Today I want to talk about trash writing. What do I mean by that? Well, trash writing is what I call the product of days when I write things not related to my manuscript or any other specific goals–writing that doesn’t even pretend to be good and isn’t intended for anyone else to ever see. Sometimes it isn’t even worth saving.
Why do I want to talk about trash writing today? Because I’ve been doing it when I should’ve been working on my manuscript, and I’m not (entirely) sorry about it.
Some days, I’m just really in the mood to write something that doesn’t matter. When there gets to be too much pressure on a manuscript I want people to read someday, but I’m still in love with writing. Those are trash writing days, and I’ve been finding them surprisingly useful.
I have hundreds of pages of this junk saved, small unimportant stories with plot holes and stereotypical characters and passive voice and and more boring backstory than action. I start with one character, or one plot point, and just see where it goes. With my manuscript, I have a whole outline and pages of notes to keep me on track with main points and significant characters and dates and whatnot, but when I break for “trash writing,” I don’t worry about those things. I just pick a starting point and go with whatever ideas strike me, at a much faster and more careless pace. It’s a bit like a self-prompt, I suppose. A purge of words and thoughts that I don’t have to think so hard about so that I can go back to writing more important things with renewed focus.
This kind of writing, while it doesn’t seem to lead to any direct progress, can be a helpful exercise when I just need to take a step back from the writing I’ve been immersed in more seriously. I can look at it more critically because it’s less important to me. If I go into it with the mindset that “this is junk” (although I save a lot of it in case any grand ideas or pieces for future manuscripts might arise from the muck), then it’s easier to see common problems that my writing has been sporting lately. Like using the same words or phrases over and over. Starting every paragraph the same way. Using the same sentence structure repeatedly. Adding too many commas.
It also helps me look at my characters more closely. In the short (usually 20-50 pages) segments of trash writing I produce, it’s easier to see when I’m providing too much or too little backstory, or falling into tropes. Oftentimes I plant the same characters I’m already familiar with from my manuscript or other projects into new situations (or alternative universes if there’s a lot of conflicting overlap and I can’t fit it logically into their chronology at all), and using them this way helps me spot problems with their habits or background or motives that I might not notice when I’m looking so closely at my manuscript. A lot of the lessons I learn from trash writing are things that can be carried over and applied to more important writing; lessons that help me become a better writer.
So my goal for last week was to go back through my already-written section three (of nine) and make edits, update the layout to match my changes from the earlier sections, and add in any extra ideas I thought seemed necessary. My ultimate goal is to work through each section on this same minute level, one at a time, and then give it a final read-through after all these revisions and edits have been made; this way, I’ll get a close look at each part, and then a broad look at the bigger picture. Did I reach my goal of a satisfactory completion of level three? Yes, but it took me an extra week because I spent several days writing trash instead of editing. Do I regret that? Well, considering I wanted to be finished with a full draft of my manuscript by the end of 2016, any delay is a little annoying, but no, I don’t think my trash-writing-vacation was a waste of time. Not only is it fun to pick a different genre and escape the headspace I’ve been stuck in while looking so closely at one part of my manuscript, but it reminded me why I love writing, and it helped me set the precarious tone in section three just right for my purposes. I came back to my section three edits with renewed vigor and worked all the way through easily, making changes that I was happy with when I reached the end and went back through again. I’m much more satisfied with this section now than the last one, and I’m excited to keep going.
About keeping going: my goal for the next two weeks will be to complete and edit section four. This one will not necessarily be harder than the last, but it will be different because I know this is one of the sections that I left only half-written the last time I worked at it. I’m very excited about the content that’s already there, though, after I left off at the end of section three, and I think adding the new content will also be more enjoyable than all these small edits I’ve been focusing on with previous sections in the last month and a half. I will still need to go back through the whole section to do those edits once all the necessary plot points have been included, but this should give me a variety of tasks for section four, which feels like a good place to be rather than the one-task rut I fell into with the last section. I’ll check back with you in two weeks and let you know how I fared.
How do you feel about writing outside of your manuscript? I’m not one of those people who can have two big projects at once (two manuscripts, say), but I definitely require a break from my big goals. Do you also save writing that you worked on for fun but don’t intend to share with anyone? Where do you stand on its usefulness?
The Literary Elephant