My Process: Combing through the Tangles

Hi there!  Remember me?  In looking at the calendar, I see that it’s been several months since I last blogged about writing.  I trust none of you were worried that I’d given up on the practice completely…?  The truth of the matter is that I’ve been so busy working on new material (both revisions for The Herald’s Dark Progress as well as a completely new project) that I didn’t have much time to offer any new commentary along the way.  Nose to the grindstone and all that.  As a result, I’ve only used this space to offer a couple of moment-in-time political comments, which will soon be outdated (and which probably 40-50% of you found irritating anyway).  I hope you will forgive me, both for the lack of activity, and for the non-writing-related nature of the few posts that I did share during that period.  What can I say?  Such is the life of a writer (a topic, by the way, that I plan to cover in more detail in a subsequent post).

But now, after a stretch that lasted much longer than I initially anticipated, I have finally reached a natural break point (having just sent out a bunch of content to my wonderful beta readers for feedback), and am once again back to tackle a new subject:

The writing process itself.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince, among other titles) on the writing process:  “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” BOY does that sound a lot easier than the way that I do it…

Or, er, mine, anyway.

If you research how other writers go about their work, you’ll discover that many (most?) begin by typing out a rough draft in the truest sense of the phrase, plowing forward from beginning to end without being overly concerned about rough patches, rambling detours, or even entire sections left blank.  As the author Shannon Hale describes it, they begin by “simply shoveling sand into a box so that later [they] can build castles”.  (I have to admit, I’ve never read any of her work, but I LOVE that quote.)  Then, only once they’re done with the unfiltered first take, will they come back to the beginning to revise, gradually perfecting both plot and prose over and over again, in pass after pass, until in the end, they arrive at a finished product.  For those who follow this methodology, writing a novel can mean running through quite literally dozens of drafts before finally declaring the manuscript “done”.

As you might imagine, this approach invariably results in the first few versions of the text being overly verbose (where it is not missing entirely), with repetitive language, loose narrative, and uneven flow.  Which makes sense – remember, the idea is to simply pour content onto the page to serve as a starting point for later revisions.  The crafting comes when they will go back to shape, smooth, and tighten in subsequent run-throughs.

Consequently, though these authors are of course rewriting and adding new material as they go, in point of fact, much of the work – of the real artistry – takes the form of paring away unnecessary language; of chipping away at the raw material until it finally becomes that finished product.  The work as they describe it bears more in common with sculpting a block of marble into a statue than it does with constructing a building.  (Actually, a better analogy would probably be first growing a shrub from a sapling and then trimming it back into topiary, but I didn’t think that paired as well with the construction of a building, so…)  You’ll read similar descriptions in interview after interview with famous authors talking about their craft.

I only wish it worked that way for me.

Sadly, I have discovered that I can’t move on to a new section of my manuscript until I’ve added at LEAST one of these to the one that preceded it.  (Also, doesn’t this guy kind of resemble Dobby the house elf?)

To begin with, I have discovered (much to my dismay) that I am constitutionally disinclined towards moving on, and “leaving a section for later”.  Which of course means that the “plow forward and come back” technique is not an option for me; I have to build each tower of my sand castles at least to its third story, complete with gargoyles and wall sconces, before I can continue on to the next.  If I know that something is incomplete – or worse, just not very good – it will nag at me, and while I can try to advance the story for a paragraph, or even a page (rarely, a chapter), it won’t be long before I inevitably find myself back at the section that I know needs work, tinkering.*

This is not to say that I don’t edit.  I do – many, many (many, many, many) times.  But the greater part of that work comes in the form of massaging the paragraph in front of me again and again until it’s “good enough” to move on.  And the next greatest part comes in the form of flashes of inspiration (or simply developments late in the plot that necessitate other changes earlier on) that cause me to go back and revise.  The least part by far, is the more traditional start-to-finish review/rewrite (generally only after I’ve collected feedback from my beta readers or some other outside party) that so many other authors seem to favor.

NOTE:  This is not to say that I view the full end-to-end review of the manuscript as an afterthought; on the contrary, it is essential to producing a coherent piece with good flow and narrative balance.  My point is that complete run-throughs – for me – come last, after the “raw material” has already been well-refined.

Furthermore, when it comes to my edits, I almost always discover that I’ve written not too much, but too little.  (At least according to my taste!)  Stories as they form in my mind advance in lurching sequences of ideas and images, each of which is chock full of nuance, detail – and, eventually, as I start to play them out – tie-ins to those that will come next.  Thus, my first takes tend to be packed with excesses of content, and I almost always wind up going back to what I’ve just typed, separating ideas, and spreading them out over multiple sentences, paragraphs, or on to the next page.

