Sunday, November 18, 2007

Revision, Motivation And Craft

Writing is hard work, writing is lonely work-motivation, sooner or latter, becomes an issue, especially when what one writes does not seem to amount to very much. How do you stay motivated? Should you?

Motivation is the desire to achieve something that one sees as necessary and worthwhile; it requires a passion to see something happen. For writers, motivation often means the desire to see a book on the library or store bookshelves; or the desire to tell a story that is important to the writer for some reason. The writer believes in the worth of his story. He believes in the necessity of telling it. Trouble begins when the writer becomes tired of the mundane aspects of writing and the motivation to see the project through to successful completion becomes a chore. Here are some thoughts to help dislodge the writer's block.

Is it still necessary?

When you look at your story or book, do you still think it is necessary, and important story worth telling? Or has it become a festering, confusing, headache-inducing mess that is far from your original inspiration? You have to ask yourself the following questions. Why did the story seem necessary in the first place? What was it about and why was this worth writing about? Where did the original spark come from?

The creative spark

Something sets your imagination on fire and makes you want to write. After a few months of work, this fire seems to go out. There are more mundane problems to deal with-scenes, reversals, character development-stuff that's technical and seems to have little to do with being creative. That initial creative burst seems to vanish and the technical aspect of constructing a story leaves you with a headache and a strong desire to do something else, anything else but go back in front of that computer.

The solution is to go back to that initial vision of the story. In the first place, you should have written it as clearly as possible on a sheet of paper so that it can serve as your reminder of what this story is about and why it is important. Another possible way to capture the original vision is to make a poster or a book cover that will inspire you, when you're feeling tired, to keep going. Yet another way is to draw scenes from your story, especially the most important ones. Of course, you need to be able to draw, but that's fun, and it will help you with the writer's block.

Why bother?

But there it is, you mess of a manuscript, a tree hundred plus page monster that's absorbed every bit of your fee time over the past few months, sitting worthlessly on the hard drive. You have your posters and your scene sketches, but this thing is beyond help. Surely, there are other more important things you could be doing with your life. Think about all the things that you're missing out on. Why bother with it? It does not come easy.

Mastery of craft

This is the crux of the problem of the writer's block-the inability to revise. Writing is about revision. Nothing can be written in the first pass, nothing worthwhile that is. The original inspiration is often deceptive because it makes you believe that a story can be merely put down on paper as is and then you will be done. It is, you believe, only a matter of getting to the end. But then, you realize, as you write, that there is no end at all. You get trapped in the desert of revision and the original fire that set you ablaze at the keyboard is like a water, evaporated in the hot sun of the Sahara.

The only way out is mastery of craft. If you get stuck, unsure about where an action should go, only your understanding of how things like plot, theme, tone, voice, character and other elements of the story function can get you out of trouble and back into that sweet spot of creative flow.

Creativity is not magic, it's all in the mastery of the elements of story. Only when you master the elements of story can you truly be creative in you choices. You must know, for instance, how to create a great plot, how to create characters, you must know how character action and plot relate to theme, tone and mood-this an many other things you must know in a practical way, not in the academic way of definitions that are hazy in your mind. When you read a story, when you watch a movie, you should, right away, if you know your stuff, be able to know what the writer is doing, how he is doing it, what the effects are, and whether he's succeeded in his project. You should see the elements of structure and their effects and learn form them. Why is there tension, suspense? What specific actions have caused this to be? You should know how the plot, theme, character all interrelate. All this and more should be clear to you as you read the story. Only then can you reach a point where you can help yourself out of your writer's block because only then do you know the craft, the practice of it, to the point where it can be helpful.

Writing is all about thinking and rethinking, writing and revising whatever you put down on the page. Everything you place on the page has some meaning, some impact and purpose, and you must be aware of that, and be able to use it in your story somehow. Every word is a symbol, so is every action, each consequence of that action has meanings too. Even a simple story such as thriller, where the only question is of the type such as-will the spy reach Germany with the secret of FUSAG, as in Eye of the Needle-is not so simply to construct from scratch unless you have mastered how the concepts of suspense, tension, reversal, surprise, and complication work in practice, not just theory.

