Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mars Probe, Action, Editing, First Draft

Mars probe, the--a complex data-assessing instrument sent from Earth to Mars to gather and relay climatic, geological, weather-based data, and other measurement-related information about Mars, back to Earth; a metaphor for the individual writer's sensory gathering apparatus, allowing the writer to send a probe into differing cultures, locales, relationships, and emotions, classifying and filing them for later use in creating settings and circumstances.

The very expense, energy, and planning needed to get Mars probes to their destination, or in orbital paths from which they can relay photographs, serves to enhance the metaphor for a writer: Often the search for the Big Theme or the Big Story causes the writer to miss entirely the smaller details which, on examination and understanding, provide such significant hints to human evolution, history, and emotional complexity, as as illuminating the texture of the expanding universe just steps away from the computer screen.

Each writer has a unique sensory genome, taking in, absorbing, synthesizing for future use the smorgasbord of available experience. This sensory genome contributes significantly to the emergence of the individual writer's voice, without which the writer is more a transcriber of event than a teller of story.

action IS character--an observation made by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon; a reminder that drama is an evocative rather than descriptive medium. Fitzgerald's awareness is worth spelling out: The best way to convey a dramatic image of a character is through the movement the character makes in story, showing agenda, backstory, and emotions through interaction with other characters and striving to achieve a goal against obstacles and reversals.

Taking this spelling out one step further, The reader takes more clues from character behavior than from a description of the character's physical traits. Some deft authorial intrusion may help a reader form a physical picture of a character, but having a character stoop to get into her car suggests some of the ongoing challenges in her life thanks to her height.

Some of a character's actions are subliminal, barely noticed except by the writer--and the character, who is, after all, appearing as an active rather than passive participant in a story. (Things may happen to a character, but then a character responds to them and to other characters as well, and perhaps even to characters who are marginally off stage and nearby or who are off stage and dead, yet still exerting some form of influence.)

content editing--editorial intervention focused on the logic, chronology, plausibility, accuracy, and dramatic intensity of a story; a structural oversight, usually performed by someone other than the author, with the goal of optimal presentation of the dramatic incidents in a narrative; not to be conflated or confused with copyediting, which is mechanical in nature with a goal of uniformity of usage conventions. Manuscripts are conventionally subjected to content editing first. The content editor's goal is to enhance the writer's voice, removing unnecessary repetition and the literary equivalent of throat clearing. Once any anomalies are addressed and queries to authors answered by the author, the manuscript moves to the copyediting stage.

first draft strategy--a recipe for securing with all deliberate speed a seemingly complete manuscript of a project; the result of saying what you have to say about a dramatic situation before undertaking revision (See); a deliberate experiment in rendering a narrative through the filter of a particular point of view; the exhaustion of the conceptual energy that brings a story or story concept to mind in the first place.

The strategy for the first draft is to realize that other drafts will be necessary, each being powered forth by its own energy (which is likely to differ from any previous energy). The systematize process of revision (See)may well begin with a decision about the point of view, followed with investigation of beginning and ending points. After chronology is decided, the middle point may provide occasion for choice, followed by a review of the characters, their goals, movements, what they say, and to whom.

Writers at all stages of development may find themselves at a momentary brick wall, unable to continue work even though there is available time in the writing schedule. At such a point, if 45 minutes elapses with no clue emerging, move on to the next scene, leaving a simple Post-It note to identify the intent of the unwritten segment: Sex scene goes here; Bill confronts Fred about missing bank statements; Phyllis confronts Fred about getting a job. Subsequent drafts may reveal the missing scene would not appear for the writer because it was not necessary in the first place.

This approach--to this point--is for writers who set forth to discover the arc of the story as they work or who have a particular ending in mind toward which they choose to build. For the writer who works from outline, the ideal first draft strategy is a list of scenes or a set of 3 x 5 index cards with a key phrase for each scene, arranged in what appears to be the most fruitful order.

There is a middle ground between the "Discoverer" writer and the Outliner: Move forward as quickly as possible, without stopping to think. When you hit a brick wall or pause point, think out a new complication, obstacle, reversal, or news of some off-stage event that will have effect on the story. Compose until that point before stopping or make sufficient notes to carry you to that point. Most writers will agree that a writing session ends best when the text has reached a need for a choice, decision, challenge, or review of options. Ending at such a point will keep the writing part of the mind working on the next session through and during sleep, daytime job, and personal to-do lists.

One of the many great myths surrounding writing has it that really gifted writers such as Louise Erdrich, William Trevor, Annie Proulx, and Tom Boyle are presented with the fully developed idea every time, no assembly required. Only one draft necessary.


Rowena said...

Whenever I read your posts, they never fail to put me in the mind of my novel, even if I haven't sat down to it all day or even all month.

I don't always comment, but that's often because there is too much to think about, and my time is limited by diapers and naptimes.

So thanks for all the other posts where I haven't said so.

Querulous Squirrel said...


Anonymous said...

And the magic number of drafts is?

Matt said...

mapelba: (x = y -1) whereas x is the number of drafts, y is infinity, minus one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reminder that I don't have to get it right the first time through (as if I could!!!). It freed me up as I wrote my first novel- the key is to remember it for my current attempt as well. This post helped.

Anonymous said...

No wonder I can't get it right--I've never been good at figuring out x.