One Ideal Reader

So. We’re back to the first draft. After several months of ponderings and musings and “woe-is-me”-ings, we’re back.

I’ve been editing fairly consistently for the past week or so, working from my new writing set-up (iPad + folio keyboard = mobile writer go!). I haven’t made it past the first chapter yet — but that’s mostly because the first chapter needs a lot of work. Ultimately, it needs to do some serious heavy lifting. Introducing characters, establishing a mood, setting the scene. And it’s that LAST part — the scene — that’s been a sticking point.

Re-reading my first draft, a big thing that stuck out at me was the science. Or rather, the “science” — vague, elusive and inaccurate even to my untrained eye. I started out this book with a very specific setting in mind: a futuristic desert landscape that shapes the characters and their actions. I didn’t worry (or even think about) the science behind such a setting when I wrote the first draft. The story was tied up with the setting — I couldn’t untangle the two. So I just wrote it as I felt it needed to be told.

Kids, learn from your elders — this may have been a mistake. I wrote myself into a scientific quandary: a setting that is not actually possible here on earth. Which would be fine if the book were set somewhere else! But it’s not. It’s here, it’s earth, it is what it is. And I wanted to fix this — I wanted to make it “right.” After reviewing the first draft, I was determined to make the science believable, albeit possibly a bit of a stretch.

My friend Tara offered to help. A former college roommate, Tara has been a plant nerd for as long as I’ve known her (plant nerds are the best kind of people), and now she’s turning that plant nerdery into a career as a scientist. She and her husband offered to take a look at the premise behind the book, chat about the science, and get back to me.

And chat they did — along with several of their scientist friends. General consensus? Nope. Does not compute. Science presented not possible. In any way, shape or form.

Cue the tiny violin.

Now, if that sounds defeatist — well, I was feeling a bit defeatist. But Tara and Nick were not, bless their science-y hearts. They offered up a bunch of other possible scenarios, ways the setting could be changed, ways that I could correct the science. And I listened, I took notes, I pondered… and I questioned. “Well, what if this had happened? This? Ok, not that one, how about this?” I sought the one answer that would get it “right,” when I was missing the one big, important, obvious thing: I was unwilling to alter the setting.

It sounds so childish typing that out. “I DON’T CARE IF IT’S WRONG, IT’S HOW I WANT IT.” But that’s how I felt. Changing the setting just felt wrong — a different setting wasn’t part of the story I wanted to tell — but I so desperately wanted the science to be right. I worried about getting it wrong, I worried about readers saying, “No, this isn’t possible. This could never happen.” I didn’t want readers to call me out on it.

Feeling stuck and confused, I emailed Tara more follow-up questions… and she responded with something that gave me pause:

I feel like you can say anything you want to set up a situation that works for your book. As a reader, I feel like I generally accept whatever premise the author presents. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal right now and there’s all kinds of ridiculous things that exist and are happening. I’m more interested in relationships than in the setting that exists behind them. — Tara, lovely scientist and friend

Hello, light bulb. It feels silly to admit it… but I had never thought of it from that angle before. Stephen King talks about figuring out who your Ideal Reader is, and writing for that person. I had been fixated on ALL THE READERS — all the people who would say I was doing it wrong. But as King writes:

You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. — Stephen King, On Writing

Maybe the science didn’t HAVE to be 100% right. Maybe I could ask the reader to take a leap of faith with me. Yes, there will be readers who are distracted and annoyed by the lack of scientific accuracy, but… maybe at the end of the day I’m not writing for those readers (or CAN’T write for them). I have to decide what type of story I want to tell and run with it, committed and ready to roll.

So no — this book is not going to be scientifically accurate. Edits and revisions will hopefully get it closer to plausibility, but I’m not going to worry too much about getting it all “right.” The setting will work to further the overarching themes of the book — themes of survival and community and responsibility to one’s self versus the greater good. THAT’s what I want to talk about with this book. That’s what I want to focus on. So to the scientists of the world, I apologize — this book may not be for you. But I’m hoping for that one Ideal Reader, it will be.

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On Editing

As mentioned earlier in the week, I’m starting the first-draft edit on Saturday. As also mentioned, I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. Yes, I can edit for spelling, grammar, consistencies — but this thing needs serious revisions. Where to begin? How to tackle what at the moment seems to be a massive undertaken?

