Advance Strategy

In a comment a couple posts back, Chris Bigelow mentioned his surprise at the degree of “advanced strategy” I use. As I’ve listened to and observed other writers, one thing I’ve noticed about my approach that is sometimes different from other writerly approaches is that I rarely just move on after finishing something. Some (my husband) would say I beat a project to death, especially if I have a sense something isn’t working, or even if I sense it should be working better. I guess I’m in the school that believes writing can be learned. Oh, perhaps not everyone can learn the artistry of writing; we all come with different talents. But among those with a given talent, I believe writing must be learned. Learned through practice, yes, but also (and more importantly) through self-analysis. Consistent self-analysis has, for me, turned into the practice of advance strategic writing, all aimed at refining my writing process.

I’m a big fan of the writing group. However, thus far, I’ve been unable to find a group with literary fiction writers. The genre writers in my group are good at helping me see poor construction in sentence and paragraph, in image, but haven’t been helpful (sorry, guys, if you’re reading this) in the artistry category. One evening, the leader of the group excitedly pointed out that an image I used could be symbolic. It took all my self-control not to say, “Duh.” I was shocked that this particular symbol wasn’t obvious to all those who love reading as much as she does. IOW, it was a pretty low level symbol. But she doesn’t read lit fic. At all. Another stunning experience I had came when one of my groups most gifted writers suggested he and I team up. The idea was, he’d write a chapter, then I’d rewrite it, and we’d go back and forth like this until we had it where we wanted it. He felt his strength was in plotting and mine in detail. He told me that no one wants to read the kind of stuff I write. Ow. I reminded him I’m the only publishing writer in the group, excluding the self-published.

I bring these stories up not to disparage my writing group, who are a wonderful and gifted set of people, but to demonstrate that there is a disconnect between what I write and what they have any interest in. While they do help me immensely with the small scale details, they can’t help me with the depth issues involved in literary fiction. So, if I was going to learn, to progress, I realized early on that I had to turn my critical skills inward, on myself.

I learned to detach from my work. We’ve all had the experience of leaving something we’ve written for weeks, months, maybe more and then returning to it, only to see it with new eyes. This isn’t exactly the most efficient way to write, timewise. I wanted to be able to skip the Shelf Period. So I began the practice of giving myself a close reading. I asked myself, If the story wasn’t mine, what would I tell the writer to improve?

I found the earliest answers to this question were quite broad and often ill-defined. Only when I began to really hone in on the details–say, of word connotations, or of how this image on page 2 and this image on page 16 did or did not compliment one another–did I really learn anything from myself. When I perform close readings of my own material, I force myself to justify everything, though those who have edited me will attest to my inability to cull “that” sufficiently. In other words, I can’t edit myself well, but I can argue for what is in my work–and I’ve had to do this to keep editors from moving my stories in a direction I didn’t intend it to go. Detaching from my work enough to truly ream my own work lead to me careful consider each word, each image, each direction I took the next time I sat down to write something anew. I wanted to avoid the pain of reaming myself. This began my use of advance strategy, though I sure didn’t think of it in those terms. I just wanted to spend less time re-writing.

Add in a non-MFA graduate program that allowed me to do a creative thesis. I began HBM (Holding Back the Moon) at the end of that program. Unlike in an MFA program, I did not have to complete the novel, and, in fact, was not allowed to. My creative thesis had to be part creative work (several dozen pages of HBM) and part theory as applied to my creative work. I decided, for the theorectical part, to look largely at Jewish writers, namely Chaim Potok and, to a lesser degree, Bernard Malamud. So I read every interview or essay they had “out there” on writing. It is from Potok that I stole the notion of bridge building between the secualar and religious communities. So, basically, as I was writing the opening sections of HBM, I was thinking about the strategies Potok used to build his bridges. I found these strategies very effective in speeding up my creative work. Oh, at times it seemed it slowed me down. Writing an individual scene may take longer, but I spend less time in the rewriting stage, trying to feel my way to the correct balance.

