Monday, October 25, 2010

Writing With Power

I'm reading Writing with Power by Peter Elbow, and I'm finding some really good stuff as well as a few items I disagree with. One thing he says that I like has to do with design flexibility. He says essentially that an outline planned out before you write is like: "a plan you work out for travel in an unfamiliar country; it usually has to be changed once you get there and see how things really work." I know writers who use outlines to great effectiveness, but I believe a risk of outlining is that the result can turn out flat and stale, without spontaneity. Oftentimes as I'm working on a book, I'll find my mind running off onto tangents that turn out to be far more creative than what I'd come up with, or could come up with, after careful conscious consideration. The conscious mind just isn't "playful" enough to generate the best twists and turns.

Another thing Elbow points out is that too much conscious rewriting can often wring all the fresh juice out of a piece. It can end up making your prose plod instead of sing. I realized this a long time before I read Elbow. And I have a suggestion about how to deal with the issue for anyone who writes. Anytime I'm going to make substantial changes to a story, more than just revising a few words or correcting grammar, I save two copies of my file. I usually call them “Storyorg” for the original, and “storynew” for the other. Then I only work on the new file. This way, if I revise all the life out of a paragraph, I can always go back to the original and copy and paste that paragraph back into the new story. The original is sacrosanct, untouched except to provide a safety net so I can revise the new file with an axe and not worry about cutting anything out that’s important.

By now in my files, I actually have 3 or 4 versions of some of my stories. I have the original. I might have a piece that is revised to be shorter, or revised with a different ending. Or I might have a piece that I’ve altered into a horror story from what was originally a mainstream piece. As long as I’ve got the original saved, I feel completely comfortable hacking a story to shreds and letting the chips fall where they may.

Many of the stories in my collection, Bitter Steel illustrate this process. I don't think a story in that collection reads exactly the way it did when it was first released. Some have been dramatically revised. But I still have that original tucked away safe and sound in my files.





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29 comments:

Deka Black said...

True indeed. Sometimemes, the revising has worsened beyond repair some stories of mine.

I outline a few plot points, that's all, but never a detailed one. Works for me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am very guilty of over rewriting. Someone once said my story seemed worked to death. Guilty!

Ron Scheer said...

I don't know whether Elbow was talking about fiction or nonfiction. I believe different rules apply. I shudder when a student comes to me with an outline for a paper. I won't even look at it and just say, "talk me through it."

I hate to rewrite but have learned that if I don't I end up with crap. I wrote a chapter for someone else's book once, and fortunately it took them a year to get it to a publisher. After all that time, I looked at it again and saw it was awful. I overhauled about 3/4 of it!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've never been accused of overwriting anything, but I do outline and I do make changes during rewrites.

David J. West said...

Sounds like you and I have the same system for creation. I might have an idea of where a piece will end up, but following the tangents is among the most thrilling points for me about writing.

Merisi said...

I can see how a photographer can learn a lot from a writer! ;-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, I've had that happen too, which is why I make sure I save an original copy these days.

Patty, It's very tempting but it sure can backfire.

Ron, I think he was meaning to talk about both but I think his comments relate more to fiction than nonfiction. I find outlines more of a help for me with nonfiction than fiction.

Alex, staying flexible enough to recognize the need for rewrites is the key, I think.

David J. West, they can be the most fun, and I think often the most fruitful for the storyline.

Merisi, and probably vice versa.

Dionne Charlet said...

When sculpting a piece, I have an original vision of it. I'll jot down the roughness and let it savor. After a little break, I get back to it and tweak. Then I tweak some more, saving each rewrite.

Since most of my non-articles are poems, the revisions are easy to maintain as single re-saves.

I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts, Charles! I consider you a mentor and am honored to know you. I am building more confidence daily and may well have a first manuscript where I want it soon.

ivan said...

Ah, planning, plotting--and then there's what what happens on the page you are actually writing on, at that very moment.
But I'll be goldurned if I tell you...

laughingwolf said...

sounds like the best solution i've heard yet, thx charles :)

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, sounds like you write much the way I do. I usually have an outline in my head, and sometimes I'll make notes of things I believe worth remembering, but I never actually outline my work.

As for revising, I too usually end up with 3 or 4 versions by the time I'm done editing. It's rare I make major changes to a manuscript nowadays, but I won't say it'll never happen again.

What gets my goat from time to time, however, is when I look back on an old piece and suddenly, "Oh, I see how I could have changed that to make it better!" But I hardly ever do go back and make changes. Once it's out there, it's out there, but who knows? Digital publishing might change all that.

Dayana Stockdale said...

I've requested that book from the library. Can't wait to read it! Interesting what he says about rewriting. I thought rewriting was the best idea and that it couldn't go wrong. For the most part I think my new draft is better, but sometimes I run into a scene that I think is more clear/interesting in the first go. Good thing I also save all of my drafts! If only I could be certain about which is better...

Deka Black said...

true indeed, Chalers, i've learned that the hard way. Noe, i always save a original as security measure.

BernardL said...

