Category Archives: Revision

Give intuitive revision some credit!

As a subscriber to numerous magazines (both print & online) and newsletters, I am constantly being offered writing aid, help, and advice. Correction. I am constantly being sold writing aid, help, and advice. Register today and save 30% on an all-exclusive, one-time webinar How to Write Fiction Like a Pro. Last chance to purchase Sam Canwrite (but you can’t)’s bestseller Back to the Pit! Seven Reasons This Book Won’t Help You Achieve Your Writing Goals and Reach National Stardom. Do I sound bitter? I’m not, actually. In fact, I often feel that I should be buying these books, that I should be attending these seminars. But then I stop and wonder if Agatha Christie was ever offered tutorials on structuring plot, or if Charlotte Bronte ever got invited to attend a lecture on character development, or if Mark Twain ever purchased a book entitled The Essentials of Comedic Writing.

Somehow, I doubt it. The question then becomes what did these past greats have that we don’t have? Is it possible to learn the craft of writing through trial and error? Do I need to fork over large wads of cash to become a better writer? (Says the sucker who spent thousands on a graduate level writing degree). In all seriousness though, much of what I’ve learned about the process, I did in three ways:

1. By writing
2. By reading
3. Critique groups (both in and outside the classroom)

To clarify, when I say “reading” I typically mean other novels, though I’ve come across a limited number of useful guidebooks as well.

Recently, I’ve begun my novel’s fifth revision, and believe me when I tell you that only now (after more than a year) have I fully begun to understand what it takes to write a book. My point is this, for the most part I’ve ignored the gimmicks and gadgets and I’ve set about figuring this writing thing out on my own. And trust me, I’m still no expert. But I will share with you what I’ve learned about the art of writing fiction based purely on my own experiences:

Chapter Segmentation: If I look back at my novel’s initial draft, the chapters have no delineation. It’s essentially a giant brain dump. I start and end in random places, sometimes right in the middle of the action. Some chapters are three pages long, others are fifteen pages long (which is often OK to do, so long as it’s effectively planned out; mine were not, of course). Last spring my thesis advisor told me that I ‘bury my gems.’ In other words, I stick the great, terse, one- liners that would otherwise make fabulous chapter openers/closers in the middle of the third paragraph in.

I’ve learned to write my chapters as mini-stories within the bigger story. Each chapter should be able to stand on its own, but remain linked to the overall big picture. It’s sort of like an episode of Mad Men or Breaking Bad—each episode has its own conflict, but often draws from previous conflicts or prepares for future conflicts. My chapters are now sorted into segments with strong openings and closings. Together they make up pieces the story is made of.

The Scene Shuffle: Anyone who writes with serious intent knows that many, many, words that are written will never see the light of day. This is one-hundred percent true. The first draft of my book has scenes the second draft never became acquainted with and so on. I’ve learned to distinguish which scenes make the cut, and which ones don’t. Often the slashed content adds nothing to the broader purpose of the story. Sometimes it disrupts the flow the action, causing the reader to literally ‘halt.’ Other times it is just weak and ineffective, and isn’t worth revising. Plus, in other cases, a major plot point gets reversed or altered and then these scenes simply become irrelevant. This is a very important skill to master. It says a lot about the final outcome of the book. I haven’t mastered it yet; I’ve just gotten better at it.

I’ve also learned to identify my ‘pivotal’ scenes and slow…them…down. Another key piece of advice I got from my thesis advisor was that I tend to rush through my biggest, most dramatic scenes. It’s as if the content matter (that I, myself, created) makes me queasy and I just want to move away from it. I now know that these scenes are what make a book memorable. So write it over…again, again, and again.

