06 June 2016

The Mother of All Writing Processes, Part 3

Yes, I know it's been more than a week since I ended a blog post with "next week..." but with a holiday weekend the next week and then necessary travels, it has been difficult to make the time and also connect to a stable wi-fi. However, rather than abandon you in the middle of the Writing Process, I have actually been allowing you time to complete the previous step: writing a draft.

Done yet?

If not, please return to the previous blog post on drafting.

If you still need help getting an idea, check this blog post.

Let's assume you have finished the draft. I define a draft (or "rough draft" or "first draft" as my students often call it) as the initial work in its totality from opening sentence to concluding sentence. This presupposes that it is not in its final form. We understand that work is needed on it but at least we have put together something that includes the beginning, middle, and end. This is the same for an essay in a class or for a novel. 

Now that we have the draft, it is time to move on to the next step.


I advise my students to write the drafts of their papers far enough before the deadline that they have time to take a break from it and return with fresh eyes. In an ideal world, this would work wonderfully. The reality, I suspect, is that the first draft is the final draft for too many of my students. Papers are often full of careless errors that even a run through the spellchecker would have caught. I try to impress upon them that their writing is a reflection of who they are, so writing well is to their own self-interest. Alas, I understand that for some the goal is not to produce a great paper but to get a paper produced as quickly and with as little effort as possible because, well, life holds much more interesting options than writing a paper. Nevertheless, there is a need to go through the Writing Process diligently in order to learn how to revise a paper for one's academic success if not for one's own personal writing enjoyment.

Novel or short story writing is different in many aspects, the revision process especially.

When I have finished a novel, I follow this protocol:

1. Give it some time to settle, then read it fresh from the top and make some notes for revision. I'm checking the general flow, the dramatic arcs, and if I enjoy the story.

2. Do a thorough line edit, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. (Some people do this last but I do it rather early in revision because I must correct problems as I see them - which tends to be on that first thorough read-through; it's the grammar police in me.)

3. Read it all again, thinking of plot holes to be plugged, rifles on mantlepieces that have not been fired, and any ideas not clearly expressed in either exposition or dialog. 

4. I check the consistency of the dialog, character by character. For example, If Queen Sandra always says "perhaps" then I need to change "maybe" to "perhaps". Another quirk I check is whether a character uses "but" or "yet" and whether a character often starts a sentence with "And" or "But" rather than not using a conjunction. Dialog is based on personal speech mannerisms so it is important to get them right for the character and be consistent in their use - unless the character is trying to mock another character, but that situation would be set-up so that it would be understood.

5. Read it all again to check that my previous efforts have made it better. If there are still issues, I need to return to Step 2 or 3.

6. Repeat step 5 as needed.

7. Read again and edit more, tweaking as appropriate up to the gates of insanity . . . or the deadline to turn it in, which ever comes first.

For every part of a work of fiction we must check a lot of minute details which a student essay writer need not bother with. There is the story itself. And that is constructed of scenes (see my theory of Aria and Recitativo in the previous blog post on drafting). Each scene has its own dramatic arc, whether it is short or long. Every scene must have a purpose: advance the story, intensify the conflict, develop a character, etc., and if the scene does not do something necessary to the overall story it must be cut! A famous saying is to "kill your darlings"; I say, just move your darlings into a new story down by the river.

Every scene consists of setting (time, place, weather) and characters interacting with each other, with the gods, with nature, thinking thoughts ("What should I do next?") and acting physical (swordfights!), as well as dialog. Not many humans pass through a scene without speaking; it's what we do. I like to believe a little frivolity is allowed in a scene because people do not get to the point in real life; they obfuscate and beat around the bush, then get pulled off on tangents, then return to their main idea. It's fine in fiction; not so much in an essay.

