Friday, June 3, 2011

All writing is ...

I'm on record in several places as being firmly in the Robert Heinlein camp when it comes to revising and rewriting. (Heinlein's Rules: "You must write. You must finish what you write. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. You must put the work on the market. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.") and a proponent of Dean Wesley Smith's codicil to Heinlein's Rules: "Write. Mail. Repeat."

Writing instructors often say things like "all writing is rewriting." I think the advice is well-intended. It's meant to take away the pressure many beginning writers feel, the sense of obligation that every word they write must be perfect. The assurance it's okay to throw something onto the page if you know it's only raw material you'll be able to shape and polish until you think it's ready for others to read gives them the courage they need to begin. But outside the classroom? You find very few successful writers give even lip service to the "all writing is rewriting" mantra.

But the prejudice against writing well the first time runs deep. Tell someone you wrote a novel in 90 days and they assume it's junk. Or that it would have been much better if you'd spent three times as many days on it. The fundamental credo underlying these attitudes is that the training wheels of composition/creative writing 101 are welded on; that whatever you write first is by definition simply a lump of raw clay. Weeks and months of further molding and shaping are necessary before it can be seen by anyone else.

The fact is the words written in the flow of creation are almost always the best. Rewriting, proceeding from the assumption that what you've poured out is fundamentally wrong and must be fixed, opens the door to beating all the life and spirit out of your story as you hunt for mythically perfect words.

Does this mean that one should print out and mail first drafts every time? Yes and no. In my response to XXXXX's * column on book signings, I mentioned passing the idle time by reading my own books and finding typos. I also find mechanical problems in my prose. For example, in Wolf Hunters (my 90-day, 93k-word novel) I have found nearly a dozen sentences that began and ended with 'though'. And occasional clusters of telegraphic sentences that I might now have linked with conjunctions. And this one gem: "Concerns such as budget didn't concern him." So there was a lot of housekeeping that would certinly have been taken care of before the ms went to the publisher. But none of them would have seen print if I'd had more than three days to review the proof pages; I'd have liked at least a week. But so far I have found nothing in the story itself that I would change. With short stories, when I am not on deadline, I usually do a pretty thorough job of scouring the grammar – which sometimes requires revising confusing paragraphs, clearing up subject/verb conflicts, eliminating redundancies, and deleting three in five adjectives. It is rare I rewrite any of the story itself. If I find several passages that need rewriting, I usually chuck the lot and write the story again without looking at the first effort. I've done that more than once.

I recently applied to an MFA program that required a selection of my fiction as part of the consideration process. In looking through my stock of unsold stories for examples of my style and craft I came across "Exploring," one of a half-dozen exercises I wrote during a short story workshop in 2005 at the late, and sorely missed, Oregon Coast Professional Writers Workshops. Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Gardner Dozois team-taught fourteen intense classes over seven days. In one afternoon session we were asked to write a detailed, multisensory description of a location we hated; someplace so negative we could not think about it without a visceral response. Then we were told to write a description of the same location – changing none of the details – from the perspective of someone who loved the place every bit as much as we hated it. The assignment for next day's session was a 2500-word short story set in that place. I chose the room my mother died in, and writing that story involved staring into space for a couple of hours after dinner, jotting occasional notes and thinking more about how I felt than plot, and two frantic hours of typing just before class. I had not looked at "Exploring" in over half a decade and though I remembered it fondly, I opened the file expecting to find something in need of a ground-up rewrite.

After reading it through twice and eating lunch, I changed one sentence. "The door to the hall had opened all the way and a nurse – at least he thought she looked too young to be a doctor – was in the room." became "The door to the hall had opened all the way and a nurse – or nurse's aid of some sort, since she looked too young to be out of school – was in the room." Anything more – any "polishing" – would have killed the story's spark and energy.

