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Monday, July 16, 2012

Write Like Hyde, Revise Like Jekyll

The two sides of the creative process can behave like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jekyll is nervous, cowed by bad reviews and mediocre sales. He is convinced the work stinks, that it should probably be deleted or put away, in fact. Hyde, on the other hand, is a creative beast who tears through the streets, trumpeting obnoxiously about his abilities and willing to knock into the mud anyone who dares contradict him.

Neither of these men should escape the confines of your own head. If Jekyll is pathetic, Hyde is a jerk. But working in the subconscious, what Stephen King calls "the boys in the basement," they come together to produce one's best work.

For me, this comes when I alternate between two contradictory opinions:

1. My stories are so interesting that the whole world should read them.

2. My writing is dull, uninspired, and lazy, and needs a good flogging simply to struggle to its feet and drag my plot cart around the block.

The self-doubt and fear sounds self-defeating, but is quite useful in two stages of the creative process. First, when I'm brainstorming, trying to figure out how to make this book better than the work I've written in the past. I need to be critical, to toss aside dull ideas and to find something unusual in the pile, something that won't be the same, tired story. This is how I came up with the original premise for The Righteous. In fact, I was so deep in critical mode at the time that I almost tossed it to the rubbish heap. The polygamy angle was close enough to my own childhood that it felt mundane and not fresh, at least until I discussed it with a couple of writing friends, who grew excited by the idea.

The second time when a critical eye is useful is during revisions. I give everything a hard look. Are my characters as strong as I can make them? Is my villain a real person and not a caricature? Do I fall into lazy scene setting, with characters chatting in diners, living rooms, or city parks instead of somewhere active and engaging? How are my hooks at the beginnings of chapters and my read-on prompts when they end? Finally, I pick apart individual sentences, to make them active and not passive, to eliminate weasel words and reinforce with strong verbs and well-chosen details.

But as useful as the critical eye can be, there is a time when it needs to cower in a corner so that Mr. Hyde can come out and tell his story. This is during the rough draft stage. Don't think, just write. Let the first draft emerge in a flurry of words, one sentence piled on top of the next. Of course I use skills earned during the Jekyll stage of other projects, but any craft emerges subconsciously. As soon as I start to fiddle with individual sentences, Dr. Jekyll starts whining from his cage and the project bogs down.

And I have to write every day or the story goes cold. Heaven forbid three or four days go by without producing anything new. The book starts to feel like someone else wrote the darn thing and suddenly I can see all the flaws.

And that's the easiest way to kill a promising story.