Thursday, October 16, 2008

Editing Blues

My first draft is almost done with me. It’s towed me around since January and now it’s cutting me loose. Which is strange, because now that I’m almost free I plan on turning around and kicking its ass.

The second draft will be unrecognizable to the first with new characters added, old characters cut, locations switched, backstory enhanced, tone tweaked and torqued, and tense changed. Hopefully the new third act will crackle with intensity and purpose, instead of shiver in disgust and turn over to snore louder. I’m crawling/getting dragged to the finish; I’m mere pages from typing The End for no other purpose than to ensure that I don’t keep working on it. All so that I can start planning for the second draft in earnest.

When I’m done with the second draft, what then? Then I’ll be ready to give it to my readers. Writers need good readers. All writing needs the careful eye of an interested second party. If you don’t have a reader, or if your readers blow smoke up your ass, then you need to devise ways of reading, or otherwise approaching your work, in new ways.

The weary eye of an uninterested reader:

One method is to read pages aloud. Better yet, have somebody else read them to you. Another’s cadence, reflecting their sensibility and injecting some subjectivity, will amaze and confound you. Your dialogue will sound flat. Your segues will make no sense. You’ll realize where you forgot character tags. You'll get lost in your own story, and not in a good way. You can see where the blemishes in the skin of your prose are breaking out. Phrases that you thought were adequate or passable become embarrassing pustules. You‘ll want to stop reading and make spot revisions. This is a good thing, a necessary procedure. One of many in the process of revising your pages.

I’m lazy when it comes to revision. But I’m learning to like it more. It’s all in the attitude. I used to get off on writing the first draft. But joining writing groups and taking workshops forced me to rewrite more. When I knew that I was writing for a particular audience, I’d revise the pages enough so that I wasn’t embarrassed to show them. I found myself writing for the readers, and cutting and adding sentences keeping in mind what these people would and would not cotton to. It's the immediate effect of an audience you never knew existed for your work. If you don’t have a writing group, reading pages aloud to yourself can achieve the same effect: you become your audience. You eventually train yourself be the hardest critic of all.

I took a workshop with Chris Offutt a few years ago at the Wesleyan Writers Conference. His M.O. for revising stories stuck with me. He leaves single pages of a story-in-progress around his house. So that when he’s doing something like preparing coffee or making dinner, he can read over a page here and there, coming at familiar work from another angle. He can test each word, each sentence, each paragraph on its own merits, not just within the construct of the story. (Like, I imagine, a surgeon approaches cutting a patient—with a lack of emotional contact.) Offutt’s idea is that all the parts need to be as strong as the whole.

I write on my PC and find that printing out my pages gives me an immediate shift in proximity to my work. My work becomes more than a scroll of text on an endless background, but a topographical region of words constructed to be experienced in a specific way. I get a better sense of how my work flows and can see structure flaws and organization problems earlier and from farther away. It’s another way of reading aloud my work.

A helpful book that’s all about editing your own work is The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell. She includes truckloads of tips about self editing, with examples and advice from other authors who outline methods, both strange and basic, that work for them. And that may work for you.

What are some of the self-editing methods that you use when revising your writing?

Define the Phrase

Kudos to those who took a stab at the definition of the latest phrase (well, word) Blunderbuss:

Cynthia said: An old fashioned gun or amunition of some sort?

Robin said: A blundering person (maybe me stumbling around my house in the wee hours!).

Muriel said: blunderbuss-ancient short gun with large bore firing many balls. (I looked it up in the dictionary).

Well, it's a three-way tie. Each of the entries had some variation of the answer I was looking for. Which is: A short gun, with a wide bore, for carrying slugs: also, a stupid, blundering fellow. Congratulations. You're all winners. How often does that happen? Never. Never never never. Enjoy your hard won win.

Coming soon: the most unusual, difficult phrase to guess. In the world. Ever.


Cynthia said...

My favorite time in the writing process is rewriting -- or revising, or editing. Whichever term one cares to call it. Good luck with your revisions on your latest novel!

Cynthia said...

Oh, and I love the photo of your cat helping you with rewrites! :)

Lynne said...

Writing long stuff is hard hard work. Like presidentin'. I gave up on it a long time ago (writing fiction, I mean). It happened somewhere between undergrad Advanced Fiction Writing and my first Poetry Writing class with Charles Simic...

I wish I could say I have a novel in me somewhere, but I really haven't found one yet. And if I did have one, I'd suck at writing it after all these years of not practicing. :)

But this seems like a great start to a writing blog, which is a genre of blogs I have not yet delved into. Duly bookmarked. I think anyone undertaking the huge job of writing a novel is either insane, or brave, or maybe both. A lot of both.

Dell Smith said...

Hey Cynthia,
I'm warming up to the revision process more and more. Unfortunately, novels don't just poop out fully formed. God knows I've tried.

Dell Smith said...

Hi Lynne. Did the Charles Simic class turn your head to poetry and away from narrative prose? Yeah, the long-haul novel is often frustrating, but is also very rewarding. And maybe there's a bit o' insanity running through the process. But therein lies part of the fun. Don't let not doing it for a while stop you.

Anonymous said...

Hey, D, I understand about revision, too. Hard work but sometimes quite rewarding. You never know where it will take you...of course, isn't that why we write? Writing takes us places we may not want to go but they may be places we need to go. I applaud you for your gumption, yes gumption. You are a talented writer and getting better and better with each revision...;) Keep on keepin on...

Liz (made in lowell) said...

That cat never has anything useful to add. I keep telling him "Constructive criticism, or keep it to yourself." But he won't listen.

chriso said...

I'm glad my suggestions helped. All I do, it seems, is revise. These days, I believe that I must write a first draft in order to have something to revise. Revision is my favorite. This week I took 1/3 of a ms, and cut it from 143 pages to 127 pages, to 103. And in the process made it 10 chapters instead of 9. No telling what will happen next! And that's what I love about it.

chris O

Dell Smith said...

Revising takes strong patience and focus. My follow-through lacks. But I'm getting better. Not sure I have the will to get rid of 40 pages in one week, though.