* (Say, did anyone notice the "XXXXX" in the fifth paragraph? Left that there on purpose. As I wrote that sentence I could not remember which Novelnaut had written the column on book signings. Rather than stop the flow of writing, fire up the internet and check, I put a placeholder – in all caps to catch my eye – and kept going. Do this. It prevents loss of momentum – or worse, loss of whatever it was you were writing. When everything up to this point and the closing paragraph were written, I did come online to check before posting. However, rather than put Jewel's name where it belonged, I decided to add a paragraph to the essay about the method. Because I wanted to mention that I also always go back over a story to check for placeholders as well. And yes, adding this paragraph did change the structure of my essay, which would appear to contradict the thrust of said essay. Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.)

Do not ever assume the first thing you write has to be perfect. But just as emphatically, do not ever assume the first thing you write is nothing more than a rough lump of clay. Edit for clarity; revise for impact; regard with dark suspicion any urge to add words; and triple check to be sure all your placeholders have been replaced – but otherwise leave be. If you find yourself changing any more than 10% of your words – and I'm the lax student of prolific writers who put the number at closer to 5% – you are almost certainly robbing your story of the spirit that inspired you.

Because the truth is: All writing is writing.

[Note: If anyone is interested in reading "Exploring," say so in comments and I'll send you a PDF.]


Tom Doolan said...

Thank you for this. A a beginning writer, working on my first novel that I think has a shot of actually getting completed, this advice helps me a lot. I am a chronic self-editor as I write. It's a habit I need to break, I know.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I must say KeVin, for an article written in the parking lot of a shopping center on short notice, this is indeed an in-depth well thought out article on writing.

I personally found it was easier to write before I got published because then I just wrote and whatever editing I did had been on the recommendation of the editor itself. Now I am writing and editing of my own accord based on what I think perfect writing should be. It's taking me longer to complete my manuscripts.

Charles Gramlich said...

The key is, if it works, then it's the best strategy for you. For whatever reasons, it doesn't work for me. I don't really plot ahead of time so I'm in the throes of discovery throughout a story. I often don't know really what the story is going to be during my first pass through, Rewriting is way I solve that problem. I have written short stuff that went through very little rewriting, and I'll often have sections of longer pieces that I don't do much rewriting on, but typically I do a lot of rewriting. It's also one of my favorite things to do. I also know that I get a little obsessive about rewriting at times, which is not to my benefit. But I also write poetry and I think that makes one a bit overly conscious of word choices.

Anonymous said...

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
— W. Somerset Maugham.

G said...

With the novel I'm currently shopping around, it basically took me three months to write (February thru April 2010) the first draft.

As everyone says, the bane is in rewriting, which took the rest of 2010 to come up with a polished piece of prose.

There are stories that have taken me longer than three months, but those fell by the wayside because it took me too much time to figure out what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it.

KeVin K. said...

Tom -- Glad to be of help. Sometimes a change in perspective is all it takes.

Jewel -- I'd be impressed, too. It was only the paragraph about using the placeholder for your name that I wrote in the parking lot of the Port City Java just before posting. I'd written the rest last night. (She's referencing an e-mail I sent my fellow 'nauts about getting the column up late, folks.)

Charles -- No, I'm pretty sure my method is the only way to do it. To my mind evidence supporting the theory of individual differences is inconclusive at best and usually anecdotal. (Okay, maybe I made part of that up.)

Captain -- Point taken.

G -- Congrats on having a ms to shop around. That is a major achievement all by itself. Steven King once wrote that he always answers "How long does it take to write a novel?" with "Nine months. About as long as it takes to make a baby." He says people seem to find that answer satisfying. But he admits that in point of fact he doesn't know how long it takes to write a novel because every project is different.

Liane Spicer said...

I'd like that PDF, KeVin.

Was it EB White who said all writing is rewriting? I don't rewrite so much as refine, and when I'm done refining I tinker. Getting better at leaving well enough alone now.

But I can't help wondering: maybe there are writers who need to rewrite? I don't think one size fits all techniques can work for everyone all the time, especially in such a fundamentally individualistic enterprise as writing.

[I tend to write my comment as soon as I read the article then read the other comments before hitting 'publish'. Sometimes I adjust to avoid treading the same ground as other comments. Sometimes not.]

Excellent article, Killiany.

Essay said...
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KeVin K. said...

Okay, a spam bot has been placing ads among our comments. Everybody check your columns & delete ads.

Essay said...
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