Reflections of an Amateur Novel Writer: Part 2, “Dirty Writing and Scum-Sifting”


Well, since it’s been… too long, we’ll just say, since I wrote another one of these terribly long-winded reflections on fiction creation. So, I decided to finally take some time and go on a writing binge to make a small handful of them so you all can finally stop ASSAULTING MY BRAIN WITH YOUR GUILT-WAVES. And yes, that is the only probable explanation for my discomfort in this situation.





Anyway, yes, on to things. As you may have noticed by now, the title of this post refers to “writing dirty.” While this may or may not actually include writing smutty or trashy romance novels, it can always refer to something that is absolutely vital to the writing process. For those unfamiliar, “writing dirty” is the name given to the process (I don’t know by who, but I’m sure lots of people have their own name for it as well- as I do) of simply sitting down and writing with no care about quality, continuity, spelling, grammar, or any combination of the above. It is the secret enemy and ultimate antithesis of the horror of the stark emptiness of the blank white page.

And it is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY FOR WRITING. So there. It is, on the surface, a completely unappealing process to some as, without strict quality control, some may fear that the story will spiral out of control and end up in Suckville. Well, as it turns out, “writing dirty” actually helps you stay away from the borders of Suckville. It allows you to knead and work out the best and worst parts of your story by making them plain and obvious, having been put into words. It will let you look back on what you’ve written and hopefully understand more about the nature of your own project.

Before we proceed further, I’d like to introduce my own term to replace “writing dirty” for the rest of this post (plus, then I can stop putting quotation marks at random parts throughout the page). The term I have chosen to use for this incredibly vital process is scum-sifting. Because I think it touches on two very important things that “writing dirty” does not.

  1. Pertaining to “Scum”: our writing, more often than not, will suck the first time you put it into the page. And by “suck,” I mean, “you think it sucks.” That is simply part of the process. As I said before, it is necessary to knead your story out like dough so that you can see all of the impurities latent in the story’s fabric including stilted dialogue, cliché plot or character tropes, heavy exposition, tangents, instances of deus ex machina, and other such literary horrors.

2: Pertaining to “Sifting”: It is vital to always (always) look back on your work relatively soon after finishing a session of writing. I always likened scum-sifting as the author dry heaving onto a page, getting everything in their body and mind out onto the page and not caring about the quality. Then, sometime later after the initial high as worn off, the scum can be sifted through and you can find the truly good parts of the work that were hiding in said scum.

So yes, scum-sifting… with that beautiful phrase still fresh and wet in your head, let’s proceed onward:

Scum-sifting allows an enormous degree of freedom in the story’s construction. When you sit down and prepare to dive into a writing session, there’s no reason why you must go in chronological order with your story. From my own experience, although now I am writing one novel chronologically, that only arose from about a year of intense organization, scum-sifting, and refining. Now that the story is all set to go from all of that preparation work, I can feel confident in starting from the very beginning.

Also, let me differentiate something here: It is always good to have your beginning, middle, and end figured out before going into a story. After all, you need to know where you’re going in order to get there. However, scum-sifting applies more to the minute details of writing, that is to say, the individual words on the page that craft the story you have outlined.

So, what scum-sifting allows is a sense of freedom that you can write from any place in the story, so long as it suits your fancy. I have known fellow writing students to simply be paralyzed in the beginning of the writing process because they can’t approach it head-on. The beginning of their story is lost to them, so the entire project seems lost. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Scum-sifting says for you to write ANYTHING. Anything at all. Even if you’re writing about how the character in your story is having a brain-block themselves. Think of the first foray into scum-sifting as a warmup to the main event. Your brain will begin to wake up more the more your write. Even if what you’re writing makes absolutely no sense, even if it occurs totally outside of the world of your story, it’s all the same.

Just. Write.

There, I managed to truncate that whole paragraph into two words.

But seriously, you simply MUST write. All the time. Even if you think it’s horrible. No, ESPECIALLY if you think it’s horrible. The more horridly you write, the more you can attune your brain to see problems inherent in your work and you can train your mind in ways to recognize problems in your writing even as you still write.

