Making notes on manuscriptI’ve been writing fiction off and on for many, many years now. (We won’t get into specific numbers. I want to maintain the illusion of youth.) I did three semesters of creative writing in college and attended at least half a dozen writing workshops over the years, so I’d gotten to the point where I felt like I couldn’t learn much more about my craft from books or lectures — that I could only learn by doing.

Earlier this month, I did a week-long writing retreat, and to my surprise, I came away having learned three things. Not that these were new lessons; I’d just never recognized their value to me before. (Which probably proves that you can’t learn some things until you’re ready for them.)

The first lesson is one most writers have probably heard over and over: read your work aloud. I know I heard this advice from more than one workshop leader, and I’m pretty sure I heard it in college, too. But the process of reading my work aloud always felt artificial to me. I was uncomfortable doing it and I couldn’t see the point; I could hear the dialogue in my head, so why vocalize it?

Well, it turns out that reading aloud really does help you find the rough spots. We had readings each night of the retreat and I decided to read a short scene from my novel. Since each writer had a time limit, the first thing I did to prepare was read it aloud with one eye on the clock. Lines of dialogue that looked great on paper suddenly sounded too formal, and I could see that full sentences of the conversation weren’t necessary. I ended up revising the scene heavily and even made a change during my reading, omitting a sentence fragment that I’d resisted cutting despite the fact that it had bothered me during every run-through. That experience was eye-opening — and it made me realize why other writers spend so much time on revision. I spent an hour and a half rewriting two pages, but those pages were much better as a result.

The second thing I learned was the value of outlining. I’ve almost always been a free-form writer, discovering the story as I go, because I figured out early on that the path you imagine at the start isn’t always the one your characters need to follow. So I’ve never outlined my work, even as my stories grew to novellas and then to novel length. Since my novel has been left neglected for months and years at a time, I sat down at the beginning of retreat needing to revisit my work and remember what I’d actually done. I found myself wondering how people manage a story as long and unwieldy as a novel, and as I was reviewing notes from workshops past, I found my answer, courtesy of Lance Olsen: “novel –> need to outline — too much to keep in your head.”

Okay, Universe. I hear you: outline that monster.

So I started outlining what I had, listing each scene and making notes on plot points, key reveals, character introductions and the like. And because of that process, I started seeing mistakes. I’d inserted a character into earlier scenes without explaining her relationship to the narrator. I had another character who wasn’t mentioned at all in the first sixty pages. There were scenes that didn’t follow my narrator’s emotional arc. And so on. I still have 200 pages to outline, but I know now that I truly need to do it.

And that brings me to my last lesson: even if you can only find fifteen minutes a day for your writing, you can make progress in those fifteen minutes. I’ve always felt like I needed at least an hour or two to get anything done — and that may be true as far as fresh writing goes. But fifteen minutes is enough time to outline a scene, edit a conversation, dress a character or sketch out a room. And taking advantage of little bits of time means you can save the big chunks of time to write, write, write.

Happy writing — over & out.

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