Characterization is a broken record: This is key: in order to really get a character’s thoughts, feelings, motives, and even personality across to the reader, you must beat it like a dead horse. The reader needs constant reminders of your characters’ obsessions, their desires, their needs. If an 18-year old female protagonist is yearning for acceptance from her absentee father, I need to hear her say this throughout the story many times over. Casually mentioning it the beginning won’t suffice. She needs to bemoan this yearning. She needs to have flashbacks. She needs to discuss it with her friends. She needs to act a certain way and say certain things in her father’s presence. She has to physically attempt to please him and fail over and over again. Otherwise, she’s just a stick figure no one can relate to or feel something for.

Research first!: Any research that needs to be done for the story (i.e. a character has a medical issue, the setting is World War II Russia, etc.) should probably be done ahead of time. At least in my case, I will not write one word of my next novel until I’ve done a fair amount of research on the book’s topic. What I am finding as I revise my current novel is once the words are down, the characters are created, the plot is structured,  and the tension is building,  it’s a lot harder to insert facts, statistics, and other likely observations in the midst of an already thriving scene. It’s not impossible, but it’s more difficult. If research is done prior to writing, then the revision process is simply fixing text that is already accurate.

Time is on your side: It takes many drafts to fully understand the world you’ve created. Writing is a journey of discovery (perhaps the best part), but at some point, a destination must be reached. That being said, once it is clear how the story begins, develops, and ends, can the proper adjustments be made. Seeds can be planted, characters can transform, and connections between this and that can be made. It is a process no doubt, and there’s no use in rushing.

I don’t know if I can call these tidbits I’ve just shared advice, or if they are merely the realities of the writing process. They aren’t even necessarily facts, unshakable truths about fiction writing—or any writing for that matter. Instead, I’ll call them lessons I’ve taught myself, lessons that have presented themselves to me (with help, of course) as I’ve grown as a writer. I didn’t unlock these pearls of wisdom by attending a single class or reading a book on craft. And while I am truly not knocking these tools created to help writers, the truth is, they are worth nothing if the writer herself doesn’t put them to use.

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Filed under Breaking Through, Revision, Writing Process, Writing Tips

What’s going on down there?

“When I start on a book, I have been thinking about it and making occasional notes for some time—20 years in the case of Imperial Earth, and 10 years in the case of the novel I’m presently working on. So I have lots of theme, locale, subjects and technical ideas. It’s amazing how the subconscious self works on these things. I don’t worry about long periods of not doing anything. I know my subconscious is busy.”
—Arthur C. Clarke

Lately I’ve been writing even when I’m not writing. I’ll be in the car, the shower, a restaurant, the grocery store, and I’ll be completely lost inside my own head, not just thinking about writing, actually writing. The descriptions, the dialogue, the action…all of it. In my head. I’m convinced that I sometimes move my lips along with my thought process. I’ve often caught total strangers. giving me questionable looks.

The other afternoon I worked tirelessly on revising my novel. When I stopped, I went downstairs to feed my cats. As I stood at the counter, the two of them circling my feet like sharks, suddenly I thought of the perfect thing for character X to say. I slopped the food in their bowls and raced back upstairs. Wrote one extra line of dialogue. Then wound up spending another half-hour at the computer.

I’m even doing it in my sleep. Really. I’ll wake from a image-less dream where I hear the flow of a narrator’s voice echoing in my mind. It won’t necessarily be coherent material. I’m not even sure if its my book. But it’s writing. It’s definitely writing. Very strange.

New scenes develop out of nowhere. Friday night I saw a news brief about a 90 year man who still owns, runs, and operates his own barbershop. Suddenly I had an idea for a scene in the book. Not a scene, really. A ‘clip.’ There’s a difference. A scene runs at least 700 words (or more), a clip can be under 300. This barbershop notion turned out to be an important clip though. It established an early hint of something that was to come. It worked beautifully.

I think I’ve been enmeshed with the story long enough now to where this kind of stuff happens on its own. In the beginning, yes, I had to actively seek out inspiration. But the wheels have been turning for nearly a year and a half, and it’s true. The subconscious is an amazing tool. I’m beginning to think that so much of writing is to learning to activate this way too often dormant oasis that lies in all of us.

