Stories do not unspool from my mind like a length of yarn from a spindle. They do not unspool connected, consistent, with an innate chronology. My stories come together in pieces, in fragments, and it takes a lot of tinkering before they make sense. From all accounts the unspooling method of writing isn’t a common process among writers.
Of course there are notable exceptions and Canadian author Alistair MacLeod was one of them. He is the writer of No Great Mischief, a haunting story with every word perfectly placed, and it won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2001. He said that he wrote only one draft, which he did by writing one sentence at a time, one after the other until he reached the end. He would read each sentence aloud, perfect it, and then wait before moving on to the next sentence. He did not go back and do any rewrites. MacLeod was the master of an unspooling yarn.
Right now I am nearing the end of a first draft of my next middle-grade fiction book, titled My Best Friend is on Fire. It’s a sequel to My Best Friend is Extinct, which is being published by Orca Book Publishers March, 2021. (The day before my birthday, thank you, Orca!)
In some ways a sequel is easier to write because you already have a strong sense of the characters and the story world. But, (isn’t there always a but?) I realize I have only just begun to understand what it’s about.
Suffice it to say—and unlike MacLeod—I will be writing a second draft. Perhaps many more drafts, because my writing process is like sending a toddler into a grocery store with a shopping list and then having to make a stir fry with whatever they’ve chucked into the cart.
Each day I must reach into the fridge or cupboard and pull out one of the ingredients from the bizarre and disparate items the toddler has selected. A Cheerio. A banana. A mini marshmallow. A grain of rice. A slice of cucumber. After many, many months, even years, I’m able to survey my wok and see what kind of inedible mess I’ve made.
At this point the taking out begins. And the tasting. The re-writing. Going back to the cupboard or fridge to pick out an ingredient that will support the other flavours. The self-flagellation picks up a head of steam, too. Bye-bye, sour gummy bears. So long fishy crackers. See ya hot dog wiener chunks. There are hard choices made.
I wish I had a more elegant process but I’m not a fan of outlining, either. When it comes to writing screenplays, (both shorts and features), I outline. But I find the process too prescriptive for my fiction writing.
The one thing that I do have to keep me going during the stir fry is a mantra. A prayer. An invocation to the muse. My mantra is this:
gently gaining ground
My mantra tells me that the process of writing is gentle. It is a plodding affair, a marathon, not an aggressive 100 metre dash. You cannot write a book or even a short story in a day.
My mantra reminds me that I am gaining ground and moving forward, even when the writing feels chaotic and aimless, even purposeless, at times.
My mantra is one of those things writers have in their bag of tricks to keep going. If you need a little writers’ prayer to keep going, consider creating your own mantra. Or borrow mine. Whatever it takes to keep putting one word in front of the other.
Do you have a writing mantra? I’d love to hear about it if you do. Leave a note in the comments below or connect with me using another option here.
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