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All The Small Things: Shitty First Drafts and Editing

By now, everyone has probably heard the cliche that everyone writes shitty first drafts.  It’s not true, of course.  Some people go straight from first draft to best-seller, and it’s okay to hate those people.  In aggregate, if not as individuals.

But for most people, there are rounds of editing, critique, beta reading, and revision, or some personal combination thereof.

The reason for this is that there are so many little things, no matter whether you write literary or pulp, or in between, that you have to keep track of to create a first draft that can go straight to the press.  This is especially true for long-form prose or any kind of poetry.

For example:

1. Using verbs or perception or thought:  “It seemed like…”, “Michael knew that…”, “Mandy heard…”.  For some styles or some writers, that’s something to avoid.  And it’s so natural in many people’s casual writing, or in oral story-telling/conversation, that it can take many careful passes to make sure it’s all edited out–or not.  (I like to call these “distancing verbs”, because they often create a sense of distance between a narrator/character and the read.)

2. Punctuation:  Are you using Oxford commas, commas between fronted adverbial phrases and the main sentence, colons, commas, or em dashes? 

3. Showing vs Telling:  No matter your preference, it can be hard to be consistent.  Or maybe getting the scene down quickly is more important that the specifics of the prose.  Or perhaps in a certain scene, it’s more effective to tell the reader how a character feels.

4. Pet words and phrases:  Many authors have words or phrases that they use constantly in their work, usually unconsciously.  It can cut across genres and styles.  S.M. Stirling uses the phrase “cloven air” constantly in his Change series to describe the flights of arrows.  It annoyed the crap out of me, though I liked the books for the most part.  David Eddings constantly has his characters telling each other to “Be nice.” throughout his books.  These things can be much less obvious, though.

 

There are tons more.  The point is, though, it’s almost impossible to keep every single one in your head at the same time.  Your brain is already keeping track of so much language junk unconsciously, just forming thoughts or speaking.  I know I often have the experience of reading a blog post, or listening to a podcast, and the author/speaker will mention some word-level writing topic, and give some fantastic advice.  And I’ll realize I’ve heard that before, from someone else, thought it just as awesome, and vowed always to remember it.  But then I’ll completely forget that specific detail I wanted to keep track of when writing a story or poem.

And there are dozens if not hundreds of these little issues.  Some writers resort to making lists of them for when they edit, or even making specific editing passes to account for them.  So the next time you’re on your fifth draft, and you realize that you’ve found another “you’re” instead of “your”; or that you just used three distancing verbs in the same sentence; or you’re on your fourth pass for passive voice, and you found four examples on the current page, just remember that everyone has that problem, and it’s completely normal.

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Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven and How We Often Get It Wrong

I was reading a thread about fridging on AW today–fridging is the practice of heaping torment on some side character to give motivation to the protagonist, based on a Green Lantern comic where his girl-friend was murdered and stuffed in a fridge and this was his motivation for the revenge plot–and it highlighted something to me that I think we often miss when we compare stories based on their focus.

There has long been a dichotomy in the study of literature involving the over-focus of a particular story on either its plot–a characteristic commonly attributed to the trashiest commercial fiction–or on its character, an allegation commonly leveled at literary fiction during debates on the prestige of various forms of writing.  It’s an argument with a lot of history and occasionally acrimony, and much like with fridging, I think a lot of people who participate in it are really missing the point.

The more sophisticated participants don’t get caught up in the literary vs, commercial fiction arguments, instead focusing on reader/writer preference, but even still I think most of them are thinking in too simplistic of terms and miss the subtle nuances that underlie the real issue.

First, I want to point out that it’s also possible to have a setting driven story, a complaint often made against science fiction and fantasy dealing with extensive description or focus on world-building, and it’s also possible to have an over-focus on theme.  Fairy tales, for instance, often lack plot or character nuance because they are created to express a theme or moral to their audience.

