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.

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