Monday, July 26, 2010

Trimming Back the Shrubbery - The Creative Process: Part Nine

Once my rough draft is done it's time to start revising and editing. Those two words do not mean the same thing. (At least, not in my world.)

Revising is the work of tightening up plots, fleshing out characters, cutting out dead chapters, filling in the gaps and rewriting those passages that spewed forth at the end of a caffeine binge. It is the process of polishing "the big picture" of your novel.

Editing is the nuts and bolts of your writing. Checking spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting. Editing should only be done once the revisions are done. (This doesn't mean ignore glaring errors. But don't waste time angsting over whether a comma is needed in a particular sentence until you are damn certain that sentence will be going out to agents/publishers.)

I point this out because it seems to be a common mistake among beginning writers that the purpose of a second draft is to clean up the minor errors (spelling, grammar, etc) that occurred in the rough draft and that once the editing is done the manuscript will be ready to submit. First, let me take a moment to laugh hysterically.

All right, now let's talk about the basics of revising your rough draft.

It's very important to be able to look at a story with "fresh eyes". This means you shouldn't remember every twist and turn, every plot point or all the clever dialogue. This will help you recognize the dead stuff. It will also enable you a few moments of pleasant surprise. Many will suggest (and I will repeat as well) setting aside a manuscript for a period of time in order to gain some perspective. For some that means putting something aside for a week. For others it may take several years. From what I've read the average is usually 6 - 8 weeks.

Once you've let your manuscript age or percolate or however you want to think about it, you need to print it out. "But that's expensive. And what about the environment?"

Screw the environment, you're writing a masterpiece. Dig that change out of the couch cushions, buy a ream of paper and print that sucker out.

I actually despise proper manuscript formatting and never print my stuff that way until it's ready to send off. I like 11 point, Times New Roman/Courier, single spaced with normal margins. Personally, that's plenty of room to make correction marks and I use post-its for any detailed notes about revisions. (And the margins. My manuscripts get kind of messy when I'm revising.)

The point is, figure out how you like to read your MS and then print it out that way. Now that you have the whole thing in your hot little hands read it through from beginning to end. Do not stop to correct spelling errors. Do not make notes about how to change Villain B into Antagonist H. Do not change the lame dialogue into something witty. Just read through from beginning to end.

After you've finished it's okay to cry a little. Or hit something. You are not allowed to throw away said manuscript, shred it, burn it or otherwise destroy it. (That's what the revision process is for.)

Trust me. When I read through a rough draft again for the first time I walk away thinking "What the hell? I wasted a month writing that shite?" Then I eat something and drink a cup of coffee and resolve to rip the guts out of the thing and put something better in it's place.

Which brings us to step two of the revision process: figuring out where to start. The beginning is always a good place, but if you're having doubts about whether the story starts in the right place then you should start somewhere else.

I begin by taking a red pen and drawing brackets in the margins with the words "fix this" next to every section I think needs to be fixed. Anything that seems to be not working at all I mark through and put "Cut" in the margin. And any place where I think I have an idea about how to expand or fix a section I either scribble it in the margin or on a post-it. At this point I'm trying to think about the story as a whole. Is the beginning too rushed? Is the final confrontation half the book? Does the romantic subplot help or hinder the story?

Once I've gone through the whole thing again, I open a new document, label it "Big Shiny Idea draft 2" and start making revisions.

"But what," you say, "do you revise? How exactly do you turn that pile of poo into a golden masterpiece?"

That, my little lollipop is the next blog entry.

In the meantime, think about your current WIP and try to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the plot and pacing.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Daily Grind - The Creative Process: Part Eight

Sitting down to write every day is sometimes more fiction than fact. But on the days when it does happen there are certain things one must be prepared for.

The key thing is this: Writing is work.

While you might have days when writing is fun and words just seem to flow, chances are they will be outnumbered by the days when every word is a struggle. Having a routine can help put you in the proper "space" to write.

My routine goes something like this.

First, turn on the computer. While it's booting up (several minutes if I'm using the laptop, just under a minute if I'm using the desktop) I get something to drink. Coffee. Tea. Ruby grapefruit pomegranate juice. Whatever. This means I won't have to get up for a while.

If I plan to write for an extended period of time I find a snack too. (Usually potato chips or half a chocolate bar or something that will satisfy the "must-snack-and-thereby-procrastinate" urge. Once I have my provisions I open up my document and take stock of where I am.

