Friday, February 04, 2011

Overworking the Clay

On my latest project, I found myself worrying away at the same spot over and over, bringing the same chapters to my critique group, rewritten, revised, renewed and tweaked, week after week. Every week I'd say to myself, "That's good enough for this draft. Now it's time to move forward." My group would echo the sentiment, reminding me not to "overwork the clay." But every week, when I sat down to write, I found myself rereading and rewriting that same section. My logic brain told me I was caught in a quagmire and rereading those same sections was a trap, but some other slippery spirit in me kept insisting on going back.

I didn't really have this problem on the first two novels. Here I am on my third, thinking "I should be getting better at this. In fact, I should know better." I began to think the genre was what made the difference. The first two novels were realistic fiction. This one is magical realism, and the rules and process feel completely different, more metaphorical, less linear. I've written a full draft and about two-thirds of it is useless. I've written multiple synopses that seem to make perfect sense only to have the story hijack me into some other direction. Every rewrite seems to change the metaphorical elements or the psychological landscape just enough that I have to go back and alter imagery, scenes, characters. And each tiny change in choice or motivation has a potentially seismic impact on the physical landscape, the symbolic magical objects and the otherworldly characters.

Okay. Let's say this genre demands a spiraling approach to drafts and revision. Even so, at some point you overdo it. At some point you have to let go and move on or you risk "overworking the clay" - leaving your characters and story limp, exhausted and nearly lifeless from obsessive attention to one section. How much is too much? What signals tell you to move on? What if you go too far - can your story be rescued?

I am reminded of watching my third graders attempt watercolor painting using non-watercolor paper. They just don't understand the idea of exhausting or overworking the paper. I'll watch as they paint and paint and paint the same spot until the paper is coming up in little nubbins or falling apart in their hands or they've worn a hole right through their favorite section of the picture. Then they come to me in despair believing it's ruined. I tell them to let the paper rest and dry and then we will try to repair it by transferring what's usable onto a new, fresh, stronger piece of paper. Perhaps I need to heed my own advice.

Of course the best way to prevent the ruined watercolor situation is to use the right kind of paper to begin with. Proper watercolor paper can handle the kind of stress placed on it by diligent and overly enthusiastic third graders, or by techniques like watercolor wash that involve tons of moisture. It's strong, thick, heavy and durable.

So what's the metaphorical equivalent of "the right kind of paper" for a novel? Setting? Point of view? Pre-drafting strategies? Plot outline? General structure? It has to do with the foundation you lay before the intricate, in-depth work of drafting and revision begins.

What do you do to lay a good foundation before you dive into the serious drafting process?

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