Ben had a great post the other day about becoming reticent about posting about the writing process before things are done or sold–and about how BORING not talking about it can become. He says:
Like, you know how you don’t, traditionally, tell people about the first trimester of a pregnancy? So that if you’re going to miscarry, you can miscarry in peace?
But not talking about trouble and dismay, dead ends and trashed story beginnings and terror, makes this blog, frankly, duller.
And, well, yeah, I agree. (Um, not that Ben’s blog is dull, because it’s not, but that his point is right on: The possibility of failure is exciting. Always, in life and in fiction.) And I’d intended at one point to move those sorts of posts over to the teeny LJ, but I just feel differently about that space than I do about this one. This is my blog, that’s just an annex. It seems weird to exile my posts about writing, and I never really managed to make such posts over there anyway. (It should be solely for friendslocking and commenting and possibly metrics and whining, I’ve decided. Basically, what it is now.)
I was also thinking about this in trying to decide how going through the MFA program was going to change Shaken & Stirred* (or if it would). And how can it not? I’m writing a lot more, and I’m thinking about writing a huge amount more (both my own and other people’s), so it follows that I’d be posting about how fucking hard it is and what I’m learning more than occasionally. I think this place would get dreary pretty fast, otherwise. Also, it seems like MFA programs in general come in for a lot of casual slamming and my experience so far has been nothing but amazing. So I want to inject some honesty about my own impressions into that sea of carping.
That said, posting about work-in-progress and the Process still feels dangerous, for the reasons Ben describes, but screw it. My lone New Year’s resolution was to stop second-guessing. Feel free to skip these write porn posts if you like; I won’t be offended. Sometimes I think a writer’s process is only interesting to that writer, but then I remember that I actually find other people’s processes endlessly fascinating.
Which brings me to the real topic of this post, or at least the second one:
Revision. (Clicky below to follow.)
The other day Justine did something incredibly brave and honest in posting the original draft of the first chapter of the first book in her fabulous Magic or Madness trilogy (I just finished the conclusion and it truly ROCKS, btw), alongside the final one. I appreciated this in particular because what I’m doing right now is reworking the beginning of the book I’m working on. And I do mean working and reworking and reworking.
This is counterintuitive, I know. There are even times I’ve given advice against this myself. Which just serves as a reminder that all writing advice is bad advice given at the wrong time to the wrong writer. None of that stuff is ever, ever, ever universal. Normally, I’d just jam my way through the draft of this novel to the end, but I’m not doing that this time. I stopped on page 165 and went back to the beginning. Why?
Because the feedback I got on the first couple of chapters from my workshop at the residency made me rethink in a large way what I was doing and how it could be more focused. A big part of my process has always involved feedback; my screenwriting workshop was a godsend in teaching me how to read critically and how to get distance from my own work. In fact, this is still one of the fastest, best ways for me to get a sense of perspective: Give it to someone else. I think it was Ernest Lehman who said that as soon as he gave a piece of writing up, he could see what was wrong with it. That’s it exactly.
Anyway, they read the opening of Aztec Dance Tunes. They really liked parts of it, but they had some questions too, as all workshops do. One of the big things people kept circling around was confusion over why the Aztecs were talking to my main character and caring about the central problem in the plot. The Aztecs were really only being used as an illustration and not the ones doing the talking at all, so clearly I had a problem. I literally felt as if I’d been smacked in the head: There was too much going on. The Aztec origin myth had given me the idea for the book’s central conceit, but it wasn’t intrinsic to it. I wasn’t giving up the source. Just because the Aztecs inspired the story, didn’t mean they had to be in it. There’s plenty already with saving America and all the Greek mythology. The Aztecs were an odd element out, and one that didn’t fit because it didn’t belong.
This instantly simplified things, and resulted in a new working title, Monster Nation, that has a helluva lot more to do with what the book is about. (Title courtesy of Steph Burgis based on the thinnest of descriptions, natch.)
Okay, so that was just one thing I came out of the workshop with, and I came home and started revising. I switched to past tense, because it seemed to lend another layer of authority to a protagonist experiencing some pretty outre things AND because there were no issues of it undercutting the immediacy of the story. Her telling it in past tense doesn’t telegraph the outcome of the story or hurt the tension of the main narrative at all. I think I can be guilty of using present tense as a crutch (all that screenwriting), perhaps when it’s not really necessary, so this was a big change, but one I made happily. Besides, if I was rethinking every bit of the story, I might as well force myself to really do that, because changing tense? Changes every line. It changes what a protagonist sees (and it makes transitions a tiny bit easier in my opinion). (But don’t worry, Kate, I still love and defend present tense.)
I should also add here that the tense thing wasn’t even mentioned by my workshop, but was spurred by being able to come back to the story with fresh eyes. (Fresh eyes = yummm.)
Another thing that kept coming up in conversations at the residency was the idea that you give yourself what you need in a first draft. You don’t know yet what these things are, but your subconscious seeds this stuff in there. You may not see it for a long time, but what your story needs is usually there already, in some capacity.
I made some big changes, and the interesting thing was, this held true. Usually, I could find the place where I’d started to do something but not gone all the way, or glossed on by it in the first draft (which was written in a blind heat over a couple of days, I might add).
So I turned these revisions in to my absolutely f-ing BRILLIANT advisor and he sent me a 17 page letter of response that was going to necessitate more revision. Did I want to stab myself in the heart for spending a month reworking something that needed yet more reworking? NO. Why?
Because he could never have given me the awesome ideas on what to do if I hadn’t given him this cleaner intermediate draft. My first draft needed all that work I did on it after the workshop, and the second draft needs more, but completely different work. I do think that once I get this next pass done, I’ll be able to move on into the story proper and leave the beginning behind. And that story proper is going to be a LOT better because of this process. That’s the reason I left my usual "must finish first draft first" stance behind. I knew there was enough there to make a book and I knew these things early on were going to change. So why write to an ending before the foundation was set? After all, I want to end up at the right place, having told the right story, as much as possible.
The absolutely gobsmacking part though? That whole, you give yourself what you need thing? True again. In the second draft, I gave myself all these little opportunities. Once again, these little moments that could be enlarged, played out, and enhance the whole thing. I had the character thinking about something as if she’d just discovered it (and it turns out the story works better for her to actually be discovering it). I will also say that I don’t think any of these drafts were bad–they’re just moving in the direction of better. I am not one of those lucky writers to whom things come fully formed (if you exist, I hate you), but I’m increasingly okay with that. Discovering the right answer completely mutes the pain of realizing you’re a dope for not seeing some better solution the first time you wrote something.
Whatever it takes to get you to see those things you’ve given yourself, is going to depend on your own revision process. But don’t discount what’s already there. Study it closely. It may clue you in on your next, best step.
And when this book is done so’s I’m happy with it? I’ll follow Justine’s lead and post the opening’s first, second and final versions.
p.s. And, yes, I know this doesn’t mean I won’t end up revising this opening again once the whole book is done. But that’s not where I am right now. Don’t be cruel.
*Speaking of changes, this year you’re going to see a lot more reviews of YA and middle grade books because that’s primarily what I’m reading, and also some interviews and guest blogging or essays as well because of busy-beeness. So, if you’re interested in guesting to promote a new book or something like that, shoot me a note and we’ll discuss. I may say no, but I may not.