Typing and Writing

I write differently with pen and paper than I do with a computer. Maybe because I write more slowly than I type, or maybe because the visual feedback is different, or the tactile experience. Whatever the reason, there’s a clear difference in my output.

Even more pronounced than this, though, is the difference between how I edit using a pen, compared to how I edit on the computer. It’s almost as if a different part of my brain engages.

Lately I’m trying to get a handle on how to take advantage of these variances for different effects. Recently I work with pen and paper more and more. I still love Scrivener, and consider it my most important tool, but I’m shifting my stories in and out of Scrivener. To my mind it’s similar to an artist stepping back from a painting to get a look at it from too far away to actually work on it. When I’ve come to some kind of better understanding about the what’s different about my writing or editing processes when I write by hand rather than when I type on a computer, I’ll post about it again.

I’ve seen other writers who say they always do first drafts by hand and then type them in, or they always re-type every new draft from a new, scratch document (rather than editing into an existing document). I’m going to go back and forth for a while and think about hos the process is affecting what I’m doing.

Sometimes you have to tear down and rebuild

Posting yesterday about a couple of my writing tools got me thinking about how the right tool (in this case, Scrivener) can make the right creative choice easier, and thus increase the likelihood that you’ll make that right choice.

I’m trying to finish a story called “Secret Skin,” which I first drafted around the time I started writing again, almost two years ago. The early drafts were something like 12,000 words long, and the story itself didn’t really justify that kind of length, so I spent a ton of time cutting, re-writing, cutting, re-writing and eventually hacked it down to 5,000 words with all the magic gone. After a while, tired of worrying about this story, I set it aside and worked on other things.

I picked it up again recently, and realized it still needed… something. I was having difficulty seeing what some of the scenes were about, and how to sharpen them, even though the overall arc of the story still made sense to me. I had worked on the story in Scrivener for a long time, and eventually considered it close enough to a final draft that I moved it to a Word .DOC, and I’d been hacking away on that for countless hours. I started to feel discouraged about the story, even though I loved the main character and the dangerous female he encounters, and the strangers who cause them problems. I just couldn’t see clearly what it needed next. Where to cut, what to build up, how to restructure or resequence.

I decided to take a step back, import the story back into Scrivener, break it down into scenes again and do a “reverse outline” (a trick I frequently use, which is instead of making an outline you intend to turn into a story, take an existing story and reduce it down to an after-the-fact outline — a way of zooming out to take a wide view of your story). I realized, when I looked at the story this way, that several of the scenes were kind of muddy, because they were really several scenes run together. Sometimes it just makes more sense when scenes are clearly delineated. I turned a 5-scene story into an 8-scene story just by chopping some of the over-complex scenes into pieces that made better sense.

It wasn’t just a matter of breaking scenes apart, but once they were split into more logical segments, I was able to zero in on each scene and quickly assess what needed to happen, what the reader needed to learn, and what the point of the scene is within the story. In other words, jam two separate scenes together and you end up with this shapeless thing that’s hard to figure out. Break the pieces back apart again and it’s much easier to see how to improve the shape of each.

I might have been able to approximate this using MS Word, but Scrivener is built for this kind of thing. I love using it to evaluate structure, move things around, combine them, break them apart, and figure out what works. It’s harder to cut/copy/paste big blocks of text in Word, or to make multiple printouts and chop them up and edit that way, at least for me.

I give Scrivener a lot of credit for my ability to zero in on what each scene needed, and finally get “Secret Skin” close to ready to submit.

Radical Revision

All “R” posts, all the time here. I’d like to touch on something I’m doing recently: Radical Revisions. I mean, taking a story that’s so far removed from what it needs to be that I ended up abandoning or back-burner-ing it… and then scrapping most, and completely remodeling the rest of it. I’ve previously mentioned in this blog my intention to write more careful initial drafts, in the hope of requiring fewer subsequent revisions, and this would seem to contradict that plan. With my newly drafted stories, I’m still following that.

What’s the point, then, of reworking an old story by a method that takes much longer than just rewriting from scratch? I have a few reasons for trying this.

First, some of those old ideas still seem appealing and I’d like to finally see them realized as finished stories that hold together.

Second, it’s a useful editorial challenge to diagnose and fix the most extremely “broken” stories. It’s a sort of self-workshopping test to figure out what’s wrong with these pieces, and what they need added, changed, and removed. Mostly removed.

Third, my goal mindset for first draft composition is to totally trust my “editor brain” to fix any problems later. The more confidence you have in your ability to set things right in future drafts, the more you can cut loose and run. So, part of the point of this editorial challenge is what it will give me in terms of first draft freedom.

This project has me working on some very different material from what I’m accustomed to. I’ve got these:

Code name: Succubus
Originally 14,000 words in 22 scenes, dark fantasy with horror/erotic elements. I’ve cut 7,000 words and most of the scenes, and I’m working toward a 4,500 word finished story, with nine scenes that each accomplish something.

Code name: Pornography
Originally 11,000 words in 13 scenes, also dark fantasy with horror elements, not as racy as the above, nor as drastic a cut-job. Down to about 7,500 words and the goal is 4,000 words, nine scenes, of which two are very short transitions.

Code name: Ash Dream
This wasn’t too long, and it’s in my usual SF realm, so not as drastic as the above. Completely re-writing for POV and voice, resequencing all scenes so much of the story is told out of chronological order. Almost half the story is now in the form of summary or recap through dialogue. Interested to see if this works, but it’ll end up being under 3,000 words, five scenes. Oh, and a totally different ending, centering on the actions of a character who didn’t exist in the prior version.

To me this is sort of like turning an old, rotting, falling-down firehouse into a new, remodeled residence with concrete and big windows and cool art on the walls. It’s hard work, and it seems like a ridiculous impossibility along the way, but it will be so great when it’s done.

Know when to fold ’em

I’ve always considered myself a tough, even ruthless editor when it comes to evaluating what needs to be removed from my own writing. Even so, it can be really tough when you’ve worked on a story for over a year, written at least fifteen drafts, and already begun sending it around to magazines, only to finally realize you need to scrap big chunks of the thing.

One of my stories, very possibly the story of which I’m most proud overall, has problems. The last three editors who have sent it back have included fairly positive notes, along the lines of “interesting stuff you’re doing here, but it’s not quite completely successful.” Normally a handful of rejections wouldn’t cause me to re-think a story and throw lots of it out, but the editors’ notes just confirmed what I think I already knew.

And when I mentioned to my wife (who is a major cheerleader for my work, even at the same time she’s a helpful critic) that I was considering pulling this story off the market for a major rework to include a new beginning and a completely new ending, she agreed it was a good idea.

Sometimes it’s tempting to avoid such a major overhaul simply because of the work involved. Also, there’s the writer’s attachment to the words they’ve created, a reflexive resistance to cutting away some of those beautiful sentences. Another factor is that I’ve set myself certain goals for how many stories I’d like to complete and send out this year, and taking a story from the “finished” category and moving it back to the “working” category seems like a step back. It is a step back. Nevertheless it’s important to when the story needs a different approach, and to be willing to do that work.

That’s why this week I’ve taken a story I thought was final and cut it into little chunks, shuffled them around and removed some, and made a new outline including synopsis of two entirely new scenes. It will be better when I’m done but right now this feels like difficult work.