A great story on how to overcome past failures and prepare you for future successes.
Striving for perfection
One of the few things I really try to perfect (not merely do well, but get exactly right) in my writing is dialogue. I'll go over it again and again, trying to get it everything to sound right. The editing process is so hard, it seems like it's never going to be right. But what about the first part? What's the best way to write a scene that is mostly dialogue? I've recently come up with a technique that is work pretty well for me and I thought I'd share it with my follower.
When I come to a scene that is going to have a lot of dialogue, it's usually because it's a pretty important scene. Dialogue is used for some many different purposes. It reveals character traits, pushes the story in different directions, defines relationships, and many other things. Usually, I have a clear idea in my head of where I want to go and have to get it on the page as quickly as possible. This can be difficult when adding dialogue attribution, action clues, and emotional responses. So I don't.
A new way to write dialogue
I write the scene out like I'm writing a play. There's a great template you can create on MS Word that allows you to automatically jump between fields without having to change it manually. When you are typing a CHARACTER and press enter, it goes to DIALOGUE. When you press enter at the end of DIALOGUE it switches back to character. This helps me write out the scene as fast as I can type (which still isn't fast enough).
If you're anything like me, when you get to a dialogue-heavy scene, it really feels like the characters are talking to you. If you've done a good job of developing three-dimensional characters with unique voices, they'll do most of the work for you.
Again, I do this by rewriting over and over again. For instance, I've been writing a scene that explains the backstory of the main antagonist of one of my current WIPs. I kept jumping to a scene where he's talking to a high school track coach, and every time it sounded phony. After the third attempt, I realized that I didn't know the coach at all. I didn't know his voice, but this was a critical scene that explained why the antagonist was the way he was, so rewrote it three times before even getting a rough draft that I liked. And I abandoned the dialogue altogether. It just wasn't working.
But when you know the scene is coming and has to be carried by dialogue, that's not an option. You have to find that sweet spot, and that's not always easy. I find that the best thing I can do when writing these scenes that I know are critical, is to know when it's not working. And when it's not, I stop and start over. And then I do it again. I feel like Thomas Edison, in a way, when asked about the invention of the light bulb. "I have not failed," Edison said. "I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
Is it the best, most efficient way for me to work? Probably not. I'd probably be better off if I sat and talked it over with five or ten other writers until we "broke" the story. But I don't had five or ten other writers. So I have to be five or ten different writers. And when I write, I try to come at it from completely different directions. And I usually find it in the third or fourth try.
Then, when I find that sweet spot, it really is impossible to keep up with my mind. I can hear the characters talking back and forth and it's more like I'm only an audience to the conversation, not as though I'm creating it. It's a wonderful place to be, even if nearly impossible to find. Writing isn't something writers do because it's fun. Writers write because they have to.
The worst part of writing is the fleeting inspiration. You know what you want to say, you had it worded perfectly just a moment ago, and then it disappears. I'm it sure if there's a way avoid it 100%, but I know it's damn hard for a moment to disappear if I'm writing about it right then. The fleeting moments come when you wake up from a dream and can't grasp what it was you just saw. And then come for me when I'm driving home and I have to decide whether to run every stop sign before I forget or pull off into someone's drive way and write down my idea on a napkin from Taco Bell.
But I hope that as I do this more and more often, those moments of inspiration will become more frequent or easier to hold on to. I doubt it's true though. I fear that those moments will always be the most difficult. Stephen King said that it is the moment staring at the blank page right before beginning that is the scariest. I'm not sure if I agree. I don't really struggle with starting a new story. That's usually pretty easy. But that moment when I'm stuck between two points in a story and I know what has to happen but I can't get there. I hate that moment.
But again, I hope that that moment gets less scary and less frequent the more I write. But I don't think that will ever be true either.
Outstanding guide to publishing on Kindle here.
Looking back over the last year, it feels like I haven’t written anything at all. I started NaNoWriMo last year, but my heart wasn’t in it. The story I was going to write, I wrote anyway and it has over 50,000 words right now. In the meantime, I’ve written three stories of between 5,000 and 20,000 words; probably twenty different papers from 3,000 to 5,000 words; hundreds of discussion posts; ten to fifteen poems; and a one-act play. Not to mention the ancillary writing I do and this blog. And when I consider that I love to rewrite over and over until I get it right, I must’ve written over a million words in the last year. That’s a crazy number when I think about it.
