Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Are you a first-drafter or a revisioner?

People often talk about “what kind of writer you are” – whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, for example, meaning do you write whatever comes into your head or do you create a detailed outline first. Or they might ask if you are a fowl or an owl. Do you write best early in the morning or late at night? I’ve always fallen in the middle for both. I write best after lunch, I think, and I’ve learned how to do outlines that are rough diagrams but that work for me.

I have a writer friend who is a revisioner, she says. She almost hates the first draft, the feeling of having to create something out of nothing, and lives for multiple revisions. I, on the other hand, had been cultivating a hatred of revision, until I learned what it could do for me if I approached it properly. Properly as in the same way I learned how to outline with diagrams and notes – the method that suits me best.

The first thing I realised is that just like every novel is different and has different issues to wrestle with, so every revision is different. What happens in the revision usually stems from what I can recognise I did wrong in the first draft. I didn’t plot strongly enough? I have multiple plot holes to fill, as well as character motivations and choices to think through more deeply. I didn’t delve into my characters deeply enough? I have to do that now before I start revising or I’ll be wasting my time. Spent too much time (or not enough) on setting and description? Got sidetracked too many times into minor characters? All things to fix in the revision.

I’ve discovered the key to revision is understanding what I did in the first draft. Did I spend the whole of the first draft trying to decide if my character is 12 or 16? Hmmm. That kind of doubt shows up in voice and is hard to fix, but not impossible. It means the revision has to focus on language and character, line by line, thought by thought. The strange thing is – understanding all of this about my processes hasn’t made either the first draft or the revisions more difficult. By working much harder over the past few years on revision, I’ve opened a “release valve”.

Now my first drafts are much more fun. I can recognise much earlier if I’m going wrong, I can stop and rework what I need to in order to be able to write the rest of the first draft more freely. I understand now why some writers have to perfect each scene or chapter before they can move onto the next. It’s like making sure your stepping stones aren’t wobbling under you before you move to the next one. (It’s not how I write, but I can use a bit of that to ensure my first draft is more solid.) I also have a bunch of writing exercises I can use to deepen the first draft – exercises for “writing around the novel” that mostly came from my Hamline advisor, Marsha Qualey.

I’m still not going to be like my friend and love the revisions. It’s more that I understand how to make the most of them, how to be a craftswoman instead of just a tinkerer. It means I am also more clearheaded about cutting, tightening, restructuring sentences and sentence order, and especially about reaching into the heart of the story to see if it’s really beating. Or just lying on the couch watching reality TV, eating chips and pretending.

I don’t think it matters whether you’re a first-drafter or a revisioner. What really matters is to know which you are, and to strengthen your skills at doing the other so you have a balance. Otherwise you’ll either always have first drafts of novels that never reach publishing standard, or you’ll be stuck on revising one novel for the next 20 years!