Posts Tagged ‘writing’

The Freedom of Shackles

Friday, November 30th, 2007

It’s Friday, and despite a fusillade of rejection letters earlier in the week, I’m feeling rather good because I finished the first draft of a new story yesterday. It’s short, for me at least, and it’s not stunningly original because it’s a pastiche of a classic but unknown fantasy author. It’s also at this point destined for a private publishing venture instead of the usual markets.

The neat thing that I realized after finishing it was how liberating all of those constraints ended up being. I didn’t need to outline because I followed the structure of the story I was satirizing. I didn’t need to worldbuild a society because the story moved quickly through only a few locales. The antiquated narrative voice perfectly fit the more pompous and baroque side of my own. I usually stretch the literal connotations of language, which many readers aren’t spry enough to follow. For this story I embraced that whole-hog, even to the point of inventing new words. And because the story won’t go through traditional submission channels, I had no nagging worry that some editor would get snarky at my poetics.

My first-reader thought the story came out very well. I’ll get another critique or two, then see where it stands. But at that point, I’m quite curious to see if this completely off-the-cuff effort might actually seize an editor’s interest. That would be hilarious, and quite a comment on this less restrained process. Who knows–stranger things have happened….


Monday, November 19th, 2007

In a comment to last week’s post about the risk of First Drafts as Final Drafts, my writing colleague Pantsless Justin asked if I think a story could be critiqued and/or revised too much. Absolutely. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor at Tor and instructor at a workshop I attended, calls this “crit burn” (like freezer burn) and says he can see it in manuscripts.

I don’t know exactly what tips him off, but I have seen heavily critted manuscripts that read somewhat scattered, as though they’re trying to do too many different tiny things. With critiques of my own writing, I can easily dismiss suggestions that are completely different from what I’m trying to achieve in that piece. And there are always suggestions that are brilliant–Charles Coleman Finlay says that if a crit suggestion is so cool that you wish you’d thought of it yourself, put it in.

Where I sometimes have trouble is the area in between. I can’t speak for anyone else, so for this discussion I’ll have to use myself as the example. I often wonder if suggestions that are slightly beyond my original focus might not be good things to change. I also often find myself subconsciously giving more weight to comments from people whose own writing I respect.

Part of this self-examination does come from the fact that I’ve only sold two stories. I have themes and types of stories that I like to write, and I have my own personal style, but I’ve only caught a couple editors’ attention. As with any new writer, there’s no way to know if I just haven’t hooked others’ interest or if there is a fundamental flaw in my fiction. So I always wonder if interesting comments are things worth pursuing so I can hook more editors.

Perhaps this is one of the points that the proponents of the First Draft is Final theory are trying to combat. The first draft may be your most original and pure, and changing it based on the comments of others might dilute that originality. But other readers can also see a draft from a far more objective vantage. Their comments can reveal ambiguity and erroneous interpretations. The benefits of finding those outweigh any risk of losing originality. All workshopping writers must eventually develop a balanced approach to heeding critique comments, especially if they want to become objective enough to someday be able to critique their own work.

First Draft is Final: Reality or Myth?

Monday, November 12th, 2007

There is a theory that your first draft should be your final draft. Some professional writers teach this, and they say you should only make changes if an editor asks for them. (I assume they mean the first full complete draft, ignoring any abortive starts or early versions that had the wrong ending.)

This could not be further from the way I work. Even after 1-2 weeks of outlining a story–worldbuilding, designing the plot, sketching the characters–I still go through one major draft before I send the story for critiques, another major draft on rewrite, then more critiques if the story still needs it and a third major draft. Each of these drafts includes 3-6 “subdrafts” that still involve major changes, partly because it takes me several iterations to get the language right for how I want to express something. I’ve also had several astute editors suggest changes to a few of my stories even after that, changes that were very good ideas, and I then went through a fourth major draft to impliment them. So my first draft is nowhere near final.

I know many other writers who don’t outline, and for them the first draft is their “feeling-out” process where they figure out the same sorts of things that I do in my outlining–the nature of the world, the progression of the plot, and the identities of the characters. The first draft is not final for them either.

I recognize that for many pros, the first draft may be the final draft. They know what they’re doing, and they’ve been doing it a long time. I don’t like my multi-draft process–I wish I could do it more efficiently–but it’s the only way I can get things to work for me. I hope someday I will be able to streamline it.

But as a college teacher, I’m dubious of telling aspiring writers that their first draft should be their final one. They don’t yet know what they’re doing, and encouraging them to submit their first drafts to markets seems almost irresponsible. They–perhaps “we,” because I count myself as still aspiring–must learn how to shape our natural output into a readable story for a genre audience. Rewriting is a vital step in this. Sending out drafts prematurely only leads to form rejections, which don’t teach anything.

So, First Draft is Final Draft: a Myth for most, Reality for a lucky, skilled few, a hope and eventual goal for me, but a risky message for aspiring novices.

Lies and Powerful Antagonists

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora last week, but an element in the middle bothered me. Act I of the book (it closely followed a three-act structure) was mostly setup, but Act II introduced a supremely powerful new villain. This villain somehow knew every one of the protagonist’s secrets. He effortlessly out-maneuvered the most clever secondary characters, then the protagonist. The villain’s henchman wielded dominating power that left the protagonist utterly helpless.

Despite this almost comical power imbalance, the seemingly invincible antagonist made Act II a gripping read by wrecking the protagonist’s life. The tension level was off the charts. I kept wondering “how’s the protagonist ever going to defeat this guy.” Then in the climax of Act III, when the stakes were the highest, the protagonist used a simple loophole, a thing that he’d already considered in Act II, to easily neutralize the antagonist’s supreme power and defeat him in less than a page.

So I got to thinking about this paradox. A powerful antagonist will cause lots of conflict, which is good. But the more powerful he is, the harder it will be for the protagonist to defeat him. When the protagonist eventually does triumph, that victory needs to be extremely clever or brave or strong to make it feel justified.

In Locke Lamora, the protagonist’s eventual victory was way too easy, especially given the antagonist’s seemingly limitless power. But by that point in the novel, the gripping read of the middle (largely due to the conflict caused by that antagonist’s power) had already hooked my attention. I still found the climax weak, and partly because of that I’m not planning to read the sequel. But it seems that the dominantly powerful antagonist was a compelling element even though his defeat was unjustified.