August 20, 2009

From the Purely Theoretical FAQ for Writers

Remember how I was going to have an FAQ page? And I carefully blogged each question and then was going to put them all up on 2 FAQ pages, one for writers, one for readers-writers-cats-retiredNorsegods-everyone so I could answer the FAQs I get by email by saying “HEY! I HAVE AN FAQ PAGE, and the lookit, the answer is ALREADY THERE FOR YOU!” instead of sorting through my Sent File for an HOUR and not finding the answer I already wrote in response to someone else who asked the same question (hence the name ‘frequently asked’) and NOT finding it, so rewriting it for the umpty-th time?

Yeah. And remember how I was going to organize my closet? And have a mailing list? And stop accidentally closing MS Word to play 4 hours straight of World of Warcraft? And how I was going to paint the kitchen goldenrod and stop eating any food after seven PM and clean my office and organize the HEAPING CABINET full of loose, well-shuffled family photos and find a new hairdresser (Mine retired FIVE months ago, yes, five, when she had her fourth little darling baby...) to get my hair cut and colored and how I said I was going to learn to make REAL French cook-it-all-day authentic cassoulet?

Well. I am sure I am going to do ALL THESE THINGS. Any second.

In fact, just today, I went to my HELL PIT of a closet and dug through all my tops, and put the ones that no longer fit but are nice in a pile for Good Will, and put the ones that are irretrievably stained and raveled in a pile for rags, and then I came down to here to CHECK EMAIL really fast and ended up sitting here writing THIS for more than half an hour now, abandoning those careful piles of sorted tops on the floor of the closet to get kicked around and dug through to find the shoes under and mixed in with the laundry and put right back in the closet to be sorted through again another day when I have more moral fortitude and do not come down to check e-mail and find an FAQ in there.

Here is the FAQ that just came to my inbox via my MOMWRITERS yahoo group:
For you published authors, are you still seeing room for improvement after [your book] is published or are you blissfully happy that it is "done"?

Okay I have a three answers here. A craft answer, a mystical butthole answer, and a pragmatic truthful answer.

CRAFT ANSWER: I spend 75 – 80% of my writing time on revisions. I draft in huge awful hunks of steaming word poo. I start when I know the characters and they have gotten very LOUD in my head, and when I have such a strong sense of the PLACE that I can smell it. Then I I draft very, very quickly, discovering the plot as I go, trying to hear snatches of voice, just putting words on paper and giving myself total permission to let Every. Single. One. of those words relentlessly suck.

To me, drafting is like going out to a fetid, sludgy slow-moving, bug-infested creek in the 100 degree swelter of a Georgia August and using my HANDS to dig out nasty hunks of silt-y clay. Revising is getting the clay back to my airconditioned studio where I have China Green Tips tea and wafer thin cookies waiting on for me and a cat is asleep on the floor by my feet purring and pretty birds are chirping sweetly just outside, and I shape the clay into something that pleases me.

Your mileage may vary, but I think revising SHOULD be fun because it is probably going to take up more time than the writing. It can be VERY VERY satisfying, like that high flying feeling I USED to get from the act of creating/drafting, until I got some DISTANCE from my own work and became savvy enough to recognize my drafts were raw and only conveyed the story to ME, the person who could see it all in her head ALREADY.

Now I get that flying soar thing from making bad sentences into good ones that say precisely what I mean and do several jobs, or when I find the exact metaphor that makes a moment clear or amusing or chilling, and I call that feeling BEING IN THE ZONE. Being in the zone is better than cocaine. A lot of younger writers I talk to only GET IN THE ZONE when drafting, but you can absolutely get there revising, and if you find that ZONE, you won’t care how long the revising takes, because the ZONE is why we do this. That flying feeling where we make it so, Number One.

MYSTICAL BUTTHOLE ANSWER: It is done when you know it is done. This is very cryptic and makes me sound like I’ve been smoking ZEN and eating heaping spoonfuls of MYSELF until I am SO delightfully full of ME that I need to be paddled and told to get real. But it is also true.

There comes a point when your story says what YOU want it to say. Sometimes it is not what you THOUGHT you wanted to say, but it is TRUE. You see it is true and right and good. You can SEE this point approaching in a more practical, less ZEN-SMUG way when your crit partners are not HAVING TROUBLE FOLLOWING or getting bored by backstory or saying HERE YOU TELL WHEN YOU NEED TO SHOW or complaining about CRAFT ISSUES.

At some point their crits will be mixes of praise and ways you could make your work more like what THEY would write, because there isn’t anything else to say. But that’s just a road sign that you are approaching your destination. When you get there, you will learn to know it and you will say, “Yes , this is my place, here I stop."

PRAGMATIC ANSWER (and my favorite, because I am pragmatic to the point of mental illness): The book is DONE once I sign off on the COPY EDITS. When book is going to press and each WORD change costs Hachette THOUSANDS of dollars and I have signed a paper SWEARING not to change any more words, THEN the book is DONE.

This is a good stopping point. Publication as opposed to SHOPPING. If you SHOP a book so DONE feeling that you would rather kill yourself than revise a single line, then you are going to be a huge diva-pain in the behind of your editor, and your editor ONLY wants to make your book better and help you be more successful.

SO before you shop it, get it as perfect as you can, but stay open to ideas and input---stay INSIDE the world of the manuscript. Keep it familiar and in that MUTABLE stage where you can go in and feel organically how to change a line without tumbling your whole house. Keep the MS alive and the world you created accessible and open to you. Keep it like that, close to you, until Copy Edits are done. And then you STOP. Forever.

The WAY you stop is, you fall in love with the NEXT book, and spend your time and hope and love on making THE NEXT BOOK say exactly what you want it to say.

Are my finished books perfect in my eyes? No. But they are what they are, and I am rightful-proud of them. If I do see flaws in an earlier book, my focus is not on regret, but on not making that mistake again in my CURRENT book. Moreover, I doubt I would change the published books even if I could. I COULD look back and say, IF I WERE WRITING THAT PARTICULAR BOOK NOW, I MIGHT DO THIS OR THAT OR THIS. But I seldom do that. Because NOW I would not be writing that book ANYWAY. My thematic interests refocus from year to year as I grow and think new things and ask new questions, and NOW I am writing the book I am writing now.

I learn and go on, and when I look back at done books, I say only, “I made that! I MADE THAT WITH MY BRAIN! And wow, but I FREAKING love that thing I made with my brain. Yay. And NOW? Now I will go make something else.”

Posted by joshilyn at 8:52 AM | Comments (15)