Saturday, November 12, 2011

Revision - Part 2

While draft two was more complete - the characters more fully fleshed out, the plot holding together, and the major themes and imagery developing nicely - there were more questions to address in the next draft, and, once again I was faced with the dilemma of starting over with a blank piece of paper of editing from what was already on the page.

I should point out, I did read through draft two and made notes to myself, quite extensive notes, about how scenes needed to change. This was my "time to get real" draft, and anything that I was still in the hopeful stage about (as in the "I hope this works, but I know it doesn't") had to go or change. In some cases I left exercises for myself in the margins - list ten things Matt's feeling about Katami, list ten things Rachelle can say to Matt, ten things Alan's thinking - or rewrote passages on the back of the page. Once I began working on draft three, I would put Post-it Notes on the appropriate page as ideas came to me or I knew I would want an image to echo in specific scene later in the novel.

Draft three was the "figuring out the best way to tell the story" draft - the time to work out the structure of the novel (now that I knew what it was about, were there ways in which the form could work with the theme better?), really nail down the timeline, figure out what's working and make sure there wasn't anything in the novel that hadn't earned its place there. I also got really, really real about dialogue and became ruthless with what I call placeholder dialogue - the kind of dialogue characters speak when you know they have to have a particular conversation but you don't know enough about your characters yet to make it subtle.

Once again, I started out thinking I would cut and paste and edit from draft two. I mean, the draft was pretty solid. It was my MFA thesis and my thesis advisor called it one of the most fully realized theses she'd ever read, so why shouldn't I be able to zoom through this draft simply making changes to the existing text? And, once again, I tried for a couple of weeks to do this before succumbing to the blank document method of creating draft three. In this case, the blank document made it possible to break the novel open in an interesting way.

Like I said, this was my "get real" draft, and I had a transition in the first ten pages that had bothered me from the time this was a short story. In every draft I jumped from the very dramatic opening where Matt's older brother dies in a car accident right to the funeral. Then I was faced with the problem of having to introduce a whole bunch of characters (some of them major) in a gang shot - here's Matt's mother, here's his stepdad, here's the stepdad's mother and his sisters, and the dead brother's ex-girlfriend, and, for good measure, let me throw in Matt's soon-to-be-girlfriend whom he hasn't even met yet but he imagines her sitting in the church with them. It was character soup.

Faced with the "get real" moment, I asked myself what I was gaining by not showing the four days between the accident and the funeral. The answer led me to the creation of fifty or so new pages, new scenes that let me introduce all these characters one at a time, give them their moment on the stage, and then move on to another moment.

This change set the stage for draft three being a complete overhaul of draft two. The difference this time was that nothing was created that wasn't needed, wasn't demanded by the story. Maybe 15,000 words out of the 100,000+ in draft three were also in draft two, and there's only one scene in the entire novel that has survived pretty much intact from when this was a short story. It's still the same story, but it's like buying a used car and replacing all the major components and refurbishing the interior so it's still the same car, but everything's shiny and new and it runs great.

Now I'm in the "telling the story in the best way possible" draft and finally able to edit rather than rewrite. This draft focuses on the language and making sure that all the components are doing as much work as they possibly can. If there's a detail, it has to add something to the reader's understanding of character and plot. This draft is also about making sure that the flow in the piece as a whole feels continuous and builds and ebbs where it should. This is the moment for noticing the mechanics - how is the story being told (what's the mixture of narrative and scene)? Does the dialogue sound authentic for the characters? Do scenes begin and end where they should? Is there enough variation or do I have too many characters doing things that are too similar? Do I use the same description too many times? Is it solid or are there still moments where I'm only hoping it works?

So far, it's going well, and I'm really, really happy with the novel. Even though almost every page is bleeding red, all the parts are in the right place, the characters have their own space, and no one is wandering around in search of a plot anymore.

Revision - Part 1

(This week, I'm embarking on a series of posts about the revision process.)

Almost every writer hears the adage "90% of writing is rewriting" at least once in their lives (usually much, much more than that). You can read it, or some similar sentiment, in almost every book on writing even though most books on writing dedicate 90% of their pages to the construction of a story and 10% to revision. Even trying to get writers to talk about revision can be frustrating because it seems to be something you should just innately know how to do.

On one level, this is true. When I wrote my first novel at 13, I immediately began rewriting it. By the time I was finished, I was 16 and had completely rewritten the novel from beginning to end. Revision seemed to be quite simple and straight-forward. But then, so did writing.

