Metawriting – On Sketches

This post was inspired by this question.

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before here, if I did, it was years ago at this point, back when I was doing more metawriting posts. I think a lot of people who want to write (note, I did not just use the term “writers” to refer to this class of people) have a rather flawed understanding of how writing works, as a skill, and as a form of art. I’ve seen this reflected most often in people who are just beginning to explore writing, and it was a notion I myself had for years, before I finally got rid of it, and the notion is this: that stories just spring from writers fully formed, that the path from beginning to end is a straight line, that the secret to writing something is to just press onward. This idea? It’s bad. Super bad, not helpful, it’s a terrible way of trying to write, though like all lies that do the most damage, it does have a kernel of truth at the rotten core.

The kernel of truth is this–yeah, if you want to be a writer, you do have to get from that beginning to that end, and fill in all the stuff in between. That’s true. But that’s just not quite how it works–for me, and anyone else I’ve met who writes regularly. And to try and explain why, it helps to pull in some examples from other art forms where this misconception is a bit weaker, or easier to defeat. Think of, for example, a visual artist. A painter doesn’t just sit down at an computer and just create an image out of thin air. They have to sketch it first. Usually they have to sketch it more than once. Usually they have to scrap things and start over. Sometimes the process by which they get to the finished product doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, as they layer colors over and over. The actual process of art isn’t necessarily the same as the consumption of art. The same goes for music. Someone playing a composition, when they perform it, they go from the beginning to the end, linearly–but to think that is all it takes for music to happen is to ignore the hours of practice of the performer, the creation of the piece by the composer. That is to say, overall, the misconception is that people wrongly assume that the creation of art is analogous to the way that people consume art, when that simply isn’t the case. Ever. Not at all.

Here’s the reality of my process. I am usually writing anywhere from ten to fifteen stories at any one time. About a third of those are rolling commissions for Patreon. Another third are massive stories I work on when I have free time, usually all of them novel or novella length. The final third are all tumblr stories, usually intended to be posted episodically over one to two weeks, aiming for a bit of a “sweet spot” between three and six entries, or three to six thousand words. That’s often the best length to allow for a good amount of development without readers losing interest over time. This number, the ten to fifteen stories, doesn’t even include the sizable backlog of incomplete stories which I would like to finish at some point, but which all stalled for one reason or another. That doesn’t even include essays like this one, or writing I might be doing under my real name at the time. This tumblr is like an iceberg–I only end up posting a small chunk of what I might be writing at the moment, and in this mess, there are always bits of writing that end up being unusable, or lead to dead ends, or which I don’t care to develop for one reason or another. These, I call sketches.

It’s a bit like an artist and a sketchbook, I suppose, though the analogy is nowhere near perfect. In the same way an artist sketches ideas over and over in preparation for taking on a “final” version of that piece of art (I use quotes because, quite simply, no piece of art is ever final in a meaningful sense) I begin a massive number of stories at the same time, develop the ones that seem the most promising, and end up posting the ones that end up bearing reasonably decent fruit. But a lot of those stories are false starts. Usually, the false starts don’t even get out of my head–I have an idea, and I don’t even bother writing it down, either because I can see it’s a dead end, or stupid, or something I’ve already written too much of lately, or all of the above. Other times, they get farther, usually to the size of a tumblr entry. I take a second look and see nowhere for it to go, and so sketches are born.

I firmly believe that every author has sketches like this–at the very least, every writer I’ve met has something similar. It might be a side blog, where they post ideas and short posts. It might be a private journal where they simply talk about their day. Sometimes these sketches don’t even make it to paper or screen, they just remain daydreams. The important part is that writers write and tell stories–constantly. We have to. It’s the only way we can practice, it’s the only way we can develop new ideas and pieces of writing. There’s no shortcut. Goodness, I wish there was, it would make the entire process so much easier, to simply be able to invest every single word into a final story, to be completely efficient in the act of writing, in the same way artists might wish they never made a line they have to erase, and musicians wish they could never miss a note. But it simply isn’t possible.

The issue with writing is that our sketches aren’t a) as visible as other forms of art, often because they aren’t made public or are erased and thrown away, and b) when they are made public, people often tend to simple think of them as finished pieces of writing, even though they’re nothing of the sort. People know what a visual sketch looks like. They know what a musician practicing sounds like. But can you tell, by looking at a piece of writing, if it’s a sketch as I’ve described it? As the asker mentioned above, the post that set off this essay, “Coach Ray Gets Trained”, looked, for all intents and purposes, like a finished story, or rather, looked like a story that should be continued; it appeared to be a “finished” product. If I hadn’t added the word sketch there, no one would have known. The only reason I add that designation at all is in the interest of transparency–to signal that something cut this story short, for whatever reason that might be.

There’s nothing wrong with the question asked, of course. But this is important to keep in mind, when you’re reading stories–the vast amount of effort, which brought that bit of writing to life, is usually utterly invisible, like layers of paint hidden on a canvas. That’s just how art works–the constant practice of a useless skill, in the attempt to turn a moment into a bit of magic.

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