Monday, September 22, 2014


“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”―Raymond Chandler.

Revision is your safety net. It will keep you from splattering on the ground. Revision introduces you to yourself as a writer. You get to know your tendencies, good and bad. We all misstep. Account for this in your process, and don't be ashamed of it.

I have learned the most about my writing through the trial and error of revision. When you're inside of a draft, a first draft especially, you can't see it for what it is, just maybe what you want it to be, if you even know what that is yet. It is only when you step back that you can take the measure of what you've done.

Sometimes writers eschew revising their work to preserve its authenticity. They argue that whatever else their draft might be, it is true. They have captured something raw and from the gut, or heart, or whatever organ was liveliest at the time of composition, and their work should remain untouched to maintain that experience. In fact, they are not wrong in this. Not wrong in principle.

I've tried writing straight out of the emotional moment. Tried riling up my gut and sicking it on the page. The problem I saw when I looked back, though, was that while my work certainly seemed like it came from an emotional person, it did not evoke that emotion in a reader. It did not craft the scene in a precise and believable way, or even in an interesting way. Some smart, cold editing helped to fix that. So did throwing out a great deal and trying it over again with a sober stomach.

Who are you writing for? If at least part of your answer is “other people,” you owe it to them to make your work as good as it can be. The first draft can always be for you. Wholly for you. Either just the experience or that separate saved copy on your desktop, every feeling and intention captured in time. But thereafter, roll up your sleeves.

This doesn't mean you have to revise your work until it is without blemish. A worthwhile goal, that, but nonetheless unobtainable. There is no perfect in art, only better for me or better for you.

Eventually you have to call it – time of death, date/time, and move on. If the story doesn't get published, maybe in five or ten years you open up its drawer and discover now you know how to breathe life into it. Either way, wrestling with the peice has made you better. You're stronger now than when you began the struggle. Always.

So struggle mightily and mindfully. Don't be complacent in your process and call it authenticity. Don't shrug off honing your work out of some half-baked sense of snaring “true emotion.” That sort of dull writing never cut straight to a reader's heart and left a mark.

The best short story I ever wrote I revised three or four times over the same number of years, adding to it and rearranging and thematicising – all the proper embellishments any good student of the craft should fritter away at. Intending to look over what I had done, I started reading the first draft by mistake. That draft was the best of them all. Flawed, but the cracks were so thin they took nothing away from the rest. It was compact, simple, and playfully succeeded at what it set out to do. This, a story I wrote in two days?  But I took the time to know it.

And there you have it. Not wrong in principle.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Writing Rules

“These are my rules. I make 'em up.”—George Carlin.

Nothing beats good writing. If you write something and it works, it works. End of discussion. Doesn't matter whose rules you break along the way. And there are plenty of dumb rules writers regularly kick down like rotting fences in the path of their creative wanderings.

Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Clearly hyperbolic. But start too many this way, and the reader will wonder if you forgot there was any such thing as a comma. Do not write sentence fragments, use exclamation points, or modify dialogue with adverbs. “Ha! As if!” he whispered contemptuously, scrawling his seditions with a broken pen.

Some writers in their early development cannot see the arbitrary nature of these barricades and go through all the painful contortions of avoiding them at every turn. Rest assured, no one owns these rules, and you will not be fined for breaking them. In fact, break down the right ones in the right way, and you might be celebrated for your originality. Then again, some of these obstructions are more like guardrails along a cliff. Indiscriminately leap over every one, and you can find yourself falling a long way.

I admit these grammatic examples seem trifling, or at least they should. More substantive rules have become so ingrained we hardly think about them. We consider them conventions. If you spend the first third of your book following a specific character, the reader assumes the story will follow them for its duration. Hitchcock famously breaks this rule in Psycho, killing Janet Leigh's character off soon after the movie's plot seems to have been established. From there the film jolts in an unpredictable and fascinating direction. But then no one remembers that cinematic flop.

Intrepid writers in search of some structure on which to hang their story frequently seek out new rules, however arbitrary or absurd, and add them to their sacrosanct vault. They don't just pick them up as they stumble along; they mine for them. Each clanging of the pick and scraping of the shovel sounds out the same. “What's the right . . . ” clang. “What's the best . . .” scrape. Book length, chapter length, narrative perspective, balance between narration and dialogue, number of characters? Can I divide a book in two? What about three? Should the sections be the same length? If I have a prologue, do I also have to have an epilogue?

The labor grinds right along. Back breaking, anxious effort that avoids the only rule that ever mattered: the story only exists if you write it. No answer ever satisfied like the thing itself. What is right and best is a matter of the story at your fingertips, not what everyone else has done. Many books may be eighty-thousand words, but that doesn't mean yours has to be—or even can be. Their hearts are in the right place though. They simply want to get it right, and not do anything that might rule them out of the running for publication.

There is no one right way for a story to be. You have to decide. Good writing is undeniable, whether it charts an unheard of course or tracks along a premise that has been stamped into the ground. Don't let your work be clubbed into dank submission.

Write well enough, and you make your own rules.