I was always the type of student to do all my homework, and apparently I haven’t lost that trait. For the past week I dug into blogs and books and turned to the experts: authors whose advice I’ve found helpful in the past. And soon enough, some themes began to emerge.

Start Reading

You need to re-read your book. It’s time. Sit down with it. Print it out and plop it in your lap. Or smear it onto your iPad or computer monitor. Whatever it takes: just re-read that sonofabitch. Do this quickly. — Chuck Wendig, “25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story

Stephen King advises the same thing in On Writing — sit down and re-read the first draft, preferably in one sitting. The idea is that you’ll see the book as a whole, without time lapses, and you’ll be able to see what works — and what doesn’t.

Find Your Theme

I’ve read On Writing numerous times (I noticed the other day how incredibly broken my book’s spine is), and I’m always finding new bits to love in there. Like this:

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book — at least one worth reading — is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings your is about. — Stephen King, On Writing

Yes. Definitely yes. That’s one thing I’m very aware of with my book — it needs a Unifying Factor. Or rather, the unifying factor lying beneath all the junk needs to be uncovered. (For more about uncovering theme and symbolism and all that big scary stuff, I’d also recommend Chuck Wendig’s blog post, “The Contextual Edit“.)

Cut Out the Crap

There’s one bit of On Writing that always stuck with me, from the very first time I read it:

In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High …. I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1 Draft – 10%. Good luck.” — Stephen King, On Writing

I love that — such a simple, easy formula. What I find most interesting is that King claims he follows it almost to the letter — for his second draft, he chops 10% of the word count from the first draft. No excuses, it just has to happen. I know my book needs some “de-puffying”, so 10% seems a good amount to aim for.

Margaret Atwood gives similar advice (PS, HOW EXCITED WAS I when I found Margaret Atwood had a blog post with editing advice??):

Readers are readers. They are good at reading. They are also post-film, and are used to swift cuts. They will fill in quite a lot. At any point, are you telling/filling in too much? The author needs to walk through the moves in his/her head — like practicing a dance or a military exercise — so that no actual tactical mistakes are made — the character doesn’t go out the door before he’s put his pants on, unless intended — but then the planning steps, the  connect-the-dots steps, are pruned out so that what the reader gets is a graceful, fluid execution. We hope. — Margaret Atwood, “Ten Editing Tips, for Your Fiction Mss.

Remove the “connect-the-dot” steps — this gives the reader credit. You’re trusting that the reader is intelligent, that you don’t need to fill in every tiny detail for her. It seems to me this would result in a sharper, leaner book (something I’m hoping to achieve).

Track It

I can’t believe I never thought of this one before:

It is exceedingly helpful to mark all the changes you make. I turn them on when editing but turn their visibility off at the same time — so, it’s tracking all the changes I make off-stage and behind the curtain. But I can view them at any time. — Chuck Wendig, “How Chuck Wendig Edits a Novel

Track Changes in Word. Duh. Totally doing this.

It’s a Process — And That’s Ok

The most daunting thing about editing is… well, there’s not just one daunting thing, is the problem. It’s all the things. Grammar and continuity errors and gaping plot holes and oh God I forgot about that character what do I do with him?? At this point in time, it seems like a massive undertaking.

Well. It is. But that shouldn’t phase you:

See revision as “envisioning again.” If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind’s picture. You can sit down and time yourself and add to the original work that second, third, or fourth time you wrote on something. — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Wendig calls this the “Layer Cake” theory of editing. One of my writing-group buddies has a different analogy — varnishing a table. You can’t apply ten layers of varnish at once, the thing will turn out looking like a mess. You have to sand the table down, smooth it out, apply one layer. Then you repeat the process, one layer at a time, until you have the final result: a beautiful, smooth, gleaming table. Same thing with a novel and editing: you start one layer at a time — context, grammar, characters — until you have one damn fine table. Er, book.

I have to say, after this whole week of research and reading and expectation — I feel ready. I feel excitedI’m ready for Saturday to arrive, to sit down with my book — my book, which I wrote, which I finished — and start ripping it to shreds. Or, maybe politely pecking it to shreds. It’ll be a messy business — and that’s ok.

