Revision Tips

I really enjoyed these from author Karen E Bender at the Story Prize blog.  #10 resonated with me the most:

Remember that revision is a process and happens in stages. The first stage, you may be trying to find out what the story is about. Then you may develop scenes, layer characters. Later, you may compress scenes/characters. Then you may work on pacing. A late revision focuses on clarity and language. You may work on any of these issues during the process, but try not to get too focused on honing the language too early, as you may not know what will remain in the story. As one writer I know says, “Writing a story is like building a boat. I don’t want to spend too much time intricately painting a hatch when I don’t know if the boat even has a rudder.”

My writing tip in general: Remember that writing takes up a lot of time.

Thought for Day 25: What to Write About

This thought comes, again, from Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART.

I have noticed two major terms writers like to use when insulting other writers:  hack and precious.  I’m not exactly sure what precious means, except I get the impression that it has something to do with the kind of writing one associates with greeting cards.  I’m positive that it is always a matter of taste and opinion because I heard someone call Italo Calvino precious and Italo Calvino is a god.  See what I mean:

Precious, again, is a matter of opinion.

Hack, I understand, especially because Pressfield lays it out for us at the end of this book:

A hack writes hierarchically.  He writes what he imagines will play well in the presence of others.  He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write?  What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot? What can I make a deal for?

(152).

Hacks sound pretty smart to me but I still don’t want to be one.  Hence, my poverty.

I found, during my MFA, that I can’t commit to a project that makes me feel like a hack.  I wrote about 200 pages of a novel and then stopped because I let someone see it who said that the writing was unimaginative.  That scared me, because imagination is a pretty big part of my (and your) identity as a writer.  If he was wrong, which I don’t think he was, I think I would have felt that and persisted.  I knew instead that he was right, that I wasn’t at all connected to the language in the book I was writing because I wasn’t really writing it from that, “I must write this!” place.  I didn’t care that much about the characters.  The situation, though interesting, was not really something that I felt like my life’s journey has given me authority over.

Today’s thought is about what to write.  Your intro to creative writing class taught you to write what you know.  I don’t like that phrase much.  Instead, I think “write what you’re obsessed with” is better advice.

If you’re obsessed with something, if there is a sliver of a narrative that you overheard one day and think about once or twice a week, you know enough about it to write about it.  You don’t have to know everything about what you’re going to write.  That’s why I don’t like the advice to write what you know.  Writing is an act of discovery, by gosh, and nothing is more dull than reading a narrative from the perspective of a “know-it-all.”

No. Write what you’re obsessed with.

Write what you need to know more about.  Write about what makes you curious.

My novel that I’m working on now came to me when a mentor asked, “What do you wish you could find on the shelf at a bookstore? Write that.”

There was a time when I only wanted to read the kind of novel I was writing, but due to personal experiences/circumstances/tragedies at the time, I knew that the book I was working on was the last thing I’d go to the bookstore to read.  I needed something funnier.  I needed something more triumphant, more strange, more delightful than what I was working on.

I spent a day grieving.  Deciding to put a novel down for a while (or perhaps drop all together) that you’ve worked on for 200 pages feels like taking a puppy into a field and shooting it in the head because it has some strange disease that you can’t afford to cure.  It’s awful.

I’m guessing that there will be a time, or five times, this current project will seem like a diseased puppy to me.  But I’ve already written a draft, so I am more confident that I have what I need to cure the puppy.  I have more in stock now, I mean. More tools to fix it.*

Plus, I have made it through a full draft so I know that enough about it works to keep going. (I ditch drafts a lot.  A LOT. I don’t recommend that, necessarily, but I also won’t say it’s something I don’t do a lot.)

*That paragraph is for the record.  Please remind me of this post when I start talking about my novel like it’s a diseased puppy.

Thought for Day 13: Embrace the Waste

I don’t know about other MFA fiction graduates, but I think the most daunting thing about not being in a workshop, and not having a committee waiting on a draft, is the fact that we have no deadlines. I’ve already written about this (Thought for Day Three), but today I’m thinking more about how the lack of having a deadline changes my attitude towards writing.  Here’s my thought: embrace the waste.

(Just like it says on the title for this post!)

This thought came to me after reading Dorothy Allison’s interview in a book called Novel Ideas.  Allison talks about different tricks she uses in taking a fresh look at her manuscript for a revision.  She puts it down for a year.  She writes entire sections in a different perspective (character or narrative perspective, like from first to third).  She does a whole lot of writing and then tosses that writing away–none of it goes into the final draft.

