Well, since you asked…

Dale asked:

So I have a question. I haven’t done any creative writing in a looong time so I can’t really feel your pain when you’re talking about revising and editing a story.

BUT, I’m curious why it’s such a painful process. Isn’t it like putting on the final, finishing touches on a project? Working out all the little kinks, putting in a few polishing touches removing some things that don’t work. So that you end up with a completed piece you feel satisfied with?

What am I missing about the process that makes it difficult?

I’m going to make a separate entry out of this because it gives me more room (so to speak) to bitch and moan about the horror that is revision. Please note that I am so much better at drafting than I am at editing that I have three books sitting around, going, “Well, what now?” Great ideas. Lots of potential. Like the teacher said, “She has so much potential. If only she would do the work.”

The first draft is hard, even when you put together a plan, because no plan is going to tell you how to accomplish things. Your plan says, “Scene 1 is a fight scene between our heroes and the bad guys and is meant to set up this type of conflict as something fairly common but for one or two elements that will be the kernel of the plot.”

So you sit down and write, and usually what you come out with is a fight scene; the other elements are gravy. And then you proceed to write Scene 2, which is a slower scene about how the heroes best friend is having problems at school. You push yourself through to the end of the book, throw yourself some kind of celebration, victory!

Three problems.

One, your scenes don’t necessarily contain everything they need to contain, and the things they need to contain can be pretty nebulous.

If your plan resembles the one for Scene 1, you might leave out the sense that the scene is something that’s always been happening, or what you thought accomplished that, like, just writing the sentence,”They were always fighting about the same damned things” just isn’t working* (for instance, because the fighters are totally hyped to be doing what they’re doing, and each kick comes across as something so mind-boggling exciting that it sounds more like the first time they’ve been in a fight scene, not the fiftieth). So when you go back through your writing, you’re like, “Well, not bad for a fight scene, but I really don’t get the sense that things are getting frustratingly repetetive, which I need for Scene 4.”

How do you fix that? Preferably without destroying the whole scene, because it does accomplish most of the stuff you set out to do, and you might accidentally destroy your sense that the characters like each other but don’t necessarily get along well, which is also important (but may not be spelled out in your plan).

(I fear that some of my most brilliant plotting may be coming from the fact that I notice something could not possibly have happened the way it happened, and so had the characters talk out loud about it, which led to a Problem Three, when I then resolved in a panicked fit of inspiration.)

Two, your plan, be it written or unwritten, may just be flawed from the get-go.

This book went pretty well for that; I only had one chapter that I was like, “I don’t know why I even bothered.” I kept it, just in case, and it turned out I had enough loose ends to resolve by that point that I retroactively stuck them in there. But let’s say, when you sat down to plot out your story (even if this just happened in the back of your head somewhere), you came up with a story that tried to focus on too many things. The plan may have seemed like a good one at the time, aha, famous last words, and now you’re screwed. Okay, fix it.

How?

I currently have three manuscripts awaiting this kind of resolution. No minor patching is going to fix those things. One of them, for example, I think I’m going to have to 1) split it up so it’s a series and not just a single book, because it’s just too much, 2) add a sci-fi backstory to what is essentially a fantasy book (because otherwise, why did it happen?), and 3) totally rewrite it…with fewer characters. It took me seven years to figure this out. I don’t know if the idea is worth the time it will take. Will it sell? Who would buy it? Would it even make me happy to write it? Should I just let it die?

Now, imagine that kind of problem even possilbly happening to you on a book for which you’ve already taken cash, and so cannot easily ditch. Throw in the fact that you have a deadline of less than a month to get it done. Fear? Oh, yeah. Fortunately, this problem didn’t happen with this book (knock on wood and a first), but it might have. I reread the draft with my heart in my mouth.

Three. Sometimes you think up good stuff that wasn’t in your plan, and you know you have to use it. This happens to me a lot.

