Commitment v. Revision

Your total commitment to the current draft of your novel is in direct conflict with the need to maintain an attitude of revision

Teaching Freshmen to Have an Attitude of Revision

When I taught Freshman Composition at a local college, I started on the first day by pairing students up with a partner and asking them to tell a story, a personal narrative. The story had to be something in which they were actively doing something, and it took place over only a 30-minute time period. And, since it was college, I forbade several topics: no boyfriend/girlfriend stories; no stories of senior trips where you attended the “Party of the Century”; and no car wrecks. I gave them one-and-a-half minutes each to tell their story.

Easy. They loved getting to chat with a fellow classmate, especially since as freshmen on the campus they still felt like strangers. They expected me to then ask them to write their story.

But even before a word is committed to the page, I wanted my students to consider revision. I asked them to tell the story again, a different way. Start at a different place, end at a different place, start at a different time, include details you forgot the first time, omit details that didn’t really matter, slow down and really remember what you did step-by-step, etc. This time, each story had to fill two minutes.

Were the stories better? Yes.
At the risk of my students thinking I was totally crazy, they had to tell their own story a third time, expanding even more to fill a full three minutes.

Then, they got to write their own story. Even at the early stage of prewriting – rehearsing a story orally to write later – writers need to remember that nothing is set in stone yet. Everything is open for change, until you are much farther along in the writing process.

A Novelist’s Attitude of Revision

Crude StoryCrafting. The first draft of a story is you mostly decide/find out one thing: what is the story I want to tell? Later drafts may or may not refine the story, but they will certainly address this concern: what is the best way to tell this story? For me, even as I write a draft, I’m always asking if this is the best way, the most dramatic way, the most emotionally involving way to tell my story. I realize that first drafts help me nail down characters, plots, settings and more. The next drafts may need drastic changes to some element here or there, but I hope the overall story shape emerges in the first draft.

Logical, Logistical Details. Second drafts need to fill in holes in the story. The narrative and emotional arcs need to build, events need to challenge the main character, characters need to reveal their inner lives. But you can’t leave major logical problems: readers must never be given any reason to doubt your storytelling. Logistically, you must make sure the transitions are appropriate and move the story smoothly from one scene to the next.

Focus on Storytelling Skills. For the later drafts, the storytelling skills come to the forefront, as you polish the language, pacing, and voice. This is one of the most fun stages of drafts, because I love to play with the language, trying out different words, different combinations of sounds, varying sentence length. It’s here that I like to challenge myself to use a really long sentence, maybe 200 words. And to use sentence fragments correctly and effectively. Fun!

A Novelist’s Passionate Commitment to the Current Draft

Commit to the Current Draft. So, while I write that first draft, I’m aware of what’s coming. But I also have to make an emotional commitment to this draft. Otherwise, my characters aren’t convincing, I won’t take the time to fully explore a setting because, “It might get cut in the next draft.” If I make the mistake of thinking this is a Kleenex Draft, then I’ll have to do many more drafts later.

Give. In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard has said, “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.”

Commit to the draft you are currently writing, but realize that this draft is the beginning of an exciting process. It should actually give you some relief: you don’t have to be perfect on this first draft. Just passionate.

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