My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Keep Going or Start Over (Mailbox)

Should I start a work over or keep going if I see a revision that needs to happen?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Props (and jumping the question queue) if you can come up with interesting questions about the industry.]

Lola asks:

Again, thanks a lot for your blog, it helps more than you can imagine.  

I've got a question: what to do when you realize that you might have taken your plot the wrong [direction] while you are still writing the first draft? Is it better to keep writing until it's done and to save the big change for the second draft or to start again immediately? 

Like taking the plot of the "wrong" beginning, for example, to start the story in the chronological order, only to realize that it would be much better if some of the earliest stuff were revealed during the story, and that it [the story] should start a lot later. 

I hope what I write is understandable though... Sorry if it isn't. I'm not good at explaining... 

[Note, I did some grammar and syntax touch up on this letter to help its clarity, but tried very hard to keep the original meaning.]

My reply:

You did just fine.

The problem isn't trying to describe this. The problem is that what you're trying to describe is a total mess. We have ALL had this moment. "Oh my god. I have to go back and redo this. If I change this thing, it will be better."

And they might be. Or you might be kidding yourself. Or you might not be trusting the process. Or you might be about to make the best decision for this work that you possibly could. Or there might be rabid lemurs in your pants. But we can probably narrow a few things down.

First of all, do you live in Madagascar and did you put on very loose pants this morning? No. Great, we can mark that one off the list straight away. Let's move on.

In your case, Lola, it sounds like you should keep going, but let's unpack this for the folks at home.

When I was in my writing program, there were process classes and workshop classes, and in most of the workshop classes, at some point, we had to revise something that the group had already read so everyone could see the changes. Generally, there were three types of writers. There were a tiny smattering of writers who did some major changes based on their feedback and their work was SO improved. But then the other two.....  One group made almost no changes. They maybe changed one word or moved a sentence around. They fixed their grammar. Their masterpiece could not be improved. The other group would go completely the other way. Each draft they produced was basically an ENTIRELY NEW STORY. It would have a new plot, maybe a new character. It was almost not recognizable. It wasn't revision that they were doing--it was a new story (or more to the point, a new first draft).

The question you're asking me won't take a lot of space and pixels to answer, but it will NOT be "easy" for you on the other side of the blogosphere. You have to do the hard work of introspection, self-criticism, and evaluation. Because what I'm about to give you, instead of an answer, is sort of a "do-it-yourself kit" to assemble your own answer FOR YOU. It's never always better to start over or always better to plow on.

You have to weigh some pros and cons. But you have to do it with a considerable amount of naked self-honesty because starting over is one of the ways we trick ourselves into not trusting the process. We've all seen the person who is singing something or playing something or reciting something and they make the TINIEST mistake (that maybe you didn't even notice) and have to start over.

You HAVE to trust the writing process, Lola. You have to trust that your draft, when it is done, will be complete crap. That it will need rewrites, revisions, and extensive editing. You have to trust that you will find entire sections that are not working. You have to trust that your second draft may involve removing a character, changing a major theme, completely altering the plot, or something equally dramatic. You have to trust that there will be some real, substantive changes.

And one of the things that starting over can very, VERY easily be, is a fundamental distrust of the process. (Especially if you see a new writer starting over again and again.) They're not trusting that they are going to finish with a shitty first draft. They are starting over again and again to try to get it right in one shot. If your motivation for starting over is because there is a mistake in your first draft....fuggedaboutit. There is ALREADY a mistake in your first draft. There are already fifty mistakes....per page. Get over it! The only way to really deal with them is to get it all out and see what you're dealing with.

There's a reason one of the fundamental pieces of advice you will find (after "read a lot" and "write a lot") that EVERY SINGLE working writer agrees on is some variation of "Finish your shit!" Because we writers come prepackaged with so many excuses and rationalizations and ways to not make it to the finish line with our creative efforts, and starting our first drafts over when we notice a big mistake is one of them.

If you are in considerable doubt, keep moving forward. That would be my only hard, fast, solid advice that isn't on a continuum. If you don't think that starting over would REALLY, TRULY be better for your work, you're better off to keep going. There's really nothing you can't do in revision.