Write What You Know, Know What You Know

Byron surprised me with tickets to an upcoming John Hodgman show this Friday  (aka, the Deranged Millionaire), and in researching the show I stumbled across this video — John Hodgman’s Advice to Writers.

In addition to featuring Hodgman’s lovely dry wit, there are some good little wisdom nuggets in there — namely, the problems with “write what you know.” Hodgman says that if you want to write what you know, you’d better know some interesting things. We writers unfortunately can’t be shut-ins all the time — you have to get out there and live some life. The real heart of his argument, however, comes down to “know what you know”:

And then you also have to know what you know, and I think that’s even the hardest thing. Writing what you know is fine, but knowing what you know is the key to actually writing or creating any piece of art, because you have to know what it is that is driving you to do this completely narcissistic and asocial act of creating — forcing your thoughts and feelings upon a world that does not care. And you have to honestly figure out what it is you care about.

This struck a cord with me, because um, if we’re going with the whole “honesty” thing? I never know what I’m writing about. Not really. I mean, I know the characters, and the setting, and the plot (hopefully!). But I rarely know what the driving force is behind a piece — not until I’m finished and can see the forest for the trees.

It seems to me that Hodgman is talking about theme — that all-powerful yet enigmatic word that is supposed to pull a writer’s work together. Stephen King has a chapter in On Writing about theme. He starts off:

Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal. If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered — why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important.

Key there? When you’ve finished. I really don’t know how I could ever pick up the theme of a piece when I’m in the middle of it, wrestling with the characters and the plot and the “oh my god, did I really write that?” After I’ve finished and had some time away from the piece, that’s when I can lean back and say, “Oh. So that’s what it was all about.”

But it is entirely possible (even probable) that this is just me. Others may write with theme at the forefront — they may already know what they know and are ready to write about it. Does this put writers into two different camps? Plot-driven and theme-driven?

My guess is that this is something that applies to all creative types, not just writers (if you’re a painter, for example, you may not truly know what you’re going for until after you’ve slapped some paint on the canvas). So I’ll pose the question to all creative types — do you create with theme in mind? Or is it something you stumble upon after the fact?

The Writer’s Door

Fun fact! I attend a writing group that meets once a month. Monthly deadlines are a useful weapon in combating sloth-like tendencies. It’s a rather ragamuffin group of experienced writers and amateurs, men and women, poets and prose writers. An odd mix, perhaps, but I find that mix provides interesting feedback.

I’m currently working on a story (book? novel?) that is proving to be MUCH longer than originally anticipated. Or perhaps more accurately — it’s taking me much longer to write than anticipated. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is somewhat maddening when you’re in the middle of it, slouching towards Bethlehem.

Overall, I’m pretty shy about my writing — which translates to never letting people read it. Which, you know, doesn’t work if you’re a writer. Being in a writing group helps me get over that hangup since, you know, the whole point is to have other people read your work.

This means that my group has read my current work-in-progress, section by section, over the past…ugh, almost two years. I’m embarrassed to admit it’s been that long. They’ve been along on the journey, seen the plot develop, the characters come into their own. They’re seeing the guts of the beast, as it were.

Some writers are FIRM believers in the “closed door” policy. I’m calling it this based on Stephen King’s advice in On Writing:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

The idea being that you need to get through the entire first draft — the initial creative process — without any input or adulteration from the outside world.

There’s merit there. I’m normally a fan of the “closed door” policy. You can let out the crazy and let that freak flag fly. In fact, this is the first book that I’ve allowed people to read as it’s being written.

And the result of my “open door” policy? Too early to tell. I can see how it would be distracting for some — if your story doesn’t have firm footing, having other writers chime in could probably sway your original intent. But it is useful to have someone point out a sticky plot point early on, the various inconsistencies that come with any first draft. I feel like I’m able to correct some things earlier on in the game. I guess the only way I’ll know for sure if this “open door” policy has worked out is after the whole damn thing is written.

Fellow writers — and, hey, other creative types, too, as I’m sure this applies — what’s your policy? Do you like that door open or shut? Do you think outsiders can derail the creative process, or is it guided by some internal source that can’t be swayed?