How to write more
So how did I do it? And why do I do a better job of writing at work than at home? And how can I do a better job of writing at home?
I know the main reason is my phone. Over time, I tried to do all of my school work at home on my laptop. I just felt like it wouldn’t come through as professional if I posted stuff from my phone because I could see the awful stuff my classmates posted with their phones. These were grown people posting on university discussion boards with Facebook grammar (“u” instead of “you”; “4” and “2” for “for” and “to”). I was horrified.
But then I started writing notes in my phone and emailing them to myself and posting them when I got home. I would write tons and tons of things and when I got it home, most of it was good enough to post as is. Then, I found out that the school’s website had a mobile app. This was with six months left to get my degree. I know.
Use every tool available
So then I would go straight from my phone to the mobile app. I was writing whole papers on my phone while at work. The novel I mentioned earlier was written entirely on my phone, using an app called A Novel Idea (which is apparently no longer available). It was particularly useful for rewrites because it’s so hard to edit on a phone. So if I didn’t like something, I would just write the whole thing over again. I know it sounds wasteful, but for me it’s been incredibly freeing. It’s rare that one attempt is vastly better than the others. It usually ends up being a combination of several. So when I get home I pull out the laptop and splice two or three different pieces together and edit from there. It’s really quite useful.
Know the limitations of technology
There was a lot I couldn’t do on my phone. Research papers have very specific formats and the Works Cited page was impossible to do, but I could do almost everything else on my phone. Far more than I realized at first. The key, I realized, was to just keep opening new notes on my phone and titling them properly so I could find them later.
As Alton Brown says: “Organization will set you free.”
It can be difficult, but as I become more proficient on my phone, I’ve learned that I can create separate folders for specific notes and that they’re organized by when they were last modified. So, it can be difficult to navigate, but not impossible.
There are a few other things I’ve noticed that have helped me improve my writing output over the last year. Obviously, having to write for school forces one to write something, even if it’s not the novel project one wants to write. But you’re still writing, exercising that part of your brain that is learning how to string words together in an interesting and cohesive way. But the other thing that has really helped is to keep a Daily Writing folder on my phone and to try to write in it every day. The idea comes from John Dufresne’s book The Lie That Tells the Truth. I believe I’ve mentioned it before and, again, I want to recommend it to all aspiring writers out there. It’s full of advice on making your writing better and exercises that keep you writing.
Daily Writing is nothing more than setting a time to write every day, giving yourself a timer, and writing until the bell goes off. Again my phone is helpful for this for many reasons. First, it has an alarm and a timer. So it can remind me to write and time how long I’m supposed to go. I don’t use them all the time, but I do use the timer if I feel I need it. But the other way my phone helps is that I keep all of my Daily Writing in its own folder, so I can go back and look at how consistent I’ve been. It can be depressing at times to see that I’ve gone months without writing, but it also helps when I see that on my days off from my real job, when I should be most productive, I’m rarely doing my Daily Writing.
Knowing that, I focus on not turning on the TV or getting online, and knock out my Daily Writing first thing when I wake up. I also use the Daily Writing to plan my writing task for that day. I write what I’m going to write about and try to come up with a synopsis for it. Sometimes it’s a blog post, sometimes it’s a chapter or scene from a current project, sometimes is editing and revision. Sometimes I just vent about a shitty day, but that’s okay, too.
Writing every day is about more than producing high quality content, it’s about exercising that muscle and trying to honor that commitment as much as you can. I’m not a drill sergeant who’s going to tell you that if you don’t do it every day you’re not a writer, but I will tell you that the more you write, the easier it gets and the better your writing will ultimately be.
So don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, a week, or a month. What happens if you get a call in the middle of the night that a family member is ill and you have to suspend everything in our life? Is that a good reason to say “Guess I’m not a writer anymore”? Of course not. Just start a new streak. Find something to write about every single day. Whether it’s as mundane as what you had for dinner last night or as critical as the closing scene of your most recent screenplay, make a plan and commit to it. For at least that one day. And then, try again tomorrow.