Are the changes mostly cosmetic? If you are mostly changing the order of some scenes, erasing some minor characters, changing a setting or something, you don't need to start over. Just make a note, and catch it in revision. Change the point of view? It might mess you up when you look back to see who said something, but you can probably figure it out*. The more substantive the change is, however, the more it is probably going to fuck you up to alter the work mid-stream. Take out a major character? Okay now there might be parts of your timeline that are messed up, especially if your story is character-driven. Change genre? You may end up with an entirely different set of tropes that don't work and play well together. (Trying to solve a murder in Victorian England is a bit different than in Cyberpunk future.) Alter the plot significantly? You definitely can't just keep cheerfully going like there wasn't just a Dalatronian Death Flu two pages ago!

(*This is why it sounds to like to me you should keep going, Lola. You talked about "plot going in the wrong direction, but then what you described was actually just some timeline restructuring––starting the story a little later and working some of the beginning in a later points. So unless I'm missing something, you can totally just start doing this going forward, make notes into your draft about what what has come before, and Tetris the narrative on revision.)

Are you really sure? And I mean really REALLY sure? One of the risks you're playing with is that you write out the new form of the story and realize you were right the first time. (I mean, it's a low risk from the standpoint that you can just make a save file with the old version, but if you start over, you're making a whole new investment of time and energy. If you're just fiddling with the knobs to see how it feels, you might end up with two first halves of a story, no ending, and be a little dejected. And I'm not saying writers don't often have to throw away work (they do) or start something over (of course!), but we lose so many hours of wordsmithing by fate, it's sometimes worth not trying to do the same thing to ourselves by design. How would it feel instead to finish with whatever changes you are thinking about, and then you have a complete work and two functioning halves, of which you can pick the one you feel is working the best?

I recently restarted a major work in progress. I realized my entire narrative voice was wrong. Now I could have switched straight over and just kept writing, but my OWN thinking in this was that I was going to keep stumbling over that old voice if I didn't expunge it. Narrative voice is one of the most major changes I could make with the exception of a total plot restructuring or removing a main character. And for me, since one of my techniques for getting myself into the headspace for writing is to read my old stuff for a few minutes, I didn't want the "wind drag" of that old voice bringing down the more comedic voice I'm trying to adopt. I also figured that the easier place to establish an entirely new narrative voice would be within the part of the story I had already written, so that I really had a sense of its ebb and flow before I also had to write new content.

At the end of the cliché, remember that you are the only one you have make happy right now. The first draft is for you. I can warn you of the pitfalls that so many writers have fallen into before you on the quest to get their work DONE––or more accurately: rationalized SWAN DIVING into––but I can't tell you what will bring you artistic catharsis. If having that old problem back in the first half is going to mess with your calm and cause a "buzzing sound" in the ear of your motivation going forward, don't worry so much about what this article thinks. Go ahead and rewrite it.

Bard knows you were going to have to anyway.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Narrative 4 "If We Outlaw Guns, Only Outlaws Will Have Guns."/"Criminals Don't Obey Laws."

Listen, this is fucking rich coming predominantly from the same group of folks that have twisted themselves into pretzels to criminalize sex work, abortion, drugs that are as mild as alcohol, and even First Amendment civil protest.

But it is also a deep post hoc fallacy. "He did it, therefore no law could have prevented it." A clever chiasmus wording does not a sound argument make.

This narrative demonstrates a breathtaking lack of awareness of how basic, fundamental laws work. When we make something contraband, we know it's still going to be out there...just not as much. We don't just pass a law making things illegal but still keep the fucking things available at every local Walmart...except now it's illegal; we also pass other laws around the whole market to create "chokepoints" that cut down on the means and opportunity of someone being able to get their hands on it if motive outweighs illegality as a deterrent.

Technically nothing is stopping me from running through a Starbucks with a war rhinoceros either, but as I begin to contemplate the logistics of such a plan (availability of rhinos, availability of rhino armor, likelihood of making it to Starbucks before being apprehended), I realize it would probably be really hard to pull off and I'd rather play Shadows of Mordor.  If I could pick up what I needed on my way home from work tomorrow, I might be more inclined to ideate this plan.

I know I could get a lawn dart if I wanted to. YOU know I could get a lawn dart. Hell, I could probably design a lawn dart if I cared enough. (I don't actually want a lawn dart, but they're out there, even though they're illegal.) But we don't just throw up our hands and say "Oh well. It's still possible to get lawn darts. Guess all laws are useless. Might as well stock them at the local CVS." I know I might get arrested for trying and the price will be really high and I can't just go to the lawn dart store that orders them from the lawn dart factory and that is the same thing that happens when laws make anything contraband.

