Jigsaw paint

I finally managed to finish one of my character-arc-mapping projects. ONE. One of SIX.

Hence I have also banned myself from facebook and Tumblr until March 1st at least, and by then hopefully I will have found other ways to occupy my time that don’t feel so One Ring-ish. Such as writing – specifically, trying to improve my writing.

I haven’t really made the goal of improving my writing a priority for some time; part of that has to do with university eating up a good four years of my life, and working on this novel for the past two years has also been part of that. I have noticed that I’ve gotten better at writing through the process of writing said novel though, so that’s cool.

There is something about specifically setting yourself the task of actually getting better at doing something, though, that I miss. I read half of this long-ass article about how being a talented English student results in writer’s block because you’re so used to ‘coasting’ on your natural talent that you’re afraid of really testing yourself and finding that you actually ‘don’t have what it takes’, and while I have a lot of problems with this framing of the issue, it certainly reminded me of how it felt to actually want to be better at writing, and making a conscious effort to consider my own prose and push how far I could go with it.

It could also be that I’ve just gotten better at getting better at writing, where I’m not stressed about it and can just let the words come out without really worrying about it – I mean it’s not entirely true, but it’s far truer than it was before I got used to drafting. I’m still not used to drafting, really, but it’s getting there. And the idea that putting something out is better than putting nothing out is a very useful attitude to have, and attitude is just another skill, which means that, with application, you can get better at it.

I do think, though, that a lot of writing advice is based around one way of doing things, which is a way I’ve found very useful but at the same time recognise as something that won’t work for everyone, and that is the way that drafting works. You write ‘anything’, just to get something out there, and then spend your time and energy refining it in stages – the allegory I’d use is painting a fence: it requires multiple coats before the whole job is done.

The other way of doing things that I’m used to is to edit as you go, sort of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together; you find that certain pieces don’t fit where you thought they did and have to adjust them on the fly, rather than assembling the whole puzzle, seeing all the wrongly-placed pieces and then going back and correcting every mistake.

I am not really comfortable with either of these. The ‘paint a fence’ method is the one I’ve been using with Tallulah, but it gets really easy to lose a grip on specifics and become overwhelmed by the big picture, to the point where continuing to forge ahead starts to seem like an insurmountable challenge and testament to your cerebral ineptitude. Which is not fair to think of yourself; it’s just a pitfall of the method, and the one that’s kept me from going as fast as I’d like with this book.

The ‘jigsaw’ method has the weakness of taking a really long time to get anything done, to the point where you can get stuck on one chapter, passage, plot-point or whatever and then flip a table in frustration, leaving the tea-stained ruins to be submerged in the sands of time. It’s the opposite problem to the paint method, basically: it’s easy to get snagged on the little things when you’re so intent on ‘getting it right’ the first time through.

In practice, I end up doing a bit of both, with an emphasis on the paint method. Obviously sometimes you just have to start over because you’ve dug yourself into a bottomless pit of narrative despair, but in those cases I’ll save a draft copy of the version of the chapter I’m about to ditch just in case it proves useful in the future (which has happened already, and I’m only one revision in). But this is such a necessity that I don’t really know if this counts as a hybrid method; if you literally just wrote whatever came to mind, stream-of-consciousness style, I imagine there would be a fair few plot-holes you’d have to deal with overlooking when you could easily just tidy them up along the way.

On the other hand, sometimes what seems like a plothole at the time, especially if you have some sort of outline of events in mind, can turn out to be, on reflection, actually an integral part of the plan that you had. This is a consequence of being ‘in the zone’, caught up in the specific thing you’re writing and losing sight of the bigger picture, as well as essentially replicating retrograde amnesia: you can easily forget your own plot-points, so that’s another reason to take notes as you go, and always make backups – never delete anything.

And that happens regardless of whether you’re working with paint or puzzles, unless you’re only ever going to write synopses (and hell, it even happens then).

I had a point, I know I did … see? It happened right there. Proof of my irrefutable truthiness.