On that note, you must keep EVERYTHING. Don’t crumple up the page of paper or burn your notebook or delete your document or burn down your house or take a giant eraser and erase every single letter in town. That’s just silly. When you have everything that you’ve ever written, you can look back on it and either find yourself pleasantly surprised with something that you wrote three months ago that you’d still like to use or you’ll find a piece of complete garbage that you feel proud for moving past. With writing, any experience is good experience.

As an extension to keeping everything, it’s vital to look back on your work after a writing session. To be honest, I’m about equally split between two possibilities in terms of frequency when I look back on my work. I either find flaws all throughout what I’ve written or I find that what I thought was bad actually had a lot of merit to it. The thing about writing sessions, especially when scum-sifting, is that your mindset tends to bleed onto the page quite profusely. For instance, if you were more agitated during a writing session or you had a stressful day, you may find that your word choice and construction of scenes would be drastically different than if you were calm and happy during another writing session. In other words, you need to give yourself some time to distance yourself from what you just wrote (I usually air on the side of about three to seven days) in order to get the perspective of somebody who is not in the same mindset as when you wrote it. I have found that more than a few lyrical metaphors had fallen flat on their face when I read them after some time away from the work.

As such, I violently severed them from the rest of their fellow words and strung them up in the town square to serve as an example to others about the price of incompetence. When I scum-sift I guess I sometimes use less of a sifter and more of a detachment of the Spanish Inquisition. But it still gets the job done!

It’s important to examine your scum not only for the things I mentioned before (odd dialogue, too much or too little focused on setting up the scene [though, what those parameters are are up to the writer and their work], etc.) but also so you can look for conflicting emotional states in the writing. It wouldn’t serve the work well to have one chapter be written with lots of introspection and a generally upbeat tone only to be followed by a somber and sober chapter when there was no reason in the story to make that so.

There is also one final point that should sell you to the idea of scum-sifting which I have dubbed Frankensteining. Frakensteining is the process of taking two (or more) segments of writing that previously were non-compatible with the overarching narrative and re-writing parts of said narrative so that you are allowed to keep what had been written in those segments. I had to do this for a short story in my 201 Creative Writing course in which I took elements and sections of the story I had been writing, but later abandoned, and decided to place them into my new story. I was really only able to do this because my ideas about my second story’s overall narrative arch weren’t yet fully formed, so I was able to keep things malleable (malleability in a larger story is never a bad idea. It allows some larger-scale edits to take place. It might invalidate some sections of the story you have written before, but if the overall quality is improved, then the change could still be valid) and thus keep dialogue, characters, and settings that I had previous constructed.

Frankensteining and scum-sifting can really go hand-in-hand. If you wrote a character or dialogue string that you particularly enjoy, it’s entirely possible to combine one with the other, even if the source of said character or dialogue would be considered obsolete. This really only helps to reiterate how important it is to keep everything you write, as you may find something that could really give your writing some extra juice by looking in unexpected places.

So, in the end, just sit down (or stand, or however you feel most comfortable when writing) and write. Write until the words start to leak out of your ears, eyes, telekinetic glands, or any other suitable orifice. Write like nobody would ever look at what you’re making (and if you’re an indie author, that might not be very hard to imagine at all. ZING!) and then look at it! Yes, it will be a little bit painful at first, especially if you’re still super-critical of your writing, but just as the editing process makes books refined and clean, your own re-examination of your work will help refine it in a way that nobody else can. After all, if you look at what you’ve written three days later and you have no idea what you were even trying to say, it’s likely that nobody else will either. Which is a bad thing.


Well, if you’ve managed to make it all the way down here, throw some more sarcastic confetti again! My blunt-force-trauma-inducing ramblings managed to not beat you into submission! I also hope that you learned a little something from all of this. Or you just feel better about your writing processes if you’re already doing scum-sifting, “dirty writing,” or whatever else you wish to call it.




Feel free to talk amongst yourselves below- it’ll be neato keeno to see what else you other writer folk think on this whole thing!


Good luck, you brave writer folk!




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