Lastly, it's an absurd, ridiculous, ludicrous claim. It's like standing in front of one's neighborhood composed of nothing but blue houses and saying that painting houses blue simply won't work. There are several other countries that stopped this bullshit in its tracks or at least cut it down by passing laws. These laws absolutely DO work and saying they don't is being deliberately obtuse.

All these "can't put the toothpaste back in the tube" arguments try to envision a world where the only legal change is that a switch is just flipped in some room from "legal" to "illegal," and suddenly there is a flooded black market and tons of hidden weapons. And yeah...you know what? Some of that's going to happen. But acting like buyback programs and outlawing parts and ammo and seizing weapons that are found in the course of other searches or whatever won't have an impact in five to ten years is absolutely the pinnacle of tactical mendacity. It's not like "The Black Market™" has an outlet store in the strip mall on Fifth St.

Bullshit rating: Big Steaming Pile

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Narrative 3- "No Law Could Have Prevented a Determined Actor."

This is logically meaningless. It's claiming to be omniscient about causality. Bad argument, good chap. (Sips brandy.)

It would just as logical to say: "He did it, but ANY law could have prevented it." Maybe if there had been an extra stop light on the way there, he would have had that much longer to think about it and changed his mind or gotten thirsty, gone to the Subway first and met up with someone he fancied in fourth grade. The point is we don't KNOW and using that umbra of ignorance to presume that nothing could have made any difference is at least shitty critical thinking.

But perhaps more to the point is its implication. According to this logic, we should have no laws. Ever. For any reason. Because they won't stop 100% of bad things from happening and won't prevent a determined actor from doing whatever it is any way.

This is not how society societies. Hell, it's not even how humans human. From the first time Ug said to Oog, "You no eat best part of elk if no kill, or you not come next hunt," humans have understood the concept of a deterrent.

We don't throw up our hands and say "what could possibly have changed this" when children are dead. Even if it's an earthquake or tsunami or something, we STILL come up with better building codes and better preparedness.

We banned lawn darts after one kid died.

Tide pods are now in lock-up in the grocery store and have disclaimers and a bitter tasting coating after a few people went to the hospital.

I have to take my shoes off every time I fly because of that one guy with the shoe bomb twenty fucking years ago.

We didn't throw up our hands and say "What possibly could have prevented this? Certainly no law. Guess I better tweet something poignant."

We only do that with one thing: guns.

Bullshit Rating: Mammothian pile growing mushrooms out of it.

Narrative 2- "Don't Politicize It./It's too soon."

Actually...it's too late.

We should have been talking about it yesterday.

Did you know I drafted a little over half of this article in the days right after Parkland, came back after Santa Fe, started retooling it after Gilroy determined to set aside time for it after Santa Fe and Dayton. (Although Odessa had happened before I managed to start.) I did not write this in the last few days. Life kind of turned up to eleven and it's a HUGE article, so it went on the back burner. And to my horror, and this country's shame, I knew that we would be here again in time, and this article would be topical.


This is where we are as a society right now. In the umbra of absolute certitude that this is going to keep happening. Literally locked in a cycle where I can be talking about the MOST RECENT school shooting and not even miss a beat.

"Don't politicize this" after an unforeseen tragedy, by someone who shoehorns it into an agenda that is only tangentially related, is a reasonable reaction to some partisan spin and politicians with particularly cavalier moxie. Things like the PATRIOT Act with its surveillance and torture exceptions being whipped up before the country could think straight after 9/11 is politicizing a tragedy.

In August of 2002, George Bush Jr. stood in the aftermath of a wildfire while the ground was still hot from embers and announced that he was going to allow more logging so that forests would be "thinned" and nothing like this would ever happen again.

That is politicizing a tragedy.

If this were a Bascule bridge that failed every few days and sent people to their deaths, the engineer would not be politicizing it to say "NOW will you listen to me?" after each fresh death toll.

Standing in the carnage of yet another school shooting and saying "We have to stop this" is not politicizing it. And only the people callow and superficial enough to consider the slightest gun regulations a partisan issue would claim so.

