Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Talk about revision-- I’m constantly revising my own opinions about the writing process. That’s kind of what this blog is for. It’s a place for me to think out loud. Maybe I should have called it that: thinking out loud. So here’s some more thinking out loud.

In the comments to last post someone wrote in a way that made me think they worried about having too much mess in a first draft, they worried about getting lost in the mess. That is definitely always a concern. I have to say that too much mess isn’t good. If your manuscript keeps breaking off into big lumpy sections and has no unifying forces holding it together, then you could end up with a draft that can’t be made to fit no matter how many times you revise it. Not good, of course.

I still think you must allow yourself to be messy in a first draft, but at the same time keep working to make it fit together. This will be imperfect and have places where you wander, but just working on it should help you avoid getting lost. I think that’s the main point. The manuscript will be vastly imperfect, but as long as it isn’t hopelessly fractured that’s okay.

Some things that might help: keep trying to figure out what characters want, keep trying to BE THERE in scenes, be open to changing directions, be open to back-tracking twenty or thirty pages if you feel like you’ve gone down a wrong path. Stay flexible.

I do think one of the easiest ways to get lost in a manuscript is to lose sight of a character’s problem or conflict (desire). Stories do have to be about something. If my character, Bubba, is a great guy except when eats peaches then I’ve got the start to a character and story. If Bubba, when he eats peaches, always gets violent and starts a fight with the biggest guy he can find then that’s a bit of development. If Bubba despises fighting but loves peaches so much he finds it hard to give them up, then I’ve got conflict. Bubba’s life is being destroyed by peaches. What can he do to save himself? Will his fetching new neighbor who makes apple pies be of any help? (Now you might be thinking to yourself, "Ah, that old story--the old guy who loves peaches too much meets the girl next store who bakes apple pies-- story." Well, yeah, but since most of us have somewhat similar experiences many of the real differences in our stories come from the way we tell them--our specific and unique way of seeing.) Characters need to desire something in a manuscript and things need to get in the way of that desire.

Anyway, messy in order to finish a draft is good. A manuscript that goes in so many directions it has no center, no heart, is one that might be a Humpty Dumpty situation: all the king’s horses and all the king’s men…

Thursday, October 22, 2009

first drafts

Still thinking about revision, which I brought up last post, but now I’m thinking about how one gets to that place where revision starts.

Michelangelo was very eloquent about his approach to sculpting. He said, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.” Oh, yes, very nice indeed. Very pretty. Lucky bunch, those sculptors. And here’s one genius sculptor who could turn a phrase, too. But we who actually need to use words to make our work don’t have the luxury of a big slab of marble. We can’t set anything free of some material because it’s up to us to make our material, our silly little marks on paper. Only then can we start thinking about freeing any angels within.

For most writers (there are exceptions, of course) this means creating a wreck of a first draft, one that goes all over the place and sometimes no place at all and stalls and speeds and takes a dozen wrong turns. One that is fuzzy about what it’s about and often confused about characters’ motivations and is basically a MESS. But a writer needs that mess to begin the process of finding the story in there, the true story. So, painful as it may be, writers have to allow themselves to make their mess and lie in it too. It’s the only way to get to the chances revisions offer.

I know some writers who get stuck on the first fifty pages of a manuscript, revising those again and again. They never get beyond that mysterious fiftieth page. So that’s one worry of revising before you write the entire manuscript, but I have another. Revision of those early pages can’t be clear because the writer doesn’t see the whole story, can’t really revise wisely without a sense of where the story will end up. I say a sense because, of course, there will be changes, big changes, but a sense is important so the scenes of the novel all lead toward the general area where the story should end. In revision, of course, we hope everything gets more definite, more clear.

