Apr
08

In the last few(ish) years, I’ve taken two very different writing workshops that absolutely changed how I saw my writing. Strangely enough, both were on the Oregon Coast. (Maybe great teachers are just drawn to that end of the country?) But on the surface, the two workshops shared little else in common.

  • One workshop was slanted toward literary writing, the other toward genre.
  • One was taught by writers with relatively few, though impressive, credentials, the other by writers with credits coming out the proverbial wazoo. And, yes, their credits are also impressive.
  • One was relaxed and encouraged free time and seeing the local sites, the other was high-stress and encouraged staying put and writing more than I ever thought I could.
  • One was filled with cheerleading and encouragement, the other was tough love with a fair dash of you-can-do-it thrown in.
  • One emphasized in-depth group-critique, the other … did not.
  • One was about writing as art, the other about writing as a career.

But they also shared some pretty important facets.

  • Both made me feel exhausted and rejuvenated at the same time.
  • Both made me question much of the advice I’d previously heard.
  • Both required me to trust myself.
  • Both reminded me that I need more confidence in my writing.
  • Both required new writing each day.
  • Both required reading of each other’s work.
  • Both discouraged (to the point of effectively forbidding) rewriting.

It’s that last point that often raises hackles when I talk about it.

And, to be honest, I got a little hackled at both workshops, even the second one, despite having already come to believe that rewriting was over-rated a few years earlier at the first one.

So, let me break down what I learned – twice.

1) It’s way too easy to polish the magic out of one’s prose, to make it sound just like everyone else’s. To kill off a unique voice before it even has time to sing.

2) It’s way too easy to spend years rewriting or worrying about rewriting (as I have) a book that may very well be quite good already. We, as writers, are terrible judges of our own work. Plus, that’s time that could’ve been spent writing something new.

3) The road to improvement (as in big, tectonic changes, the kinds that shake up our mental landscapes and leave them forever changed) lies in writing, not rewriting.

4) Thinking there is no option but rewriting can prevent us from just starting over and running at a story from a brand new angle and finding what works.

5) Rewriting too often just tries to force new stuff around old stuff and ends up creating a big ol’ Bride of Frankenstein whose head threatens to fall off just because of unhooked accessories.

6) The feeling of progress that comes with rewriting again and again can be misleading. The rewritten parts often feel like they are better just because they’re new.

Now, this doesn’t mean you just fill 300 pages of crap and stick it in the mail. Working on a piece as you go is not necessarily the same as rewriting. Some people put things in as they figure things out, some take them out. These folks can work forward, backward and sideways as they go. I can’t. (Yet.) I have to write the story before I even know what the hell happened, what the themes are, what the character motivations are, etc. So I need to rewrite. But not in the way I used to think of it.

I’ve learned (and will likely have to relearn) not to rewrite for polish. I don’t want to smooth off all the rough edges of a piece, robbing it of all those accidental facets that my subconscious puts in. Currently, I am having fun going in the other direction — I’m not a polisher of rough edges. I’m a carver of rough edges. But, still, I need to constantly remind myself not to change things just because they’re different (and therefore new and fresh and exciting), not beat my grammar and punctuation into such submission that I deny them their ability to add nuance, pacing and a sort of playing with the reader. I need to remember to only change those things I KNOW make the story better. Like when I had a character that was male the first half of the book and changed her to female the second half? Yeah, there’s some rewriting needed. But when I wrote myself into a corner and came up with a kickass way out that might not be exactly fitting to my genre? Leave it. When my character swears because it suits her and I start worrying about whether or not that will offend people? Leave it alone. When I want to change from first person to third because … and I realize I have no real reason other than it would be different and fun, leave it alone.

Now, if an editor tells me to make changes, I’m on it! But because I know I can’t generally judge my work (a point graphically proven in the second workshop) I’m better off trusting my gut and then waiting to see what an editor says rather than trying to read minds.

I’ve also learned the value of a trusted first reader. If my first reader (or second or third, depending on where I am in the process) points out problems (and I agree), I change them. But as I’m changing, I don’t go through and second guess everything else I wrote. (OK, I do, but I’m trying really hard not to.)

