Friday, March 29, 2013

First Draft: Where the Writer Loses Control of Story. Final Draft: Where the Writer Loses Control of Temper

Note to self:  Whenever a student prefaces a question with the observation, "This is probably a dumb question--" make sure you write down the question.  In addition, make sure you answer it in writing, then store that written answer somewhere such as here, where you're likely to see it at some moment of need, reclaim it, and make use of it.

You still remember a time around the ending of the last century and the beginning of this when it seemed an increasing number of students began by owning up to a dumbness they did not in fact have, then ask you what revision meant.

At first, you'd preface your own responses with an equally defensive preamble, "I'd have thought that was obvious--" Except for the fact of the question being asked enough times to convince you the answer was not so obvious, either to them or to you.  Thus the wisdom of the ages coming back to remind you how among other things, teaching is a partnership, which is to say you gain information and technique as well as passing it along to others.

Your recent book on fiction writing has a laundry list you devised for yourself in relationship to the work you expect and believe you need to perform on a given piece of work before it is ready to go off somewhere along the bouncy ride to publication.

You get the work to the first plateau, which means you arrive at the point where you begin to realize you are repeating yourself or you are throwing things away, in effect trying to pin too many tails on the donkey, or, worse yet, you fume and struggle to get at what comes next until the realization dawns on you that there is no more next to come--you have in effect finished the first draft.

Then you apply your approach to revision, which begins with deciding where the material begins.  No brainer to make the second step where the piece ends, then the third step, the Are-you-sure? step before moving on to such things as Whose story is it?

After you've gone through your individualized laundry list of revision steps, you've probably rewritten and moved things about to the point where the earliest drafts are no longer recognizable.  You've put things in, taken many things out, rearranged various orders, and are beginning to have restored faith in your ability to present a narrative, even to the point of laughing at yourself for the inevitable question to Self:  Why couldn't you have seen this sooner?  As though there were a satisfactory answer to such a question.  As though you didn't already know why there was no satisfactory answer.  As though you hadn't learned much in all these years of sifting about like an archaeologist, sifting through potsherds and detritus for clues and artifacts.  As though.

By this time, you're feeling comfortable, perhaps happy or energized by your evolution from the first draft to this version you're about to set off with, into the world, tossed as you'd with such cavalier bravado launched the paper airplanes of your grammar school days.

This stage is critical because unless you are more careful than your usual wont, you are setting yourself up for a massive encounter, your own equivalent of the Battle of Agincourt in which the Brits took on the French, brought to such memorable life by Shakespeare in Henry V.  Thing is, you won't be battling for anything so noble.  You'll be preparing to do battle with the next logical step along the road to publication, which is to say editing.

If you're not careful, and there's a smattering of rejections for any reason at all before the work finds a home, you might even have reached that combative state of defensiveness where your inner child is cursing the rejectors and feeling even more justified in having written this fine, wonderful thing you've been at such pains to bring along.

Now, you've reached the crucial time.  An editor has seen and shared your regard for the work, wants to take it on.  Of course, you say.  Of course someone wants to take it on.  This is a worthwhile project that could have already been finding its way in the marketplace, had it not been for these wusses, these insensitive sorts who lacked the vision to see the wonder and uniqueness of your vision.

Right.  You think that way, but get over it.  Fast.  The more you think that, the less likely you're going to be to listen well to the person who's bringing it into the fold.

That individual is, of course, the editor, who brings another vision of your project to the table.  She is a person who wants the project, but has a vision for it that comes from a place beyond your own vision.  She may well see the same things you see in the project, but she may well see others, which she will point out to you, step by step, which means going through the manuscript yet another time.

The more you go through this process, the greater the likelihood your subsequent projects will benefit, particularly in reference to the sense of you that is determined to defend by argument all the issues raised.  The more you dig your heels in, offering resistance, the more probable you'll come to regard the person who invited you to the party in the first place not as a host but an enemy.

No, there is no such thing as Editorial Infallibility.  Some editors, however well their intentions extend, are working at the outer edges of their ability to see your work.  You are still smarting from an editorial director who refused to use the title of your latest book as a means of identifying you on a blurb you'd provided one of her authors.  Her reasoning:  Your blurb was for a novel.  You should provide a title of one of your novels.  There was yet another editor who thought a blurb you'd provided was too long.  Yet another editor joined the long line of editors who believe your sentences tend to run too long.  A great friend of yours is locked in an epic battle with a magazine editor relative to a six-hundred-word piece, his starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly  notwithstanding.

Dealings with an editor's notes and suggestions is more often than not a conversation rather than an argument. As you listen to your characters, ideas, and themes, be at pains as well to listen to your editor. 

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