So what's the real secret to getting back on the saddle? Dissecting stories for their structure. If you're feeling stuck, outline what you have written. That's right. Do a fresh outline of your story as it is. Then you will see what you have and whether it is working. This outline will help you see what needs to be done in terms of plot, theme, and character development, and other aspects. And you're right when you think that, man, that's the start of a whole new version of the book. It is. That's what revision is all about, the going back to the beginning and starting over for the sake of reaching some end that's part of your creative vision for the story.

Of course, you will, at some point, ask yourself why it is that you should keep doing this work. It is very hard work, and more than likely, you could use your time in a more productive way doing something else-go hiking in the mountains, learn to dance, play soccer, ride a bicycle, learn to be a volunteer fireman… the possibilities for a fulfilling life are endless.


Kristen said...

Revising is my favorite part.

It's the initial writing that stumps. :)

"The possibilities for a fulfilling life are endless."

You would think...

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post. I read it yesterday and its always great to hear very practical, positive and also realistic comments on writing. Nice one

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of really interesting stuff in this post, all well put. I like the idea of the single-sheet original vision. I've never really done that, but it's a great sort of idea to sit down beforehand and consider what excites you about the story and where you might like it to go, which scenes stick out. And why. When Neil Gaiman wrote American Gods, his publishers sent him a mock-up of what actually became the final cover, which I think is sort of neat. The final book seems to go pretty well with that cover.

One of my students' favorite questions has been about revision, and I've tried, this semester, to emphasize the need for multiple drafts. I've been using the analogy of sculpting; the first draft is to get absolutely everything down, and to create, if you will, a solid block of marble with some hints of features.

Revision is like taking up the chisel to refine it.

I can't remember who once said that, to scuplt an elephant, you just take your big old block and chip away anything that isn't an elephant, but I've stolen/appropriated it a lot: to revise a novel, you just take your first draft and chip away whatever isn't your story.

~Will Entrekin

Kristen said...

The scary part about learning about revision as a student is it sounds so damn daunting.

I wonder if once they've "accidentally" revised a draft and brought in the new version, without having been schooled on "new drafts" (which can sound a lot like "full rewrite"), and are THEN told, "See? Revising's just revising," they'll understand - through doing - that revising is not only an essential part of the process, but natural.

Really, often, it's done w/o thinking about it, because you - the writer - know when a sentence doesn't feel right, or a passage isn't necessary.

cheryl anne gardner said...

Ah revision, Proust had a great to say on the subject of revision.
When I write a story, I always, at the onset, know the beginning and the end with clarity. The craft comes in getting the characters from point A to point B along a logical and tangible path. That is the quest, so to speak, and it harbours all the pitfalls, the actions, the reactions, and the consequences of the story.
My philosophy is, if it isn't the story, then cut it. All stories have their own natural length. And a story defines itself further with each revision -- each word or sentence becomes clearer with each pass. Read and re-read your story over and over again, but don’t simply read it, feel it to your core.
Each story should begin with a truth, the foundation of all good literature. We then create around that truth. Writing is not a linear expression of truth, it's more of a fugue state, a dream, where all the pieces seem disjointed at first, and we use the mechanics of storytelling to take them from their subconscious state and put them into some kind of conscious order.
Revisions improve the work, because as we re-read it we also gain clarity.
When we get stuck, we should go back to the original truth and work from there.
If you get too hung up on word count, or page count, or what category the story fits into, you lose the focus of the work. Write from your original truth and you can't go wrong. If every word is chosen precisely, there will be no wasted or unnecessary words -- it will reveal the truth in its pure form.
Just my idle thoughts.
And I find listening to music that encompasses the mood of the story helps a great deal.

PODler said...

Wonderful comment, Cheryl. Thank you.