*ahem* when it comes to trying to improve your craft, the paint method is still good, as being able to look back over your whole, completed manuscript is invaluable feedback as to where improvements are needed, but it lacks the immediacy of the jigsaw method, and the reward-centre of our brain really only responds to immediate stimulus. It’s why it can get really disheartening to spend two years on a book and only have one draft and a revision to show for it. But it’s also why I felt so rewarded when I read it over this last time, because it had been so close to the point where I’d written it that I felt the feedback, even though I actually waited about a month before reading it after completing it. Fast work leads to a quicker reward with the paint method, and while some immediacy is nice, you will still get that rush of gratification so long as you make reasonable progress.

And, again, you get to see your writing in action. I remember reading the manuscript I wrote before Tallulah, the story I’ll probably be working on after I finish Tallulah, and recognising how my writing evolved over the course of the writing process – it did take me about a year to complete (and clocked in at over 180k words by the end), and I saw myself improving. With Tallulah, the revised manuscript is really clunky in a lot of places where my old writing juxtaposes with the new voice I ended up adopting, with varying results. And the other thing is consistency; I realise that I just said that within one draft I went through three different writing styles, but imagine how much more pronounced that would have been if I’d done it via the jigsaw method. In terms of getting a feel for your voice, it’s not that the jigsaw method won’t give you that feedback – it’ll just be delivered to you differently.

I’m certainly not suggesting that if you use the jigsaw method you never go back and re-read what you wrote, and for that reason alone I would advocate the paint method over it, but that still doesn’t quite solve the issue of how to find a decent middle-ground. I guess for me it’d be combining the paint method with having a solid plan – not a fully fleshed-out one, just something solid and clear enough to work with. And that’s essentially what I worked with while writing Tallulah. Particulars changed as I wrote and dipped in and out of stream-of-consciousness enthusiasm for passing whims, but the overarching plot remained the same.

It’s just that planning itself may require edits, if you’re a stickler for twists and turns like myself, and especially anything involving magic or science – magic because you have to think up the rules and then stick to them, and science because you can’t make it up (unless it’s sci-fi, in which case you just have to decide how much criticism you are happy to endure in response to your actions). And then we get into the muddy territory of drafting your plan, which is supposed to help you get started, not hold you back, and we get into the situation I’m still in with Realm of the Myth, my overblown fantasy epic that’s consumed almost half of my life, was picking up momentum and showing promise at the start of this year and has since stagnated again. But oh no, precious, oh not! I will finish it. I will make it work. Even if I end up breaking it in the process.

It makes sense, shut up.

And just thinking of that story again – it tells me just how comfortable I’ve gotten with the paint method, for all that I hate how long it takes, how delayed the gratification. It does actually suit me, and it helps me to feel like I’m making progress, so long as I stick to it. Which, yes, is easier said than done when the gratification is so delayed, and when I just don’t want to continue for the sake of the process when I feel like I’ve messed something up …

And then I remember my own damn advice and just save a copy of the chapter I’m about to discard and everything is fine. Sigh.

It suits me because it gets me out of the never-ending spiral of ‘no I can’t start yet until I’ve done X’, because X is not the priority. For the process, not me. If I were doing things ‘my way’ I’d be fretting over X forever, and that’s the jigsaw method to me. So this has been a pretty useless attempt to try and find a comfortable middle-ground. But I will keep trying.

For now, I think tonight I’m actually going to try to get to bed before 4am, and spend my pre-sleep time reading rather than staring at a computer screen. These Wonder Woman comics aren’t going to read themselves …


3 thoughts on “Jigsaw paint

  1. I think I’m typically a “jigsaw” writer, but somewhere I got the idea that it’s a bad thing and I should just be forging on with the “paint” method… maybe one of those “this way is better” things that should be “this way is different” instead.

    • Yeah, the majority of the writing advice I’ve come across tends to imply that the ‘jigsaw’ method is a bad habit that will inevitably result in you not only never getting anything done, but being unsatisfied with what you do manage to get done. Which is lame. I think there are definitely merits to it, and that maybe if writing advice was not so inherently tied to the publishing industry (working to deadlines and such) then there would be more, better advice on how to use the ‘jigsaw’ method efficiently. It seems to me that it’s a method that works a lot better if the premium is on space rather than time; if you’re using a word-count to gauge your progress by then maybe jigsaw is better while paint suits a time-limit, and it just so happens that the industry works with a focus on deadlines.

      • Ahhhh, I see. Fascinating stuff! Weird how we pick up “rules” like that without questioning where they come from (most of the time).

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