Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘revision

When not to revise

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As Toni Morrison reminded us yesterday, the act of revision can be a lot of fun. For me, it’s invariably the most satisfying part of the writing process. Instead of facing a blank page, you’ve written something that exists, for better or worse, and now your only obligation is to improve it. Revision is when all the old metaphors about writing as a manual craft, like carpentry, seem the most convincing: rather than willing something into existence, with its attendant emotional strain, you’re planing, sanding, and polishing a block of responsive raw material. It’s subtractive rather than additive. You feel less like a poet and more like a diligent hobbyist. In general, instead of the neurotic fever of the first draft, revision feels rational, calm, considered. As a result, it casts its own kind of narcotic spell, a sort of hypnosis, until you feel that you could happily go on revising the same few pages forever.

Which is why revision can be so dangerous. As important as it is—and in many ways, it’s the heart of what a real writer does—it’s less important than the primary act of creating a complete story for the first time. For some authors, it only generates the illusion of progress. I’ve known too many writers, including myself, who wrote one chapter of a novel, then kept polishing it to make it “perfect.” But there’s no such thing as a perfect chapter, at least not in isolation: a chapter succeeds or fails based on its place in the overall pattern. Without context, any standard of perfection is a mirage, and it retreats farther into the distance the more you revise. In the end, that one chapter is all you’ll ever have. Of all the rules for writing I once posted here, then, I’ve come to believe that #4 is the most pragmatically important: Write an entire first draft before going back to revise, and never edit an unfinished manuscript.

I’m going to put this as bluntly as possible: if you start revising a novel before you’ve completed a first draft, your chances of finishing it at all are essentially zero. This isn’t a value judgment, but an empirical observation, and it’s especially true if you haven’t been published. Right out of the gate, no writer is all that good, so the best thing to focus on is cultivating good habits—and the most important habit of all, the one on which all others depend, is finishing what you start. Revision is about coaxing a story into its strongest possible form, but it can too easily degenerate into its opposite, which prevents the story from existing at all. Compulsive revisers of unfinished work are only postponing the hard choices that come with pushing a project to its conclusion. And the worst part is that they don’t even grow as writers: technical proficiency doesn’t come from constantly revising the same handful of pages, but by applying your tools to as great a variety of scenes and circumstances as possible.

There’s only one solution: even if the first draft of a chapter seems terrible, and it probably is, write it, finish it, and move on.  When you finally do get the chance to go back and revise the finished manuscript, you’ll find that much of your work has already been done for you. As I’ve said before, a problem that seems intractable in Chapter 1 is often solved by an unexpected inspiration while writing Chapter 20—but only after you’ve written nineteen other chapters first. There’s a world of difference between revising a paragraph with a hazy sense of the surrounding story and approaching it with the full weight of a finished novel pressing comfortably around you. You’ll understand the story more deeply than before, and you’ll have learned a few tricks along the way: no matter how experienced the author, there’s no project that leaves the writer’s craft entirely untouched. In the end, then, you must revise. But probably not yet.

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2011 at 10:06 am

Posted in Writing

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Quote of the Day

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The Paris Review: And the function of the editor? Has one ever had literary advice to offer?

Vladimir Nabokov: By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2010 at 12:24 am

Writing the Middle: The Story of All the King’s Men

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My recent discussion of writing the middle reminds me of one of my favorite Hollywood war stories, which I owe to the great Walter Murch, frequent collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola, director of Return to Oz, and dean of American film editors. I first came across this anecdote in the book Behind the Seen, which lovingly details Murch’s use of Final Cut Pro to edit Cold Mountain—not a great movie, to be sure, but a fascinating case study, resulting in the best available book on what a modern film editor does. I expect to be talking a lot more about Murch, and this book, in the future, but for now, I want to share just one story, which involves the making of the classic film All the King’s Men. (The 1949 original, mind you, not the terrible remake.)

Murch relates a story from the autobiography of Robert Parrish, the editor of All the King’s Men, who says that the first cut of the film was a disaster—it was three hours long, boring, and made no sense. Subsequent cuts only made things worse. Finally, after six months and seven disastrous preview screenings, the movie’s director, Robert Rossen, came up with a desperate idea. According to Parrish, Rossen said:

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

The result, amazingly, worked: it got the movie down to ninety minutes and, according to Parrish, “it all made sense in an exciting, slightly confusing, montagey sort of way.” After screening it for an enthusiastic test audience, they cut a final print with all the imperfections and jump cuts intact. The result won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

As I see it, there are two lessons here:

1) The opening and closing beats of a scene are usually unnecessary. The middle is what counts. Write, or film, the middle. And if a sequence isn’t working, try cutting the first and last paragraphs—which is essentially what Rossen and Parrish did. (If Steven Zaillian, the director of the remake, had tried the same thing, he might have ended up with a salvageable movie, rather than a notorious bore.)

2) Audiences and readers are pretty smart. If they’re plunged into the middle of a scene—or story—it won’t take them long to figure out what’s happening. And if you pay them the compliment of assuming that they’ll be able to follow you, who knows? They may even like it.

How Rambo saved my novel

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Earlier this year, as I was pushing forward on the final draft of The Picasso Imbroglio—er, I mean, Kamera—I hit a wall. The first third of the novel had always been a challenge: it has a lot of characters and a lot of moving parts, and as I read it over again, I found that there was a stretch of six or seven chapters where the book kept losing momentum. The material was there, the writing was decent, but the pacing wasn’t quite right. And I might never have solved the problem if it hadn’t been for David Morrell, author of First Blood and creator of John Rambo.

