My year is off to a good start, photographically speaking–I went out on the first of January and look what I shot!
I also wanted to let you all know that my upcoming course at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, “Writing the Fantastic” (WTF, as I like to call it) has filled. There is a waiting list and you can get on it here.
Starting in a couple weeks, I will once again be teaching Novel Writing 3, which is an all-genres class that follows up on, naturally, N1 & N2. The syllabus is here: the gist is you write fifty pages and provide workshop feedback to your classmates on their novels-in-progress as you go.
Novel 3 has a somewhat lighter workshop load than N2–in the latter class, we’re putting the books under a microscope to see that they’re well begun. In this one, the workshop looks at things that are more a matter of nuance than necessity. (This is an oversimplification, but the upshot is fewer workshop weeks and more focus on your own book.)
Can you take this course if you haven’t had N1 and N2? The answer is a qualified yes. If you are fifty or more pages into a novel, and want a little structure in which to work on the next fifty–in many cases, the middle of your book–it might be for you. Check out the syllabus and talk to me. That said, The UCLA Extension Writers’ Program is also running N1 and N2 this quarter, with Dan Fante and Leslie Lehr, respectively: you can jump into that stream at the beginning. Or take the NanoWrimo course.
Finally, here’s a heads-up: I will be teaching Writing the Fantastic, my intermediate SF/F/H course, in January. This one is offered rarely and fills fast, so if you’ve been waiting do mark your calendars.
When I think about revision, there’s a big mental divide: I can actually see the Grand Canyon. On one side is storytelling stuff, the nuts and bolts of plot and character that I’ve talked about before, the stuff that addresses the question, does this story go?
Way over on other side of the divide is the paint job: the question of whether the language used to tell the story is, in any way, pretty. I’ve written about that, too, listing some of the qualities I expect to see in well-written prose.
This isn’t the way I usually revise, mind you. I move through a document doing both at once, at least until I’m on the last pass. But I also know when I am making a structural revision, and when I am tuning the words. The best way for a new writer to know, if they aren’t sure, might be to ask: did this change necessitate others? If I altered this one thing, in other words, did I have to go through the manuscript and work through the consequences of the change? Or did it just make the whole thing flow better?
Belaboring the point: if you decide to switch from first person present to past, you are gonna be changing a lot of verbs. Or imagine if you change your main character’s sex. If you decide to substitute ‘lazed’ for ‘languished,’ on the other hand, you probably only need check that you haven’t used six languid variations already.
The qualities of prose post I mentioned before is something of a checklist. If your prose is ungrammatical, it says, get yourself some grammar. If it’s all dialog, all the time, you might have a balance problem, so consider putting in some narrative. Now, though, I want to talk about the process of actually shaping prose.
I have the idea that polishing your prose is pretty intuitive, at least for most of us. We read aloud, or work with a printed manuscript and a pen in hand, or we just sit at the computer and tweak, tweak, endlessly tweak. The goal, speaking very generally, is to come up with something that reads well–that offers maximum clarity to the reader and also possesses some glimmers of what I’ll call poetic rhythm. After we get to the point where the story’s told and the words are doing the job, we can strive to imbue them with some specialness.
I realize this is a gross generalization. Some writers cannot work forward through a story unless or until each sentence has a bit of sparkle. But a fair proportion of writers–especially beginning writers–seem to start with figuring out how to put together a working story, and then they move on to luminous prose. (It might also be hoped that for most of us, as we get better at the former, our prose also improves at the draft level.)
For sake of discussion, let’s assume you you’ve written a nice bit of fiction: the characters are okay, the plot works, it achieves a clear emotional effect, and the fact is you can probably sell it. But you want to work on the prose, and you want some kind of roadmap on how to start. What to do?
One strategy is to work from the big to the small, the macro, in other words, to the micro.
With this approach, you start by dividing the piece into scenes, then ask yourself: do the events unfold in a logical order? What’s the imagery, and how does it fit in? Does the scene do everything I want it to?
Second, you chop the scene into emotional beats or passages and repeat the process. This is about the words, again, so you’re looking for clumsy bits, things that may toss the reader out of the narrative. You’re also checking how each thought leads into the next, because part of flow is about that–about giving the reader the information in an order calculated to achieve a specific effect. This is true whether you want to ease them through a little lump of character history or if you want to slap them sidewise with a surprise change in in direction.
The above stages are a bit like prepping to paint a room. You’re getting major obstacles out of the way: in a sense, you’re washing and taping your walls.
After passages, naturally enough, we get to painting our paragraphs. Does each accomplish what it’s meant to? Are there any sentences that echo each other, creating wordy redundancies? How do they sound when read aloud? Does the first sentence flow logically from the closer of the paragraph preceding it?
You can probably see where I am headed now. After the paragraphs, you work the sentences. Are they varied, or do they all have the same Character verbed the Subject structure? And after the sentences, you work the words. That means all the lovely fiddly things we think of as perfecting the piece: pruning the adverbs, making sure the pronouns aren’t ambiguous, looking for stronger verbs.
Long, time-consuming, fiddly? Perhaps. If you’re pretty sure you can sell the piece anyway, go on and send it to market, and see what happens. This is one of those exercises that can wait until you feel like a stretch.
