Revise or Plow On?

(I am writing this all of a day after I decided to participate, again, in the Clarion West Write-a-Thon. My creative goal, starting now and running until Clarion ends on July 27th, is a full Frankenstein draft of my next novel. I figure this means I’ll be wanting to average 1000 words a day.)

One of the conversations you hear a good deal among writing folk, about process, is about whether to work from an outline, as opposed to doing what’s sometimes known as “pantsing.” It’s not what you think… pantsing is the process of discovering (or making up) your story as you go along, without any kind of written plan or roadmap for it.

Some writers create story by the seat of our pants, in other words.

There are writers who succeed with super-detailed outlines, writers who do well with none at all, and then the vast majority, those with strategies that fall somewhere in the middle. It’s not really a binary split: there are pantsers who write from a bit of a mental outline, and outliners who allow themselves to go offroad… or, sometimes, wildly offroad.

When we define something by its extremes–invoking that oft-used phrase ‘there are two types of people,’ we’re creating room to discuss the broad differences between two approaches, without getting bogged down in every variation and nuance on the spectrum.

I mention this rhetorical convention, which is perhaps self-evident, because I want to talk about writing process in the context of an entirely different split: the one between those of us who write highly flawed first drafts and those who can’t go forward until they’ve polished whatever’s on the page.

I’m big on experimentation and I’ve tried just about everything, at least once. As far as my own process goes, though, I have had decent success with writing drafts fast, especially when it comes to novel-length work. I’ve rewritten so many individual pieces of fiction at this point–over forty stories, and a half-dozen novels–that I have considerable faith in my ability to shine up very rough texts. I like to have a whole story in hand, from first word to ‘the end.’ I like, more importantly, to have the whole story laid not only out on paper but within my mind, before I start polishing it up.

That doesn’t mean I never go back and retool something as I’m drafting… if I want to think a little about my next move in a story, I’ll have a browse through what I’ve already written. But mostly I push my way forward, sometimes leaving blanks, occasionally giving minor characters names like CousinOne or Hubby, sometimes finishing off a line of dialog with a note “Cliche! Fix later!” and even sometimes writing in a placeholder sentence for something I mean to put in later.

(Note to self: insert a few elegant paragraphs here about what I mean by a placeholder and how it works).

The very first time I reach the end of a story, what I have is something I call a Frankenstein Draft. I call it that because at that point it’s still on the table, a bunch of stitched together bits of narrative that aren’t even breathing. It’s only after I’ve gone through and taken out the blanks, the placeholders and anything truly awkward that I call what I’ve got a first draft. It’s a distinction that’s important to me. The Frankenstein draft is vastly more than an outline, but it’s not quite a completed story. Finishing one is a major landmark–it’s the guarantee that I’m going to have a living, breathing story at some point, even if it takes ten rewrites.

Should you do this too?

Only you can be sure. I’m emphatically against one size fits all advice. I do know writers, people who successfully finish and sell novels, who cannot move forward on a piece until each sentence, paragraph, each image and snatch of dialog rises to some internal measure of perfection. (And hey, if you’re one such, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!) They write lovely, luminous prose and compelling stories, and as an interesting bit of trivia, the polish-as-you-go writer I know best, Nancy Richler, takes almost exactly as much time as I do to complete an entire book.

A certain amount of this racket is about knowing what kind of a writer you are and then committing, wholeheartedly, to being that artist. If you are truly a pantser and you try to force yourself to outline–because you feel you should, or because you have a proposal due, or because some element of pantser writing seems really hard or frustrating on any given day–you may end up investing a lot of energy in trying to embrace something that just isn’t part of who you are.

If that’s the case and you’re sure of it, you might be better off trying to find a… well, a pants way to address the tough stuff.

By the same token, if you truly are a polish-as-you-go writer, if you simply can’t go forward to page 2 until page 1 is perfect, so be it. Accept that your day to day writing speed may seem slower than that of the people who routinely toss off Nanowrimo novels in thirty days. Tell yourself you’re saving yourself the time that I’ll be spending in rewrite.


…if you aren’t sure…

I recommend making the experiment: just once, push on to the end.

I can’t stress enough how valuable it can be to have a whole draft assembled before you as you buckle down to tweaking.

There is danger in perfectionism. Trying to retool every sentence and story development before you have a whole story can simply mean not finishing it. “I can fix it later,” on the other hand, can be a commitment that drives a writer forward. Doing a challenge like Nanowrimo or the Write-a-Thon can get you a completed beginning-middle-end to work with. Maybe it’s sketchy in places. Maybe it’s sketchy everywhere! But it’s also there in your hands–with its big decisions made and all its possible plot holes gaping. It’s ready for you to look, to form a plan for getting it done.

I am a big fan of getting it done. For new writers, the experience of carrying a novel through to its end is invaluable. We can write a beginning and tweak it until it’s beautiful and we’re sick of it… only to fall in love with a new idea and embark on polishing the opening chapter of that.

This is, I think because beginnings are hard, hard to get just right. Endings, though, are even harder.

When you start something, you’re making a promise to the reader. Here’s the story I’m going to tell, you’re saying. Here’s the trip I’m going to take you on. But when you end a novel, you have to have paid off on all those promises.

So unless you really truly honestly are a polish-polish-must-perfect-it person, give yourself permission to write badly here and there, as much as you need to… and push your way on to the end.

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About Alyx Dellamonica

After twenty-two years in Vancouver, B.C., I've recently moved to Toronto Ontario, where I make my living writing science fiction and fantasy; I also review books and teach writing online at UCLA. I'm a legally married lesbian, a coffee snob, and I wake up at an appallingly early hour.

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