You know how there are some writing sessions where everything just clicks? And you keep going, staying up late despite knowing you’ll regret it in the morning, because you are on fire. I had one of those kind of writing jags last Tuesday. It was great.
Then came Wednesday …
Normally, when I sit down to write, I re-read the last couple of paragraphs that I wrote the previous session to get back into the flow of the story. Well, on Wednesday, the prose that had sparkled so brilliantly Tuesday night read like *bleep*. (Just insert your favorite bad noun.) Though a little part of me said, “Don’t read anymore. Just keep going forward. You can go back and smooth the scene out later,” I couldn’t help myself. I went back to the beginning of the scene.
It was like the file was a changeling, like some evil fairy had swapped out my brilliant words in the night, replacing them with tripe. The problem wasn’t only that the prose felt clunky here and there, that’s just polishing, but there was a big plot problem. I needed a certain character in a certain place at a certain time, and the justification I’d used in the story to get her to her mark came off as convenient and contrived, rather than as a result of the natural flow of events. It flashed like a neon sign, reading “this is the lame excuse the writer came up with to get the doctor in place for her pivotal role in the story.” I hate it when plots read as convenient.
No, no, no, I thought. I have to fix this. The particular scene I was working on is a load bearing pillar for the rest of the plot. If it has a terminal flaw, the rest of the story won’t hold together. I felt like I had to get the scene right before moving on, since the fix would influence everything downstream.
I started to re-write all that I’d written on Tuesday, brainstorming and trying different ways to get the doctor into position. And—this is the important part—saving those different versions and over-writing the original. Everything I tried felt either too serendipitous or too convoluted. My re-writes became more desperate, until I even considered scratching the doctor completely in favor of a sparkly new character.
That’s when I realized what I was doing and stopped. All my effort was just mucking up the story. Time to call it quits on writing for the day. So I turned to the painting project I’ve been working on, and what do you know? It looked like *bleep*, too!
That’s when the light really dawned. I’m having one of those days. You know the ones? Those days where every thing you do, not just writing but everything, turns to gunk? And the harder you work at something—the more you pound your head against that wall—the worse it gets?
Time to catch up on laundry and go weed the garden.
Before I went back to writing on Thursday, I talked the problem through with a writing friend. Yes, the scene did have an issue, but in my everything-feels-like-garbage state of Wednesday, I’d seen what turned out to be a pothole sized problem as a giant sinkhole. One big enough to crash my entire plot. But on Thursday, with a little perspective, Tuesday’s work actually looked pretty good. It just needed tweaking.
Lucky for me, I’d saved the first version of the scene on a thumb drive. If I hadn’t, I would have had to spend all my writing time Thursday trying to undo the utter mess I made of things on Wednesday, because I overwrote that scene in every version of the story saved on my computer. Normally, I save thumb drive copies as a precaution against computer glitches, but this time, I was the component that glitched, and that backup copy saved me from myself.
So, as a friendly reminder, backup your work! And when things that looked good to you the previous day suddenly read like garbage, make a copy before wading in to fix the problem—preferably in a form that you can’t overwrite with a couple of mouse clicks. The problem might be in the writing, but it might just be in you.