Friday, July 23, 2010

How Do I Draft & Revise?

I've had several people ask variations on this question, so I figured it was time to answer it.

Every writer is different, and I don't pretend to hold all magical writerly wisdom in my hands. But because every writer is different, I think we can all learn from one another, see what works for one person, and try it out for ourselves.

My drafting and revision method (such as it is) has evolved over the years quite a bit. Here's roughly how it stands today:

I rarely draft chronologically, at least at first. I usually start a novel midway. This is largely because I have a first-chapter curse (wish I were kidding). If I try to start at chapter one, scene one, that section will be inevitably be doomed for the trash can.

It's also because my ideas for books don't START at scene one. I usually get a cool idea for a specific scene that happens in the middle. So I start writing there, back up, jump forward, and somehow link it all together. At some point I do settle into mostly chronological writing, but I always allow myself to jump ahead again if I feel the need.

I'm not a strict outliner, but I'm not a "seat of your pantser," either. I fall somewhere in between. I have to know where I'm starting (although not what the first scene will be), where the story will end up, and several major landmarks along the way.

That's how I can hop ahead: I write out one of those major landmarks early on.

But I can't outline with too much precision, because that takes the fun out of discovering exactly what my characters will say and do. I do generally know that my characters will go from A to B to C, but I'm often surprised at exactly how they get there. (If that makes sense. Writers rarely do.)

I've learned that writing scenes I'm already "on fire" about tends to be best; if I wait until I get there chronologically, some of the fire is gone. Sure, by the time I've written everything that comes before that part, I often have to rewrite bits to make the whole fit together, and there's always bridging from one section to the already written parts, but it works for me.

While in drafting mode, I generally spend a lot of time thinking. When the kids were really little, this was the only way to survive as a writer: to think ahead to what I'd be drafting next, so when I had 45 minutes, I could race to the keyboard and pound out the next part.

I still think ahead even though the kids are older. This kind of creative thinking can be done while I'm falling asleep at night, folding laundry, taking a shower, driving, or whatever else doesn't use much brain power. I call them "brainless moments," where I can be doing one activity that doesn't take much attention or focus while my creative side can wander around and do its thing.

That way, when I'm ready to draft, I can really get to work instead of staring at the screen, fingers over the keys, but getting nothing accomplished. This is especially important for when I do writing marathons, when I set aside several hours or a special day just for writing. If I have a solid list of scenes to come, I won't lose valuable time trying to figure out what comes next.

Usually, but not always, when I first sit down, I'll go over the last part I wrote, making tweaks and fixes on it. That helps get me back into the groove of the story world, which makes continuing the story easier. It also makes answering the question, "How many drafts do you do?" pretty hard to answer. (Some scenes get rewritten a dozen times, others three or four.)

If I feel stuck, or somehow disconnected to the story world, I'll open up some research related to it. That used to mean historical books about temples and whatnot. For Band of Sisters, it was often rereading military wife interviews. With my YA folktale, it's reading a section aloud from The Kalevala.

I tend to write sparingly in my first drafts, so when I go back to look at a scene for the second (or whatever-eth) time, I flesh-out the details: setting, emotions, action, and so forth.

After revising a scene a couple of times, I print it out and take it to critique group. Ideally. There are times I have to crank out something to read, and they, um, get to see it hot off the press in all its ugliness.

When my awesome group is done praising/shredding/otherwise fixing the scene, I take it home. In theory, I make the needed revisions right away.

In reality, I often have a several-inch stack of critique pages before I buckle down for serious revision. I look at everyone's feedback and compare it, since sometimes they don't agree among themselves. I take about 90% of their suggestions. They're that good. But I don't take every single suggestion; it is my story, after all, and a lot of things are subjective. (I don't expect my fellow group members to take 100% of my feedback either.)

When I'm done drafting a book, I'll go through the whole thing from start to finish, looking for anything more that needs fixing or polishing that I haven't hit yet.

Up to this point, I've been working on the manuscript piecemeal, seeing it microscopically, if you will. The full read is the first time I see the book as a whole, where I experience the story arc all at once.

So I look at it macro-scopically, to see the big picture: Does this chapter flow into the next? Does this scene transition well here? Is the pacing good throughout? Does the motivation wash in that scene? Does the conflict carry over from here to there? Do the character arcs work? And so on.

Generally there's not time to take an entire manuscript to critique group a scene or chapter at a time before I want/need to submit it, so when it's fully drafted and revised, I ask for anyone in my group who has time to read over the whole thing. I hope to get at least two readers, and even with their busy schedules, they're pretty darn awesome and always come through for me.

We swap these kinds of favors, so I don't feel too bad asking; I know that I'll be returning the favor by reading someone else's entire manuscript soon.

When I get their edits back, I go through one final revision before submission.

Yeah, except that "final" is a misnomer, because even after acceptance, there's more revision with the help of my editor before we enter the line-edit stage.

That's the "typical" process, but really, there isn't a typical one. Every book has been different.

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Susan Anderson said...

It was really interesting to read about your writing process, Annette. I'm not a novelist, but I sort of approach my short stories, poems and even non-fiction in much the same way you do...outlined, but not too tightly, writing the parts I'm on fire about first and then filling in the blanks.


Krista said...

It is interesting to see how other authors work. We have some similar methods. I would pay a fee to be part of your critique group. I would. I could skype. ;D

Unknown said...

I didn't write a outline until I was nearly through with my first draft. In my case, it was because I was pretty sure I had written something so catastrophically implausible the readers' disbelief would have had to go well beyond suspension: we're talking expulsion, grounding, shipping off to military camp, eventual imprisonment, and perhaps even execution after all appeals have been exhausted.

Which means my system for revision mostly involves a great deal of swearing.

Sarah M Eden said...

We are that good, aren't we? (And every time we meet I make myself take a solemn oath to not lead the group down the tempting path of jokes and general silliness. Doesn't ever work, but I'm trying.)
Hooray for our critique group!

PS-We need a name for the group.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

That was fascinating Annette. I've been floundering, trying to find my own way, and some of the ways I've found are eerily similar to yours. I also suffer from the first chapter curse but have never attempted to write out of order before.

Methinks I must try this soon. Possibly right this very moment . . .

Brilliant post, loved it!

Amber Lynae said...

It never fails that I am always interested in hearing how other authors draft their stories.

And I completely get what you mean about the joy in seeing how characters get from the major events you already know will happen.

The more I work at writing, the more I realize it is work. Good thing that I love it.

Thanks for sharing your method.

Raejean said...

Thanks for your perspective on the writing process. I've been dabbling in fiction for the therapeutic creative flow. There's a lot more freedom in the process than I realized.

An Ordinary Mom said...

Such a fascinating post! I loved learning more about the writing process and how it really works. It makes sense to me to start writing a book in the middle and then work from there.


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