Its been a long time since I read Potok’s interviews (most nicely collected in Conversations with Chaim Potok), but I recall him saying that The Chosen was initially several times as long a manuscript as it was a published book. It was in the writing of The Chosen that he began thinking about how he could make a story about a couple of Jewish boys matter to a secular audience. He became very self-critical, very honest with himself, and very aware of the audience he intended to intrigue. He made strategic choices in what he cut. I simply decided to learn from him and work to apply similar strategic choices from the beginning of my novel writing experience. I think he’d approve.

So its very true that I’m always thinking about how to present the unpalletable in a way that will please the pallate. Mormon writers, I believe, have a harder row to hoe that many religious writers who write about the religious culture for the broader audience because we tend toward isolationism. Not only does this isolation make us less aware of the ways of secularist thinking, it makes our “otherness” mystifying to them. Now, to my way of thinking, the latter is a positve, something to be exploited by Mormon writers. But few within a culture successfully comprehend what’s so mysterious about us. I’m fortunate to come from outside the culture, but I don’t think that is a requirement to “get” the secularist view of Mormonism. I do think, however, that forethought and consideration of presentation is, if not a requirement, very helpful strategy.

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3 Comments

Filed under Discussions for Writers, Me and Mine, Mormon Literature

3 responses to “Advance Strategy

  1. I would like to work more toward this myself, this mindfulness of strategy even while one is in the throes of the narrative dream state when writing new material. But I wouldn’t want to disturb the left-brain “magic” with too much right-brain analysis (did I get the brain sides right?).

    Also, I love the bridge concept. Whenever I do any kind of creative writing (memoir or fiction), I’m extremely mindful of that Mormon/secular bridge myself. The gap is widening faster and faster (thanks largely to the gay issue), so better hurry. This is no random human trend–certain beings from the unseen world WANT this gap to grow unpassably wide.

  2. I have no idea if you got the brain sides correctly or not, but I understand. I think what I’m trying to get at is that the analysis side can work hand-in-hand with the creative side. But it isn’t some flawless creative system. Egad, no, not that.

    My current task with the Egbert storyline is to write the early polygamy stuff. I have to have the character aware of polygamy before his wife in order to sort of represent that the gay guy knew he was gay when his wife did not. (Again, not a perfect analogy, but hey.) And I need to keep this storyline moving in a straight line, meaning there’s no backstory allowed. Things happen as they happen. And history limits me.

    My first draft of the polygamy stuff used backstory. I forgot my own limitations and had to throw that draft out. I backed the introduction of polygamy up to a real-world space in the ms and wrote again. I did think some about building bridges but I’d forgotten to pay attention to the placement in the ms, which was odd considering I’d moved it up. The scene has to precede some really wonderful bridge-building (if I do say so) in which I manage to draw the readership into accepting Egbert as a receptor of revelation and as a believer in the church’s patriarchy. I can’t move these scenes and altering them would be foolish. They are quite strong, effective. But I have to sneak in a bit about polygamy before these scenes, so I’m running a risk of alienating the audience before I’ve forged alignments that really work.

    I had to return to the scene, thinking fully of my strategies and try again. I made it about half-way thru the scene when my gut sang, “Stop! End the scene here.” Basically I took the character only as far as to the proverbial edge where he might have discovered early polygamy, but didn’t “go there.” (Why does cutting always mean eliminating favorite parts?) To be specific, the scene revolves around the attempted suicide of Orson Pratt after his wife indicated she’d been approached to form a polygamous relationship. The town searched the woods for him and I set Joe Egbert as part of the search team, but left off before he actually entered the woods. I’ll have to tweak a sentence in the bridge-building scenes I really like, but that’s it.

    The point is, even with strategy, the creative side runs its course. But by using strategy, I’m able to keep check of where I’m going. The way I used to write, I’d have left the original scene and moved forward, only to discover at the end that I had to not only change that scene, but revamp everything after it.

    And I’ll probably find, when I reach the end of the ms, I still have to do some of that. But its a good thing to feel in control.

  3. I suppose I should reply to your second paragraph as well, in which I think you are suggesting that soon Mormons will be so unlike the wider world because of the Church’s stand against gay marriage that we won’t be able to build bridges or communicate. I reject this completely and emphatically remind all that the Church is not writing this book, I am.

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