Thursday, March 25, 2010

Edits and new perspectives

Lately, I've been seeing a lot of discussions floating around about how much a writer should be editing as they go along -- whether 'tis nobler, in the early draft, to suffer through the imperfections of phrase and content, or to take up the red pen against the offending passages and by opposing possibly rob oneself of momentum. Personally, I'm of the mind that there isn't a correct answer -- go with whatever gets you to the end of the first draft. But the question has made me look at how I'm working, and I noticed a technique I've been using to edit on the go without letting the small details hang me up.

(This does, by the way, mean that I'm making headway, even against the tide of form letters. Yesterday: 735 words vs. 33 letters.)

I have a scene early in the sequel to Stuff of Legends, in which Eliott and Cyral meet up in a tavern. For days, it's been troubling me, because their dialogue hasn't sounded right, and there's nothing that stalls me out worse (as a writer or a reader) than clunking dialogue. I know where the scene goes. I know where it starts. But each time I sit down with it, something goes astray.

Rather than take sandpaper (or more accurately, a chisel and a big hammer) to the phrases that aren't working, or ignore the clunk for now and push on, my answer has been to write a different scene. A scene that just happens to start and end the same way, with the same characters in the same location.

There's an improv game that works like this. Those of you who watched "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" may know this one: two performers talking, with a third one in the wings saying "change" at random moments. When he says "change", the performer who just spoke must immediately say something else that replaces her last line, and the scene continues using the replacement. I'm editing in the same way: Cyral's pleased to see Eliott. Change. Cyral's annoyed to see Eliott. Change. Cyral is preoccupied with his song and tries not to let Eliott distract him. Change. Each of these generates a mini-draft of its own until it reaches the end of the scene; then I look at it, see what works, where the dialogue sounds right, if there's another approach I'd like to try. After a few of these, I have enough pieces that the truth of the scene is showing up.

Plus, one or two juicy phrases that I'll fit in because I like them; they may not last the next major draft, but again -- good enough for now.

The key thing at this stage is assembling all the pieces. If I had to give one piece of advice from this (admittedly novice) stage of my career, it's Never Throw Anything Out. The mini-drafts each live in their own separate document file; stray paragraphs that need to be cut go into a scrapbook of clippings. With all the parts and perspectives and possibilities written down and visible at once, the final (first draft) version of the scene rattles out as easily as that one anecdote you tell at every party. Eliott and Cyral sound right, because they've been talking through a half-dozen conversations already. Things flow, because whatever snags I've hit in one mini-draft, I've avoided in one of the others. Without feeling like I've cut anything, I've re-written my way through -- and I now have a folder of potentially usable snippets of dialogue and description that may be useful later on.

So there's a glimpse of my approach. Again, whatever works to get to the end of the draft.


  1. I LOVE this approach to playing around with a scene--seeing what feels right for moving forward. I think it sounds GREAT!

    I change a word here and there as I go, and when I read the last scene or so to get into it again, I let myself fix things IN THAT, but I never edit back farther. if I write something I know will change something from earlier, I will mark the spot the edit will need to HAPPEN, but I don't actually DO it yet, as when I have, it flows badly with the rest of what was THERE.

    In fact when i get to editing, that is largely how I do it... take my notes of the big changes and mark where they go in the manuscript, then start at the beginning, putting in the stuff that needs to be there, taking out the stuff that no longer fits.

    I'm not positive it works, but it seems to be what I am capable of.

  2. That sounds like a fine approach to editing, though I think if I tried it, those X-marks-the-future-edit spots would gnaw at my brain every time I read past them until I'd made the change.

    I know what you mean about how edited-in material can flow badly. It's a great art to be able to massage the new into the old, and I've got a great admiration for those who can do it easily.