A practical question...
I have a question about editing and revision regarding the way that you personally write. Lately I’ve found I edit heavily as I go, right down to rewriting the previous sentence over and over again until I feel happy enough with it and can continue writing the story. It can take hours to write the first iteration of a paragraph (before going back for revision later) and I feel the problem with this might be that I’m inhibiting any chance of getting into what’s now termed “flow.” I do wonder, if I can train myself to fly through the first draft without stopping to revise and edit will I end up with a more cohesive and interesting story?
I guess my question is how do you write a first draft? Is it quick and dirty (so to speak), ignoring the quality of the sentence that just went by, or do you edit heavily, as I do, or maybe something in-between retaining something of a “flow" state that allows at least the skeleton of an amazing story to surface.
Thanks and thanks for answering this question, should you find your way to it, and for the wonderful community that is Story Club.
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Well, thank you, for being part of it.
We’ve been discussing these sorts of technical questions at length on Sundays, behind the paywall, using my story “CommComm” as a text.
So, for some of you, what follows may be familiar…
Honestly, for me, it’s a different approach with every story.
I’d have to say I don’t generally do the “perfect a single sentence before moving on” thing.
My approach sort of splits the difference between that approach and the other you mention (the “flying through the first draft” method.)
What I tend to do is burst out a certain swath of text – maybe a paragraph or a page or so – following, usually, some natural comic energy. If I feel myself straining (trying to “figure out” what the next thing is or having too many ideas or forcing things in a certain direction) I just stop. Or, you know, pause.
Then I go back and try to mark that bit up, by ear (on paper, not on the screen)– trying to make it sound the way I want it to, i.e., make is so that I can read all the way through it and get, all along the way, a feeling of, “Ah, yes, nice.”
I’ll put those changes in after I get through that swath once, then print it out again, and do that exact thing again: read through it on paper, marking it up.
This is where that idea of the meter in one’s head comes in – the P (Positive) vs N (Negative) meter. If the meter drops a little, I try to revise that place so that the needle with move toward the P.
I’ll revise that swath over and over, even as I am also trying to add to it, just based on what’s happened in it, and what seems to “want to” come next. As I’m revising it (again, to ear, and for basic logic) it will start to “sprout” plot. As that swath becomes more detailed and specific, something will arise from it – a little tension, or a conflict, or just the promise of something that’s going to happen. (It can be as simple as, for example, the main character mentions, impatiently, that he has to get to work - that might imply that the next scene wants to be him, at work. Voila! Plot.)
So, a lot of this is trying to stay patient with what I have and trying not to force anything – just working and reworking it, to ear, or for logic, (for fun!) until it seems to be asking a question or until the next, natural thing comes out of it.
So, for example – with the story I’m working on now, I found an old fragment of about two pages, that I’d deleted from another story long ago, a fragment that I liked, and just leapt in, making line edits in pencil on a hardcopy. I didn’t know where it was headed but was just trying to make it tighter, clearer, funnier.
I did this for about a week until it occurred to me what should happen next. It was sort of obvious, really. Then I free-wrote that (new) bit. (Which was, of course, a big mess, and needed a lot of tidying-through-revision.)
In the name of honesty, I should also say that, after about two weeks, I saw that this direction wasn’t working. So I lopped that stuff off and went back to where I’d started.
But even this was “progress” – I’d ruled out the bad bit and now knew, a little better, what was needed (and what wasn’t). I was, we might say, learning about the rhetoric of the story - how it was setting itself up in terms of its meaning. I was learning, really, what it was going to want from me.
But every morning I’m starting from the beginning, reading the in-progress story (or part of a story) freshly (or as freshly as I can manage), revising the whole thing again. Everything is always fair game for cutting or changing, every time.
But gradually, certain parts will start to solidify and stabilize – they’re “in” the story and become part of the fictive reality that the rest of the story is going to be reacting to.
So, it’s sort of like I’m always polishing the whole thing, which clarifies what’s happening and gives me a foundation from which to keep writing the new stuff, which becomes old stuff, and then (like all the old stuff) gets polished.
As you can tell, this is, for me, a very obsessive and feelings-based process.
Then, at some point, I might make a mad dash to get to the end (to get a whole draft) but that happens by the same method. I free-write to the end, say – and then polish that for many days, to see if it will work.
What often happens is that I’ll get a full draft, be very happy with it – and then read it the next day and have a crisis of belief. Somehow (somewhere) it just isn’t holding together. And I’ll have some gut feeling of where that falling-off happened, and (maybe, sort of) why – and I’ll tear it apart at that seam and start over.
Often I’ll go through that “I’m done!” followed by “Crap! I need to to a teardown,” many times on a story. I’ve done that three times already on this new story, which is about 20 pages long, and which I’ve only been working on since January.
And I just did it again today.
So…I’ll read it tomorrow and see how I did.
But even if I did really well – if this incarnation feels like it basically holds together - it will be at least another few months of polishing.
This process is kind of freaky and not everyone does it this way. It’s just the only way that works for me. It takes a lot of faith, combined with a lot of patience. But the fact that I’ve been down this road many times before and that the process has worked for me - has led me to genuine surprises, and to completed stories that have gone out and worked for other people - that makes it easier.
It was harder to trust this process when I was just starting out. Then, it felt like all of this obsessing and fussing and redoing stuff was proof that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I had no “mastery.”
But now I’m starting to see that, in writing, “mastery” just means being ok with one’s lack of method - being comfortable in that space Donald Barthelme described as “not-knowing.”
Another way of saying it: we get more comfortable with the notion that what we’re actually good at — what we’ve been practicing all these years — is improvising within a given context. We’ve gotten good at reacting to the text that’s right in front of us with some degree of confidence and playfulness.
And isn’t that at least part of what we want from a book? To see another human being riffing on this thing called “life on earth” with confidence and playfulness, thereby infusing us with a touch of same as we step out the door?
Thank God I am not alone — I am keeping company with the great George Saunders! And thank you for sharing so much that is so precious with those of us who do not have the wherewithal to upgrade to PAID. God bless you George, which is a nice thought, even for atheists.
"we get more comfortable with the notion that what we’re actually good at — what we’ve been practicing all these years — is improvising within a given context."
That's a brilliant way to think about it. I used to say good writers are good problem solvers, but that never quite sounded right. Improvising within a given context is fantastic.