Sturgis’s Law #2

Earlier this month I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #2:

Given enough time to fill, even the most intelligent commentator will wind up making stupid statements.

When I was growing up, we had the news at 6 and the news at 10 (or 11), and it didn’t last more than an hour. On Sunday we had talking-head shows like Meet the Press. They didn’t last more than an hour either.

With the advent of cable TV came channels that delivered news and commentary 24/7. The quantity increased, but not the quality. Blather is cheap. Investigation and analysis are hard. There’s good stuff out there for sure, but you have to wade through a flood of drivel to find it.

Print journalism, like print in general, imposes limits. The space available is finite and the words have to fit into it. In my newspaper days, ads would often come in or be cancelled at the last minute. I’d have to cut a story on the fly to make room or figure out how to fill the hole. I learned, among other things, that no matter how well-written and well-edited a story was, I could nearly always cut two or three or four column inches out of it without doing serious harm.

sufferedThe web doesn’t impose space limits. Bloggers and others writing for the web could theoretically go on forever — but we don’t. Paradoxically perhaps, when it comes to the web the standard advice is “keep it short.” We could go on forever, but most readers won’t stick with us that long. There are limits, but they aren’t spatial.

We writers like to kick against the restrictions imposed on us by circumstance and by (you’re way ahead of me) editors, but restrictions are often a good thing. Think about it.

Tasks with deadlines usually get done before tasks without.

Cutting a 3,000-word draft to fit a 1,000-word limit often sharpens the focus and tightens the prose.

Poets make every word count because they have to. Not only do poems usually have fewer words than stories and essays (even flash fiction and nonfiction), they’re also shaped by the limitations of rhyme, rhythm, and/or meter.

Early drafts can sprawl. Sprawling is good — it sure beats being blocked. But it’s revising and editing that make the piece, whether poetry or prose, by shaping and focusing — by imposing limits.

deadline miracle

When? Now

I can revise, rewrite, and edit at any time of day or night. First-drafting, however, I have to do in the morning, the earlier the better. The writer in me is a morning person. The editor wakes up later. Perfectionista sleeps like a dog. The slightest rustle wakes her up, and once she’s awake she won’t shut up.

So, a dilemma: I’m on day 4 of a nine-day dog-and-pony-sitting gig. This involves two drive-bys a day, a.m. and p.m. The morning drive-by — feed dog, hay pony, pick out stall and paddock, take dog for walk — eats up my best writing time.

If it were just for  a weekend, I might skip writing, but for nine days? No. And I’m looking at a string of critter-sitting gigs that stretches into mid-March. All involve being somewhere else by 8 a.m. What to do, what to do?

This morning I was out of bed and dressed by 7. I zapped the remnants of yesterday’s tea  in the microwave and put on the kettle for a fresh pot. I sat down in my chair, lit a candle, and pulled over the pages I’d been working on: a character sketch for the novel in progress, Squatters’ Speakeasy, that may be turning into a scene. And I wrote. A page and a half of dialogue that looked pretty good when I reread it three hours later.

All in 35 minutes.

Perfectionista is sure that if I don’t have at least an hour blocked out, it’s not worth sitting down to write.

Not true.

My workspace. It's rather more cluttered now. That's a good sign.

My workspace. It’s rather more cluttered now. That’s a good sign.