Category Archives: revision

the importance of craft-related reading

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I’ve been busy this year.  From our trip to Thailand and Bali in the winter/spring, to hopping from one place to another into the summer, to finally settling down again in the fall, I haven’t had the time to post very often.  I am hoping to change that now.  

As far as my writing goes, I’ve been hard at work with subsequent drafts of my YA Science Fiction novel.  I started a new practice in July during a break from my writing that has been extremely helpful in tackling the usual problems of world building, plot continuity, and character development.  I read other books in my genre, which is my usual break activity, but this time I also read Stephen King’s On Writing.

on writing  

This book floored me.  

I had no idea that Stephen King, like me, also has trouble with plot and feels that the books of his in which he did plot his way through are actually his worst books.  

“Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.”  

~Stephen King

I felt empowered by my own tendency towards character driven stories, because he writes them, too.  

I enjoyed the first half of the book, which was a memoir of how he started out as a writer, but the second half was where his little bits of advice helped to illuminate many of the things I struggle with in revisions.  

He advises writers to write a draft of their book with the door closed first – so that we aren’t influenced by the opinions of others.  Our second major draft should be after a break of 6 weeks (or however long feels right to us) and written with the door open, so we can let the world outside mesh with our world and enrich it.  Both concepts aren’t foreign to me, but King spells them out with brevity and articulation that begs for rereading when needed.  He’s not just concise with his words, he’s actually funny, which makes this non-fiction book stand out from some of the more boring lecture-type books on craft that are out there:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

I’m on yet another shorter break from the revising and I’m planning to reread the second half of this book to uncover some of his jewels of advice I’ve forgotten.  And I want to stress this practice for the writers out there that are feeling stumped during their revisions.

Craft is important.  Craft is essential.  Go out there and find books on craft and read them.  Today.  I guarantee that the more you read, the better your writing will be, and King does, too:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

The whole point of writing in the first place, for me anyways, is to visit another place and time, to gain a fresh perspective on life and what it means to be human.  Nothing does this as well as a book.  To give you a final, wise quote from Stephen King:

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

Yes, I remember feeling as I read that line.  They are magic.  But there are tricks to harnessing that magic.  It’s not all play.  It’s work, but the results are dazzling when we do it right.  

And we can read books within our genre critically, but sometimes it’s easy to forget some of the things we all learned in High School about writing clearly enough for our readers to not only be drawn into our stories, but to forget they are even reading something.  Sometimes, it’s easier when a writer actually spells things out and reminds us of the tools that can make our jobs easier.  And when we do mange to hone our craft, our writing has the potential to become a spaceship or a magic carpet to this other realm where our characters live and breathe, just like we do.

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draft 5…draft 6…draft 15…?

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One BIG QUESTION for all writers is – how many drafts do we really have to write for our manuscript to become that elusive “DONE”?

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I’ve been struggling with that question for years, but I think with the completion of each project, the answer gradually gets clearer.  I would now advise any new writers (those without at least one published book-length manuscript, in Prose or Poetry), to do at least 10 drafts of their project before submitting it to publishers/agents or self-publishing.  I thought that might be the “rule” to always follow, but I’m realizing, at draft 5 of my newest manuscript, that the more books you write, the more “finished” your writing is from the start.  It’s all about practice, though there will always be those books or poems that take ten years or longer to finish, or twenty revisions before they get to the point that feels like they have hit their true form.

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I am a firm believer that no piece of writing (or art) is ever “finished.”  We can always always revise it more, go deeper, let it grow, evolve, dream itself into new forms, but there is a point where something has taught us as much as it possibly can teach us—the point where our journey and the journey of a manuscript has certainly reached the point of parting ways.

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It’s terribly hard to know sometimes, when we are done, or even just—when we need a break.  I get obsessive with my writing, I dive into it like it’s a parallel world, and if I don’t have the right goal/dream in mind, sometimes I carry a project to a place I didn’t mean to carry it, a place it shouldn’t be.

I thought draft 4 was DONE for my latest work, so I sent it out, and sure enough, it wasn’t done yet.  It was missing the deeper energy and lyricism I think of as my own personal style of writing.  And I realized, that draft was missing something because I was just trying to get it done fast—I was rushing it.  Rushing the first few drafts of something is absolutely FINE, though.  It’s the part where I thought they were DONE that was wrong.  So now, with draft 5, I’ve started over completely.  I’m telling the same story, but I’m changing a lot of the world facts, some of the plot, some of the characters, etc.  And I’m writing it slowly—I’m not forcing myself to write every day, and I’m only letting myself write when I NEED TO WRITE, when the desire to write surpasses every other feeling in my heart.  Because then, I’ll know, I’m writing from the right place.  I’m writing from my heart.

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I’ve so far written almost 5,000 words, some of them taken from the 4th draft, but most are new.  And it’s been one week (which means, I’m writing in pretty much half the speed I wrote the first 4 drafts, where I wrote 10,500 or so words a week for 6 weeks).  So, really, I’m still obsessed enough to make good progress, but I finally feel that amazing, mysterious sensation that my story is telling itself.  I think that happens when the words are flowing exactly the right way—it doesn’t mean I’m writing the final draft, but I’m writing the real story, and my characters are speaking from their hearts, too.  It’s the most incredible feeling and probably my favorite part of writing.

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So, in speaking to new writers, and writers everywhere—remember that deadlines are nobody’s friend.  This is a sailing lesson, too.  If you rush a boat, you might wreck your boat.  The same is true for our novels and poems and memoirs, but thankfully, with our writing, the repairs are easier.  Of course, writing “repairs” are less tangible, they’re only words, they’re not a hole in your hull, or a torn sail, or broken mast, but they might feel that way.  When we work so hard at something, when it takes over our lives, and we find out—alas—it’s NOT DONE YET, that can be devastating, but when we get over the initial shock, the initial feeling of loss and emptiness (because I have felt empty of words), we realize that we CAN ACTUALLY REVISE, that the words never leave us.  The words never leave at all.

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I’ve heard some people say that “writer’s block” is a myth, and we can always get out of it, we can always free write ourselves out of those kinds of blocks, and sometimes I believe it.  But sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes, I think it’s okay to take a break, feel the emptiness for a while, and then let the words come back slowly (or quickly), like wild animals we might meet in a forest, or on the water.  You can never predict when a dolphin will decide to play between your hulls when you’re sailing a catamaran, just like you can never predict when a fox might step towards you, might even walk straight up to you, and look you in the eye—when the words just appear seemingly out of thin air, and it’s like floodgates opening.

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Part of me is writing this to tell other writers: don’t despair when you realize you’ve revised your work to death and it STILL needs more revising.  Or when your work gets rejected.  I don’t yet have an agent (though I feel absolutely blessed to have one published novel out there circulating in the Universe), but I’ve heard that even when you do have one, you’re still going to get rejected, or be forced to revise things so many times, you might find yourself going crazy.  Take a breath, and keep going though, this is our dream job, isn’t it?

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Wishing everyone the best of luck in their endeavors, whether they are writing or sailing, and remember, two things from this post:

DON’T RUSH.

THE WORDS NEVER LEAVE US.

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