But the real issue goes back to my example of fridging.  First, I want to look at the issue from the side of so-called plot driven fiction.  What plot-driven fiction does when dealing with characters is to take short-cuts in characterization based on common tropes.  For example, killing the protagonist’s wife/girl-friend/sister/daughter/mother to provide motivation for the plot.  Or the hero’s journey trope of call-to-action/refusal/submission, where rather than having a unique personal motivation to approach the quest, the character is forced into it by circumstance.  Or in a crime story, where a character is thrust into action by being framed by the real culprit or suspected by the authorities.  Although these can be valid and complex motivations, to often, as with the female in the fridge, they are treated as short-cuts needing little development, as the audience is familiar with the motivation.  Sister raped and murdered -> Male character is off, no further thought required.

On the side of character-driven fiction, the complaint is often that the character thinks too much, rather than too little.  This is described as whining or angst, or wimpy-ness.  many times, the reader of commercial fiction wonders why the lit-fic hero doesn’t get off is ass and do what needs to be done, isn’t it obvious what should happen?  This is an attitude inculcated in readers by the ubiquitous use of sign-posts in commercial fiction.

But this view to me is too simplistic.  Sign-posts exist for a reason.  They have uses, and they can be very effective.  Many commercial fiction writers have been sign-posting to get through tricky motivational issues without “bogging down the reader” in internal monologue and to jump straight into the “exciting” parts of the story.  But what they should really be using them for is to give the reader a way to relate to the character, while exploring how specific circumstances create an unique motivation for the character, rather than relying on generic reader outrage.  Too often the character is fridged, and then its off to the races, never looking back to consider why that character was special to the protagonist and what specifically about the fridging event is motivating the character.  That exploration should be informing the morals and the lengths to which the protagonist is willing to go to get justice for the act, and not just an excuse to have a swash-buckling, fire-fight heavy adventure with a pass for any bad acts committed during.

The distinction between character-driven and plot-driven fiction does exist, but it’s neither as clear-cut or as blatant as the various detractors of each focus make it sound.  It’s not all cookie-cutter archetypes and protracted passive wangsting, but rather a subtle misunderstanding of the various tools of writing.  Neither the external nor the internal arcs of the story can stand alone.

You can certainly have weak or under-developed character arcs, or a meandering plot full of holes, but the idea that one element precludes development in the other is false.  Although the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses is basically discredited, I think we can still argue that by imposing these terms on our fiction, we’re creating a false impression that it’s relevant to a well-made final product, and it isn’t.  However you arrive at your storyline, the actual book should never reflect your behind-the-scenes methodology.

Finally, there is another less common way of looking at the issue, which is based on the idea that a premise is a promise by the writer to the reader where the writer asks questions and then answers them.  From this perspective, a plot-driven story is where the primary question/promise is based on the external narrative arc, and a character-driven story is where the primary promise involves the internal character arc.  But even here, a good book doesn’t lack in its promise about the other arc.  The two arcs still influence each other.  It’s simply that the book makes clear that the climax-resolution is molded more around one arc, while the resolution of the other is a consequence hinging on the main resolution.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Less Time Writing Blog Posts, More Time Leaving Myself Behind

I read this wonderful post over on The Rejectionist right after reading Nova Ren Suma’s “What Haunted You at 17” blog series which celebrated the release of her book 17 & Gone, and I realized that I am terrible about leaving.  I hate leaving: places, people, times of my life.  Every time I think about how I’ve drifted away from someone I really cared about, it leaves me on the verge of tears.  Forums I used to be on haunt me.  Things I used to do, like running cross country make me sad I stopped, even though it was the best decision for me at the time.

Even if this post bores you, you should absolutely go and read the ones I linked to and talked about, because they’re practically beautiful shorts stories in and of themselves.

In many ways I agree with what her R-ness says in that post, and the stories in the Haunted at 17″ series say a lot to back it up.

What about you?  Is leaving important to achievement?  Does it make for good stories?  Should we be spending less time on the internet these days and more doing things for real?

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2013 in Blogging

 

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