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Autonomy

“Writing is like being in love. You never get better at it or learn more about it. The day you think you do is the day you lose it. Robert Frost called his work a lover’s quarrel with the world. It’s ongoing. It has neither a beginning nor an end. You don’t have to worry about learning things. The fire of one’s art burns all the impurities from the vessel that contains it.”
—James Lee Burke

This is essentially true. But as both intrinsic writers and student writers we do learn rules. Lots and lots of rules. Endless rules about characterization, plot, structure, dialogue, thematic undercurrents, and on and on. And yes, there is a basic format to a piece of writing. It has to be organized–this organization takes on many, many, forms, but it still must have a form.

So maybe we can ‘learn’ things about writing, but it seems like everywhere I look the rules are being broken. Maybe that’s why Burke is saying the ‘learning process,’ in a sense doesn’t really exist in writing.

I’ve heard countless critiques about my characters and their lack of dimensions, yet then I read a published piece in a literary magazine where the characters don’t have names, backgrounds, anything. They’re shadows who live in a timeless space. Do we learn the rules to ignore them? Or is there a certain recipe to follow regardless?

I think every piece of writing must work in spite of itself. It has to operate in its best capacity as it stands. Any reader can tell when a story, poem, essay has value. It’s isolated from every other story, poem, or essay. Maybe once an intrinsic learns all the learns he or she can pick and choose the ones he or she wants to incorporate into the piece.

As a child I learned how to print my letters. Then I learned cursive. Now my handwriting is a unique hybrid of the two. Maybe writing is like that. But then again, I don’t really know.

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Filed under Breaking the Rules, Breaking Through, Characters, Description, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Process

Perpetual Darkness

“I do not rewrite unless I am absolutely sure that I can express the material better if I do rewrite it. —William Faulkner

Well, Faulkner, that’s my problem these days. I can never tell when I’m finished. The other problem is, I always think I can express it better. For me, my already written text is like an iceberg–stands in the way, won’t move, won’t budge, actually, and blocks a calm, smooth sail. It’s a crutch, a challenge, a ‘hard place,’ if you will.

The other night I dreamed I was sitting in a park on a bench as day gradually turned to night. At one point I thought to myself, ‘Hmm, it’s dark, maybe I should get up and go.’ I began to feel spooked actually, so I got to my feet, and strolled over towards another bench, where apparently all my stuff was: my school bag, my purse, and, oddly, a small, brown dog. I fumbled around aimlessly, trying to collect my items as the duskiness of night set in. I don’t have a dog. I’ve never seen this one in my life. But I picked him up, along with my other (less furry) cumbersome items and began to walk.

Then I was walking down my grandparents’ street–towards their house, I suppose–and the world began to light up again, gradually, in degrees. I still held onto my things, dog included, but I felt resolute in making it all the way to my grandparents’ house without dropping anything.

All my dream research points to darkness as a sign of doom, evil, the death of the spirit. But I don’t think I believe that–not in this context anyway. I think I’m ‘in the dark,’ about what my writing should look like, should sound like, etc. I’m fumbling around, trying to figure it all out. I’m determined to hold on, to make it back, and little by little, the fog–or darkness, in this case–will dissipate.

I don’t think anything I’ve ever written is perfect. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell. If there is even such a thing as ‘perfect writing.’ I’ll keep aiming for perfection; maybe one day I can get close.

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Filed under Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Details, Writing Fears, Writing Process

Oh there you are…

Writers shouldn’t fall in love with characters so much that they lose sight of what they’re trying to accomplish. The idea is to write a whole story, a whole book. A writer has to be able to look at that story and see whether or not a character works, whether or not a character needs further definition.”
—Stephen Coonts

Last week I received some feedback on one of my major female characters. Apparently, compared to another female character, she didn’t ‘jump off the page,’ as they say. This surprised me greatly. I’ve spent much more time thinking about Character A than Character B. Character A arrived in my thoughts with any beckoning. Character B was not forged, but certainly planned. Yet somehow, according to my small group of readers, Character B–in the draft they were shown– leaped, tumbled, and sprang, forward while Character A mostly stayed put.