Do you know why I really love to write? It’s because I’m a smartass. I have a level of sarcasm that borders on the sadistic. The world should be thankful that I don’t say all the things I think because what I usually think is pretty horrible. Not that what I ultimately say is good, it’s plenty bad, but I’m usually thinking worse things.
What does that have to do with writing, you may ask. Only everything.
Have you ever been having a conversation with someone about a piece of trivia, and you know you’re right and they’re wrong, and you’re just waiting for the perfect moment to hit them with the truth? But instead, they stop and admit that they were wrong and you were right?
In a story, you can push that conversation to ridiculous levels and make one character push the envelope and deliver that great slamming comeback. In real life, rarely does a person set you up like that. Although I’ve had a few conversations that could appear verbatim and be ridiculously funny. This actual conversation happened between me and one of my coworkers:
Coworker: I can’t stand orange juice.
Me: Why? Orange juice is awesome.
Coworker: I was drinking screwdrivers one night and I threw up all over the place.
Me:You don’t think maybe it was the vodka?
Coworker: (confused) What do you mean?
But God is not always smiling on us like that or like this. This was a different coworker.
Coworker: I didn’t get any sleep last night.
Me: Why not?
Coworker: My baby stabbed her lip with a nose ring.
Me: Your baby has a nose ring? That’s really inappropriate.
But most conversations go like this.
Guy #1: Charlie Sheen wasn’t in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Guy #2: Of course he was. It was an iconic role.
Guy #1: I think you’re wrong.
Guy #2: Oh well.
When instead it should go like this.
Guy #1: Charlie Sheen wasn’t in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Guy #2: Of course he was. It was an iconic role.
Guy #1: I think you’re thinking of Matthew Broderick.
Guy #2: I don’t think we can be friends anymore.
Of course, if I were writing the scene it would be much longer but not much funnier. But that’s not the point. The point is that, as writers, we get to control both sides of the conversation. We can use that to pump characters up and tears characters down. To me, being good at dialogue is the most important skill a writer can have. In novels, having the skill of description and exposition are important, but dialogue is where most stuff happens and it should contain the bulk of your story. Any good story should be 60-70% dialogue. And if you’re writing a screenplay, all direction should be limited to that which serves the particular scene you’re writing.
I have a few favorite writers when it comes to dialogue. First is Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls. If you’ve never seen the show, here’s an example:
Lorelai: And it’s so hard to believe that at exactly this time many moons ago, I was lying in exactly the same position—
Rory: Oh boy. Here we go.
Lorelai: Only I had a huge, fat stomach and big fat ankles and I was swearing like a sailor—
Rory: On leave.
Lorelai: On leave—right! And there I was—
Rory: In labor.
Lorelai: And while some have called it the most meaningful experience of your life, to me it was something more akin to doing the splits on a crate of dynamite.
Rory: I wonder if the Waltons ever did this.
Lorelai: And I was screaming and swearing and being surrounded as I was by a hundred prominent doctors, I just assumed there was an actual use for the cup of ice chips they gave me.
Rory: There wasn’t.
Lorelai: But pelting the nurses sure was fun.
That’s gold right there. Even if it was the first episode of Gilmore Girls you’d ever seen, you would need almost no backstory to understand it. You see the witty interplay between a mother and daughter that are on the same intellectual level. Later, when we see Lorelai talking to her own mother, the dialogue changes drastically.
Emily: You are impossible to reach.
Lorelai: Well there’s no messages on the machine, Mom.
Emily: I don’t leave messages. If I wanted to talk to a machine I’d talk to my VCR. Where were you?
Lorelai: At a wake.
Emily: A what?
Lorelai: A wake… a funeral.
Emily: A funeral? Whose?
Lorelai: It was for the neighbors’ cat.
[Emily is silent]
Emily: Hold on. I’m looking up aneurysm in our medical dictionary to see if I just had one.
Lorelai: I just wanted to be honest with you, Mom. Silly me.