A precise outline is a must for writing a non-fiction piece. It keeps the paper on track from opening to conclusion, making sure the point is not lost along the way. Other than a vague idea base I can't use an outline for a manuscript effectively at all. I always keep multiple versions while I'm writing a manuscript too. That's what flash drives and terabyte backup drives are for. :)

jodi said...

Charles, I do not have enough writing experience to truly comment on it, but I find that if I overthing or micromanage anything it's a little forced. Outfits, dinner parties, gifts, etc. work better for me on the fly.

Charles Gramlich said...

Dionne Charlet, thanks so much for dropping by, and for the kind words. I appreciate it. :) I do have several versions of various poems saved on my computer, although most of the time I don't put poems through a very elaborate revision and end up saving it as the same file. I've reimagined poems a few times, taking off from the original in a new direction. Good luck with that manuscript.

ivan, it is a very exploratory process. Hard to explain but it makes sense when you are doing it. Sometimes.

laughingwolf, it works well for me.

Ty Johnston, and there are always reprints. I do try to sell reprints to stories as time goes on and I almost always revise at least slightly before that happens. I actually just enjoy rewriting too. It's part of the fun.

Dayana Stockdale, it's a hard decision to make. Elbow says something like, "if it has life," save it. But that's a very vague conception of how to make the judgement. Guess that's why there are no mathematical formulas for it though.

Deka Black, I'm surprised at how many new writers don't do that. I always give this advice to newer writers I meet. I find most experienced writers will do something like this.

BernardL, I do quite a lot of articles for hire and these almost always have a built in outline or organization. For short nonfic pieces I might not use an outline but for longer pieces I need it. Sometimes I do just write "exploratory" nonfic pieces and let them go where they will.

jodi, Elbow is saying something similar, that letting the unconscious make decisions is likely to lead to greater creativity. I think he's probably right.

Jo said...

I love to read writers whose writing is almost stream of consciousness rather than planned. Sometimes when you sit down to write, the words write themselves, don't you find? I think that is where the true art comes in.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jo, I do have that experience at times, although certainly not always. Sometimes I have to work hard for the words.

Steve Malley said...

I do like my multiple passes, but then, if anyone ever saw my first drafts they'd understand why... :)

Cloudia said...

This is GREAT advice, Charles!

I would add: save your daily (hourly!) work to "the cloud" by emailing it to yourself or using Google Docs, or such.

Regard your laptop as an appliance to access the web, NOT as a repository of your ONE COPY. That way you'll never lose your life's work!!!!!!!



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Mary Witzl said...

I absolutely agree about outlines. I write my outlines in my mind, then when I'm writing, if I want to scrap something and go a different direction, I do so. I've tried outlining on paper and I can never stick to it.

I save all my originals too, but I seldom go back to them. I just reread the new stuff and if it zings it zings and if it doesn't, I just keep writing until it does.

To my surprise, I have found that I LOVE reading books about the writing process. Five years ago, I would never have imagined that. I hope that's a good sign.

The Golden Eagle said...

I find that editing can dull the writing, too. I usually have an outline when I'm writing, but I don't read it often, and if I get a new idea I'll break away from the original plot. It helps keep things new.

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, my first drafts are better these days than when I started, but they can still be far too messy for human eyes.

Cloudia, yes indeed. I emailed stuff to my work computer, and copy onto another laptop I have, as well as keeping periodic backups.

Mary Witzl, I read at least 3 or 4 books a year about writing, and plenty more individual articles and blogs. I too enjoy it.

The Golden Eagle, thanks for visiting. the danger for me comes when I'm not emotionally invested in what I'm editing. If I'm trying to make the story sing then I need to be 'involved' in the story. I can edit for grammar and punctuation when I'm not feeling connected but can't mess with the prose much without messing it up.

Erik Donald France said...

That's cool stuff, indeed. Makes sense. But what did you *disagree* with re: Mr. Elbow (what a name)?

Design flexibility and original/revised files are excellent approaches.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, I find some of his stuff more "cheerleading" than hardnosed helpful hints. He also really really pushes freewriting and I've never found that all that helpful. I think at times it can actually be a distraction for writers.

Harry Markov said...

Now that is something I thought of recently. Great minds, eh. LOL I save many, many versions and though a bit confusing at times I think is the best way to go.

Jodi MacArthur said...

As always great post and topic. I agree with you 100%.

"conscious rewriting can often wring all the fresh juice out of a piece" I think this can also be said for critiquing a piece to death (from a critique group or ourselves). If we get too critical of the story (especially young writers) we kill the life or the passion of the story. I think one way to help prevent this is like a rose bush, remember that we are pruning to shape and improve the health and encourage blossoms. If we prune off all the branches, the bush will die. Rewrites like pruning are essential, but remember the goal! And uhhh.. sorry for the long comment. ;-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Harry, I've gotten used to my format by now so I don't have much confusion and it certainly saves me some frustration.

Jodi, I agree, and that's one of the big risks of critique groups, especially for new writers. Antoher is that the writer will begin to write 'just' for the group.

Travis Cody said...

Well now don't I feel like a dunce. It never occurs to me to save the original manuscript when I start tinkering. I think that comes from so rarely having anything completely finished. So it's really not legitimately rewriting the whole manuscript.