Does anyone else do it this way? Your revision thoughts are always welcome.
Here are some things that I hold to be pretty self-evident:
–A writer can learn to turn a crappy draft into an utterly awesome work of fiction.
–The ability to revise a draft, of whatever quality, into something good develops with time and experience.
–An experienced editor can tell the difference between a draft with a lot of potential and one whose revision into a publishable story is going to be vastly more challenging… even, perhaps, beyond the current abilities of its creator.
–None of us is Shakespeare.
–When we think we have nothing left to learn, we stop learning.
A high level of craft is never my first-draft priority. I’m not above naming my incidental characters Namity McNamepants, or CousinTwo, or even writing “Insert kick-ass detail here!” or “WTF does this house look like?” The compulsion to get the story out and on the page, to drag the character’s journey into the light, is my first and overwhelming imperative. This is why I distinguish between Frankenstein drafts and first drafts. By the time something of mine hits a workshop, I’ve gone through it three to five times. After the McNamepants are gone, and the kickass details are inserted… then I call it a draft.
As a teacher, I am very much one of those folks who advocate the fast writing, the get-it-out-and-fix-it-later. (I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but I think it’s one of those experiments that everyone can profitably try.)
This leads to an interesting challenge, which is explaining to my UCLA students that it’s not a total contradiction to evaluate their writing based on hastily written drafts. That I am qualified to say “Gee is this far along the road, while Ess is here,” even though I haven’t seen what they can do in a rewrite.
What it boils down to, in some ways, is the “To Do” list. If the author of Draft A is showing rather than telling, if they’re writing in scenes, if they’re more or less telling a whole story and the list is something like a) amp up the conflict; b) add more setting detail; c) put the pivotal scene between the main character and its cyborg mother on-stage, they’re further along than the writer of Draft B, whose list goes all the way to to q) and includes half the Turkey City Lexicon, plus also some biggie like “You need a plot.”
Even though we some of us talk about freely writing bad drafts, as writers, the fact is even our rough work gets richer as we develop. I’m not sure I’d thought this through before.
Does that mean I can look at ten drafts and say which writers will make it? No. As Marie Brennan points out in Tuesday’s Journey interview, getting published is largely a matter of persistence. The same person whose 2010 draft story suffers from insurmountable weaknesses might write a very workable story next time, whip through an intriguing third project, and then dive into an experiment that almost succeeds wildly before it crashes and burns. And then, suddenly, five drafts later, they’re the ones writing the material with the short To Do list.
So this is the less self-evident thing I’m contemplating now: if you keep writing, gathering feedback, and striving to get better, your raw work should improve, too. Even your crap should be, well, more golden.
What do you all think?
This story’s comparatively recent, which means I remember quite a few of the initial sparks for “Five Good Things about Meghan Sheedy” when I wrote it in 2004.
First, I was developing the (loosely) standardized critique style that I now I use for most of my UCLA Extension Writers’ Program classes. I had settled on a ‘rule’ for myself that no matter where a student was at, craftwise, I would find at least five positive things to say about every story submitted for workshop. Five things. It’s arbitrary, I know, but it ensures that everyone gets a comparable amount of encouraging feedback, and that I’ve identified a few good things they can build on. When your students never see you face to face, when you’re just keystrokes on teh Internets, the being positive up front component of critique is even more important than when you’re in the room together.
As teaching discipline, it has worked out well, and I still do it with Creating Universes, Building Worlds, Writing the Fantastic, and most other classes. (Novel Writing II has been a different kettle of fish.)
So… five good things. The fact that it was a fixed number snagged on something in my writerbrain. It occurred to me that there could be aliens with whom something like this was an actual custom. A lot of cultural things are arbitrary in some way or another; the answer to “Why?” is often “That’s just how we do it.”
Another second component of the story was Meghan’s temper. I’d had the opportunity to closely observe someone who was going through some really difficult things, and went through a stage of dealing with it by biting off the heads of everyone within hearing range. I’m more of a conflict avoider, so it was on my mind.
As for how this evolved into a squid story… well. I had been reading a good deal about the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in the Sixties, and thinking about proxy wars, and how it might look if two offworld powers started kicking Earth around in some fashion. I thought of setting it in the same universe as the Slow Invasion stories, further on down the timeline, but that Earth has a dense offworlder population that considers our mudball home, and those individuals wouldn’t go anywhere just because a war busted out, and I didn’t want them added into this particular stew. They didn’t quite fit. So, despite the fact that the two universes have similarities (offworlders who are far more advanced than us, exploiting their supremacy) I decided they couldn’t be lumped together.
Later, as I wrote more squid stories, especially the ones about Ruthless, it became apparent to me that “Meghan Sheedy” probably takes place late in the Proxy War–the U.S. is the last country of any significance to fall to the Fiends, who work their way from the Mexican border to Canada. (We fold like the paper kitten we are, maybe five minutes after they get here. Ten if they stop for coffee.) Since this story takes place in Seattle and Seattle’s near the border, the geography makes that much apparent. But those were decisions I made later; in the meantime, I was imagining the Seattle I know, the familiar skyline pocked with Dust craters while ordinary twenty-first century peeps tried to cope with bombing and the destruction of their way of life, with occupation and collaborators and the danger of constant surveillance by both sides.