Because I think a lot and mull the text over for sometimes quite a while before actually typing, and because I edit as I go (see Drafting from the previous blog), I am usually pleased with the initial "rough draft" result. 
THE DREAM LAND Book III was my "dream" project because it flowed so easily and smoothly that it came out nearly perfect (in my humble opinion). I blame years of training and lots of coffee and a summer free from distraction for that miracle. After writing the first two volumes of the trilogy, I knew my characters like they were my own dysfunctional family. Only in a few scenes did I struggle to get it right, changing the words and then later changing them back several times until I said to myself "Enough!"

Most of the time, I write in layers: 

1. charge though with the basic plot, main dialog, etc.; 

2. fill out scenes, adding dialog, beefing up the action; 

3. checking the 5 senses in each scene and dialog tags and gestures (smiling, nodding, etc.). 

4. checking transitions between scenes and between chapters for dramatic effect.

I also revise fiction in layers.

A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, my so-called vampire novel, flowed well from the start but bogged down when I had to pause to do research. I was rolling but the research I needed to do stopped me. Rather than take time for that, I jumped ahead to the next scene. The writing was flowing again but once more had to pause to do research. I finally decided to just write it straight through to the end (the "first draft") and go back later to add in researched information, in this case, medical data. Rather than info-dump the medical stuff, I created dialogues between doctors and my protagonist, filled with asides, jokes, miscommunication, and so on wrapped around the medical information the reader needed to know. 

For my arctic drama, A GIRL CALLED WOLF, the revision process was different than anything I'd done before. Because the story was based on the childhood and youth of a living person, every chapter I sent to that person for comment. I blogged about this process previously. Instead of me deciding if I had gotten the scene right, at least in a dramatic sense, I also had the person who lived it judging whether I had depicted it in a suitable way. We agreed that to report every little episode might be tedious for the reader so we agreed to combine some and omit others. Keep the drama true to the reality of each event was a constant and delicate balance that went well beyond line editing.

Each project has its own writing process, obviously, and each kind of story may also have its own method of creation. I try not to judge, but go with the flow. Although I've settled on what works for me, each project is a new adventure. My muses seem to know what's best, although they often trick me and laugh at the results.

I know I have some quirks in writing, the set phrases I seem to use over and over. I know I tend to overuse certain words. "Almost" - to mean less of whatever the subject or descriptive term is (e.g., His smile was almost warm.), is my worst offender. I also like to type "form" when I mean "from"! 
Therefore, as a final step, I usually run a special check of those particular words and phrases and edit each one personally, individually, according to the situation in the scene. It is a laborious process, but I am old-school and do not trust technology to do everything for me exactly as I would wish it to be. I have been tricked before. So I take the time to look with my own eyes at every instance of imperfection and fix it myself. Yes, I do suffer for my art. It's also why I wear glasses.

For the evil essay, I have compiled over the many semesters of composition classes all of the most common errors I find on student papers. Some of them are easy to see because students write about similar things that are common experiences and of common interest. There is a common style among beginning writers. (I have a dream where I show them once how to write something correctly and they remember it forever.) I've previously blogged about the list. Not everything on this Little Notes on Little Errors will apply to fiction, but perhaps much of it will be of service.

So that is something about how my writing process works. In short, it's a rough process at best, and the devil is somewhere between the details, waiting for opportunities to thwart my good intentions. The other side of the writing process, as all writers know, is that without the writing we nearly cease to exist. I cannot go very long without having a project to work on, either writing something new or working on an existing or older project such as preparing it for publication, no matter how long that takes. Otherwise, I wither and die. Nothing keeps me alive like the desire to know what happens next. And I won't know until I write it.
P.S. - You would not believe how much revision I had to do on this bog post! My fingers do not obey! My eyes trick me! And the spellchecker does not work tonight. But I got it done.


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  1. You didn't mention using an editor or beta-reader in the revision process. Do you use third-party input?

    1. Good catch. I know I'm flying in the face of hurricanes large and small, but I only occasionally can catch a gamma reader and even then it's hard to keep them locked in the closet until they finish reading.
      I shall attempt to address this more fully ...next week!