Monday, August 3, 2009

Write it the first time

Okay, ready to write my column and topics I'd planned on covering have been done. Where do you get your ideas? (Loading dock behind the A&P, 3AM on Wednesdays. Ask for Larry.) How do find time to write? (When the TARDIS is down, trim a TV show or three. If you're too beat at the end of the day, write before you do anything else. I usually write for a couple of hours before getting to the office at 7:30.) Perfect place to write? (Where are you right now?)

I'm on record in several places saying I never rewrite. For the most part that's true, though to a certain extent it's a word game. Because it's equally true that I rewrite constantly. Dean Wesley Smith calls what I do "cycling" and Kristine Kathryn Rusch calls it writing; they both use the same method. (Though they use it much more effectively.)

While I write, as the story develops or takes shape on the page, things occur to me; variations and refinements – changes in the direction of the story. I fold them into the mix and keep moving. Or just as likely, I may realize the story has taken a flase turn and will delete a paragraph or passage or chapter or character and keep moving. Often I realize a scene I'm writing on page 104 needs foreshadowing or setup. I immediately stop and jump back to pages 24, 37, 82 and 96 and lay the necessary foundation. Once they are in place, I jump back to page 104 and keep moving.

This happened earlier this week. The "Faeries of Firenze" is the third novella in a series (following "Pirates of Penance" and "Dragons of Despair") and as I was writing I realized that what I was writing was too predictable, too like what had gone before. My first thought was to throw it out and redraft. (In my lexicon a "redraft" is called for when you have a good idea but the story is not working. You throw out the story and write something completely new using the good idea.) Instead I saw a new direction the story could take. Five hundred or so words of setup scattered through the opening chapters was all it took.

I have heard the way I write called "rolling revision." I have also heard or read more than one creative writing pundit advise against it. The problem, as some would describe it, is that it requires the writer to be in both "creative" and "edit" mode at the same time. Theory has it that these are somehow mutually exclusive activities. Adherents to this theory suggest if a change occurs to you or if you perceive a problem while you are in your creative mode, you make a note to remind yourself but keep moving forward. The idea is to get the whole story out and on paper, then transition from writer to editor to "fix" whatever is wrong. This works for a lot of people. Can't argue with that; I see it all the time.

But for many people this write-then-fix model has produced boxes of raw manuscripts. The writer knows the manuscripts need work before they are saleable novels, but the energy, the fire, the inspiration, that drove her while she was writing is gone. The shaping, the refining that should be part of the creative process has been replaced by a sense of duty, an anxiety that she will not be up to it, and all too often a growing guilt as she keeps putting the onerous task off.

All too soon she has another trunk book, a novel that will never see the light of day, and she's working on her next project -- determined that this time she will not fade in the clinch. She will get all the words on paper and -- once they're out where she can get at them -- this time, by golly, she will buckle down and edit them into the story she meant to write.

My advice -- and this comes from a guy who produced six trunk books before he learned to take this advice – is to write the story you mean to write the first time. Trust your instincts, trust your voice, as changes occur to you, throw them into the mix. Apply your craft to harness and direct your creativity as you write. (Remember to keep balance -- don't stall yourself out with trivial pursuits.) You may just find that the first time you type "The End" you have a finished novel in your hands.


Stefanie Worth said...

I take the spill it all on paper ASAP approach. I'm one of those people who would spend forever revising otherwise. But once the story's written, I'm usually ready to pounce on a new idea so reviewing becomes much more automated at the end (when I realize I actually finished) than during the creative process when I'm prone to wondering, wandering and second guessing myself.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Like you Kevin, I edit as I write, sometimes before it leaves my head. But when I am writing (on the computer)and the story is not going my way, I do the editting then and there, but save it as a different draft. That's because sometimes I find the original thought better after revisiting it.

Liane Spicer said...

I think I do the rolling to some extent, but that doesn't stop me from refining ad nauseam once it's done.

Anonymous said...

I'm somewhat in awe of you, KeVin, for being able to do this. Your "write > mail > repeat" mantra sounds delightfully simple. I would have serious issues with it myself (if I were still writing). Surely you must at least have a final read-through to catch errors that you may have missed the first time?

To take an analogy with software: a "write > compile > deploy" mantra would, in all probability, result in the buggiest crashware imaginable. What happened to the testing process?

I agree you can get it much better the first time, but finished? That would not work for me. Do you have some kind of test-as-we-go methodology?