Saturday, March 1, 2008

Closing the February Poll

In February, we asked you how many drafts you do of a typical manuscript. We gave you four choices for responses. The rationale behind these choices may be obvious, but I'd like to talk about them a bit anyway.

Choice 1: One draft. My words are perfect pearls the first time through.

I'm proud that none of you chose this. Not one! This says our readers are smart enough to recognize that writing a novel includes two phases: drafting and revising. Drafting might be more fun -- that's where we get to turn our creative engines free to race all over our subconscious minds, and I think that's true regardless of the method used for generating a story.

But revising is where we take these explorations and chart a neat course that draws them all together. We can try to do some of this work in advance by pre-plotting, and filling out character questionnaires, and snowflaking, and brainstorming with our critique groups, and so on. These are all methods for mapping out a first draft that might need less revision, but not everyone will benefit by these methods. Some folks really just do better when they write the entire first draft straight out of the ether.

And that's fine. Especially, it's fine because none of us are laboring under the idea that this straight-from-the-ether spillage is anything an audience would want to read.

Choice 2: Two drafts. One for clean, and one for shine.

Eight percent of you chose this response. I suspect that this eight percent represents the most disciplined among you. These are the writers who are methodical and cautious, who think through their plots before setting pen to paper, who stare for hours at grids made of note cards on their living room floors.

These are the plotters who block their scenes step by step, the dreamers who spend months or years chewing on a single idea before it's "ready" to write, and the analysts who make complex maps of books they read for pleasure.

By the time two-draft-writers commit the first draft to paper, the entire book exists complete in their heads. There are no surprises. Whatever methods they use, they work toward one goal: thinking through the manuscript before writing it. Because so much work is done before the first draft is written, they rarely need to do major revisions in a second draft. All they're doing, really, is tweaking it.

One draft for clean -- the scenes laid out in neat, causally-connected sequences, with careful blocking and no breaches in logic. And one draft for shine -- spiffing up the word choices, cleaning up the grammar and typos, and highlighting the tension on the pages.

They make it look easy, don't they?

Choice 3: Between three and five drafts. I make multiple passes which focus on particular aspects of the manuscript.

It's no surprise that most of you, around 64%, chose this method. I think it's common to have to feel the way through the plot in some way before you can really get into the meat of organizing it. You have sort of a rough idea of where things will go, but then subplots appear out of nowhere, and you are confronted with bizarre urges to kill off a character, and you start noticing that bumblebees are making an appearance in every chapter. What's with the bumblebees, you wonder, and go trailing after them to find out.

In the end, the first draft will be a semi-coherent outpouring with a few false turns. It will require some rethinking and some clean-up, and it may be that the easiest method for doing that is to make targeted passes at the draft. First you edit for logic and sequencing, then for character, then for theme. Or whatever method works for you -- the beauty of this approach is its flexibility. The writer remains open, creatively, and so there's a native fluidity and freshness that is never lost, regardless of the precise configuration of drafts.

Choice 4: Six or more drafts. I can't seem to stop revising.

Art is messy, they say, but I think it's messiest at the beginning of a learning curve. The nature of creative learning embodies a lot of trial and error. You can't just study an artistic process and learn how to create. You have to create, and use your studies to influence and refine the act of creation.

But it all begins with practicing the creative act. Want to learn how to write? Put your pen to paper. It may be a disaster at first. It may not make sense to anyone but you. You may show it to people and get gentle, careful responses that lead you to beg, "But did you like it?" Because you were filled with passion for this creative product, your goal is to infuse that passion into the audience, and you become determined to "fix" this first effort so that it "works."

As you learn and practice, you revise and revise this early product. And then you revise it some more. You can't let go of these characters or this plot because, by now, you have too much invested in them. You wrote the story initially because of love and passion for the ideas, and dammit, you're going to make it something that others will love passionately.

Maybe you'll succeed at this. But maybe you won't. And that's okay. If this manuscript spends its entire life in a box under your bed, never to be published, it is still a worthy project because you honed your skills on its contents. It may never have an audience, but that's okay. Let it be what it is. Honor it. Just as painters make pencil sketches which are never intended to be finished products, so too can writers make drafts that are just "writing around" rather than "writing."