The wit is still there, but it’s clear these two are not on the same level. There’s a clear hierarchy between Lorelai and Emily. Rory is clearly having fun with her mother in the previous section, but Emily is not having any fun at all.
Dialogue in a novel, though, has to be different. You can try to pace a scene like Aaron Sorkin, but it’s unlikely your readers will be able to keep up. And you have to pick and choose your moments, as well. For every intense scene of two minds at battle, you need that slow scene that shows how much people may care about each other or hate each other.
From Sorkin’s Sports Night.
Casey: I speak four languages!
Dan: You speak three languages.
Casey: I speak four languages.
Dan: You speak German, French, and Italian.
Casey: I dabble in a little English.
Casey: What are you doing?
Dana: There’s just… uh… nothing.
Casey: The network says “Intend-to-View” tracking puts us in 4.2 million homes. It’s a landslide. You’re about to take us into the big time, Dana. You deserve credit for that.
Dana: I sent her there on purpose. I sent her there instead of Jeremy because I knew how Patrick felt about women in the locker room and I thought I could provoke a more… a better response to the questions. I sent her there on purpose.
Casey: I know.
Dana: Does she? Does Natalie know?
Casey: Of course she knows. She learned from you. (Pause) It was the right thing to do.
Dana: Does she know that I sold her?
Casey: Dana, Natalie wouldn’t complain if her hair was on fire.
Casey: She wants what’s best for the show.
Casey: And she knows what I know.
Dana: What’s that?
Casey: That you tend to do the right thing.
Dana smiles wryly.
This is an intense scene in a show that’s a half-hour sitcom. Sorkin trusts his audience to follow him into more dramatic moments throughout the show’s run. It’s the dialogue that lets people know where this change occurs. And he loves a good speech.
Sam Donovan: You guys know who Philo Farnsworth was?
J.J.: Philo Farnsworth?
Sam Donovan: Yeah.
J.J.: What’s going on?
Sam Donovan: He invented television. I don’t mean he invented television like Uncle Milty. I mean he invented the television in a little house in Provo, Utah, at a time when the idea of transmitting moving pictures through the air would be like me saying I figured out a way to beam us aboard the starship Enterprise. He was a visionary. He died broke and without fanfare. The guy I really like though was his brother-in-law, Cliff Gardner. He said, “Philo, I know everyone things you’re crazy, but I want to be a part of this. I don’t have your head for science, so I’m not going to be able to help much with the design and mechanics of the invention, but it sounds like you’re going to need glass tubes.” You see, Philo was inventing the cathode receptor, and even though Cliff didn’t know what that meant or how it worked, he’d seen Philo’s drawing, and he knew that he was gonna need glass tubes. And since television hadn’t been invented yet, it’s not like you could get them at the local TV repair shop. “I want to be a part of this,” Cliff said. “I don’t have your head for science. How would it be if I were to teach myself to be a glass blower? And I could set up a little shop in the backyard. And I could make all the tubes you’ll need for testing.” There ought to be Congressional Medals for people like that. I’ve looked over the notes you’ve been giving over the last year or so, and I have to say they exhibit an almost total lack of understanding of how to get the best from talented people. You said before that for whatever reason, I seem to be able to exert some authority around here. I assure you it’s not ’cause they like me. It’s ’cause they knew two minutes after I walked in the door I’m someone who knows how to do something. I can help. I can make glass tubes. That’s what they need. One last thing, the first and last decision-making authority on this show will rest with Isaac Jaffee until Isaac Jaffee says otherwise, and if you disrespect him in my presence again, I will rededicate the rest of my life to ruining the rest of yours. And if you think I’m just mouthing at you, you should ask around about me. I have absolutely no conscience about these things.
That remains to this day my all-time favorite moment in the history of television. And it’s by a minor character in a short-lived TV show that most people have never heard of. By giving a character a monologue like that you let the reader/audience know that they’re in complete control of this situation. This character may be meek or understated at other times but here, the author is letting them speak full-throated, directly to the reader/audience. It’s a powerful tool (one which can be abused).
