Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for October 2011

What’s Your Purpose?

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Thrice in the recent past, I’ve encountered writers who are stuck in their writing. In the case of one, he’d been working with a critique group and didn’t know how to proceed. One critic said do this, another said do that, and neither thought he was on the right path. In the case of the second writer, there was just so much to write about, she was stopped in her tracks. The third was trying to do everything at once and although he wasn’t having trouble writing, he was overwhelming his audience.

The problem of the first writer (shall we call him Vincent?) was simple. He had a story to tell, but people wanted him to tell their stories instead. In an effort to please them, he was getting stuck. It wasn’t his story anymore. We stood on a street corner saying goodnight one evening, and I could see from the bleak look on his face exactly what the problem was. He was trying to please his audience before he knew how his own story ended.

The second writer (let’s call her Alexandria) has done a lot of writing. Newsletters, blogs, journaling, and so on. She has had an extraordinary life so far, and there are parts of it that really should be told and heard around the world. She’s stopped in her writing because she has a largess of resources. It’s hard to begin when there’s so very much to do.

The third writer (I think I’ll call him Mike), falls between the two. He wants to tell the story of his family, but he’s also charmed by the way he heard it himself and wants to share that. He wants first to recount sitting at some elder’s knee and then to recount the stories they’d told. Even his own family is having trouble reading through it and they share both the experience and the history.

All three have the same problem. They don’t really know why they’re writing. They just know that they want to or need to.

Vincent’s case is easy. He needs to tell his own story in his own words. Once he’s finished it, or he’s far enough along that he has some distance from the earlier chunks, he can start seeking the advice of others. But until he has his own clarity about where he’s going and how he’s getting there, any advice he gets, even advice that coincides with his own designs, will divert him from his goal of writing, After all, no matter how well he’s written or how pristine his prose, he has many rounds of editing ahead of him. He has his own multiple passes, the passes he makes after other people tell him what they think, and if he’s lucky enough to find a publisher or an agent, they too will tell him what to do.

My advice: Just write your story. Worry about what other people think later. There will be plenty of time to please them.

Alexandria’s situation is more complicated. First, she has to pick out the stories that she feels convey her message, knowing that along the way, she will change her mind a hundred times. Then, she has to understand that she has more to offer than a single flavor. There’s a memoir, there are instructions about the line of work that she’s in, there’s a sort of love song to a mentor, and there’s her own very interesting take on life and all its turns and twists.

My advice: Make some outlines, apportioning each bit to its assorted corner. Things might wander from one place to another, but at least she’s got a place to start.

Mike’s problem is that he wants all things to be in one place. He wants to share this great experience of learning about the Ancient Ones from the merely Old Ones. He has done a whole lot of research to back up his story, and he’s cleared time in his life to write it. All advice that he needs to separate the tale from the telling falls on deaf ears.

My advice: Decide whether you want to tell your tale or whether you want to get published. If you just want to tell your tale, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If you want to get published and everyone tells you it’s too complicated, it’s probably too complicated.

All three have the same issues. They believe that they have something to say that people will want to hear. In Vincent’s case, he just needs to get past the fear of dropping the new baby on its head and know that no matter how carefully he watches, the baby is going to eat some dirt or fall over or some such dreadful thing at some point. (Please excuse the metaphor. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)

In Alexandria’s case, she has a traffic jam. Once she figures out which story belongs where, she can pick and choose which one she’s ready to work on. It’s a kind of Rubik’s cube of writing.

In Mike’s case, he needs to decide whether he wants to get published or just finish writing it all down. If it’s the latter, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s more of a journal that way, or a blog, perhaps, than a book.

You might have noticed a contradiction in what I’m telling Vincent and what I’m telling Mike. I’m telling Vincent not to listen to his critics until he’s gotten some distance, and I’m telling Mike to listen to the critics who say it’s too much information and too much swobbling in time and place to follow the story easily.  What’s the difference? Vincent is writing a memoir that he might later fictionalize, and Mike is writing fiction based on facts.

Alexandria will encounter some of these same issues, I suspect, but right now, she just needs to get started and the path will get increasingly clear. Frankly, I can’t wait to read all three.

Written by Melanie Spiller

October 10, 2011 at 11:19 am

Posted in Thoughts, Writing

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