Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Revision

Some jerk one time said that 90% of writing is revision, and the sad truth is that they were probably right. The first draft is where we experiment and figure out the nuts and bolts, usually, which means there’s going to be some missteps. My philosophy when it comes to writing first drafts, especially for newish writers, is throw everything at the page. Try those 37 similes on one page, try the weird perspective shifts, try every joke or description you can think of; go crazy. As Hemmingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Revision can be as simple as shaping the story or as complex as tearing it down and rebuilding it. You should be willing to try things and see if they work, in drafts and in revision. Sometimes, especially when you’re starting out as a writer, revision is a way for you to tinker and try things, but there often comes a point where you have to give up on a piece and walk away to try a new one. It can be difficult to tell when that should happen, and there are famous examples of writers revising and republishing previously published, heavily revised work (Raymond Carver stands out, for example.)
I find that revision is usually about digging the real story out from all that stuff I threw at the page and shaping it. I’ve usually got the arc of the story down; it’s usually just a question of shaping it. There have definitely been times when I gave up on a story or novel draft, walked away, and came back to revise and finish it, but usually it’s more effective to just start over, using what I’ve learned and figured out in the new draft. Digging the story out means shaping the plot, characters, really trimming back to what is absolutely essential in the piece. This requires having some faith in the reader.
Some writers revise by starting over and retyping their entire story/book/etc. Some writers print out the piece and mark it up by hand; others print it, cut it up, and rearrange the paragraphs or even sentences in this way. Personally, especially if I’ve gotten a little lost in a piece, I will outline after the fact as part of my revision process. So there are a lot of different approaches to revision.
Here are some things to consider when revising:
-Show don’t tell. This is the annoying-as-hell adage of writing instructors everywhere, but it’s accurate. Having faith in the reader means you are willing to demonstrate ideas rather than explain them. Remember that much of the reason readers read is that joy of discovery, of being able to figure things out. Don’t rob them of that, or they’ll stop reading. Whenever you’ve “dumped” any kind of information, especially a character’s feelings or motivations, go back and demonstrate them through actions, dialogue, etc. That doesn’t mean the character now says, “I’m sad.” The character demonstrates sadness, maybe by eating a gallon of ice cream while in sweat pants. One thing to keep in mind is that you won’t be able to translate every bit of information completely by showing, and that’s okay; you don’t have to. As long as you can hint at things, that’s enough.
-Less is more. Really. Subtlety is powerful. One action, one simple detail often resonate much more than a thorough description. The purpose of throwing everything at the page, as I described above, is usually to find this one detail or action or what-have-you. Once you have it, cut all the others.
-Cliches must die. Always. Making them new is okay, but it’s usually clunky. Kill them.
-Consider suggestions but trust your instincts. If you’ve workshopped a piece or had someone read it, sure, consider what they’ve said. When I was taking workshops in college, I tried absolutely every suggestion I got, unless they were just completely bonkers. So I wasn’t too arrogant to try things. But many times, I trusted my original instincts and ended up doing something different than what had been suggested. The key is to remember that other writers/students/etc. might not hit whatever problem squarely on the head. So trust your instincts since it’s your story.
-Murder your darlings. This means that sometimes, what you think is the best line or scene (your “darling”) in a piece might be the one thing that’s holding that piece back. Really. Sometimes you have to cut your favorite thing in a story. But you can always save it and try to reuse it later.

Now What?
So you’ve taken some classes, but that’s over, and you’re all alone out in the big, scary world. What now? Having others read your work is essential, but it’s really, really hard to find good readers. Really, really hard. This is because very few people know how to workshop. They think suggesting a bunch of plot changes is workshopping, but it’s not. Workshopping requires a reader to at least come close to understanding what the author is trying to accomplish and then trying to help the author accomplish it, regardless of the reader’s opinion on the genre or anything else. I’ve been in a lot of workshops but encountered very few people who really knew how to do this.
Some people will try joining writing groups to find good readers, but these groups tend to lack a leader to demonstrate HOW to workshop, so they often become mutual admiration clubs. And the hard thing to realize is that praise doesn’t help a story improve. There are local groups all over the place; try Meetup or other real-world networking sites. There are online places like Fictionaut, but again, these rarely involve useful information because the other people in the groups don’t really know how to workshop. It’s a difficult process, but once you do find some people, maybe just one or two, keep in contact with them.
Another thing you might be considering is publishing. If you want to get published, you can, these days. There are 50 million online literary journals, and maybe half as many print ones, again, mostly run by people who are more enthusiastic than knowledgeable about writing. So it’s not hard. But should you? Remember, especially on the internet, there’s every likelihood that the piece you publish will still be online in five years. (There’s just as much likelihood it will disappear in a few months, of course.) Think about that. Think about how much you’ve grown as a writer in the last few months, the last year. You’d better be sure your piece is ready before you publish it because it could haunt you for a while.
As far as the process of publishing, that’s a complicated animal that would take a while to explain. If you’re talking small things: short fiction, poems, etc. you’re probably not going to get paid. You might be able to sell something to a university sponsored print journal (they’re just about the only ones who have any money to pay you) but these are highly competitive. So it can take a while. You have to be persistent. You have to have thick skin. And don’t ever pay reading fees.

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