Sorkin loves using real-life example when making his shows and this is something you have to be careful about. In Sports Night, he uses it to bring up issues that would really be important on the set of a TV show. But in Newsroom, he uses it to make his characters prescient in a way that begs credulity. No one knew that the Deepwater Horizon spill was going to be as bad as it turned out to be. But one of the characters in Newsroom instantly recognizes the newsworthiness of the report of a fire on an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s an expert on how deep they drill and shutoff valves and it seems ridiculous after a minute. Keep in mind the Deepwater Horizon story didn’t become big news for days after the explosion. In another moment, a producer on the show realizes we’ve killed bin Laden after receiving a message of a late night White House press conference that could’ve been anything. Be careful how you use actual events in a story, it can come back to burn you.
The point you need to take away from this post is that, as a writer, you’re in complete control of the story. You can make your MC heroic or foolish. You can make your antagonist awful or sympathetic. Don’t always play to conventions and don’t go against the grain just to be different. Your decisions have to serve the story.
Today’s blog is about the very basics of storytelling and what to do the if you think it’s not working. I’m not going to give a detailed argument about story structure because that’s not my point here, but I will give you my rudimentary understanding of the basics so that I can explain my little test.
Dramatica is an interesting theory on story structure that is worth investigating. According to Dramatica, there are four signposts to any story.
- Signpost #1: the inciting incident
- Signpost #2: the complication
- Signpost #3: the climax
- Signpost #4: the resolution
This theory, of course, derives from Aristotle’s basic theory of drama which says that every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end; the events of the novel are linked by cause and effect; the story must be about a “change of fortune” for the protagonist.
The Inciting Incident
Every story has to have a strong inciting incident, it’s what draws the reader in and sets the stakes. I’m a firm believer in giving your reader the whole story in the first chapter. By the end of the first chapter, they should know where the story is going and who the MC is. You don’t need to give everything, obviously, but a good story should have the reader wanting to know what’s going to happen next and why they care about the MC.
How much should you give away? That’s entirely up to you. But so many stories waste so much time with backstory before getting to what the story is about. Superhero movies are very popular right now and they’re the worst culprits of it. How many times do we need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents killed? How many times do we need to see Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider? Or Superman’s home planet of Kal-El destroyed? One good example of dog by this well is Iron Man, where essentially the whole story is the origin story, often told in flashbacks. The Harry Potter series (the books) does a good job of this, as well. Rowling realizes that these are children’s books and the reader may pick up the third book in the series at the school library so she makes sure to include just enough backstory in the first chapter to introduce Harry and set the stage.
The inciting incident can be caused by an outside event, like an asteroid destroying the Earth or something like that, but it’s important that the characters’ actions and decisions throughout the story are what drive the rest of the plot. Otherwise you have a bunch of events that keep happening to people that they have no control over, and it seems contrived. If it feels like no matter what the character did or didn’t do, the same result would happen, why would we care about your MC? Plus, the MC has to have options. In Sons of Anarchy, the story is about Jax turning into a murderer as he attempts to avenge the murder of his father. The inciting incident pushes Jax down the oath, but he chooses to kill people and become just like his mother instead of his father.
The complication (or rising action) may be most misunderstood aspect of the story. In a good story, there should be a point in the first part of the middle where it seems the MC has got the problem solved, only to find out that he was looking in the wrong direction or inadvertently made things worse. This is the complication stage of the story. To me, it’s important that in this area, the story is heading in the opposite direction as it will end. For instance, if you’re going to have a happy ending, this is where your MC makes a decision that ends disastrously. If it’s to be a tragic ending, then your hero has a great victory here. In the end of the fourth season of Breaking Bad, Walt succeeds in killing Gus and it seems that everything is going to be okay. But then the final season is a complete downturn. In The Godfather, Sollozzo almost kills Vito, and has the Corleone family on the run. But, in the ends, Michael kills the head of the other families and consolidated power for himself.
I can’t emphasize how important it is that the characters are involved in driving the plot of the story. Through their actions or inactions, through their decisions or indecisions, the story moves forward.
