Tag Archives: revising

My Caveats

These are my caveats, which I have formulated over decades. One is personal, but the other two are universal. I suggest all writers engrave two and three upon their brain-pans in indelible, glow-in-the-dark, neuronal script.

  • Caveat One: I may not know what I’m blathering about.
  • Caveat Two: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong.
  • Caveat Three: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

Caveat One is obviously personal. This caveat is on my twitter account (@PKgesic) and also goes in the signature of any forum I join. I’m just warning people that I may be talking utter nonsense and they should really check it out for themselves rather than taking my word for it. I will quite happily pontificate on subjects ranging from the theory of mind to why the world economy is so messed up and what the hell is going to happen next. On most of these subjects my knowledge is autodidactic and therefore may be very very wrong. It doesn’t stop me spouting, but it should give people pause before they swim with the flow of my babbling opinions.

The caveat is not entirely personal however. I’ve never met an opinion I didn’t like to deconstruct and everybody else should do the same. Never take anything as read – no matter how worthy and respected the source.

Caveat Two is a result of too many writing rules being thrown at me on various writing sites. I suspect a lot of these rules began life on agent and editor sites, even in submission guidelines: this is what we do not want to see. Then bloggers, and other people who like something as complicated as reader taste simplified, took them up as battle-cries in the war against creativity. Yes, you can get all these things wrong, but that doesn’t mean they are rules.

Note: I am not talking about the rules of grammar here. Punctuation, word-usage, sentence structure, and so forth are essential for clear prose. Clarity of prose is essential for understanding. Comprehension is essential for…well, everything really. Ambiguity in your plotting is fine, everybody likes an unreliable narrator, but you really shouldn’t leave your reader scratching their head over your sentences. There are of course stylistic choices and flourishes you can use, but grammar is not something you can simply ignore.

Caveat Three is really just a warning.

If you read — for instance — ‘Show Don’t Tell’ on a website then you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that that person is talking out of their arse. If they give an example, which turns one word into fifty, then they ate a really hot curry and you are about to suffer the after-effects.

Only if they say something like ‘It is best to show rather than tell, because it places the reader in the scene. However, telling does have its uses’  are they actually speaking out of their mouths (yes, I know they are actually posting to a blog and not speaking, but once you start using a metaphor you really should follow through to the bitter end. In my humble opinion of course). The same goes for adverbs, dialogue tags, and any of the other myriad little things a writer should bear in mind when writing or revising.

I am as guilty as anybody else of saying ‘you should always’ or ‘you should never’ in critiques and edits, because sometimes the person you are critting or editing really needs to know that having a different dialogue tag after every single piece of dialogue is somewhat distracting to the reader. A certain amount of firmness is needed at that point. But my caveats are always there to let the writer know that everything to do with writing is subjective.

There you go, an insight into my philosophy of writing. Which I suppose counts as an introduction.

A version of this was posted to ‘of Altered States’ as part of my introduction to that site: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Writing into the Void

I used to be arrogant about my writing. I knew I could write a good line. I knew I could write believable dialogue. I knew I could create a solid plot out of thin air.

But I was writing into the void. I’m not sure who called it this; who used the word void to describe it. I read it somewhere but I am not sure who wrote it. Sorry about that, but the word resonated not the name attached to it. I used to call it writing into the vacuum, but void is better, void is more precise: it describes the process exactly as it happens.

Writing with nobody to read your work, nobody to see the flaws, nobody to show you the little things you have to know. Friends? Family? They are good for “Can I write?” Not because of what they say, after all they are unlikely to tell you you’re crap, but for the look in their eye as they say it. You can see the surprise, the respect; they know that the story works and they show that to you in their reaction. What they can’t do, however, is read your work as a writer would.

So you teach yourself, on your own, bit by bit, sphere by sphere, move by move. Sitting there writing away, learning how things work on the page the hard way, self-educating yourself to write.

I used to call close-third-multiple: viewpoint writing, because I had never heard of close third and needed something to describe what I was trying to do. Struggling with keeping the viewpoint firmly fixed in a single head in a single scene. Why? Because it felt right. It felt like that is the way it should be. Writing, reading, revising, rereading, revising, rereading…. every time spotting another instance where I let a line slip, when I had fallen out of the character’s head. Learning that the best way to learn how to write close third is to write first person.

Not knowing why this worked, just groping towards a style. I already had a voice. I’ve never had a problem with voice (I started writing at 11 obsessive teenager scribbling is very good for letting your voice through) but style, now that was a fish of a different genus.

And so it went with passive sentences too. Using the grammar checker  — remember when grammar checkers talked about clause splicing and so forth, no readability stats, no way of knowing which sentences was passive and which were not (computers still aren’t to be trusted on that score, not completely; they’re machines: they don’t know the meanings of the words you’re using. So always be careful, but they are useful — just don’t have the green lines on. Because those things are irritating, distracting and utterly worthless).

