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.


Sharde(Shar-day) said...

First, nice blog. Looking forward to your posts. And second, that's good advice.
On the paper thingy, maybe reusing the back side of old paper can help shed the cost of buying new paper. And printing on both sides helps, too.

Just sayin'...


A.G. Carpenter said...

Sharde: Thanks. That's a good suggestion.

My view is that even in manuscript formatting most writers won't be pushing more than five hundred pages (or one ream of paper) anyway. Even for those of us who are flat broke *raises hand* the $4.99 for the cheap Wal-mart/Staples/whatever paper is doable. And the advantage of actually looking at something page by page instead of on a computer screen far outweighs the inconvenience of digging pennies out of the couch cushions. Editing/revising is hard enough without getting eyestrain from squinting at the laptop screen for hours on end.

More to come soon.