Sunday, May 25, 2014

Write Fast and Revise Later, or…?

There’s something to say (see Anne Lamott) for getting to “the end” and doing the worrying later. That way you have a completed draft behind you.

There’s also something to say for avoiding what ultimately seems so discouraging or despicable that revision resembles cleaning out the Augean Stables.

Finally, there’s something best of all to say for choosing something in-between. Why write chapters without scene goals, paragraphs without focal points, and sentences so tortured that even the author can’t decipher the meaning? Why compose an entire whole novel in passive voice while repeating, dragging out, and “telling”? Nor would it help to write so sloooowly that you lose all faith in what originally motivated you. What can you do instead?

~ Make a plan.
This might be a scene goal outline, a storyboard where you write whatever scene turns you on that day, character arcs for everyone important, or even an old-fashioned outline. It doesn’t matter what plan you choose or whether you later change it radically. It only exists to help you produce prose neither ghastly nor too polished for your first stab.

~ Keep a schedule.
Life, as they say, happens. Accidents, birthdays, trouble coming in threes, flu, migraine, date night, and so on. Why pretend that you won’t have dozens of reasons to prevent churning out pages? Create a reasonable, realistic commitment, i.e. x hours a week or y hours a day. Then you won’t have to pretend.

~ Advance both the plot and the number of pages.
It won’t help to have thirty exquisite pages if they’re all you’ll have for the next few years. If your time is precious, don’t squander it reworking material that you’ll change after you know your characters and their journey—because your first draft is done.  Don’t proceed as if you know nothing about how novels work. Also don’t proceed as if you must immediately accomplish everything you know about how novels work.

~ Follow the dream.
Write this book because you love it. If you don’t, maybe you’d rather find a better day job instead. Feed the dream. Don’t starve it by worrying about everything you’ll have to fix. Productivity and passion blend beautifully. Negativity and passion do not.

~ Decide what a strong first draft means to you.
If you can define that without rationalizing, you’ll know just what you need, how much revising you should do right now, how much later. Only you know how good is “good enough.” Set the standard. Follow it, even if you’re having a wildly bad—or good—day.

Tip: You know your process better than anyone. Honor it, but get the first draft done. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Revision and the “Real” Questions

Novelists often face the question, “How’s your writing going?” It often feels like the subtext is “How long will it take to finish/seek an agent/make money/prove your worth/quit fiddling around?” So however sincere, the query frequently disheartens. But perhaps it disheartens less than the questions writers ask ourselves.

As you revise, do you “object” when your own questions “lead the witness”? Maybe you should. Sometimes these pseudo-questions arrive in the form of rationalization. “Isn’t this passage pretty much good enough?” or “Surely tension on every page is an exaggeration?”

Then there are the attacks, either direct or insidious. “What makes you think you’re a writer?” “Do you seriously believe you’ll ever publish?” And finally, “Why bother?”

These mimic questions, but they’re really not. The real questions are ones where you don’t know the answers in advance: a genuine question seeks new information. Fake questions demoralize. Worse, they impede asking—and answering—the real ones.

Without the right questions, how can you work on the right things? Serious novelists face two crucial questions: “Who is my audience?” and “How can I read my words as if someone else wrote them?”

The question of audience has a subset of questions beneath it. These can get you started:

~ Is this audience most entranced by plot? Voice? Originality? Romance? Insight?
~ How much inference would your audience prefer?
~ What can you glean from technique in novels intended for a similar audience?
~ Do you push the edge of the conventions and expectations for this genre?
~ Are you at peace with whether this audience makes your book hard or easy to sell?

Questions can also help you trick yourself into reading your words as a stranger would.  Try some of these:

~ Do you offer enough drama to advance the plot—on every page?
~ Do you have a reasonable amount of dialogue, and does it all contribute?
~ Do you add fact, detail, or politics for their own sake rather than the story’s?
~ Do you “tell” what you could “show”?
~ Do you try to “show” what you’re better off just explaining?
~ Do you rationalize about how good the sentence, paragraph, or scene really is?
~ Do you waste energy defending what you did instead of trying to do it better?

Marge Piercy said that “The real writer is one who really writes.” It’s equally true that the real writer is one who grapples with what’s really at stake—within the plot and outside it.

Tip: Want real results? Ask real questions.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Writer, the Reader, and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Who wants context so sparse that the scene seems to occur mid-air? Who wants to read thickly layered description that resembles a bowl of lukewarm porridge vast enough to fill a T Rex belly? Every reader, writer, and lost little girl wants a meal that’s “just right.” Goldilocks sampled everything. But your goal is having so many readers that assessing their individual needs becomes impossible. How do you offer a serving neither meager nor massive?

~ Trick yourself into reading like a reader.
“Trick” is the operative word here. You find your scene perfectly clear and your sentences, um—glorious. Uh, uh. How would this read if you didn’t already know what’s at stake? Weren’t smitten with the syntax? Take a break for days, maybe weeks. Try reading aloud, printing the pages. You can teach old writers new tricks.

~Provide context.
Who wants to guess character age or gender, or where and when this takes place? If this is urban fantasy or romance? If the tone is serious or satiric? Clarify the broad picture. Let readers infer the rest from clever clues.

~ Imply.
The human mind has a remarkable capacity to use hints for completing the picture, guessing the meaning, grasping the idea. Clues are fun. Spelling everything out? Not fun. Closer, in fact, to being stuck with a boring teacher. We’ve all been there.

~ Use the five senses.
Even a little abstraction, such as “painful,” “satisfying,” or “exquisite,” feels like that giant dish of soggy cereal. Offer concrete imagery, ideally in original combinations. The first image that leaps to mind is likely to be weak and tired. Keep hunting.

~Construct great metaphors.
Then let them speak for themselves. If they’re really that great, you needn’t explain them.

~Avoid double-dipping.
Readers rarely want to hear that Ed sneered and glowered, or that Nancy laughed with joy and amusement, or that Eloise slouched and trudged. Find the right image or explanation so you won’t be tempted to torture with two.

~ Understate.
The more intense the emotion or catastrophe, then the less you need to say about it.

Sometimes, of course, like Goldilocks, you may have to assess the scene with the detail in or out, the sentence reduced or expanded. Experiment, and you’ll get better and better at “just right.” After all, you’re lots more sophisticated than little Goldilocks.

 Tip: Readers need “facts” in order to draw conclusions about what those “facts’ mean.