So I’d do a grammar check. 3% passive sentences. Then I would go page by page. If it flagged up a passive sentence on that page then I’d go paragraph by paragraph. Zeroing in on the sentence. Finding the right paragraph and  going sentence by sentence through that paragraph until I found it. Then altering it. Switching it around. Until it was not flagged as passive any more. Learning how to write sentences first time out of the box so my grammar check always says 1% (0% happens very occasionally. Some sentences have to be passive — it’s not a mortal sin, only a clumsy one).

And so on, with story structure, with character scenes vs plot scenes, with action vs reflection, with pacing. All the time on my own, writing into the void arrogantly sure that I could write.

And then I found writing sites.

I’d done nanowrimo and been on those forums and I think I managed to help some people and upset a whole lot more. Not much changes there.  What can you do? You are who you are.

But on other writing sites I started seeing the wood for the trees. I started seeing the little things that make all the difference. I started learning the lingo. And I started to talk to other writers for the very first time. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, all the time, everyday, bit by bit, and I posted to threads, and I asked the questions, and my confidence grew.

Especially once I started giving and receiving critiques, that is where I started making the hard choices, the writer’s choices. Working for the story not my ego.

Arrogance is based on your own fear that maybe you can’t do this. Arrogance will make you give fixed answers to questions of style and pace and voice. Arrogance will blind you to the way forward.

Confidence is based on knowledge. Confidence allows you to see that there are many answers to any question about the craft, the art, the truth, and they are all correct. Confidence will show you the way forward.

Arrogance is false and confidence is real.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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The Value of Retyping

There’s a danger with word processors. They allow you to fiddle around forever: change a word, go back and change another one, go back change the punctuation, take this story beat from this scene and cut and paste it in to this one. Constant messing around at the margins of the story.

And in the process, you kill the flow of the words. It is no longer this smooth, well-paced, linear flow from one idea to the next, from one scene to the next. You mess around so much that you lose the rhythm of the work. I should imagine pretty much every writer has done this and then spent hours, days, weeks, months, messing around trying to get back what they have lost.

Stop. Print it out. Type it back in. (Using the print out, lets not go crazy and try to remember every word).

That’s my advice.

Make all the changes you need to make for structure, pacing, character development, plot — whatever you need to fix. Make the changes as rough or as fine as you want. You need to change that bit of dialogue, change it. You need to cut and paste that story beat from that scene to that scene so the sequence works, move it. You need to make that sentence work better because it’s bugging the hell out of you, make it work.

Then print it out and type it all back in. The real hard core method is to print it out, delete the original, and then type it back in. The reason to delete is so you are forced to retype even the scenes that work with no cutting and pasting them over; the reason why you retype the scenes that work is because the flow goes straight through them and you need to follow the flow.

I came by this method while reading an old interview with one of the greats of the SF Golden Age (I forget which one, which is unfortunate but it took a while for the message to sink in). He used to type his first drafts on the back of old bills, envelopes, scrap bits of paper, anything. The idea being that he could not possibly submit that to an editor, so he forced himself to retype the second draft.

We have word processors now, so what constitutes a second draft these days? A complete start at the beginning revision, where you fix all these things on the screen. I don’t think so. That’s revision not a draft. That can lead you down the ‘ten years writing the same damn story’ syndrome, because you’re not seeing the story as a whole anymore. You’re seeing it as separate scenes, sentences, punctuation marks. You can drive yourself crazy doing that sort of thing.

A complete retyping of the entire story, the way most writers had to do it before the advent of word processors, that’s a second draft.

Obviously,  people will say that it’ll take too long to retype the entire thing, that it’s quicker to just revise. If you have a good strong first draft, then you’re probably right. Not much point retyping the whole thing if all you need to do is clean up a couple of sentences. But if you have to do anything structural, anything major, retyping takes less time than fiddling and will produce a better story.

You decide (or discover for pantsers like me) that this character is in love with this other character, for instance. You can go back and drop in stuff, work out beats within scenes, play the foreshadow card for all it is worth, but the interactions of every other character will be off too. This sort of emotional involvement affects everybody around the two people engaged in the flirting, moon-eyed glances, sighs and all the other things that people falling in love do.

It affects all the dynamics, all of them. It might even affect the dynamics (at a story-telling level) of characters who never even meet the moon calves.

You can of course go through the whole thing, shifting, adjusting, making decisions, altering this word here, and that word there, and so forth. But it doesn’t alter the fact that, when you wrote the original draft, you didn’t know about the lovers. If you retype it with the full knowledge of this plot point then you automatically adjust everything as you go and as a bonus you smooth out all the bumps in the flow caused by pratting about word-fiddling.

And it takes less time because you are writing free and easy again. You know the story, you know the characters, you have the first draft in front of you and you are reading it. You don’t have to remember anything, you just have to type it in. No better way to spot a truly dodgy bit of writing than when you type it back in again. The damn things leap off the page at you.

Anyway, just a thought. It works for me, it might well work for you too.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Filed under Drafting, Editing, and Revising