
Well the editor is here now, and talk about killing your darlings. I’m mowing them down with a semi-automatic weapon. Of course, I’m not that brutal. I’m actually pasting them to one side. There are probably gems in the outtakes that I can sprinkle around with a less heavy hand later on in the story. Incidentally I believe Roz Morris advocates a similar darling-rescue strategy.
So I think it’s time for a course correct. My short writing sessions remain useful for me, but as Purdy suggests, they need to be associated with tightly defined, easily achievable goals. Without those, you could end up just noodling self-indulgently.
Meanwhile, back to the edit. Three hundred word description of a saddlebag anyone? Hello?