Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Revision and Addiction


Writing is rewriting. I've always known this. But I'm not sure that I've always understood it. If writing a first draft was like knitting a sweater, for example, then a second draft would be like ornamentation, adding on decorative elements, cutting off loose threads, or at worst weaving in an extra pattern. (Okay, I've never knitted anything in my life, but this analogy seemed to make sense.)

My current manuscript was in need of something much more drastic -- which I found kinda terrifying. How have I gotten this far without ever having to rip out reams of yarn or start all over?

I've often wished I had more technical training in writing fiction, would love to attend a program like the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA. But since I can't quite swing that at the moment, I did the next best thing. I turned to books. I spent my weekend reading about plot and structure. All weekend long I was yelling, "How did I not know this stuff?!" (The kids are used to the crazy writer lady who talks to herself and screams every now and then :))

I got out my trusty pen and a stack of paper and started drawing all sorts of diagrams and plot points. Now let me note here that I am what's called a "pantser", as in a writer who writes by the seat of their pants (or intuition), not by outlines. In fact, a number of years ago I went to a workshop on plot and the whole thing made me ill. The idea that one could decide that plot point x would occur on page 60 and plot point y would occur on page 120 made me want to hurl. In general, outlines give me hives.

But one of the books I was reading this weekend said 'Hey, it's fine to be a pantser. When you've finished your first draft, consider that to be an extended outline. Then look at it with the eyes of an outliner.' (I know, hives, right?) But actually, it's not so bad. I start to see why plot point x should actually happen sooner and why plot points y and z need to switch places. And suddenly I'm ripping out the guts of the manuscript and moving them all around --- and it's working!

Here's another little secret I learned this weekend: Human beings are addicted to worry. We seek it out all the time. It is the responsibility of the author to feed the addiction. That's why people buy the book. They want to have a meaningful, emotional experience. But without someone to worry over, they'll never fully enter the story.
So, in summary, authors are a little like mad scientists. We have to be a kind of insane. (Remember the crazy lady talking to herself and screaming.) We have to hack up our stories and torture our characters. And then we also have to be scientific, looking at the technical parts, the structure and how it all fits together (deep breaths, no hives).

And the craziest part is that diving into the scary stuff, really ripping the story apart and putting it back together, though terrifying, can be just as rewarding as the thrill of the first draft (for those of us who prefer that brand of torture -- but that's a whole other post.)

And in case you're wondering which books I was salivating over this weekend, they were Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Writing Fiction for Dummies (don't judge!)

Happy writing/revising/reading and happy holidays!

15 comments:

  1. I loved this post! I'm definitely a pantser too. I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds it terrifying to rip apart a story and put it back together. You're so right though, there is some thrill in it. :)

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  2. Great blog! I have to look at those books.

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  3. Hah! Judge I will not....recently down loaded Plot and Structure to my kindle...and brought home Fiction for Dummies from the library! Glad they helped, and yeah...I think I am a write draft then plot plotter.

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  4. I am a pantser, as well. I had a rough synopsis for this book, but when I wrote the last chapter on Sunday it was NOTHING like I'd imagined. I might have to look at those books because outlining scares the crap out of me.

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  5. Glad to see I'm not alone in the realm of pantsers :) Thanks for your comments!

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  6. I'm addicted to worry, and also to how-to-write-a-book books! I have read both of these.

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  7. During one of the many revisions of my first book, I printed out all the chapters separately, laid them on the floor and cut out--with scissors--the subplot that wasn't working. Then I moved the chapter remains around and went back to the computer to add the new subplot. Terrifying but it worked.

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  8. Wow, Jan, that is fascinating! What an interesting technique!

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  9. Haha, I love this post! I'm definitely a pantser (with all writing), so it was cool to see that perspective in terms of writing a book. I never thought about the first draft just being an extended outline! Brill!

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  10. Okay - I am the luckiest person ever because I get to be a real live mad scientist and a writer. Double points. I totally write by the seat of my pants but love the idea that a first draft can be looked at like an extended outline. Will be using that one soon!

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  11. Oooh, more plot/structure books to read. I love those. My favorite is The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. I tend to intuit my way through stories, but I always find analysis helpful.

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  12. Soooo glad I'm not alone. I read many books on writing and became very overwhelmed each time I was told to create an outline. I never created the outline I just put the books away. My technique might scare some people but it truly works for me. I write what ever scenario pops into my head creating a separate document for each. When I know I have the meat of the story I begin to cut and paste, and cut and paste, . . . .

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  13. Thanks so much for sharing what you learned and also sharing book titles! I'm a panster and well and am in the same place as you with my WIP where I have A LOT to fix. So this blog post gives me some great ideas of what to do (looking at the rough draft as an outline, perfect!) and books to read. Thanks!

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  14. Backwards outlining (outlining after the fact) is one of my go-to strategies, and so much better than outlining when you don't know where your story is.

    Another thing I do in revision (besides, like you, going to "school" via craft books) is to make a list of the first and last sentences of all my chapters. This makes it possible to see, almost at a glance, the narrative arc of each chapter and the book as a whole. It's a great way to zero in on chapters that aren't pulling their weight and to see ways that stuff might be reworked.

    And I don't think talking to yourself makes you crazy (although my husband and son might disagree). As my grandma says, you just want to talk to somebody who knows something!

    www.asheyperez.com/blog

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  15. BTW, my post today is somewhat related, although from the opposite direction (just writing SOMETHING for those of us who tend to want to obsessively correct when we just need to generate material). Check it out here:

    http://www.ashleyperez.com/blog/item/23-the-most-essential-gift-for-writers-hemingways-shit-detector

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