The climax is the point where the MC finally makes the decision that will lead to the resolution. Again, there’s some confusion here about what the climax is. It is not the high point in the story where we figure everything out. That’s the resolution. The climax is where your hero, either through choice or action, pushes the story into its final direction. In Sons of Anarchy, it would be the moment Jax kills his mother. In Breaking Bad, it’s where Walter decides to go back to New Mexico from New Hampshire (this is the first time I realized both states in that show start with “New”). In The Godfather, it’s where Michael puts his plan to kill the other bosses into motion.
This is the point where the story will start to become a tragedy or a comedy, in the classic sense. If it’s a tragedy, the hero is going to fail, if it’s a comedy, he’s going to succeed. This decision doesn’t make it one of these things, it points the reader into the direction. What you want is for the reader to know at this point what failure and success actually is. What you really want is for the reader not to know what’s going to happen and be actively rooting for the MC to succeed or fail. Doesn’t matter if they get it right or wrong, but they better be invested at this point.
Things can get real tricky when discussing resolutions. The climax sets the resolution in motion, it doesn’t decide it. The resolution is where the story ultimately becomes one of the 4 types of stories. This is not the dénouement, but it leads to it.
As I’ve said before, a tragedy is where the hero fails, a comedy is where he succeeds. There are also variations, a tragicomedy, where the hero fails but it’s a good thing, and a comitragedy, where the hero succeeds, but it’s a bad thing. The Godfather is a comitragedy, Michael succeeds in settling the squabbles but only by becoming the one thing he swore he’d never be. Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad are both tragicomedies, the MCs both fail to accomplish their goals, but in the end, they do the right thing by their families. Star Wars is a comedy, Luke Skywalker saves the day and is a hero in the galaxy. American Beauty is a classic tragedy, when Lester Burnham is unable to overcome his suburban ennui/midlife crisis and is murdered (I’m sure a lot of people will disagree that Lester ultimately found peace at the end, but I disagree). Believe it or not, when you’re breaking a story, and plotting it out, you’ll find yourself bouncing between all four of these before ultimately landing in the one that feels right for your story and the MC.
All good stories follow this very basic plot structure, which is simple to follow because even if you add ups and downs all you’re really doing is adding more complications. I got this synopsis from an amazing website which you must check out.
As I said, that’s the basics. I will in the future, go into much greater detail, but the purpose of this blog is to talk about a little method I going to find out if a plot is too convoluted or doesn’t make any sense. It’s the Roarke method.
The Roarke Method
This method is named after my son, Roarke. The picture above is from his How I Met Your Mother phase when he thought Barney Stinson was a god and constantly “suited up.” It was, as you imagine, legen… (that’s a real tie he’s wearing, that he tied himself) dary!
So I came up with an idea for a story about an old woman who gets conned but her horrible granddaughter and a shyster lawyer. In the end, the lawyer is actually helping her. I had the beginning, middle, and end all figured out, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to get there. Because it was a pretty complicated scenario, I came up with several different outlines as I was trying to break the story. In the end, I came up with one “throughline” that had aspects of different outlines. But I still wasn’t sure if it worked.
So, before I started writing the story, I told my ten-year-old son about it while we played Call of Duty online (don’t tell my wife, she doesn’t approve). When I got to the end, he burst out laughing and said: “That’s awesome!” I knew I had a solid story at that point.
Now I know what you’re thinking: why would anyone feel it necessary to dumb down all their ideas to the level of a child. That’s not what I’m saying. I finished that story several weeks ago and I k ow he wouldn’t enjoy it. But there’s something to the idea that you should be able to explain your story in a simple way that even a child can understand. Think about it. Certainly, you should be able to take a simple story and turn into something that an adult would enjoy by subject matter and word choice. But if a story is too complicated it’s too complicated and it needs help.
Also, it isn’t necessary to do this with all your ideas, just the ones you think may be too complicated. Give it a shot. If you don’t have a ten-year-old, just use whatever you have lying around the house.
Editing is the most important element of writing that authors neglect. As I’ve said before, they’re many reasons for this, but none of those reasons ultimately matter if you want to consistently produce high-quality, publishable content.