The plan was to have what was basically an adventure book about the importance of balancing playfulness and seriousness. I ended up with a tragedy cloaked with adventure; one of the characters digs a hole so deep, only a complete change in character is going to help. (And certainly isn’t going to occur at this point.) An almost literal damnation (no religion is included in the book). Um. Fortunately, the changes seem to be working.

But it also called for a lot of backfill: I had to go back to the beginning and lay down all kinds of small changes that pointed away from a lighthearted adventure and toward doom, without revealing what was going to happen later. I totally lucked out on this, because it doesn’t take much to undercut lightheartedness, and lightheartedness is a good contrast to doom. But there were a lot of things to juggle, and I had to make sure I didn’t drop any of them. Oh, and I tried to keep the theme of playfulness vs. seriousness, too.

It’s not like I’m a genius writer. Here I am, thirty-three, nothing major published. I have enough rejections to at least paper the bathroom stall, and the major reason I don’t have more is that I gave up on submitting for a while. The second reason is that I switched to writing novels that I haven’t finished…

So I guess what I’m trying to say is: I’m pretty smart, but it’s not a fast smart. I will never be on a quiz show. Also, I can competently juggle one object at a time, if there’s nothing to distract me. I have a lot of the tools that I need to draft well: I daydream a lot, I like people (even if I don’t look up to them), I like to listen to people talk and tell stories, I like to read, I obsess about how cool things are, I like to impress people.

But a multi-track brain capable of organizing a truly awesome number of possibilities and details and making very subtle adjustments that will effectively and entertainingly balance them all, I ain’t got.

I really like the spreadsheet I used this time — I just wrote down all the changes in the spreadsheet. Didn’t touch anything in the draft until I was done. So I didn’t have to figure out what was wrong and try to fix it at the same time. Of course, when I went back to make the changes, I found more things that were wrong, but by that point, I had a pretty good idea of what else was wrong, so I was able to go, “Thing A is wrong…but thing B is also wrong. If I fix them both the same way, it might look like I meant it that way.” But it makes steam come out of my ears when I do it.

*The whole “show, don’t tell” thing.

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3 Comments

  1. Dale

    What you’re describing sounds very similiar to how I felt when I first started programming.

    I would start off with a relatively simple premise, then dive in head first. And suddenly discover that I’m juggling 10 different functions with code all jury rigged to support other functions.

    Okay, I can feel your pain now!!

    As far as having a multi-track brain, I think Doyce is the only one I’ve ever really known like that. But I’ve long suspected he’s really an alien though, so he doesn’t count.

  2. DeAnna

    Note to self: don’t become a programmer.

    How did it get better? You say “when I first became a programmer” like this thing magically stopped at some point.

  3. Dale

    Well for me it was all about gaining experience. The particular language I was using at the time was irrelevant. I learned more efficient ways to code that allowed me room for future expansion. And I must admit, when I was going to school I thought the whole idea of a document map to plan out the whole program was silly. But in the real world I found it to be essential.

    As a beginner, I was also always tempted to add in a bunch of “neat” features. Things that WOULD improve a program … but would inevitably cause problems later. Either by having to work around the extra code involved, or users asking to have those additional features expanded beyond what they were originally created for. So I quickly learned to live by KISS (keep it simple stupid).

    So, with 10 years of programming under my belt. I can definitely see the difference in how I go into a new project. What questions to ask, what questions NOT to ask, documenting processes, code reusability etc.

    Of course I still like to try new things, and new ways to do things. Some work out great and I incorporate them into future projects. Others fail spectacularly, and I then take out my grumpiness on my co-workers. But at least I learn why they don’t work. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s just another notch in my belt.

    And for me, it’s given me the attitude that in most things I would prefer the mediocre veteran to the gifted beginner (yeesh, I’m getting OLD).

    Sorry if this is rambling and incoherent, but I’m doing it at work amidst many distractions and people bugging me.

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