Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Revisions And the Messy Muse

By Hannah

My writing process for fiction is not a straight line. I create outlines: beginning, middle, end. Yet they don’t seem to reign me in. Subplot variations, new character behaviors, different ways to tie threads appear, perhaps stronger than the original. A first draft is supposed to be just that, but I often wish it was more, especially as I send sections to the Group.

Thus, a question. Should a writer who is perhaps more of a re-writer offer up linear sections for feedback during the process of building a first draft? How accurate can Group feedback be in that situation? How is a Messy Muse going to relay 70,000 coherent, compelling words if she is being reviewed every 25 pages? Curiously, feedback still is useful, and revisions need not stifle creativity.

Our meetings, as described, allow three readers to talk through edited individual copies of the text. While everyone pretends the writer is not in the room, she has a perfect opportunity to capture that conversation. What points generated agreement, positive or negative? Who prompted which discussion, by agreeing or disagreeing, and why? When give-and-take is that honest and immediate, getting it on paper is critical.

Back at home the next day, I pull out the three readers’ copies and my notes. I sit on my sofa, and pull the coffee table to my knees. On it is centered one copy, preferably one with edits in red. I layer in the other two sets, using green pen for one and purple for the other. Last, I add my own notes to create a single reference.

Grammar and punctuation, questions on word choice, notes about a sentence or paragraph that had to be read more than once to be clear, all these changes are automatic. Comments on the need for more – or less – setting, backstory, interaction come next. If a scene or character is not immediate, or too verbose, for any reader, and I am not being vague on purpose, it has to be changed.

The greatest hurdle, of course, comes in challenges to characters, to subplots. Not requests for clarification, subtle shifts, but head-on questions on the very existence of a person or an event. As with those who have a more linear process, here is where the Muse must be consulted and debated. Can I justify what is on paper, with reasons that the readers will understand at a later time? Is it a difference in viewpoint, where a reader hopes or expects one thing, but the story must be served by another? What exactly do I want as the writer, what am I trying to say? If the Muse is strident, the text will stay, the thread continue. If a new idea seems worth entertaining, I rethink. And while this can lead me down a dangerous path, of course, I am learning how to make it work more efficiently and effectively.

The Muse and I have reached a truce, thanks to Group. Critique strengthens my conviction when I am doing well and pushes me on when I can do better. From the revisions, even along the way, I learn more about how I write and why.


ORION said...

I don't know if I agree with editing before the first draft is done. I think it is important to establish the writer's vision -- to get her ideas down as crappy as they might be (to paraphrase Anne Lamott) and THEN work with a writing group.
I know everyone has their own path and there is no right way -- but I have found letting other writers see my work before it is finished provokes them to help me write THEIR story instead of mine. Just a caveat.
But it sounds as though (lead down a dangerous path) you know the pitfalls...
Such a great blog you all have.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! That caveat is important; I have been in groups where that was a real danger. This group is honest and generous with feedback, but also clear on ownership issues. If I belonged to a group that did not have that clarity, I would only bring in unfinished work to throw ideas and elements out for reaction.