Monday, August 12, 2013


I used to think that when you wrote a first draft, what you ended up with was a puzzle in which you could see most of the picture, but needed to fill in the rest of the missing pieces.

A first draft is a completed puzzle. Revision comes not in making the pieces smaller or filling in the holes, but in adding to the picture by adding on to the puzzle.
And the puzzle pieces you keep finding stuck to your forearm or on the floor beneath the table aren’t necessarily to the same puzzle – you get bits to one novel and bits to another, all waiting for some alchemical process that’s going to get them all to fit together.
Writing a novel is easy. Revising a draft, not so much.
That’s why I laugh whenever I read tips from writers on where to get ideas. I don’t need ideas. Ideas just come flying in and squash on the windshield and I collect them in little bins to sort out later.
I’ve tried the tried-but-true: Setting a novel aside and just collecting the ideas, hoping at some future, undetermined date to do the revision. I’ve tried printing them out and reading them, holding alongside a crib sheet of additions and other ideas to see where they might fit into the puzzle. Neither method has met with much success. And yet I know the puzzles, complete as they are, could be more resplendent, more colorful, more detailed – better – with the little bits and bobs I’ve collected.
Back to the writing books, I suppose. Let’s look at revising.
But in the meantime, progress must be made.
I’ll go at it the slow, plodding way. Print them out. Read them. Look at where ideas might fit. Because I’m certain that’s what I’ll find as I pore through the books on writing. There is no other secret way to do it, but hard work. There may be little frills and decorations and pips to spit at the process, to be sure, but the process will remain the process, no matter how much wishing one might do.
The best tip I’ve found so far: “Think big. Don’t tinker.” That from the Scott Foresman Handbook for Writers. Revision is “re-seeing,” not copy editing, poking around with silly little commas and such. That’s what I try to communicate with my students – commas and punctuation and capitalization and word choice, that’s all easy. Re-seeing is hard. As I know.
I read in a technical writing forum over the weekend an author’s post in which he decries revision. If something needs to be revised, he says, then the initial writing process that led to the writing is flawed and needs to be examined. Or a different writer needs to be assigned to the project. A piece of writing should be perfect the first time out, or that effort was wasted and only the revision counts as positive energy.
He is, of course, wrong.
Another revision tip: Pose specific questions. A study quoted here shows students produced “better” stories when they responded to a teacher’s specific questions on what was written. So I have to ask myself: Is this bit necessary? What questions would my readers ask at this point? But those are pretty general. Re-seeing also means re-reading. Or, in many cases, reading for the first time. The best approach: Read as you would if you were reading a book, but this time, annotate the text with questions you would ask the author. Forget that the author is you. Ask hard questions. Call them on the carpet for faulty plotting or thin characterization. Make the author be honest.
Another reminder: Successful revision is not correcting grammar. That is editing.
Yet another reminder: Collage. Start with the idea of printing out what you’ve written, cutting apart individual paragraphs or chapters or sentences, then rearrange them. Glue them to a big roll of butcher paper. Glue in visual cues of things you might want to add: Photographs, links to video and sound clips, other ephemera – is there a computer program or app that would let me do this? Or should I create one of my own?
Another reminder: Book trailer. Write a book trailer. Or better yet, look at what you’ve written and storyboard it. Find out where there are conceptual gaps by drawing things out – literally. Doesn’t matter if you’re a bad artist or not. Just draw things. Sketch them out. If you’re bad at art, do collage. Collect old magazines or scour the internet for pictures – no copyright worries here, you’re just re-seeing, sometimes through the eyes of another. You’re not publishing their stuff. Just re-seeing your own.

Never mind that this video references filmmaking. Storyboarding is storytelling whether you’re writing a story or making a movie. Do it.
Or just go to
Another reminder: Consider things from a different point of view. See how a scene might be better by changing how a character is presented in the narrative. Like this:

Also, follow the KISS method: Keep It Simple, Stupid. If the computer programs are overwhelming, of you know you’d spent too much time tinkering and not thinking big while using them, then use paper, glue, and scissors. That’s the direction I’ll be heading.

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