Friday, December 16, 2011

Drafting or polishing?

In one of the monthly writing groups I lead, Molly mentioned that she was working with a writing buddy who was making a lot of specific suggestions. She liked the buddy's suggestions and so had turned her efforts to polishing the stories she had already written, rather than continuing to draft new material. This sparked a very interesting discussion in our group about when to draft and when to polish.

I've come to believe that it depends on what kind of editing and polishing we're talking about, and it depends a bit on how experienced a writer you are.

The two processes are different. Drafting requires a level of thinking, mulling, imagining, arguing, feeling that editing does not. For many of us, this is why it is so much fun. But it can also be scary for this isn't about control but expansion, it isn't about perfection but about making a mess and maybe even some big mistakes that will have to be undone.

For myself, I do rework some things when I'm drafting but they have to do with content. Like this morning, I couldn't remember if I'd made it clear that Cassie was a redhead and I wanted that identifying characteristic to be enough for the reader to know who had been in the accident. So I went back and reworked the physical description of that character the first time we meet here. I could have made a note to do it in a revising or editing time, but it seemed simpler to find it and fix it while I was thinking about it. Then I scrolled back down and went on with the scene.  When something seems to be part of the content of the writing, that falls into drafting for me.

Editing is about grammar, punctuation, word repetitions, clumsy sentences, saccharine sentences, style and mechanics issues. And that's left-brain, what's-the-rule kind of work.

I don't recommend mixing these too closely. It's too hard to do a good job on either one if you're trying to do both at once.

In Molly's case, I was concerned that she would fall into the pit of perfection, of getting one story just right. That's not a good way to write a book, or learn all the many marvelous things there are to learn as a writer. Instead, most of us need to keep drafting for a good, long time, and then turn to the editing side of ourselves.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The instructive nature of reading bad fiction

In the course of my editing work, I read quite a bit of bad writing. Much of my work is non-fiction and it's relatively easy to clean up and polish the writing if the thinking behind is sound. Bad fiction is another category entirely because so much goes into writing a good book. It's not just a strong feel for the mechanics of English, which are helpful but can be easily fixed. It's more knowing what makes a good story and balancing a whole series of components.

A good novel or memoir requires more than dramatic events. One reason novels and memoirs based on the life of someone often fall flat is that much of our lives are mundane, which isn't very interesting. On the other hand, and stringing together just the dramatic moments doesn't completely satisfy because that isn't realistic. Many less experienced writers don't take the heart that fact that the narrative arc, that crucial plot component, is more than big happenings. It's about making a choice, a decision that alters everything, sometimes for the protagonist and more often for everyone involved. If you can't identify that choice or those decisions, your novel may not hold.

A good novel or memoir requires a clear division between the major characters (only a few) and the minor players. Gone is the 19th-century tendency to fill novels with dozens and dozens of major players. While it is possible to have lots of characters, we only want cursory details on those that aren't major..

Back story should be brief and absolutely to the point. The information should be something we really need to know about the main character and his decisions. Again, we do not want back story on minor players. Often, we don't even need to know their names.

Omit facts and data from back story or from dialog. Readers don't care about a lot of facts. They're reading fiction for enjoyment, not for education. It's important to give sufficient facts so that the reader believes the author knows what she's talking about but beyond that, skip it. Even if your novel concerns the intricate dealings of a the financial world or an engineering firm, readers want plot and character, romance and danger. They don't care about the percentage of a loan.

Avoid verbs of attribution other than "said." No commenting, pleading, querying. If you absolutely must, it's okay to have a character "ask" but the question form of the dialog should carry that.

Learn what passive voice is and avoid it like the plague.

Limit indirect speech to a tiny percentage of your text. If it can't be dialog, maybe you don't need it at all.

Of course, there are exceptions to all these ideas but if you follow them most of the time, you'll write better fiction.