Even if this weren't rich, first-rate hypocrisy from many of the same folks who cheered and "heart" reacted when their leader tweeted a snide remark about a gunner at a baseball game being a Bernie supporter on the same day that it happened, who decried the Las Vegas shooter (inaccurately as it turned out) for liking Rachel Maddow, who posted pictures of Cruz in antifa attire (also inaccurate and fake) within hours, and who (and we can't underscore this enough) fucking always always ALWAYS bring up the shooter’s political agenda immediately if they aren’t white (remember the Pulse shooting?)

Even despite all that hypocrisy, "Don't politicize this" is just a way to silence people–to guilt them into not talking about the safety of their own loved ones and how we might change a situation in which this is anything but unforeseen or unpredictable.

When else are we supposed to talk about it? A day later? Two? After the funerals? You know the cycle is getting so tight, we don't really have that much time until the next one. Can we all just pretend we're talking about the one-before-the-most-recent-one? And even though Tomi Lahren's bullshit guilt trip might get some traction because she invokes the ol' "The bodies aren't even cold" line (a frequent enough staple at Fox news to make me suspicious that someone has done some market research), it is designed only to silence anyone who isn't ardently pro gun.

Here's the problem with that: When the bodies do get cold, the NRA and its ardent supporters hope people will have have forgotten. Not forgotten forgotten of course, just political-will forgotten. Just calmed down a little–enough that they'll go back to their other priorities, and get mad about Russian interference, the latest tweet storm, and the West Bank and forget about all this unseemly business come donation and voting time. They hope most folks will be inured and numb and won't donate to Moms Demand Action or The Brady Campaign (or whatever).

Because what these gun advocates want more than anything else is for everyone to just fucking drop it. So they can go back to their #1 narrative of silence. They want their guns and they want them without regulation, debate, compromise, oversight, or anyone even fucking saying boo to them about it when someone shoots a bunch of children. And when folks are not angry anymore, they're less likely to take political action. This is how they continue to wait us out, and nothing changes.

Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, but they are going to be politicizing out of one side of their mouths as they try to shame people for doing so out of the other. It's not like they waste any time jumping in front of a camera and saying that what we need are more guns or armed teachers or whatever the fuck. It's not like they waste any time sending out the cry: "After this last shooting, your freedoms are under assault again. Please donate now so we can defend your civil rights!" NRA funding goes UP after every shooting. They're actually MAKING money off of this shit.

Politicization galore.

Bullshit rating: Absolute raging bullshit.

Narrative 1- Silence

The narrative we most often hear. Crickets.

I have to take a moment to hand it to the lawmakers who have plowed forth with the idea of arming teachers and started test balloons and feasibility studies.

Oh don't get me wrong, that's the worst fucking idea since Australia imported toads to deal with their beetles, but in some way at least it is stepping out of the usual narrative, which is silence. That’s what we hear most—the sound of silence. The sound of politicians doing nothing.

Literally nothing.

Take a couple of weeks. Pretend to care. Tweet "Thoughts and prayers." Let the opponents tire themselves out by telling them you agree something has to be done. Let it all die down. And actually do nothing.

Few things prove the in-the-bones feeling that an oft-repeated atrocity probably isn't caused by the sham explanations someone offers up repeatedly than does doing nothing over and over again. If they thought it was violent television, they would be falling over themselves to enact strong FCC regulations. If they thought it was mental health, they would be scrambling to find the budget for better mental health care. When children are dead (and really dying in real time), we usually go fucking off the rails trying to find and stop the cause. If people really thought it was prayer in school that could have saved children's lives, they would be crawling over themselves to make it compulsory. We'd see fifteen super-PAC's overnight and a right-wing coalition of senators and congresspeople engaged in a national campaign. There would be laws in half the states tomorrow.

They know full well that's not what it is. That's why the minute it's out of their mouth, they go back to doing literally nothing.

Everyone knows all that shit has nothing to do with these shootings.

They just want to throw detractors off the scent––they want it to be ANYTHING but under-regulated firearms and a wink/nod culture of toxic masculinity. If it sounds like it might be a half-way plausible explanation about WHY CHILDREN ARE DEAD, then they go with it. But when they offer up that crap, but don't turn around and try to do something about it, it kind of exposes the deep-down truth not being talked about at dinner parties: that no amount of bodies could possibly make any damn difference if the price is going to be the slightest regulation of their guns.

Bullshit Rating: Complete bullshit.