I never do this the way I’m supposed to. Like the fat man who can’t bring himself to work out, I am under no illusions about my laziness, yet time and time again I cut this particular corner.
The corner in question concerns the ‘mellowing’ period. Many writers, myself included, advocate giving your finished work a cooling off period after your first draft, so that when you return to it you can read it with fresh eyes. I find this distancing effect comes into play if I leave a work for about one week per ten thousand words. Short stories should be left for no less than seven days, and novels seven to ten weeks.
The purpose of this post is not, however, to talk about what I know to be the right thing to do – it is to talk about what I actually do. What I actually do is I leave the thing for as long as I can, usually a few days for a short story and a couple of months for a novel. Another thing I don’t do that I should is extensive and thorough editing.
I’m sorry guys, I just don’t do that much. There is a part of me that rebels against the idea of editing because I feel it’s too easy to end up taking too much and losing the raw, emotional quality of a first draft. It doesn’t help that in practice, the stories I’ve edited for hours on end tend not to be as good as the ones I didn’t, and the latter always seem to have more feeling behind them.
But, most likely I’m not editing right. I don’t know.
There is this, though: I always do at least a second and third draft, and these definitely always improve on the original. So maybe it’s just that I’ve completed Editing 101 and have yet to learn the finer points of Editing for beginners, while all those writers who advocate doing ten or twenty drafts per book are busy mastering Advanced Editing for Experienced Pros. They’ve just learned how to do that many drafts without leeching the life from their material.
So how does one begin when faced with the daunting task of making an endlessly flawed first draft into something reasonable? The best way I’ve found so far is to begin by subtraction. I learned this neat formula reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and he apparently learned it from some other guy he admired, so it’s definitely a tried and true method, and it sure works for me. The formula is simple: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%
That’s it. You go through and take out as much stuff as you can bare to part with, and if you get to the end and you haven’t reduced it by ten percent, try harder. I actually find that I’m able to get rid of fifteen to twenty percent most times, but I don’t consider second draft done until I’ve taken out at least ten.
I’m a minimalist at heart, so I find something satisfying about editing this way, removing all the superfluous words and cutting to the core of the thing, but some people have trouble with it. If you’re more of the hoarder type, I’d argue that you should aim for twenty percent shrinkage, since hoarders are also more likely to add in a bunch of unnecessary bullshit during their first draft.
It helps to know yourself, too. For some reason, I have a whole list of words and phrases that grow in my first drafts like weeds. Among them: really, only, just, seemed, sighed, nodded, shook his/her head, he/she rolled his/her eyes… the list goes on. I’m also in the habit of eliminating instances of he/she saw/felt/heard/noticed/wondered/thought etc. I learned, I think from Sol Stein or William Zinsser (books listed in my top 10 on writing), that it’s much stronger to craft sentences without these words. For example, where before I would write something like: He saw the monster crawling up from behind the car… I now edit that to: The monster crawled up from behind the car, tongue flicking from its narrow mouth.
Anyway, where were we? Right, third draft. So after I’ve taken everything out that I can and reworked some of the language, I go through it one more time – and already at this stage I’m getting awful sick of the story, keen to move onto something else. But I always find more to do in third draft. I don’t have any system here, I read the same way I read anything else, and occasionally something just doesn’t sit right with me. A piece of dialogue, a description, a sentence, whatever. When I figure out what it is that’s bothering me – which isn’t always that easy – I change it until it no longer bothers me.
If I’m doing something longer, I give it to a few people whose judgement I trust, and sometimes I make changes based on their criticism. This, I think, is the part where a lot of people have trouble – not because of criticism, although there is that – but because of the insane discrepancy between what you thought you were doing when you wrote it, and what you actually ended up doing.
What I mean is, you have no idea what you’re doing until you’ve done it.
I hate this, but there really is no way around it that I know of – no trade secret about how to find out if you’re creating something worthwhile or producing nothing but steaming shit.
It’s like cooking a meal without a recipe and only a theoretical knowledge about what the ingredients taste like, and you’re not allowed to taste it as you go. And even when you’re finished you can’t eat it yourself – you have to serve it to a bunch of other people and then listen to what they say about it, and piece together what various spices and methods tasted like. And even other chefs have a limited ability to help you, because they all have different kitchen equipment, different ingredients, and different methods, and each has a unique style of cooking that contradicts other styles and doesn’t work with yours.
The analogy is probably breaking down here, but the point of these three ‘process posts’ has ultimately been that there is no recipe. There are tools that everyone uses, just like every chef uses a pan and an oven and some sharp knives. But if I’ve learned anything from reading all those books on writing and lists of writing rules by the pros, it’s that there are infinite ways to use the tools, and no one can tell you what the right way is, and thank Christ there is no right way; originality comes from the fact that you can wield the knife the way no one else does.
And you create lots of food that looks and tastes like literal faeces. But that’s okay, because every now and again, you get yourself a good juicy burger. That’s how the process really works, mine and everyone else’s, and if you’re reading this stuff to see how it’s done, and you’ve also been going through the On Writing Books and Mr. Famous Writer Guy’s 10 Ironclad Rules For Writing… Just remember that they don’t really know how to write – they only know how to write the way they write, and they only know that much at all because of the times they cut themselves and cooked vomit flavoured stew.
I guess that’s all I’m trying to say. This has been another process in progress, and that’s how I use the tools right now, and it seems to work okay for me, but maybe not for you.
Then again, who knows? Only one way to figure it out… go cut yourself.