The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Fourth Commandment of Writing

#4:   Thou shalt write thy first drafts in a passionate fever, then re-write at leisure.

It is not a mortal sin to violate this particular commandment, but you’ll miss a lot of fun…and quite possibly miss access to some of your deepest and richest veins of creativity.

There are two different parts of your head that fight over your writing.  The “flow” mode where you create new text, and your “editing” mode where you evaluate what you have written. And unless you are an advanced writer, these two aspects should never be combined.

In allowing yourself to write from the core of your being, pure emotion, you find yourself in a bit of literary free-fall, without a conscious, intellectual safety net to catch you. The experience is both exhilarating and frightening.  But guess what..?

Well, I can probably best illustrate my point with a story. Back when I was working on “The Legacy of Heorot” with Niven and Pournelle, I hit a bit of a…let’s call it a financial bind.  I needed to turn in a bit chunk of that book early, and plead with my editor to cut loose with some of the advance money.  So for three days I did nothing but type.  Now, I’d plotted out the text first.  Knew where I was going, what was going to happen, who it was going to happen to.

When I sat down to write, I pretty much threw myself into pure visual mode, and just machine-gunned on the computer, simply describing the pictures I saw in my head. 
Then after three days, I went back in, jaw grimly set, and began to edit.  To my delighted surprise, I found that after a day of editing, that three days of work, totally about 20,000 words…actually looked pretty good.

In fact, it looked almost exactly the same as if I’d hunted and pecked and agonized over every word.  Why?  Because the part of us that creates is not the conscious, intellectual part, even though that conscious part does all in its power to convince us it is the biggest, smartest aspect of our psyche.

When we write at mach speed, you bypass this hunt-and-pecker, and begin to free up the nutty, impossibly talented creative core of our being. 

Now, this technique works with any length work I’ve tried, but it’s terrifying to write an entire novel this way—I don’t recommend that.  But you CAN write chapters and book chunks this way, polish, and then continue onward. That works just fine.

The best way to learn this, though, is by working on short stories…oops!  Are we back to short stories again?  Heh heh.

They are, quite simply, the fastest way to learn your craft, and commandment #4 is just one reason.  More tomorrow…

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