Thursday, November 18, 2010

Drafting vs. editing

I'm in a transition mode. Until a couple of weeks ago I'd been revising (and revising and revising and revising) my novel project, Consequence, for ... well, let's just say it's been a few years since I "finished" a first complete draft of the mss. Because it's how I work, I was also editing as I drafted (sometimes going back over a chapter or two, sometimes taking a deep breath and running through from the beginning to wherever I was). Because it's how editing goes, there was always a bit of drafting -- new chapters, new scenes -- during the editing phase. Red pen, black pen.

This month I launched into an agent-querying phase. Now, there's no guarantee I'm done with Consequence. In fact, the best I can hope for is that an agent will take a shine to the manuscript and ask me to make changes. Then an editor will take a shine to the project and ... ask me to make more changes. The worst I can expect? That nobody in the precarious world of 21st century publishing will bite, and I'll have to decide whether and how to have at it again.

In the meantime, I'm taking index cards and post-its and journal entries I've written over the past ten or so months about the next novel project I'm contemplating, and putting flesh on what are currently some fairly skimpy bones. Do I have a name for this next project? Well, yes, sort of, but it's so provisional that I'm not going to say. Not yet. Wouldn't want to jinx it.

Drafting vs. editing: what I can tell you is that what I'm doing with index cards and post-its and journal entries now feels really different from what I was doing with manuscript pages in October.

I do like the sudden wealth of possibility -- I mean, it's fiction, anything could happen -- but drafting does feel oddly free-form after having a built-structure to work in for quite a long time. I've certainly found another thing to appreciate about blogging, in that facing the blank blog-post page a couple of times a week for most of this year means that this free-form business isn't altogether foreign as I circle back to it.

But it feels soooooooooooooooooooooo slow! Thinking my way slowly slowly slowly into a new world, one detail at a time, one character's features, one scene's outline or tone, one turn of the plot, a bit of backstory ... the sudden change of tempo foregrounds the easily forgotten truth that Consequence was built up out of tiny accretions over years. Did I slip into a fantasy that it sprang up overnight, fully marshaled to face the red pen?

I canvassed my writing group last week about whether they like drafting or editing better, and in the course of some lively exchange got a mix of responses. One of our group said unequivocally that he always prefers drafting to editing, that editing is "a slow slog" for him. Others riffed on the way the process of building a work of long-form fiction involves a lot of back and forth: drafting, editing what you've drafted, letting the work settle for a bit, thinking of a brilliant new twist on the bus or in the shower, finding new scenes that need to be written, finding that pages on end were actually about building background for one's self, the writer, and don't need to be in the novel at all.

And then there's the part where the inmates take over the asylum, the characters assert themselves and determine what's next ... whether the author planned it that way or not. That, actually, can be the most fun, and the most fluid part of a story. Of course, once the characters settle back onto the page the author still has to revise. And revise again. And -- well, you get it.

At the Galleria dell'Accademia in Firenze (a.k.a. Florence, Italy), Michelangelo's four unfinished sculptures, titled "Prisoners," are displayed on either side of what amounts to the path to a soaring, domed space where the great artist's "David" is exhibited. Those rooms hold my touchstone images about what it feels like to write, no matter that Michelangelo worked in stone and I work in words, and never mind that what he achieved is infinitely greater than I can even dream of inventing. The visceral sense of emergence one has looking at these massive blocks from which the sculptor began to chip away the spalls that obscured his vision, the power rearing out of the marble as the figures are 'revealed' in stone that has itself imprisoned them, stone from which they are being freed by the sculptor's chisel ... and then the breathtaking perfection of the finished David, towering over the next room. On a very good day, editing feels like it's a part of that same game.

(If only one's prose read a fraction as heroically and beautifully even as Michelangelo's unfinished work ...)

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mental floss
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Aleksandar Hemon on Narrative, Biography, Language
Does a writer need a writers' group?

1 comment:

  1. good luck with publishing Steve! (i didn't know you writing a novel.)