I’m aware that some characters arrive more organically. As I’ve said before, these are the guys that show up uninvited bearing no food, drink, or gift. But what about those characters who I swear I know, see clearly, hear impeccably, feel intimately…but yet, don’t get expressed properly in the prose?

So I rewrote her. I opened up a new document, titled it after her name, and wrote her whole story. Then I took the various bits and pieces of text and placed them (I hope) strategically in the all right places. When I read over the revisions, I was astonished by how weakly I’d characterized her in former drafts. She is perhaps the most important female character in the story! I’d cheated her, in a sense. But what’s strange, the way in which I finally brought her to light, is exactly the way I’d always envisioned her. Now, thank goodness, so can everyone else.

I guess sometimes we intrinsic writers can lose perspective. We are so enmeshed in our creations that we develop a sort of ‘blind spot’ towards them. I see what I see, even no one else does. Even if it’s absurdly obvious. I learned something important from this critique though. Don’t shortchange your people. They don’t deserve it.

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Filed under Characters, Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Details, Writing Process

Revision Check

“… Falsely straining yourself to put something into a book where it doesn’t really belong, it’s not doing anybody any favors. And the reader can tell.”
—Margaret Atwood

I may be an intrinsic writer, but I’m not an intrinsic revisionist. The act of writing doesn’t frighten me. If everything I ever wrote came out perfectly the first time, I’d have endless material, stacks of paper up to the sky. Revision, though, terrifies me. It’s what holds me back. I’m not sure what exactly bothers me so much about cleaning up text–maybe the irrational despair of having to do ‘the whole thing over again.’ I think it’s this notion of running out of time. Writing can be a blissfully painstaking process (yes, I’m aware of the oxymoron I’ve just provided, but any intrinsic writer knows what I’m talking about). The idea of starting from scratch, the idea of something “not working” in my writing sends me into lunatic mode. I start thinking of the months, years, even it’ll take to complete, and that, who knows, by that time, maybe no one will read anymore…

Senseless thinking? Yes. Absolutely. But this is what keeps me up at night. This is what depresses me as I listlessly cruise through my daily activities. I’ve started my thesis seminar. It’s me, the professor (my adviser) and two classmates. Last Thursday, for the first time ever, I got a response to the opening pages of my novel. I expected criticism. I knew it wasn’t perfect. I’ve been in many writing workshop situations before, so I knew the drill. What I didn’t expect was to feel so…discouraged…at the end of the night. They said my structuring was off, and that I needed to shed some light on the time period I was writing in. Excellent points. Very true, I know that now, I knew that then. But I spiraled into a sort frenzied depression for two days. I refused to look at the novel. On Friday afternoon, instead of writing, I took personality quizzes online. I felt, well, completely doomed.

Then on Friday night I had a dream. My fiance and I were on some kind of vacation with his siblings. We were in this cabin on top of a huge mountain, covered in snow. We played this game with each other, or we challenged each other…I don’t know, but these were the circumstances of the dream…to climb first down the mountain, and then back up. I walked all the way down the mountain in the freezing cold. I doubted I could make it back up and wind up in the same place. I feared veering off into a totally new direction and never finding my way back. But I ascended anyhow, and when I made it to the top, I saw my fiance’s brother smoking a cigar (weird, I know) and I knew I’d reached the right place.

Yesterday morning I sat down and rewrote/restructured the opening pages to my novel. And it looks…well, better. In fact, in some ways, I have a whole new feeling about it. My professor had stressed the importance of the opening pages. She said now that I’d gone through and written the entire story, I know the focus of the novel, the purpose of the novel. The opening pages have to express that. Are they perfect yet? Probably not. But I’ll find my way back up the mountain.

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Filed under Inspiration, Revision, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Fears, Writing Process