On Revision

Jul. 6th, 2011 09:54 pm
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
I’m hip-deep in revisions for my thesis novel, so naturally that is what I am thinking about at the moment.

The first and most important rule of revision is that it can’t happen unless you’ve written something. That should seem obvious, but many writers get bogged down in the search for perfection in their first draft and then never get out of chapter one. Perfection is not a realistic goal in any case (you’ll never get there -- even after your book is published you’ll still find places you could have tweaked or rewritten and made better), and it is especially unrealistic in a first draft. Chances are, you’ll end up with anywhere between three and seven drafts of your novel (or many more), each one a little bit tighter and better than the one before. As you write more, you’ll get better at writing well the first time. But on your first (or even fifth) novel, it’s important to remember what SJ Rozan told my class at Seton Hill (this is a paraphrase): “You can’t grow flowers in air, but they grow very well in shit.” It’s ok if the draft sucks, as long as you have a draft. Go through it and find the flowers, then dig out all of the rest.

The second rule of revision is the opposite of the first. It states that you can’t be so in love with your words that you aren’t willing to part with them. I’m cutting out some very well-written passages because they don’t mesh with what I now know is the overall theme/plot/character arc of my book. I don’t delete them entirely; I stick them in a file called “Excisions.FeyBlood” so I can find them later and maybe bring them back to life in another story or the sequel(s). It’s kind-of like deleted scenes from a movie. Sometimes the material is brilliant, and sometimes it even helps with character development or plot but just doesn’t fit anywhere. So you take it out, and maybe one day you’ll post it on your blog and people will go, “so that’s what Character X was really up to in that scene.”

The rest of the rules deal with the “levels” of a story.

The bottom level is the mechanics level, where you tweak the words as words. You make your sentences active, clear, and concise. You check for weak verbs and adverbs. You check for errors in grammar and spelling (YOU MUST DO THIS!!!).

Just above mechanics is the plot level. This is the bare-bones frame of the story. Does the plot make sense? Do your scenes follow a natural progression, one after another? Do they lead into the next, or are any of them leading you off in a different direction?

The next level is about character and conflict. What are your characters doing in each scene? Every character should have a GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) in EVERY scene. Even the secondary characters. Even the characters who only walk on stage for a moment. They want something for a reason but can’t get it because.... You fill in the blank.

And outside of that is the meta-level. This is where you consider things like theme and tone. This should be one of the last things you look at, because you probably won’t know what your theme or tone is until you’re almost done with the book anyway. Sometimes you start writing a book knowing what your big theme is going to be, and if you knew, then at the end is a good time to evaluate whether you achieved your thematic goal or not. For me, even if I had a vague notion when I started, my themes always end up changing and evolving as I write the book. I end up changing and evolving, too, as I learn more about my world, my characters, my process, and myself.

Revisions can be grueling work, but they can also be fun and informative about your project. Sometimes looking at your manuscript with fresh eyes is enough to trigger a new flood of ideas and creativity.

It’s happening to me right now...so I’d better get back to it. :)
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
Revision is going to happen at some point or another, so the question isn't so much 'if' as 'when.'

For much of my writing life I was a revise-as-you-go sort of writer. Lots of published authors do this, so it is a reasonable method. When SJ Rozan came to talk at my MFA program in January, she told us that she writes new material every night, revises it in the morning, and then starts the cycle again the next night. I think of hers as the telephone cord method- looping around backward before going forward again.

I was never quite that organized. I would write several chapters, then go away from it for a while, sometimes weeks or months. This was also back when I would only write "when the muse struck me," so there were lots of days when I didn't write at all. When the muses appeared and the stars aligned, I would have to re-read everything to become reacquainted with my manuscript. As I read, I would start revising. But after I squandered the energy on all of those revisions, I didn't have much left for new material. I might get an extra page or so written, but never much more than that.

Even after my first few years of NaNoWriMo I still did the same thing. It took me until 2004, the year I won my first NaNo, to realize that the "write it all down then revise the crap out later" approach worked for me. I could finish stories this way. So from then on I have endeavored to take this approach to writing, both in the "write every day" work ethic and the "revise later" approach to editing.

A friend commented on my personal blog that as a short story writer she finds that she works better when she doesn't force herself to write every day. On the days she forces herself to write she just writes crap that she ends up deleting. She made the comparison to training for runners. A sprinter isn't going to need the endurance training that a cross-country runner needs. So short stories can come out in bursts whereas novels need that daily persistence.

But I should mention that, as long as you are consistently producing and happy with your writing, it doesn't matter if you write every day or just on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. It doesn't matter if you revise daily or at the end of each chapter or after you finish the whole book (or short story). Just keep on writing, keep on creating, and you'll get there eventually.
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
I've been telling stories my whole life, and writing them down ever since I learned how to make my letters in kindergarten. In middle school one of my English teachers recognized my crazy writer tendencies and allowed me to forego the daily writing prompts in her class in order to focus on writing a fantasy novel. I also wrote a mystery short story that year that got an honorable mention in a young writer's contest.

That little bit of encouragement sealed the deal for me. Ever since, I've allotted countless hours to the craft of writing. It's become an obsession and a desire and one of the greatest loves of my life.

Starting in 2001, I joined in with a bunch of other crazy writers on this thing called NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. In the thirty days of November, several thousand writers around the world attempt to write an entire 50,000 word novel. This goes on every year and the number of writers participating has grown exponentially. I've won twice or three times since that first year, and the experience has taught me writing discipline. To win NaNo, you have to write every day. You have to push through blocks and shove the words out on the paper until the story is done. When the story has been wrenched from the depths of your mind and is flourishing on the page, you can edit and revise at your leisure.

NaNoWriMo taught me the most important writing lesson: if you want to be a writer, you have to make it a part of your life every day, no matter if the writing is good or if it is crap. At least you're still writing.

And the beauty of it is, once you're in the habit of writing every day, you feel unsettled and unfulfilled on the days when real life interferes with your writing. You start writing because you have to, because it's what you do, not because of the muses or a whim.

Not that writing is easy just because you do it every day. Writing is hard, but it's worth every bead of sweat and every drop of blood.

Writing is my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Welcome to my writing journal.


allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
Allison Holz

October 2011

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