Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Road Not Taken — Revision Decisions

[Warning, spoilers ahead on the Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter]
So probably everybody has read the Robert Frost Poem, The Road Not Taken. You know, it’s the one that starts off “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and goes on at length about the narrator’s indecision about which path he should take. At one point the narrator acknowledges that he would like to take both roads, but that “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.”
And the dude is right — about paths taken in life.
Not so much about paths taken in writing.

The great thing about writing stories is that you can go back and take the other path if you want to, and in a lot of cases, you probably should. That’s what rewrite/revision is all about.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of writers, especially beginning ones, have a hard time considering the path not taken when doing revisions. I know I certainly did. For some writers there doesn’t even seem to be an alternate path. We think the story is what is and that’s that, and our revising is actually more editing, aka fixing minor issues, polishing the language. In other words, not really doing anything to improve on the story itself.
But guess what, folks — there’s always an alternate path. Something else could happen. [SPOILER ALERT] In MockingJay, Katniss could’ve decided not to shoot President Snow. In Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer could’ve decided not to go the whole killer-baby-nobody-dies, there-are-no-consequences-ever route (and think about how much better the story would be if she had). And in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry could’ve decided to let Sirius and Lupin kill Wormtail.
[SPOILER OVER] Now, I’m not saying that if these writers had chosen a different path that the stories would’ve been better. Clearly, that’s not the case with the Harry Potter example at the very least. But what I am saying is that if you know there’s an issue with a story you’re working on, considering an alternate path might very well be the solution.
Now the key to recognizing the existence of alternate paths is distance from the story. And the only way to gain that distance is to stick your first draft in a drawer and let it sit there for a period of time. Stephen King recommends a minimum of 6 weeks, and he’s probably right. At the very least, give it a month.  
I know it’s hard, and I know you don’t want to, but you really, really should. Once you’ve achieved the distance, you’ll start to see not only the issues with your story but the ways to fix them, very often by letting the story take a different path. And as an added bonus, you’ll gain the ever important practice of learning the art of patience. And if you’re writing to publish, patience is a virtue you’re really going to need. That is, if you plan on staying sane.
Good luck and happy writing!

Friday, November 4, 2011

What He Said -- Writer Pep Talk

Busy, busy, busy, that’s been me of late. And usually when I get busy the first thing to go is the social media stuff, especially blogging. Don’t get me wrong, I like blogging, but I don’t love it — not like I do writing fiction. Writing fictions trumps all the other kinds of writing, you know?
Anyway, I do have a couple quick thoughts to share. The first is good luck to all of you doing NaNoWrMo. While I’ve never participated in it (mainly because discipline isn’t one of my writing struggles), I do think it’s a great, fun time and worthwhile. But just remember that writing to publish is more of a “racing championship” than a single competition. There should be a “revise a novel in a month” month after NaNo and then a “work on something else” month followed by a “revise again” month. In other words, writing those first 50,000 words is just the first leg in a very long race. Be sure you’re in it for the long haul.
And rather than waste your precious writing time with a pep talk about this long haul business, I’ll point you to this awesome post by Jim Butcher on that very subject. He says it waaaaaay better.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!