Morrell, as one might expect, is a pretty interesting character. He’s the author of twenty-eight novels, a former English professor at the University of Iowa, and one of the world’s leading experts on the postmodern novelist John Barth. As his website notes, “He has been trained in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and car fighting, among numerous other action skills that he describes in his novels.” So it’s safe to say that his author biography is much cooler than mine.

He’s also the author of Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, which is the book that saved my neck earlier this year. It’s full of good stories, especially the one about how Morrell nearly forgot to get profit participation in First Blood’s sequels or merchandising, since in the original novel—spoiler alert!—Rambo dies at the end. (Given how things turned out, he’s probably glad he held on to the rights.) And the book also contains a lot of useful advice, including one rule so powerful that it instantly joins the pantheon of great writer’s tricks:

Unless you’re writing a novel whose manner is intentionally that of a nineteenth-century novel, your work will often benefit by cutting the beginning and the end of the [action] in each scene. Start with dialogue. Start with activity. Conclude with something strong….Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.

Italics are mine, for obvious reasons, because I tried Morrell’s trick on the uncooperative chapters of my own novel, and by God, he was right! I found that I tended to close each chapter with a tidy concluding paragraph, as if I were tying a bow on the scene. In most cases, though, it’s far better just to move on, even before the main action is over. The reader will fill in the rest. And simply by cutting the first and last paragraphs of a few chapters, along with a bit of rewriting, I was able to solve my pacing problems so easily that it seemed almost like magic.

(Note that Morrell credits this advice, in turn, to the great William Goldman, author of Adventures in the Screen Trade, who evidently suggests that “the key to constructing a series of scenes is to omit their beginnings and ends and jump from middle to middle.” I’m a huge Goldman fan, and I own and love Adventures in the Screen Trade, but I haven’t been able to track down this specific reference. If anyone out there can point me in the right direction, I’d be very grateful.)

The 10% Solution

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The recent release of Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars, the latest book by the most enduring and instructive popular novelist in America, reminds me of one of my favorite rules for writing, which is beautifully articulated by King in his classic book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. On Writing, which is one of the four or five books on writing that every novelist should read, is worth a look for any number of reasons, but King shares one story, in particular, that justifies the purchase all by itself:

In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High—1966, this would have been—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 = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

I wish I could remember who wrote that note—Algis Budrys, perhaps. Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly thereafter.

For its combination of simplicity and immediate usefulness to every writer, professional or otherwise, King’s little formula might be the single most powerful writing tool I know. And it really works. Every story I’ve ever sold or published has been cut by at least 20%, and my novel was trimmed by a staggering 45% (from more than 180,000 words down to 100,000). And there isn’t a single cut sentence that I regret—or even, at this point, remember.

Some writers might be intimidated by the idea of cutting a tenth or more from a draft they’ve grown to love, but it’s easier than it looks. My favorite financial writer, the very funny Andrew Tobias, in his book The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, has a similar rule for people reluctant to save 10% of their income, which, needless to say, is also a good idea:

There is someone in the world making 10% less than you who is not ragged and homeless. Live like him.

My own version of that rule would look something like this:

There is a version of your novel that honors and fulfills your artistic intentions with 10% fewer words than the current draft. Write that novel.

So, in one simple formula, I’ve given you a rule that will help ensure your success as a writer and your future financial stability. Isn’t this blog great?

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Lessons from Woody Allen

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So today is Woody Allen’s 75th birthday, which gives me an excuse to talk about two of my favorite books on film: When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins, by Allen’s frequent editor, the late Ralph Rosenblum, and Conversations With Woody Allen, by Eric Lax.

Ralph Rosenblum was a legendary editor best known for extracting what became Annie Hall out of three hours of brilliant but shapeless footage. It’s hard to believe, but Annie Hall, which seems so focused and inevitable now, was originally a steam-of-consciousness comedy called Anhedonia, in which Diane Keaton’s character appeared only in passing. Rosenblum and Allen, faced with what looked like an unsalvageable movie, carved out its core love story by making massive cuts, juxtaposing previously unrelated scenes, adding music, and incorporating a few strategic voiceovers. If revision is the heart of creation, then Rosenblum’s work here ranks among the most creative acts in the history of movies.

As for Conversations With Woody Allen, it consists of thematically arranged interviews between Allen and Eric Lax over the past forty years, from Bananas to Whatever Works. (It also has a very nice Chip Kidd cover.) Opening it at random, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the density of insights per page. Here, for example, is Allen on finding time to develop ideas:

If I’m sitting somewhere for ten minutes unoccupied, my mind just clicks into it. I can’t help it. I come home and I’m thinking about it. It just works that way. I even try to think about it when I get into bed to go to sleep.

I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I’m going to think about, which problem I’m going to tackle. I may say, This morning I’m going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that’s the only way to attack these writing problems.

(Aside: You may have noticed that I like using examples from film to talk about fiction. The reason for this, besides the fact that I love movies, is that I believe that most good fiction arises from action and structure, which result, if done correctly, in what we think of as character and theme. And the nice thing about action and structure is that they can be taught by example, while such matters as style and voice can only come from long practice.

Many, perhaps most, books on writing concentrate on style and voice, which means that they focus, unhelpfully, on what is largely unteachable. Books on film and screenwriting, by contrast, have no problem discussing issues of action and structure, which makes them especially useful for writers who are still working on the fundamentals of craft. So if I tend to cite Woody Allen or David Mamet as often as John Gardner, you’ll know the reason why.)

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2010 at 7:35 pm

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