Good morning! Fridays on Teachers Write are feedback days, so feel free to hop on over to Gae’s blog for her Friday Feedback feature. Be brave!
Most Fridays, we’ll be focusing on revision here. Many of our Wednesday Q&A session questions were on that topic, so I hope you’ll find this helpful. Beyond Teachers Write, those who have a novel draft – or pieces of a novel written – and want to take the next step when it comes to revision may want to spend some time with Linda Urban and me on Lake Champlain in the fall. We host an annual weekend revision retreat called Time to Write, with craft talks, workshop and critique sessions, and quiet revision time. It’s held at the Valcour Inn on Lake Champlain, which is pretty much the loveliest place on earth to write and learn. I just got back from a retreat there…
Here’s more info about the Time to Write Revision Retreat for those who might be up for a road trip in November. Back to Teachers Write now…
Today’s guest author is Gwenda Bond, whose work includes the Lois Lane series and the Cirque American series, about daredevil heroines who discover magic and mystery lurking under the big top. She also co-write the the Supernormal Sleuthing Service with her husband, author Christopher Rowe; book one, The Lost Legacy is out now. Gwenda has also written for Publishers Weekly, Locus, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She’s joining us today to share some favorite revision strategies!
I’m one of those writers who loves revision. For me, first drafts are usually at least a little painful (and sometimes tragically awfully so). I fight every draft, usually because I’m so eager to get to the revising part. But sometimes it’s possible to be too eager, for me anyway, and I try to revise before it’s time to revise and just end up–in the words of writer friend Justine Larbalestier, who might have been borrowing them from someone else–”moving around deck chairs on the Titanic.”
So these days my watchword for revision is distance.
A couple of years ago, I realized that my best revisions have all been done at a very specific emotional and psychic distance (bear with me, sometimes it’s impossible not to talk about writing with terms that sound vaguely magical…because so much of the time when it’s going well it feels that way…even if that is a deceptive side effect of hard work). The best way I can describe it is that arm’s length feeling, where I don’t feel like I’m clutching the story to my heart anymore, it’s far enough away that I can see it more clearly–but not so far away that my heart and head don’t feel a strong pull to it. It’s when the story starts to feel flexible. Like I won’t just be breaking it or bashing against it, but see how to mold it–finally!–where I want it to go to make it better. (I also try to get into this frame of mind for outlining, sometimes easier than others.) In a perfect world, time would always or usually do this on its own. But, alas, in the world of deadlines and reality, sometimes you have to speed your brain along as best you can.
Since I had this realization, I’ve worked on perfecting getting into that mindset and have developed a few different strategies to do so. These work in combination or on their own, so try mixing and matching if you’re struggling to wrap your head around a revision. These are all things I do when I’m stuck on a draft too.
1) Work on something else. Especially if I’m expecting notes back quickly or will have to don the revision gloves and slice back into a project right away, one of the most effective things for me is to write something, anything else, as long as it’s fiction. A short story, a fragment, jumping to another novel, whichever. Immersing myself in another project–as long as it’s fiction–decouples my brain from the one I just finished drafting. At least a little.
2) Give myself a reading vacation. Sometimes I’ll give myself a week or two off from writing and just inhale as many good books as I can find. Sometimes they’re in my genre, sometimes they’re as far from it as possible, sometimes a mix, but reading fiction is a great way to let your story brain both work out and relax at the same time. I almost always come out of these stretches ready to work again.
3) Get feedback. Often seeing a story through someone else’s eyes is the best way to get perspective on it and distance from it. Notice your reactions, what resonates and doesn’t, what makes you excited to get back to work and what makes you feel hopeless. Take the helpful stuff and get back to work. Leave the rest on the table.
4) Trust your gut. Let your subconscious work on it. The longer I write, the more intuitive about the process I become. One of my favorite screenwriters is Ernest Lehman, who famously struggled to put the script of North By Northwest together, because he was largely stitching ideas for scenes and moments from himself and Alfred Hitchcock into a story. I’ll just share this anecdote in his own words:
“So I kept pressing forward, and Hitch, confident that I now knew what the hell I was doing, moved over to MGM from his home base at Universal, and started storyboarding the script with his art director, and casting the roles. And all the time, I’m sitting there in my office sweating the fact that I have no idea whatsoever why the hell they’re all going to Mount Rushmore! Why were these people heading to South Dakota? I had no idea! So, the last act of the script was blank. Actual blank pages! Then Cary Grant came on the picture with some astronomical salary, and I was still sitting there in my office with nothing but a partially-completed script. So I called up Hitch, and I told him we were in big trouble. He came rushing over to my office, sat across from me, and the two of us stared at each other. Finally, he suggested that we call in some mystery novelist to help us kick around ideas, but I didn’t like the idea. After all, I was getting paid by MGM to write the thing, and I felt that it would make me look pretty foolish. I kept saying, “God, what’ll they say about me upstairs?” and Hitch would say, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell them it’s all my fault. I’ll tell them I should’ve been able to help you, but I couldn’t — or something like that.”
“Then we went to his office — it was about six o’clock in the evening — and we kept talking about his idea, even discussing which mystery writer we should get, and, all the time, the right side of my brain was working, and suddenly, as I was listening to him — not really ignoring him — I said, “She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him.” So where the hell did that come from? It just popped into my head. That’s the way it works sometimes: you’ve got a problem and, no matter what else is going on around you, the right side of your brain keeps working on it and then, suddenly, it pops out of nowhere. And Hitch took it right in stride. Even though I’d completely changed the subject and suddenly blurted out, “She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him,” he didn’t miss a beat and responded, “Yes, the Polish Underground sometimes killed their own members, just to prove they weren’t in the Underground.” And I said, “Yes, but these are fake bullets. That’ll convince Vandamm that he has to take her away with him. Now that she’s a fugitive, he’ll decide to take her on the plane.” And, instantly, I had the whole last act.”
Now this was a drafting problem, but it’s the same kind of question that happens in revision and can make it hard to approach. Particularly if you’re too close to the story still. It’s the “but I don’t know how to fix it” problem. The “I don’t know what happens” problem. Your subconscious will work on it while you’re doing other things, and sometimes you just have to let that happen. Sometimes you have to walk away from your desk that day and say, “I may just have to abandon this. I have no idea how to fix it.” And voila, the answer usually presents itself as soon as you give yourself permission to walk away or give up. (Tricking our brains into cooperating is so much of the writer’s job.) Long walks are one of my favorite things to abandon desk and do to tackle story problems.
5) Talk it out. I’m a big believer in describing stories and story problems out loud, especially if I’m trying to figure out a revision. First off, you have the distance of being away from the page. Second, there’s something about articulating a problem out loud that often leads you to the solution. I use my husband for this most often, but a dog or cat will work. Because you don’t even need another person to be listening (although it’s a bonus; hit up your writer friends). Just forcing yourself to say the issue out loud can reveal solutions and give you new perspective; it helps create that ideal distance to be at for fixing a story.
I hope some of these are helpful for you — happy revising!