It's okay to try new techniques and ideas. It's okay to play around and even to make a complete hash of things. What's not okay is failing to recognize the difference between a creative trial and a finished product. Not everything is fit for publication, but that doesn't mean it's a failure.

Of course, there's a second type of infinite reviser. Some folks are simply afraid to show their work, and cling to the revision process so that they never have to put their work out there into the great wide world. Whether they say they fear failure or success, it's pretty certain that they just don't want to open their work up to outside opinions.

Publishing is a tough game. I can think of plenty of reasons a sane creature would avoid the publishing process. So come to think of it, it may not be fear that motivates a person to revise and revise as a way of avoiding submitting. This might be a sign of wisdom!

Writing and publishing aren't the same thing -- the infinite reviser loves to write, but resists publishing. I suppose that's fine, as long as you're clear on your goals. If you want to publish, you have to submit, and that means that at some point you must stop revising. Soothe yourself by promising never to look at reviews. Hire an agent who will screen out as much commentary as possible. Become a hermit and refuse to do book tours or interviews. Do whatever you must to make it easier to let go of the manuscript.

So what do you think? Did I get it right? Did I interpret the results in a way that makes sense to you?

I thought this was a fun little poll. We've got a new poll up for March. If you're reading this on a feed reader, you'll have to visit the site to vote in the polls.


Selah March said...

I chose the "one for clean, one for shine" option for all the reasons you mention, and also because I edit constantly, even as I write. I've been scolded for this in the past - told it's inefficient and stifles creativity and is far too obsessive/compulsive to be good for my soul.

But walking away from paragraphs I know need work in order to be reader-ready makes me seven kinds of crazy. To me, it feels like the equivalent of leaving the bathtub half-scrubbed, or the living room half-vacuumed. What's the point? Do it right, or don't do it at all, as my sainted mother used to say. (Yes, I know this is ridiculously rigid and probably a sign of encroaching dementia, but it works for me.)

It's also why I rarely exceed a thousand words in a day, but my revision stage is always fairly short.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I think you broke it down quite well. This is one of those posts that ought to be widely viewed 'cause it'll make people think.

Writing is a CRAFT. The crafting part comes through revision -- even if you revise as you write.

Edittorrent said...

But Selah, I don't think for one second it stifles creativity. I think it's just a different method of expressing creatively. Some creative people need the world around them to be neat and structured and organized in order for the creative soup to bubble.

who works best on a bare desk :)

Dave Shaw said...

Selah, you're making a differentiation between 'revising' and 'editing' that didn't occur to me. I picked the 'never stop' option because I 'edit' every time I read it, which is frequently, but by your definition I'm really only on my first 'revision', although I've 'edited' the thing a bunch. Now I think I'm confused. Where's that Tylenol bottle...


Selah March said...

Theresa~ I'm generally okay with chaos - up to and including on the surface of my desk - but I guess I draw the line at the borders of the page. My own little quirk. But I don't think it stifles my creativity, either. I do think it slows me down, but I'm working on that.

Aw, Dave, I didn't mean to confuse anybody. Sorry! I guess I never really considered the difference between "revision" and "editing." If I rewrite an entire paragraph from scratch, is that revising? If I take it out completely, is that editing? I do both. Sometimes to the same paragraph. Sometimes several times to the same paragraph during the same ten minute stretch.

Pass that Tylenol. ;)

Ian said...

My most recent WIP went through a total of four drafts and at that point I called it done.

Now comes the horrific synopsis. Maybe you two lovely ladies could share some wisdom on the Art of Not Writing Sucky Synopses?


Edittorrent said...

Ian, I propose that "Art" and "Synopsis" should never be used in the same sentence.

Anonymous said...

I've just joined a synopsis focus group in oww [yahoo]. Have a look. Some really good resources in the Links area that I went through today.

As for the analysis, good job. I have one little niggle. the point about hiring an agent to get you to let go of your manuscript? I think this needs explaining. The way things are going, agents seem to hire writers nowadays rather than the other way around. How does that work?

Maybe a topic for an article.


writtenwyrdd said...

I think the analysis is painfully correct. Especially painful because I'm an endless reviser. I enjoy the process far too much, and, while I want to be published, not so much I strive to finish.