ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): O is for On-Ramping

Posted by on Sep 30, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

contemplatingcolinBANG! SWOOSH! POW! No, this isn’t a novelization of the Adam West Batman (though maybe that will be my next project). This is me lamenting the fact that I’m not writing all about onomatopoeia for you; but even if I included as many examples as I could think of, I still don’t think I could write 1,000 words on the delectably auditory subject. Let alone 1,000 words that would actually be useful to anyone outside the comic-based-tv-show-novelization crowd.

So I’m left to write about some other aspect of writing that starts with the letter-O. I could talk about odes, but that doesn’t really help the prose crowd much. I could write about apostrophe, but O! Cruel Fortune, that starts with an A. I could do a lovely analytical/theoretical/historical exploration of the Organicists, but again, that would probably put the majority of you, dear readers, to sleep.

Alas, I’ll have to scratch all of that. Might as well just delete those first two paragraphs I’ve written; they’re of little use to me now.

But that doesn’t make them useless.

You see, those preceding paragraphs got me to this point, the point where I’m actually going to talk to you about what it is I’m going to talk to you about: on-ramping. This is not a term that you will find in any textbook or handbook or writing guide. This is a term that I use, that—I like to think, at least—I coined. And it is a term that I teach in all of my classes and workshops.

We’ve all heard the metaphors about how the writing process is a journey, blahblahblah. But we rarely dissect it, rarely talk about the vehicle and what it really means. Think about when you’re driving on the highway. If you’re like me, the good part about driving on the highway, the exciting and useful part, is the part where you’re actually driving on the highway, going at whatever the speed limit is (and never an mph over…). If you’re like me, the worst part of highway driving is the on-ramp, where you’re building up to that speed, where, inevitably, you get stuck behind someone who doesn’t understand what acceleration is—the whole point of the on-ramp.
Often, this is what our writing process is like. The part that readers are interested in, the part that we, as writers, should be interested in, is that part that moves. Sure, we need explication and context, but there are better ways to do it than just frontloading. Unfortunately, when writing, we don’t always find ourselves going 0-60 in no seconds flat. So we put up framework, we work our way up to that beautiful genius that we know our readers will love.

The key is realizing that we then have the power to take that framework down. That’s the beauty of drafts. Once the piece is written, it’s okay for us to go back to the beginning and trim off some of the fat. Not only is it okay, it’s beneficial more often than not.

I can just picture Melville sitting at his desk and starting his story:

“Hello, dear reader. I’m going to tell you a story. It is a grand story, a story of life, and madness, and vengeance, and beauty. And I will tell it to you. But if I am to address you, dear reader, it seems only fair that you know who I am, so you can call me Ishamel.”

And as he reads it back to himself, he finds himself fading out a bit until that last bit. So he cuts everything that comes before and gives us one of the most iconic opening sentences in literary history. I find it highly doubtful that those opening lines we find most impactful throughout literature were the openings of early drafts.

But it’s not just about what we think the reader will enjoy. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing, and just like our thought processes our work must sometimes take a roundabout route to the truth we’re seeking. It’s essential that we listen to our writing. The story we sit down to tell is not always the one that needs telling, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Follow your writing where it takes you. Get it out. Then go back and determine what it is that’s important, essential, and trim it down from there. You can always rebuild. You may even find another use for your scraps, either elsewhere in this piece or as a completely different one.

One of my favorite and most well-received poems was the product of some serious on-ramping. The first draft was laughable at best, to the point that when I use it in editing workshops, it’s difficult for me to actually read the first draft aloud without literally LOLing. In a poem of 16 lines and an epigraph, all that I kept were the title and a carefully carved out section of the last 2.5 lines. That piecemealed section of the end of draft one became the opening of the subsequent drafts.

It was a poem I knew I needed to write. A poem about a dark time in my post-military life when I was living alone in a hotel immediately after returning from Afghanistan, using my Combat Infantry Badge (a high honor to have received) to open beer bottles as I tried to drown out everything I was feeling. Sure enough, I was doing the same in the first draft of the poem, focusing on the physical object rather than what the object represented and the emotional experience behind the moment.

It turned out that what I had first written as the end of the story was actually just the beginning. But it was the dense historical references and admittedly poor poetic technique through which I was seeking that truth. It was a poem that was 88% on-ramp. But without the 88% of what turned into scrap, the remaining 12% never could have come to life.

The bottom line is awareness. Know your writing. Trust your writing. Keep a keen eye out for on-ramping, and don’t be frustrated by it. Use it to get your piece cruising. Like I said, once the piece is done, you may not have a use for it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.

Colin D. Halloran is understandably and justifiably vain about his hair, though from time to time he shaves it off for charity. An Army veteran who served on the front-lines of Afghanistan, he is author of the award-winning memoir-in-verse, Shortly Thereafter, which recounts and reflects on his time in service and its aftermath. He has had poetry, photographs, and essays published around the world and translated into multiple languages. He is fortunate enough to be married to the brilliant Lauren Kay Halloran, who is graciously reading drafts of the memoir he’s currently working on. ABC’s of Writing

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