Friday, October 14, 2011

Writers for Writers: Alexander Chee's Writing Advice

Alexander Chee is author of the novels Edinburgh and Queen of the Night. He came to UMF in Spring of 2011 to give a reading and to meet with senior writing majors and gave us a lot of refreshing ideas about editing and self-doubt. Here are some of his insights.
For more about Chee, see:

Chee's Thoughts on Editing
1. Return to where you left off to go on
This sounds simple, but there's an explanation. Chee explained an interesting theory about the difference between writing by hand/typewriter, and writing on a computer. In the days of old when one had a paper copy of their novel on hand at all times, a writer would just press on from where the last line left off. But on a word processor, the electronic document always opens to the beginning, and you have to scroll to find where to go next. "I've seen writers murder their openings with these revisits," Chee told us, and it makes sense. We should be careful not to doubt what we have each time we go back to our work. If one isn't careful, their self-doubt could talk them into starting all over, or worse, into quitting, if they judge a first draft too harshly while trying to finish it. Best to zip immediately to the blinking cursor and write as if you hadn't just seen your beginning and its inevitable flaws.
2. Don't start to edit until you've drafted to the end
Have you ever embarked on a first paragraph, and then halfway through a second or third, gone back to read over what you have? Then, while re-reading, have you starting changing words around, and becoming frustrated with how unpolished your beginning looks? No one will find value in a perfect beginning if a beginning is all you have. Soldier through (on your intuition) and then edit the entire thing. This will also help to keep a consistent voice and to look at the big picture as you polish. 
3. Let the story be your editor, not your fears
This is something I know that we all know, but have not necessarily taken time to think about. The stories and characters we're working on normally have a logical procession, and to allow this to develop without worrying about judgement usually allows for a fuller piece we are happier for in the end. Are your doubts interfering with where your story needs to go?
4. "Intellect is for edits, intuition is for drafting"
This is somewhat of an elaboration of the above bullet. Once you get a sense for how much or little control you've been inflicting on your storyline, Chee's line is a useful motto to remember. When beginning a story, its good to just allow things to unfold without trying to mold them too much. Worry about what makes sense once everything has filled out, and you'll be able to progress much faster.
5. Save EVERYTHING that you cut
I normally do this out of paranoia, and was happy to hear it endorsed by another writer. Its a good idea to keep up a notepad document alongside your draft as you're editing, and to copy/paste paragraphs or pages into it as you're removing them from your story. This way if pieces were sliced out in a self-loathing rampage, this can be discerned and remedied later with little harm done. Also, you never know when a side-tracked idea that doesn't fit where it began, could become a useful seed for another endeavor. I could go on for a while about why you should save what you remove and perhaps this will be a larger post in the future, but let the base fact stand that it is rare where an idea created and then not needed in one place, would not be useful on a future date.
6. Keep a writer diary 
This may sound silly. In fact, some of my writer friends have raised eyebrows at me when I've told them that I do this. In the same way that talking about a conflict can untangle it better than thinking alone, writing not just your story, but about your story can help you realize a lot about your characters' motives or situation that you may not have actualized before. Chee also pointed out that it's handy for reminding you how you felt during your last writing session: "This way, I'm not so far away when I come back. Page 37, still horrible!" It's also a good place to keep a to-do list of things you meant to get back to, like moments where you meant to add research or tension.

7. Changing font and text sizes
Although all of Chee's advice was intuitive and helpful, I found this piece to be the most clever. We are all painfully aware, I'm sure, of how easily a typo or awkward sentence can be overlooked. The reason for this, Chee suggests, is because the text, as an image, becomes familiar to us. If we change the font or the sizing of our test to rearrange the way we've come to look at the lines and body shape, it will snap us out of skimming because everything will look new. Then once you've polished away all the rough pieces, feel free to return the text of your writing to your original graphic presence.