Thoughts on Writing #23: Embrace Revision


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Post October 09, 2010, 08:32:04 PM

Thoughts on Writing #23: Embrace Revision

Ladies & Gentlemen!

Er, no, that leaves out those with flexible genders. Or GrumpyMen.

Hi everybody!

Oops - that's HomeStarRunner.

Ahem.

Good Evening!

Revision is a grand thing! Let's see what we have got here.

First, I must post a vigorous counterpoint to "Second draft = first draft - 10%." I will point to the key phrase "The big exceptions to this rule are the second drafts that involved so much rewriting that they were essentially draft one-point-five".

I feel this valuable pointer of cutting down modifier words should be presented like that ... "cut down weak modifiers". Trying to make a rule such as "lose 10%" just feels like English Grammar - something English teachers like to diagram but essentially must be learned holistically.

My writing process runs in layers, so that the trim stages operate in tandem with adding new material. Deleting weak words is a cinch. Trying to chop out entire story scenes feels dangerous to me, because they got there for a reason. When I finally must admit that some big sequence is out of place, I would rather not delete it and send my subconscious the "reprimand". Instead, I like to consider it as a "spinoff story". Published writers do novels, and then add little satellite stories etc.

Also, re: posting on bulletin boards, there is very little chance to revise. Except for the "shoot I just clicked post" effect, once it's there, it's there.
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Post October 10, 2010, 10:27:57 AM

Trying to make a rule such as "lose 10%" just feels like English Grammar - something English teachers like to diagram but essentially must be learned holistically.

I couldn't have put it better, Tao -- thank you.

I flunked seventh grade English because our teacher spent about 75% of the year on diagramming sentences, and I simply refused to do it. And I could write better sentences than just about anyone in the class, and damn well knew it. Later, I found out that sentence-diagramming frequently fails, and that it's easily possible to write a sentence that diagrams perfectly but makes no sense. (Hint: the diagramming process attempts to apply rules -- probably from Latin -- that aren't always valid.)

A rule -- to knock out ten percent? Doesn't work for me, nor would it work for other people who revise as they go. My current project is very spare of modifiers already, to the point that I'm tempted to add some (but I haven't -- yet).

I have edited previous works by knocking out huge chunks of boring info-dump, (not to go into what I've had to do with flash stories to drop the word count) but that's not the same as doing a first draft and then trying to choose every tenth word to delete.

Weak modifiers? What if one of your principle characters likes to sprinkle his/her/its speech with them? You risk flattening the character to streamline the text.

It just isn't that simple -- or that easy, at least for me. It might work for someone else, though, maybe even you. Embrace revision, certainly, but do it in a way that improves the story, regardless of how that affects the word count.
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Post October 10, 2010, 03:45:47 PM

"Infodump"?

Veering tangent alert. Those who like straight linearity may skip this post.

I just picked up on how loaded that word is.

"Infodump"? Why are things worth learning if they are part of the real world but become "infodump" in a story - and what kind of story?

For me the point of a novel is that I want to "hang out" with the characters, when they're not busy Saving the _____ from _____.

Thought experiment: go outside your door and tell me what you are going to do next. Not just "go to the store", but is Manny working there right now so you can try the new meatballs, or is it the witch who hates her life? Oops - "infodump".

Flash is a special category, in which severe shortcuts are taken to get a quick bang of an idea across. But when I have 6 hours at hand and decide to read, reading 12 short stories in a row at half an hour each starts to get a little hollow. That's what makes TV series viable despite all the other horrid problems that abuse the script at the production level - your (hopefully) favorite characters are (mostly) going to be back next episode or two, so you can settle in. TV series thrive on Info blocs.

Why not write a story like a scholarly paper - or even Star Trek? Put Footnotes with all the info tucked away where the rabid fans can gaze at it later!

*This post has been inspired by the Dune Encyclopedia, which includes a recipe for Fremen Bread.*

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Post October 10, 2010, 04:01:04 PM

When looking for things to chop, pay extra attention to the first few paragraphs. There is often more "tell" than "show" in the preamble.
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Post October 10, 2010, 05:27:47 PM

infodumps

I happen to like info-dumps. For me they add more credibility to a story, especially if the story uses the data as a basis for the disbelieveabilty jump drive.
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Post October 11, 2010, 12:07:33 AM

Info-dump revisited

Thanks, Tao (he said sardonically), you just reminded me . . . I just put a whole new first chapter into my project, and damn near all of it is info-dump. Sneaky bastard was hiding under a pile of breezy dialog. Thankfully it's only about a page and a half . . . anybody care to look at it before I flay it and run its hide up the flagpole and feed its guts to the cat?

(Heavy sigh) Am I not practicing what I preach? Well, as much as I'd like to, sometimes I just can't. This alien needs to be described, so the reader won't spend the rest of the story wondering what it looks like -- and the description should happen earlier, rather than later. At least it's not a narrative . . .

Maybe I could do a version of The Blind Men and the Elephant . . . NAH!

Sometimes you just have to break your own rules or you'll never get anything done . . . or, say, "I don't have rules . . . I have guidelines!"
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Post October 11, 2010, 09:02:47 AM

Prologue?

One neat trick I've seen work scary-well is the Prologue.

I must barely restrain my semi-scientific obsessions with documentation, but I'd wager a lunch at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe that Prologues have far less dialogue than the rest of the story.

Would that work for you if you split it into a Prologue and a new Chapter 1?

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Post October 11, 2010, 09:07:46 AM

Re: Info-dump revisited

Lester Curtis wrote:
...Maybe I could do a version of The Blind Men and the Elephant . . . NAH!



