Saturday, January 30, 2016

Never Too Old for Do-Over: by Ellen Jensen Abbott

You’re playing horseshoes (badminton, tennis, bocce, whatever) with your three year old son, and when it’s his turn, the horseshoe (shuttlecock, ball, whatever) performs inadequately.

“Mama, can I have a do-over?” he begs.

“Of course!” you say. The child is three, the point is fun, he can have as many do-overs as he needs.

This scenario changes, however, as your son ages. At 10, you want to teach him fairness, how to lose gracefully, the consequences of his actions, how to fail. So when he says, “Can I have a do-over,” you probably say no.

But as a writer, you’re never too old for a do-over. It’s a built in part of your job. In fact, the guaranteed do-over is what makes writing--at least for me--possible.

I’ve spent the last two and a half months on a sabbatical from my teaching job, and I used the time to write a first draft of a new novel. (Full-disclosure: I only finished ⅔ of the draft.) I made myself write six pages a day, and I did not allow myself any time to revise...or do-over. I wanted to get through the whole thing so I could see the full arc of the story before I started wordsmithing and moving scenes and cutting or creating characters. This approach was possible, because I knew I had a do-over coming. I would even say that the sureness of a do-over meant I could write outlandish scenes, try new points of view, follow tangents. On days when writing was particularly hard, I knew I could write poorly because I was going to do it over! On days when I had no idea where to go, I could explore lots of possibilities because I was assured of a do-over.

The draft I have is a mess. There are characters that show up in one scene and never again. There are cliches and hackneyed phrases and boring description. It’s not totally clear what the MC sees in her love interest, and there are several places where the words COURSE CORRECTION appear in all caps.. But there are also some narrative voices I would never have discovered, and elements of this fantastic world I might have shied away from if I didn’t know that I had a guaranteed do-over. There are some descriptions that are quite good and there’s a pawn broker who I am growing quite fond of and who is playing an ever-increasing role in the plot. I would not have discovered him without the freedom the do-over gave me.


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