Now I know better (or worse, depending on your perspective), and the revision process on my current novel has been anything but straight-forward. Each stage of the process has been fraught with anxiety and panic, most likely because a previous novel disintegrated like tissue paper in the rain during the revision process, and I was worried the same fate might await this novel. This was the main reason I went to grad school. I wanted to be in an environment where, if the novel started to fall apart, I could get help. Which worked, sort of. I ended up developing my own theory of revision and creating a map to help me through the process. The other week, when the novel started veering off course, I went back to my map and realized I had inadvertently tripped over into a new phase of revision and was, once again, running along without feeling the ground under my feet, making it up as I go along. The good news is I've reached the home stretch of the revision process - I'm into the editing and polishing phase. The likelihood of the novel falling apart here is minimal because all the pieces are in place and they fit very nicely.

The process I outlined for myself is a continuum of writing from the triggering impulse of the project to the very last word you write or change. It has four stages: telling yourself the story, telling the story, figuring out the best way to tell the story, and telling the story in the best way possible. A lot of the process is rewriting in the "start over with a blank sheet of paper" vein of rewriting. I'd heard of writers doing this and was filled with horror at the thought. All those words I'd labored over, all that time and hard work and anxiety, wiped out. Except they weren't totally wiped out. The first draft became the outline for the second. Having completed the first draft (telling myself the story), I now knew what my story was about and where it was going, so I was in a better position to understand which scenes worked in service to the story and which were superfluous (that first draft had a LOT of "character wandering around in search of plot" scenes) and where there were still gaps in my understanding of characters and plot. So draft two became about actually telling the story.

The difference between telling yourself the story and telling the story is like the difference between experiencing something and then telling your friends about it afterwards. You have the benefit of knowing what's going to happen, so you can pick and choose the details that are important and add information that makes the story better. You don't need to tell about the phone call that kept you at the office if the adventure was getting lost while hiking on the weekend. Same thing in writing. Now that you know what your story is about, you can start making sure your scenes, your images, your details line up in service to the story.

Is it possible to do that without scraping everything you wrote? Sure. I initially thought I'd print out my novel by scene, rearrange the scenes, cut and paste and wa la! Instant draft two. That didn't work for me. With this novel, there was too much that needed to move, be rewritten, added. Some of that may be because this novel started out as a short story and draft one happened when the short story began unpacking itself. So I started over with a clean sheet of paper and retyped EVERYTHING. I was completely stymied by the whole process, even down to the physicality of where to put draft one so I could see it while I typed. I kid you not. I finally had to tell myself it's okay to walk off the edge of the world without a parachute and just get to work.

I'm going to leave this here for now. Next week, I'll take us through draft two and the telling the story in the best way possible phase.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sometimes I Forget

Sometimes I forget one of the most fundamental lessons I've learned about writing (and, probably, one of the most fundamental lessons in life):

Nothing is written in stone.

I forgot this lesson this past weekend and got myself caught up in a full blown panic attack as I felt like the novel was careening out of control just as I was reaching out for the homestretch. I felt like I'd lost touch with the novel's essential themes and was adding endless new (and, most likely, unnecessary) scenes that were only set-blocking. Scenes that had no dramatic reason for being included except for the fact that I had to go from Point A to Point D and the logic circuits of my brain were saying that I had to include Points B and C as well, but they were dramatically uninteresting and not relevant to the plot of the novel.

And I so wanted to be done with the draft this weekend so I could go back being somewhat functional. Even I'm getting tired of putting things off "until after the novel's done" and I'm sure everyone around me is sick of this excuse, too (I mean, I missed all of Lit Quake (SF's fantastic two-week long literary festival at which some of my friends and favorite authors were reading) because, at this point in writing, I don't want to hear, see or read anyone else's words except my own).

In the clear, bright-eyed post-Halloween morning, I realize my panic is unnecessary. Yes, those scenes will probably be edited out or changed so they are dramatically relevant BECAUSE NOTHING IS WRITTEN IN STONE. Even years after his books were published, Faulkner was still revising them and editing them to get closer to what he was intending to say. I don't want to be like that. I want there to be an end point, but, and here's the main point: at this point in the writing process, no matter how much I want it to be the end, it's not. And there isn't anything that's on paper right now that can't be changed, eliminated or made stronger.

So, I'm better now. Feeling a little more grounded in the novel. I had to mark a couple of places as "come back to this" just to get myself back in alignment with the ending, and I may have to work backwards from my ending to make sure everything lines up, that the emotional clock ticks forward the way it's supposed to (right now it feels like my main character veers too suddenly, goes from being a good kid to being a bad-ass).

It's uncomfortable, feeling the novel go out of control like this right at the end, but as long as I keep breathing and reminding myself that I can fix whatever I don't like, I should be okay.