I do NOT edit what I've previously written. (Unless, of course, I'm working on a later draft and then only if I'm in the "editing" phase.) I MIGHT read through what I wrote during the previous session to see what I haven't gotten to yet. This is usually unnecessary if I'm actually writing every day. When I've been busy with more pressing concerns (feeding 19 cats and finding them loving, caring homes) I have to refresh my memory before my fingers hit the keyboard.

Once I'm up to speed I start writing.

Rough drafts are just that. Rough. I include every nitpicky world-building detail that strikes me. I ramble. My characters smile and shrug and whirl a lot. They look tense and shove hands in pockets and slam books onto shelves. I spend an entire paragraph describing a desk in a room that is otherwise undescribed. But the story gets onto the page.

I also change names part way through the manuscript (with a note in [brackets] to indicate I will have to edit accordingly), skip scenes that seem boring and throw in twists that may or may not make it into the next draft. But the story gets onto the page.

Bit parts turn into sidekicks. Friends turn into villains. Mysteries are rather dubiously solved and the final conflict takes up a much higher percentage of the draft than is proper. But the story gets onto the page.

After I've spent an hour or two (if I'm lucky) writing, I save my work, back it up on an external drive and resolve to finally reach the end of that chapter tomorrow.

It is not rocket science. The simple thing about writing is that you just have to write. Every. Day. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you know where the story is going or not. Whether the words seem golden or not. You just have to write.

"But," you say. "The stuff I wrote yesterday was pure shite!"

Yeah, me too. Here's the secret that keeps me sane. When it's time to edit I can cut any damn thing I like back out.

And the second thing is this: Your story-writing self is smarter than you think.

As I've been working my way through the fourth draft of Gaslyte I've discovered a marvelous thing. Things that I wrote in the first draft, things I then scrapped because I thought they were terrible, now make sense. Of course, some of them come in far different places in the story than I'd first envisioned. And some had to be reincarnated a little. But the whole of the story has been there all along. It just needed to be unearthed (or as the professionals like to say, developed) a little more.

With that thought in mind I drink my (now cold) cup of coffee and eat my stale potato chips and make an appointment with my cramped little desk for the same time tomorrow.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Roughing It - The Creative Process: Part Seven

Now I'm at the stage to finally start writing the novel that goes along with my Shiny New Idea. At this point I've thought about my story and my Main Characters and I either have an outline or I don't.

Now all I have to do is take the Idea, start writing at the beginning, slog through the middle, and finally reach the end. It sounds simple enough, right? The truth is the rough draft is probably the easiest and the most difficult draft to write.

The easy part is this: it's all unexplored territory. Yes, even if you have a really detailed outline there are plenty of surprises still waiting for you to uncover them. And, at least for the first 20k or so, there's probably a lot of enthusiasm for the story. This is your new baby, you want to see it to completion.

The hard part is in keeping the momentum going 'til you get to THE END. There is no magic formula, just a lot of hard work.

Here's how I approach the task.

1) I set daily/weekly goals (usually about two to three hours worth of writing per day) and do my best to meet them. Every. Day. Things will come up to prevent you from making every session. Not feeling in the mood to write is not a good excuse. (I know it's hard to write when you don't feel like it, but the more you do it the less you find you don't feel like writing.)

2) I use a simple word processing program to write in. Usually Q10 (which has some drawbacks) or OpenOffice. There are plenty of programs that will help track characters and give you all sorts of options about how to file notes and link documents together, etc. If they help you write more effectively that's great. I find they tend to distract me from the actual process of writing.

3) I write in sequence from beginning to end. Or I don't. It depends on the story, how developed my idea is, whether the wind is blowing from the east... You get the picture.

4) I write every day whether I feel inspired or not.

5) I write every day whether I feel inspired or not.

6) I write every day whether I feel inspired or not.

I think you get the picture.

Some authors edit as they go. I find that is not helpful during the first draft process. I do tend to read through the last couple of pages I wrote before I start each session. This helps me keep track of where I am in the story, how relationships are developing, and so forth.

I do not worry about whether I'm putting chapter breaks in the optimum location (although I do put in chapter breaks just because I feel like it). I do not worry too much about pacing. I do not worry about if my descriptions are too light/too heavy. I do not worry about whether or not my dialogue is snappy enough.

The rough draft is the one version that doesn't have to be better than a previous version. That doesn't mean you should deliberately make it terrible. But don't sweat the small stuff.

Remember: Some words is better than no words.