Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Wasting Time, a clarification

As someone who talks about writing efficiency, I also talk a lot about wasting time. Namely how I use planning to prevent losing time to stupid stuff. Time is limited enough as it is, especially for people who write on the margins of their lives, stealing an hour here or an afternoon there. I always try to emphasize that time is our most precious commodity, the one thing we can never get back, and we should treat it with respect by using it wisely. That said, I got an email tonight that made me realize I should perhaps add a caveat to my general hatred of waste.

When I'm writing, even when I have my plot all planned out, I sometimes I go off course. Something that looked go on paper might not work once I get it into the novel, and as a result I can end up scrapping a paragraph, or a scene, or a whole chapter as I go back and start over on the right track. From an efficiency point of view, this can seem like a horrible waste. That scene is never going to be in the book. The time spent writing it will only bloat my spread sheet, dragging down my words per hour. But even so, I never count backtracking as waste, because every word I write makes me a better writer.

I read once that an author has to write a million words before they know what they're doing. I fully agree, but what that saying leaves out is that no small percentage of those million words will be ones that never make it into the final draft. I have whole or nearly completed books that I spent months of my life working on that will never see the light of day, but even those I refuse to count as wastes or failures, because the stories I tell now are built on a foundation of the words I threw away.

The hardest lesson I've learned so far as a writer is that failure teaches more than success, but only when you stop being scared of failing long enough to start learning from it. After all, the novel that never gets published teaches you to write the one that does. The wrong word makes you find the right one. Cutting, rewriting, doubling back, these are not waste. This is writing, and sometimes it's only by falling on our faces that we find the way forward.


Deshipley said...

"The stories I tell now are built on a foundation of the words I threw away" -- absolute truth.

There are pages in their thousands of bad writing that had to precede the better writing I've got today; and there's good writing that still has to go for the sake of the story that simply has no place for it.

But old words can be recycled, or serve as a cautionary tale for storytelling down the road. Writing experience is no waste. ...I try to remember when I've just spent an hour writing a passage of no immediate use.

Stormhowl said...

I think going off course has often times been the best thing that could happen to any author in any genre. It gives you an opportunity to explore venues you hadn't thought of before, to expand on your world-building, and to develop your characters more by putting them in new situations.

It's never a waste of time. I've found that even after so many years of writing, I've been going back to my original works (I keep everything, every separate draft and manuscript in its own folder) and using old plot-lines I hadn't used.

The only waste of time when it comes to writing, IMO, would be to give up altogether, instead of pushing on and trying to find a better word, to craft a better paragraph, and to realize a more interesting plot line.

And to edit out those darn run on sentences. ;)

Marie Andreas said...

I recently came across an author who said they didn't write when the "mood" didn't strike them because they didn't want to waste the effort.

I was so gobsmacked that I didn't even try to point out that oftimes the "waste" of time actually is productive and besides the more we write, the better we get ;).

I wouldn't be at my current writing level without plenty of wasted time (and I know I still have many hours to burn still ;)).

Thanks for a thought provoking blog.

Rachel Aaron said...

Thank you for the lovely comments! So glad you all enjoyed the post!

Luisa Perkins said...

Wise and helpful. Thanks!

Oliver Maurice said...
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