I like to analyse stuff. This week I have some time off from my day job and I am working on my novel. For me, this means looking at the 65,000 words of scenes that I have and trying to work out in what order they should go. So I have scene cards and a spreadsheet, and I finally worked out what the damn thing is about, and I’m trying to get it all together.
Writer-friends of a less analytical bent say I should worry less about this kind of detail and just write and then everything will just fall into place. Not for me it won’t. Or at least, it might, but it won’t be as effective as it will be if I do it deliberately. Analysis leads to mindful practice. To learn how to write you need to write. I read a little while ago that you need to write a million words at least. And that is probably true but, like training to become better at anything, it will be more effective if you are mindful of what you are doing. You could write a million words and will be a little better at writing at the end of it without giving it any thought. But if you pay attention, and analyse what you’re doing, the million words will work harder for you and you’ll be much better by the end.
To analyse writing I read loads of ‘how-to-write’ books. Some are fantastic and have some really helpful stuff in them. Some are not that helpful at all. Others are incomprehensible – which for me are those ones about The Hero’s Journey or the three act structure (more on this in a later A-Z post). I read widely and try to work out what makes a good book good. I ask for the opinions of my writers’ groups. I read loads of blogs about books and writing. And I filter everything through a series of questions:
Who said it? What qualifies them? What do I think of their opinions? What biases do I know them to have?
How do I feel about what has been said? If I have an emotional reaction of any kind, but especially a negative one, then this is something to look at very closely.
How does it fit with what I already know/believe? Is it something that deepens my understanding? Is it something that challenges my understanding?
How can I use this information/feedback/idea? Is there enough detail here for me to apply it? How would I change my writing to accommodate it? What direction will it take me in and is that where I want to go? How will this help me improve?
I also do critiquing for other members of my writing groups and I realised a couple of years ago that the person really getting the benefit from the exercise was me. Looking at the work of a fellow unpublished author, noticing what was working and what wasn’t, along with the discipline of trying to suggest how it could be done differently, gave me a great opportunity to understand what I was doing with writing. Naturally, when you come across a passage that isn’t working you think about how you would have written it. This may or may not be useful to the person being critiqued, but it is certainly useful to the critiquer.
My favourite question is why? It always has been and is true in all the spheres of my life. Why did something happen? Why did a person behave like that? I need to know. And I guess that’s why I write – to pose the question and explore the answer.