It’s not about rewriting or not rewriting, but rather about trusting ourselves as writers. Letting our subconsciouses do the heavy lifting they want to do. It’s about felicitous accidents and Freudian typos and misremembered clichés and sudden bursts of inspiration — all which come into question too often in the rewriting phase because that’s when we kick the creative side of the brain into timeout and let the critical part come in with the shrill voice of authority better left to mall cops and low-level bureaucrats.

Of course, knowing the basic rules of grammar and writing is paramount if one wants to break them. And all that cool stuff that happens with the subconscious happens because of a whole lot of knowledge that has become second nature. I think.

Now, my views do not necessarily represent the views of anyone else (on anything. Ever. Really.). In fact, this may not even be what any of the workshop leaders wanted me to get out of the workshops. It may not be what other attendees got out of it. It may all be the colorful meandering of my own imagination. I may not have been in Oregon at all – no, wait, I’m sure on that last bit. There was this ocean and sand and clouds …

Look, I'm turning my back on the ocean! I'm a wild woman.

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6 Responses
  1. Des says:

    Wolf– I think all of us have our moments of terror–fueled by our negative voices–Good luck!!

  2. margaret says:

    Love this, and I am really trying to refrain from polishing the voice out of things. I think I’m good at this. You know, I think one reason some blogs can be fun to read is because they are written in a rush. They are not polished to death, and you can really see that.

  3. wolfgang says:

    Des:

    it’s amazing, i think, how as artists we forget a lot that the reason we began was because WE (as an individual) got excited about this story that had not been told, and we realized we not only wanted to tell it, but I think, more importantly, hear it. We wanted to be told this story. and at the end there were parts we liked better than others, because that’s the way we react to all stories.

    i forget a lot about why i write. it’s because i really care about the characters and there adventures. i want to see them get to where they are headed, even if it’s going to be an ugly place and my heart will break with theirs, i want to be there for them and i want them to be there, to be my friends, and so we can share this experience.

    i forget because when it comes along to the idea of editing and submitting, that idea no longer matters, and so it almost was never there in the start (i tell myself, because of course it was!). It’s all about other people wanting to be told this story, it all becomes about how many people will be interested in this story. How marketable it is. How it can be classified into a genre so people can more easily select to read it or pass over it.

    And when I started my book one of the things I told myself I was going to do was write whatever I wanted for it, I told myself I wasn’t going to worry about all that stuff. But now that it’s in my last edit of grammar, and then I’m going to be sending it out: I’m terrified. I have nothing else on my mind except that I don’t know why I wrote why I did. And just because I liked it doesn’t mean other people will. And it’s hard to just have something you love and want to share it and be told “No.” because you Love it. And it’s almost like a rejection of your love: you shouldn’t have loved this story either, you fear. You fear that this story isn’t worthy of your love, you doubt, you think your story is cheating on you by being a second rate pulp story, and suddenly: how can I go on? I need to reform this story! Send it back and get it fitted in a better suit. Then people will look and say it was a good pairing, this story and you, and now other people will accept it from you.

    So thinking of that woman who got scared after 1 time, I at first was angry at her; but then thinking about how little I submit stories, how I’m just getting ready to send out my first book: I’m more scared than I sometimes remember. And so… i understand… both sides, i guess. I want my love for my book to be justified and I’m scared that other people will be unhappy if I bring it over to their potluck and it’s not dressed appropriately. But still, I want people to love things for what they are. And so, I really hope she changes her mind. I hope she lets her book be itself and charm other people at other potlucks, wearing it’s flipflops and jams. And I hope I can let that happen too, when I take my book out for dinner with my boss.

  4. wolfgang says:

    this was a REALLY helpful blog entry… damn you… now what excuse do I have for writing and rewriting if I have no excuse to change something out of novelty?! That’s how I thrive so I don’t have to accomplish anything!

  5. Des says:

    Robert: The original was even better.
    Kidding!!!
    Cindie–love the clarity of this post! Particularly as I draw to the close of my novels, I am lost. As in, “is this any good? Was it even worth beginning?” At my writer’s meeting this morning a woman had finally stepped her toe into the pool of submissions. First. Time. Ever. And since it was rejected, kindly, she’s decided to rewrite the entire novel, splitting it into two.
    I wanted to bang my head against the table where I sat.

  6. Robert says:

    This was a very useful blog entry. I can’t wait to see the rewrite.

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Cindie Geddes

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