Thursday, June 02, 2005

Vision and Revision

Wow. I just visited a forum where a long discussion is going on regarding the writing process and whether certain methods are efficient or not. Efficiency is an interesting subject, especially when applied to writing. Remember the movie "Cheaper By the Dozen"? In real life, those parents were efficiency experts, and they applied their knowledge in that area to the task of raising children. Everything in their house ran like clockwork, and they had a streamlined process for everything right down to making the kids' lunches. Would a streamlined efficiency process work in writing novels? Not for me, and here's why:

I've written five novels to date, but let's just look at novels four and five. Novel Four, Aspects of Illusion, was written in a spontaneous, organic fashion which took eight weeks. After that, it went through at least three or four revisions, during which I learned a lot about bringing a book to a publishable level. Efficient, no. Useful, yes. When I wrote Shadows of Memory I was able to avoid many of the mistakes I made in crafting Aspects.

Has the process of crafting Shadows of Memory, novel five, been more efficient than the process for Aspects? Yes and no. For Shadows, I knew what mistakes to avoid, so I tended to edit as I went, striking down the little problems and bad habits whenever and wherever they arose. I wrote a scene, gave that scene a quick immediate first pass as I read it aloud to my husband and made notes of things I noticed that were wrong with it. Then I made more changes as I input the first batch of changes, and then I ran it through my crit group and made still more changes. The result, a cleaner "first draft". But at that point, was it really a first draft? Probably not. Was it more efficient? Maybe or maybe not. With this general nip-problems-in-the-bud process, I avoided lots of crafting issues that might have needed editing later, but I also got bogged down in minutiae that ended up adding more fluff to the manuscript than I had in the previous book. Even after the manuscript was as tight and streamlined as I could imagine it to be, my agent still sent it back for one last pass, which I'm still working on.

This time I wrote from an outline, and that's got to be more efficient, right? Ah, but my outline included a lot of extraneous matter that needed to be cut--whole scenes that were added just because I was trying to find my plot and hadn't yet found the track I needed to be on. So was the outline approach really more efficient than the organic process I used for Aspects, whose plot didn't need anywhere near as much tweaking?

In my opinion, no matter which process I used for these two books, efficiency was bound to become a moot point sooner or later. Because each book was different, the creative processes were different, and my ability to envision the story was different. One fell out of the sky into my brain and out my fingers, while the other I had to fight, claw and bleed to find, requiring brainstorming session after brainstorming session and plenty of figurative wailing and gnashing of teeth. Shadows is the book you might say I sweated blood for. Aspects, I blithely typed until it was done and then went..."Wow, a book!" And both stories are good--really good, from what people tell me who read them. Was one process more efficient than the other? Not really. Both stories grew and changed as I delved into them, and both needed revisions, despite the fact that one was organic and one was outlined. Both had stuff that turned out tight and honed in the first draft and both also had stuff that needed lots of pruning to bring it into shape. Two books, two processes, both different, neither particularly efficient if you rate efficiency by whether they sprang onto the page in perfect, publishable form without revision.

Can I change my writing process to make it more efficient? Well, I can get better and faster at avoiding the little mistakes that usually need revision, yes. I use far fewer "ly" adverbs, fewer instances of "and", "was" and "ing" now than I used to, and that has helped--but that's just the basic wordsmithing. The creative issues themselves may change from day to day, depending on what new ideas occurred to me yesterday, what movie I went to see last week, or what I had for dinner. One time a character developed a head cold because I had a head cold, and it wasn't something I'd planned ahead of time, but it led him to a discovery that changed the course of the story! I could have the entire plot planned out to within an inch of its life and still find that vital changes were needed once the work got underway. A lot of my carefully, efficiently crafted scenes might have to be scrapped when the story circumstances change during the actual process of writing. It's a lot like moviemaking--that's why a director shoots and re-shoots scenes that may or may not make it into the final version of the film. Same type of issues. It's expensive, sometimes excruciating and not particularly efficient, but it's how the creative process works for many people.

The creative process isn't something that I can force to comply with a set of efficiency rules, because the story evolves differently each time, and with each book, I face a different set of challenges. Sometimes painful life events interrupt my "efficiency," and there's nothing I can do to change it. During the writing of Shadows, my grandmother died, which threw me off track on the story for a matter of months. So much for efficiency.

The bottom line is: any scene is subject to change if the change suits the needs of the story, no matter how much skill or efficiency I was able to bring to bear in the first draft. The final product is the most important issue--not whether I needed five drafts or only two. And then there's the publisher, who will suggest changes they'd like you to make. Again, so much for efficiency. Constant change, constant evolution--all the hallmarks of a dynamic creative process. If you do strive for efficiency and perfect first drafts, you go, guys! Even if you never achieve that perfect first draft (and you probably won't) it's constantly striving to better your skills that will result in stories that get published, read and treasured by readers.


Cris Peters said...


The key to any story is not what you tell but how you tell it. Efficiency in language is different from efficient formatting or layout. However, I do believe you start a story knowing how you will end it and that most writers fail because their vision is incomplete at the start. Even writers who are predominantly known for "storytelling" such as Isaac Asimov or Larry Niven begin with the concept of how to end.

KHurley said...

Absolutely! It's really hard to get through the mire of the middle of a story if you don't know how it needs to end. And then there's the slightly different problem Robert Jordan had with the Wheel of Time series. He's been quoted as saying that he knew the beginning and the end, but the stuff in between was a bit foggy. If I had to choose between my previous organic method and the detailed outline, I'd take the detailed outline because it really helps stave off my "blank white screen" problems! I have to admit, though...the organic method is great fun.