P5 (Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance)
I know this first point will fall on deaf ears for a lot of you, but it takes place as you’re writing: you have to take notes as you write. Not me, you say, when I’m in the throes of the passion that is my muse, I wouldn’t stop for a biblical deluge. But here’s the thing: if you’re like me you’ll be writing along and one of your characters does something that is at odds with something you had them do in an earlier scene. Or you’ll simply realize that you didn’t “hit” something the right way previously. Here’s an example.
I was writing a story in which a woman meets someone who is wearing a disguise. When she first meets him, she notices his suit but little else. Later, when she realizes that the man is related to a friend of hers, she sees that they have the same eyes. I realized that in their first meeting I needed to have her recognize something in his eyes without being able to put her finger on it. That way, when I went back to it at the end, it would ring true. But I didn’t go back and find that scene and immediately change that scene. I pulled out my notebook and made a note of it. Then, when I had time, I searched the scene out and made the change. And don’t think that you’ll remember that change—you won’t. Write it down.
The second thing you have to do is to let the piece sit. If you’re feeling up to it, move on to another piece, or start the planning process on something, or just take a break. But let it sit for at least a month. I’ve always found that when I come back to it, I always find at least one piece of writing that really surprises me with how good it is. And I also am finding things I don’t recognize writing at all. But mostly I find a lot of really bad prose that needs changing.
And that’s okay.
Everyone from Stephen King to Ernest Hemingway says that first drafts are always awful. Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist said that she wrote one chapter of her novel Tales From the Goon Squad over forty times before she got it right.
Different Editing Methods
- The complete rewrite. It may sound crazy but there are authors out there who completely rewrite every story they work on. It’s not the worst idea—though admittedly not for everyone—to take a scene or a chapter that isn’t working and completely rewrite the entire thing once you’ve seen just how bad it is.
- The four draft method. Write and revise every day for your “close-in” writing. Then, when complete, edit it on your computer for the “close-in” edit. Third, print a hard copy and make notes for a “distance” edit. And last, print it again and read it aloud for an “oral” edit. Not my favorite method but there are some things in it I use.
- The Strunk & White method. This method gets its name from the ubiquitous The Elements of Style writing manual that you should have nearby whenever editing. Follow the rules to omit needless words, eliminate adverbs, and use the active voice.
Which one is best?
As you may have guessed I use parts of all these methods. I’m a big fan of The Elements of Style, but I also recognize that it’s a 60-year-old style manual that has not been revised in almost twenty years. It’s still awesome, but it’s not a panacea. Above all take this from Strunk & White: “Vigorous writing is concise.”
I’m also a big fan of reading aloud. You really get a sense of what works and what doesn’t when you read something allowed. If you’re reading it aloud and find yourself stopping and going back, this is something that needs to be fixed. This is where you’ll almost always find dialogue tags that get mixed up. It happens all the time so don’t freak out. Just note it down and fix it.
Then there’s the complete rewrite. Unfortunately, there will be times when you’re reading something that is a complete mess. I’ve found this is most true when you introduce a new character who later in the story is much different. To do this rewrite you need to get in the head of that character so take a moment before you tackle the rewrite. Read a later scene with that character that works and really find out who they are. Then start from the beginning and write the scene fresh. It may seem like a lot of work, and it is, but it’s also necessary.
Opening scenes and closing scenes are also ripe for full rewrites. Hemingway has stated that he wrote the opening of A Farewell to Arms fifty times and did the same with the ending. It’s not the worst idea to write your open scene several times, trying to find a different way “in” to the story. Even if you’ve done a thorough job of planning, that opening scene may not work the way you imagined. Don’t fight it. As the Yiddish proverb says: “Man plans and God laughs.”
So which one works best for you? Do some methods work better for specific problems while some others? I think so.
I try to give the Strunk & White treatment to everything I write, even blogs. Hell, I might start taking it to my daily writing as well. But there are times when even the most steadfast rules must be bent, broken, or just ignored.
But the one rule that must be followed is that no rough draft is going to be good enough as is. The greatness in writing is done in the rewrite. It’s where you open the door to your writing room and let others in. Here is where you must be your most brutal to your own creation. And when you succeed, the final product will be all the better for it.