This is a startlingly accurate representation of my process.

In my head, I don’t envision my version of the process as sculpting a statue, or trimming a hedge, or even constructing a building; I see it rather as combing out a tangle (which is exceedingly ironic given the lack of anything actually tangle-able on my head).

In order to give you a sense of what I mean, I’ve uploaded two versions of a single paragraph from my manuscript:

Here it is in an early state.

And here it is how it reads now.

Just by looking at them, you should notice dramatic differences in both length and structure:  the former is 138 words, while the latter is 219 – or almost 60% longer.  And of course, I’ve obviously moved the last sentence down the page to become it’s own standalone paragraph.

But why did I make these changes?

Well, if you read the excerpts, perhaps you can see where I started:  in my mind, I began with the vision of a great kingdom – and indeed, opened this chapter with a broad description of that realm.  Now, as I was proceeding on to the second paragraph, the image shifted, moving to a great province in the great land, tracking from the mysterious origin of that larger realm, and the ancient capital at its heart, to a place that, over the centuries, had risen from humble beginnings to assume a position of significant importance within it.  And as I imagined the rise of this province, I saw also its expansion, culminating finally with the mention of a recently-founded town on the furthest edge of its newest border.  (A journey I subsequently finished by chronicling the town’s development over the last hundred years, and then depositing the reader in the present day at the forge of a blacksmith living and working inside its walls.)

do not feed
Occassionally your eyes are too big for your metaphor.

If that sounds like a mouthful, it is.  There’s a whole lot going on there, in terms of style, world-building, and storytelling strategy.  I am simultaneously attempting to a) establish the mythic feel characteristic of the classic epic, b) give you all sorts of history about the place where our tale is to unfold, and c) do it all by “tightening” from the historical and the global down to the current and the local in a technique intended to draw you into the story even as you’re drawing closer to the time and place where it will all transpire.  Perhaps you’ll think it was too much to bite off.  But then again, if you dig, you’ll discover that many stories have similarly ambitious segments at various points throughout their narratives (and a key differentiator between those that are good and those that are bad, is whether or not they succeed).

In any event, because I was attempting to get so much down on the page, the first version (predictably) wound up being far too dense.  It contains all the fundamental elements necessary to achieving the three goals laid out above, but they are packed so closely together that they get in each other’s way – while the paragraph contains hints of what is to come, at this stage it reads too much like a recitation of facts.  More specifically, there is exposition without counterbalancing atmosphere, not enough variation in the cadence, insufficient poetry to the language (given the intended purpose of this section), and the overall presentation lacks in drama.

Solution?  Comb it out.

Had to bring the full arsenal to bear on this one!

Add texture (what was this Great Strife, and why is Hilden described as once-mighty?); vary the flow (note the disparity in the number of clauses per sentence, and the improved interconnectivity between the sentences themselves); intersperse some lyrical elements (“March after March” / “league after league”, a more pronounced organic theme to the description of the province’s growth, imparting the sense that it is a living thing); and insert a more significant pause (a paragraph break) before the last sentence.  Voila!  The net result is, I think, a much more artful piece of writing.  Hopefully you agree.  Either way, however, it should serve as a good example of how I go about the craft.

Now, to be clear, by NO means am I recommending this approach as a best practice for your own work.  It seems to me (based on nothing more than anecdotal evidence I’ve read online) that the majority of writers prefer to power through multiple drafts – and while I don’t know if that methodology produces better books necessarily, it seems to lead to greater output.  (Certainly, it can’t be nearly as frustrating as the way that I do it!)  Unfortunately, I don’t (yet?) seem capable of any other process, and so I’m stuck with what I’ve got.  If you are the same way, perhaps this explanation and the accompanying examples I provided will give you some insight as to how improve your own writing.  (And if not, don’t worry –I’ll have an example of more traditional paring back in my next post, to follow sometime later this month.)


*If you suffer from the same affliction, here’s a tip I can advise to minimize the unproductive hours spent staring at the same half page trying to get it just right:  step away for a while.  Go to the gym, take a walk, read someone else’s stuff.  You may not be able to move on from the problematic section, but you’ll be surprised how helpful it is to come back to it with fresh eyes.

Well, sometimes, anyway…

3 thoughts on “My Process: Combing through the Tangles

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