This morning I attempted, for the eleventieth time, to watch a romcom on Netflix. That seems like a simple enough task, but I found myself scrolling through menu after menu of movies and TV shows, weighing the way-too-many choices on offer. After a half-hour of roaming through myriad options, my husband emerged from his man-cave and suggested we watch the SNL episode we recorded the night before and my window of opportunity closed.
If I have a criticism about the way life is today versus the way it was when I was a younger (and I’m a Boomer, so you know I have opinions on that topic) it’s exactly this: life has become so overwhelmed with options that the act of making a choice eats up more time than the advantages of one selection over another justifies.
In the movie Wonderboys, Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, an English professor ten years on from his bestselling novel. The literary world is waiting for a follow-up, but no one, including his agent (Robert Downey, Jr.), has seen any sign of a new manuscript. Everyone assumes he has writer’s block.
Late in the movie, Tripp shows his star student Hannah (Katie Holmes) what he’s been working on all this time–a stack of manuscript pages approximately three feet high. After reading all 2500 pages, Hannah delivers her verdict:
You know how in class you’re always telling us that writers make choices? Even though your book is really beautiful–I mean, amazingly beautiful–it’s at times very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone’s horses and the dental records. And I could be wrong but It reads in places like you really didn’t make any choices. At all.Michael Chabon, Wonderboys, 2000
I’m having a similar problem with my current work-in-progress. I finally finished a first draft of The Demon Wore Stilettos but as I make my second draft revisions, I’m confronted with Too Many Choices. I think I need a method of prioritization. Options include:
- SIMPLIFY. Given that I have a history of throwing way too much unrelated stuff into my stories, simplify might be a good revision watchword.
- JOY. Taking a page from Marie Kondo’s book and trimming out things that don’t give me (and therefore probably won’t give my reader) joy, might also work.
- THEME–Now that I’m on my second draft, examining the theme(s) of the book and sticking with those could be a good guiding principle.
Of course, you can see what’s happening here. I’m not only having problems making choices, but problems making a choice on how to make choices. When I worked in IT, we used to call this “analysis paralysis”–when you get so caught up in the potential issues of a project that you don’t make forward progress.
Suggestions for working my way out of this morass welcome!
Hah, as soon as I read your opening scenario with the netflicks, I said “analysis paralysis”–since I’m in IT, too!
My strategy, because I do also tend to try to pull in too much, is to write my guideposts and keep them visible. With plot points, it is notecards. When I hit edits, as I am with my 4th book, I create my “punch list” at the top of the document, and then I work in split screen. If it’s NOT on the punch list, I don’t get to work on it. My starting punch list for this draft looks like this:
1. The missing scenes. ADD them. Slip in the clues in earlier scenes. I’ve added one clue, and I’m adding that first missing scene.
2. Comments I left in D1, Address them.
3. Deepen POV on scenes I’m ADDING. (the unwritten part, worry about deepening POV everywhere else in D3).
For YOUR bugaboo, my writing style and the courses I’ve taken push me to focus on “THEME,” and when I do that, it helps simplify!
Good luck figuring your way out of this paralysis.
This is really useful. Thank you.
Marie Kondo’s—and Elmore Leonard’s—advice about cutting the boring, unjoyful bits has always served me well. I once fell asleep working on my manuscript. Big clue right there.
And I’m also wondering if simplifying your story might be aided by working with an outline? You don’t say if you use one, and I’m not sure how much of a plotter you are, but an outline can certainly help a person stay on track. Even in retrospect—if you outline what you’ve got, you might be able to see more clearly what’s important.
Good luck with your decisions!
I always start out with internal and external GMC’s and the five turning points defined.
As I write I create a scene list, basically an outline, divided into acts.
The problem is, my hero’s internal arc wasn’t working, so I changed it. The new flaw/arc are more tightly aligned with the heroine’s arc but the scene list doesn’t address it.
So now I’m trying to figure out how to make him arc without destroying the external plot or her arc.
Oh, boy, so many choices! For choosing a thing to watch/read, I’ve been depending more and more on word of mouth (usually via Twitter, because I’ve cut out FB and am wary of Instagram and the other ones — too many choices). I rarely browse anymore.
But that doesn’t really work for writing!
Have you tried some of the tricks we learned in class? I’m particularly thinking about boiling down the plot/theme/title/EVERYTHING to a 1) title or 2) tagline or 3) query letter or 4) back of the book blurb. These will show you what you think is really, really important. You might ask your beta readers to do this for you, too, so you can catch a glimpse of what’s juicy for them, and let that weigh into your considerations (but not dominate them, of course).
I think the decluttering tricks can be quite useful, as you note. But not only Kondo’s “spark joy” thing, but also the theory of Good Enough. You don’t have to eradicate 100 percent of the fat on your manuscript. It’s good enough to eradicate 50 (or 70 or 90) percent, as long as what you keep is doing something! Sparking joy, illuminating character, foreshadowing or driving the plot, helping the theme. If it’s not doing anything, save it in a file of Special Children, and only re-instate it if it keeps nagging at you from in there.
There’s always going to be a next book where you can get it 100 percent right, LOL.
Great suggestions! Especially about working on the blurb/tagline since, at some point I have to do those anyway.
I’ll give that a shot.