I will remember my committee-chair (Elizabeth Stuckey-French) the most by one phrase she loved to say, again and again: “Try it and see where it goes.”  This is a lot easier to do when we don’t have a deadline approaching. (ESF taught a really good class about novel writing that I was super lucky to take. In fact, that class is why this Novel Ideas book is on my shelf.)

Maybe other people had different experiences as students, but I wrote with a lot of pressure to get it good the first time.  Not get it right, but get it good.  Get it good enough so it wouldn’t get slaughtered during workshop. I taught 45 students and was often taking three classes at a time while I was completing my MFA. I didn’t really have time to waste a lot of pages trying things.

Writing while a student has shaped my perspective in a bit of an unpractical sort of way: I feel like I have little sense of how much work actually goes into completing an entire book, especially a book that I want to be not only right and good, but amazing. I think a big part of writing an amazing book is allowing ourselves to try things and see what happens.

Let no possibility go unexplored.

This post, I suppose, is sort of a confession.  I suspect that if I were a better student (and I suspect that if I didn’t take the teaching so seriously, which I just could not figure out how to do), I would have made more time to waste pages.  Now, the ability to just write a bunch of pages for the mere act of discovery sounds like a tremendous gift.  Nobody’s waiting on my novel (except my close friends and family).  It feels luxurious.

It’s also really, really scary.

Being open to possibilities takes a lot of courage.  This is why, I believe, fundamentalism is closely related to fear. Any kind of fundamentalism, religious or secular.  Chin up, writers. And by writers, I mean me. Time to march into the unknown.  And by the unknown, I mean, the possibility of making a discovery while wasting a bunch of pages.

And waste is probably the wrong word.  Each sentence we write is productive, because it means, simply, that we are writing.  The only waste a writer has is the sort of muck/guilt/fear that piles up after not having written in a while.

Recommended Reading: Novel Ideas (Second Edition) by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman, University of Georgia Press:  2009

Day Three Thought: The Illusion of Deadlines

There is a lie that writers/all kinds of people believe, which is that our life is full of deadlines.  Grad school is great proponent of this lie.  So are day jobs with deadlines. Lots of things have deadlines but your great novel does not.

In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass reiterates again and again that what separates a great book from a mediocre one is pretty simple: the quality of the writing.  This thought is related to yesterday’s, but great work doesn’t really have a deadline, except for what the term implies: write it by the time you die.  (And if you don’t, well, you’ll be dead and it probably won’t matter to you much.) Writing takes a balance of working like there is no tomorrow and working as if you’re never going to die.  Life requires this balance, too.

As a writer, I’m prone to think up phrases like, “By the time I’m 40, I will ______” — fill in the blank.  As an unmarried 30 year old woman, I’ve had to accept the fact that those fantasies I coined up as a kid of being married and having a house by the time I was 20 (I really did believe this!) were, well, just fantasies.  We have no real time frames, no real deadlines for by when our work, our monumental life experiences, must occur.  We don’t know when things will happen.  To think that I will have a book published by the time I’m 35 is an illusion. I can still be a great writer, like Alice Munroe, and not have my first book published until much later.  The New Yorker’s Best Under 40 Series is a toxic pit of lies.  We hear it said again and again, the first thing to kill the quality of your work is to think about how it’s going to be published and when while we write it.  We must rid our minds of these thoughts if we are going to produce great work.  Again, patience and hard work is what creates great work.

Thought for Day Two: Endurance

A woman in my apartment complex told me she has a novel idea.  I’m sure she’s not the last person who will ever tell me that. I heard this girl at the airport once go nuts over her novel idea. She annoyed the hell out of me, this airport girl.  I wanted to interrupt her and say, “You have no idea what you are talking about.”  But you know, maybe she did?  Maybe her novel will come to be and maybe it will be a great novel.

In the book I recommended yesterday, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield spends a section of tiny essays explaining what makes a writer (or anyone) a professional. One such essay is called, “A Professional is Patient.”  On page 75 he says that the professional,

 … understands delayed gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare.  …  He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much.  He accepts that.  He recognizes it as reality.

The reality is, I think, that most of us have novel ideas, or just really good ideas in general that will take a lot of persistance to make them materialize.  Some of us have entire drafts of those novel ideas but what separates those who actually follow through with those ideas from those who won’t–any good idea, says Pressfield–is the acceptance of delayed gratification.  Every day we must go to work and say, I’m going to take my time. I’m going to keep working until this is done.  And then I am going to keep working on it again until it is great.

So, today, on this second day of RTNM, I am going to slow down, take my time, and do my best to get lost in that work.  It’s that whole cliche about recognizing the value of the experience in the journey, not the destination.