Sunday, September 9, 2012

How To Do It, Part 2

Last week I wrote that, while  outlining the plot of a novel is often advised and works well for some writers, it does not work for me. Afterward, I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking about how people are given formulas for how to do many things in life.

  • My grandmother used to tell me: "There's a right way and a wrong way to do everything."

When I was a child, I believed that. I carefully followed her exact directions on how to iron a blouse, always starting with the collar first, then the sleeves, then the buttons, and so on. I remember being surprised when I watched an aunt of mine do it an entirely different way. I was even more surprised when it turned out just fine.

It occurred to me then that maybe what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for someone else.

So how does this apply to writing?

  • It's a truism that good writing is about rewriting. The magic doesn't happen without careful revision.

I agree with that. Like many writers, I am horrified at the idea of sharing my work until I've gotten it "right." Not only do I want to be sure I've chosen the best, most economical words to tell my story, I want to make sure that every scene contributes to the whole, that every character is fully realized, that every plot point makes sense, that the story moves inevitably from its beginning to its conclusion.

  • However, many experts also advise against revising until the first draft is complete.

The theory is--and I think it's true for many writers--if we get bogged down in revision too early, we will become discouraged or stuck. In looking for the exact right word we will lose sight of the story's flow.

Not for me. For me, revision begins as soon as I put down the first sentence. I cannot move to the next sentence until I'm happy with the first.

This sounds tedious, I know. How can I ever get anything done if I spend all my time going back and back and back?

To be honest, I don't know. Maybe I'd be a better writer, at least a more efficient writer, if I followed advice and completed a draft first.

But I can't. Quite literally, I can't do it.

Here's how it goes for me:

  • During the first draft process, I read/revise what I did yesterday, then move forward, revising wording, order of events, or sentence structure as I go. By the end of the day I usually have four or five pages I'm happy with.
  • Halfway through (or sometimes sooner) I reread the whole novel up to then and revise whole sections as well as word choices, sentence structure, etc. Here, I'm looking for wordiness, imprecision and vagueness as well as character and plot development.
  • When I have a draft, I go through the same way again looking to sharpen the writing and sequence events more effectively.
  • Now I put the manuscript away for a time, maybe a few months. I let it "rest."
  • When I pick it up again, I may restructure the entire story, changing up characters, reinventing the plot, etc.
This is not pretty, I know. But it works for me. I'm not making a case for working this way. But it seems to be the only choice I have. I cannot keep my hands off my work even when I try--even when I tell myself I haven't time to muck around.

I don't know about you, but I have to follow my instincts when I write. Even when someone else thinks there's a better way. There probably is. I just can't follow it.


  1. My writing process is like yours. I revise as I write, and trying to outline (too soon, at least) deadens the process of writing, leaving me uninspired. But I do do some loose outlining after a critical mass has accumulated when I'm inspired to see the general direction the plot is going, the characters development, and the unfolding themes. But it usually comes from a flash of inspiration to capture that direction in an outline, rather than something I doggedly do because I'm told its a good idea.

  2. Kathleen, I tend to write a short synopsis (2-3 sentences) for each chapter, bang the story out, then rewrite. I often veer from my synopsis, but when I do, I have a road map to follow to get back to where I want to be. I agree, that too much editing too soon can kill it; however, Gay Talese writes one sentence at a time (so I've been told) and he agonizes over each sentence until it's perfect before moving on to the next one. I think each of us needs to find what works best for us, then just do it. --Lenora Good (

  3. I write what comes to my mind. Lots of times I've rearranged whole chapter so the story flows better. Like my Chapter 6 was better in front of Chapter 5. Anyway, you write in your own way and that's not a wrong way. Everyone has their own comfort and style and what ever works for you, stick with it. Because your way is important too.

  4. Good observations. I write because I must and write what comes through me, not for money. Outlines don't work for me. My second book to be published is in the edit process. Published book is "Honk If You Married Sonja, The Travels and Essays of Sonja Klein." I blog most every other day on my website I love the thrill of writing especially when the subject sweeps you away and you are captive to your manuscript. Enjoyed the Marilyn Monroe story, so similar to Anna Nicole Smith. Sonja Rose Klein