A couple of the really bitter screenwriters for Star Trek Orig.Series maniacally abused that poor show's $5 effects budget. (One rumor I heard was that no one wanted Andorians - they were some studio exec's pet wish.)

However my grand prize goes to the Bajorans.

It was left to later novels to get more creative aliens, and they had to do some serious info-blocs to get out of the show's accidental rut because the reader would keep expecting the alien to do ______ ... oh right, it has no legs.
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Post October 11, 2010, 10:49:27 AM

For what it's worth, Tao, I could simply rename my first chapter "Prologue" and not change another thing -- but I won't.

I've taken to naming these chapters according to the age of my main character, and the first one is "Minus Two Months." So, it already is a prologue.

Now, if I wanted to -- and I have thought of it :wink: -- I could go back further and describe his conception, but I'm trying not to put outright pornography in this story (another guideline) . . . not on the first page, anyway. Besides, these explorations of regression have to have some kind of a limit.

And . . .
Put Footnotes with all the info tucked away where the rabid fans can gaze at it later!

*This post has been inspired by the Dune Encyclopedia, which includes a recipe for Fremen Bread.*
NO! I hate when people do that! It interrupts the flow. As I stated elsewhere, I write my stories to be self-contained -- the reader reads each word in succession, and all of their questions get answered eventually (at least, all the questions I want answered, haha).
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Post October 16, 2010, 06:07:39 PM

I have found that my experience as a poet has made me approach revision in a slightly different way than that presented in most of these "how to write"-type articles. What I end up doing is somewhat different than the usual process of "first draft, second draft, third draft" seen as the standard writing process. Instead of creating a complete but rough first draft and then going through and making wholesale revisions to create a second draft, I revise as I go.

In terms of my poetry, I revise my lines and stanzas as the poem comes together. Instead of jotting down a completed first draft and then making large-scale revisions to the entire thing, I make adjustments as I'm writing the lines and stanzas. I follow the path the work leads me down, and make minor course corrections as I go. That's not to say that I haven't made major revisions after the poem is completed; sometimes a poem does need a complete overhaul. However, more often than not, I merely tweak a line or two or change a word here or there. Usually, the poem that comes out of the initial composition process is pretty much the same poem that gets sent out, and eventually published.

Now that I'm writing fiction again after writing mainly poetry for the last few years, I'm finding that I follow the same process with my fiction. I revise as I go, instead of writing the whole thing and then going back and revising the rough first draft. Then I simply make minor adjustments here and there to the completed work. It seems to work for me. It even works for my non-fiction.

It's still a matter of trying to create the best possible work through finding the best path for the story. It's just somewhat different than the oft-touted standard process, than the process seen as the norm.

As for the "10% rule", as with many of these rules of writing allegedly written in stone, I question how true this rule really is for all writers. I suspect, as with most things, it varies from person to person, from writer to writer. I find most of these all-encompassing rules of writing to be questionable at best. Much of what is touted as writing truth is simply a matter of what works for some. What works for others may be contrary to the standard law.

My experience as a poet, especially a composer of haiku, has taught me the great benefits of economy of words. In poetry, every line, every word, must carry quite a bit of weight. Everything must be there for a reason; you simply don't have the luxury of useless fluff. I tend to carry over this idea of reduced word wastage to my prose writing.

I approach my prose in much the same way as I approach my poetry. Even though I may write in a more richly descriptive style than is the norm of the moment, and I've even been known to use adverbs on occasion, I try to make sure all those words are there for a reason. That reason is to tell the best story I can with the tools at my disposal. I keep this thought in mind as I write, making the decisions about what must stay to tell the story, and what things are simply unnecessary, as I go.
"I'm going to do what the warriors of old did. I'm going to recite poetry!"

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Post October 18, 2010, 02:20:35 PM

Alien Text revisited

Below is an edited spinoff that I stand by every single day, except at work, not for projects. I put parentheses to help show my alterations. My quality meter breaks a little faster than for most people, so this is vital.

------

"Aliens Stole My Work."

Many people prefer to edit their material after it's been sitting ... otherwise neglected for a matter of several (hours or days), causing the mysterious 'alien text' effect to kick in. Once the alien text effect has started, it becomes much easier to look at your own material with a critical eye, because it reads like it was written by somebody else. Don't believe me? Go read something you wrote six (hours) or a (day) ago, and haven't looked at since. Odds are good that you'll recognize it for your own (work), ..., but it's still going to be new and strange to part of your mind.

I love the alien text effect. By the time I finish (working, revising, and reworking) something, I have no idea whether it's bad, good, or completely (eye blindingly awful). My quality gauge is broken, at least where that particular project is concerned. Once the alien text effect kicks in, my quality meter returns, and I can actually enjoy the knowledge that I've created something awesome...or admit that I've created something in need of a lot more work. Alien text gives us fresh eyes on our material, and lets us see it for what it really is. Whether that's a good thing or not will vary."

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Post November 06, 2010, 07:52:22 PM

This was an okay article, though mostly a re-treatment of King's On Writing. He mentions the same rule, citing a scribbled message from an editor who had declined one of his early stories. I think it's sound advice so long as it's taken in a generalized vein. In fact, I tend to follow it, though more from necessity than mathematical exactitude. I've never checked the word count of a completed novella of say 25K words, and said, "I've got to cut out 2,500." Usually, I cut out that much while tightening up the prose and killing off useless tangents. If it doesn't forward the plot it dies. That's my rule.

I may be wrong, but I don't believe Ms. McGuire was using the rule as a set-in-diorite law either. More I feel she meant to guide the novice author towards cutting for revision rather than adding, save for her cogent caveat of works requiring extensive rewrites. I suppose the good or even great writer, like any other craftsman, must learn to recognize when one is preferable to the other.

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