So here’s my point. Writers have to give themselves permission to write a lousy first draft, full of all the things we don’t want to see in our writing, in order to get that raw material. That’s when we have the chance to find the true story within.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

missed opportunities

There are a lot of missed opportunities in new manuscripts. We all have these in real life, too. Something we wished we’d said, the pithy remark that puts the rude or arrogant person in his or her place. Or maybe we miss the chance to say something helpful to someone or to reveal something of ourselves to someone we love.

The good thing about fiction is a missed opportunity isn’t really missed. We get do-overs all the time. We get the gift of revision.

A lot of times I think we sense when a scene in a manuscript isn’t all it could be. We know there’s a soft spot where more needs to be revealed or said or done. Pay attention to this feeling. Listen to it. Each scene has to be as perfect as we can make it, and it has to be important or it shouldn’t be in the manuscript anyway. Make it important. Don’t give yourself a pass by thinking it’s pretty good. When revising, that’s the time to really look closely at scenes and ask the tough questions about the scene’s worth. If you’re sure it belongs, then the next thing to look at is how does it change the characters and have you made the characters clearly show these changes to the reader. If not, then that’s a missed opportunity. Try to find a way to make the scene important to the story.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Writers are spies.

What do most spies do? They gather information. They observe.

We’re like that. I mean, not 007 or even Austin Powers. We don’t have a gun (most of us) or the cool gadgets. We don’t have arch villain enemies though if you’ve ever had a negative review you certainly could imagine the writer of that review sharing brunch with Dr. Evil. Nevertheless, much of being a good writer comes from paying attention to details.

Occasionally this may involve ease dropping. What can I say? It’s all in the line of duty. Mostly though paying attention involves, well, paying attention. How does someone speak? What gestures do they use? How do they communicate fear, tension, anger, happiness, and amusement? It’s all out there in the world and we go out into it and eventually we report back. Usually it takes some time for what we observe to compost in that great pile of experience and observation in our mind, but out it will come eventually as we sit in front of our computers remembering and imagining our stories.

Friday, October 9, 2009

loud characters

I was dreaming last night about my WIP, which woke me, which made me think about my dream, which had my characters in it talking about something that had nothing to do with my manuscript. But then that got me thinking about a scene and anyone who has insomnia from time to time knows that once you start thinking in that way sleep is not coming back.

I blame it on the characters.

Our creations can be quite vocal sometimes. You can hear them grumbling and moaning and laughing. I’m just glad they can’t talk to us directly, or I would get no sleep at all. I can imagine many conversations:

“Dude, are you going to leave me there with this guy talking about Forest Gump? Just kill me.”

Or someone else would complain about how they’re not getting enough page time. Or someone else would complain about how I’d made him or her less kind, more kind, weaker, less intelligent, mean, not mean enough.

Characters are demanding. A writer has a hard time getting them out of his mind when they start making noise. They’re the life of the story. I suppose they have the right.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

driving in the dark

There’s a point in a first draft—I’m there now—when everything feels like confusion to me. I don’t know where I came from or where I’m going to. The landscape looks wrong; nothing is where it’s supposed to be. The word roads are behind me. I made them and can still see them. But as I look back they seem all twisted; they have that big-city ,cloverleaf look. They seem without purpose. I’m the maker of gibberish roads. And the road up ahead? Gone. Once I knew where I was going but now it all looks the same up there, empty and vast.

It would be easy to quit. It would be easy to say it is just wrong, all the work I’ve done is just wrong. Easy to open my file, put the curser on Edit, click select all, tap delete. Goodbye. Hello clean page. So full of possibilities, so neat. A novel, like life, is messy. A first draft is really messy. I’ve been to this emotional place before in a first draft. I know I have to keep going. I have to just see that little bit of road ahead of me and go on and hope, believe, that the road will keep extending as I move forward.

I remember E.L. Doctrow saying something similar about writing once. He described writing a novel like traveling across the country on a dark highway. He had the car's headlights and could see a few feet in front of him but all around him was dark. All he had was that tiny light and a vague sense of where he was heading. I guess it's like that for most writers. Faith is a big part of writing a novel.