A Couple of Questions on Writing

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Recently I put out a call for questions to be answered on this blog. Here are a couple of the responses. Keep in mind, though, that these are my processes; your mileage may vary. In the end, all that matters is what ends up on the page.

editing

From Tamlyn Garrison: [How do you know] when to stop editing? I’m a chronic over-editor. Or I get multiple critiques and can’t reconcile their varying opinions of problems.

First, two quotes:

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”—Leonardo DaVinci

“Art thrives on restriction.”—Nicholas Meyer

If I was a cross-stitcher (or knew someone who was), I would already have framed banners over my desk proclaiming these two quotes. Between them, they encompass my approach to revision.

The ultimate goal for a writer should be: This is the best I can do with what I have to work with in the time I have to do it. I learned about deadlines while working as a reporter; when you’ve raced a midnight deadline for a story that has to be in the next day’s paper, a nine-month deadline for finishing a novel isn’t scary at all. But the deadline serves a very important function in the creative process, because it gives you a finite end. I always try to build into my work schedule time to finish a draft and then put it away for a time before returning to revise it. I do most of my revision by hand, in red ink on printouts. This gives me a visual representation of how the revision is progressing, from pages marked with tons of red to, eventually, only a few (or rarely, no) corrections. When I find myself merely adding or moving punctuation, then I know I’ve reached the point where it’s time to stop again, at least for a while.

As for critiques, you have to consider the source. Critics are usually right about what doesn’t work, and usually wrong about how you need to fix it. In my experience, a valid criticism will make you go, “Of course! Why didn’t I see that?” And that’s usually followed by a very clear idea of how to correct it. Invalid criticism will often hurt your feelings and make you feel terrible about yourself and your work, but give you no actual help at improving it. So you have to learn to discern what’s truly useful for you, and let the rest slide.

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From Bill Bodden: Do you prefer writing short fiction or novels? Why?

For me, the two forms are a lot like tennis and racquetball: they superficially look similar, but once you start trying to play them, you realize that a lot of the reflexes you develop for one don’t work at all for the other.

Short stories ideally start from the broad base of the tale and narrow to the single point of the story, much like an inverted triangle. Edgar Allen Poe, who essentially invented the modern short story, stressed that one should strive toward a single “effect”: terror, or amusement, or romance, or so on. That single point/effect is ultimately what gives the short story its power.

Longer forms, especially the novel, are usually the opposite.  They tend to start with a single point and then spread out to encompass multiple narratives, characters, and themes. It may take a while after finishing a novel for the reader to figure out what s/he really feels about it. And in some cases, such as the works of the late David Foster Wallace, there may be no actual effect: the point may be simply the process of reading itself.

Every word must count in a short story. The writing, and revising, must be ruthless. In a novel, you can pause for a beautifully crafted passage that ultimately contributes nothing to the story’s forward motion, but instead spreads laterally to create part of the overall atmosphere. That sort of luxury is death to a short story.

And I don’t really have a preference. Usually when the idea strikes, I know pretty soon whether it’s the germ of a short story or a novel. Some ideas simply don’t have the depth in them to expand into a novel, whereas other ideas could never work in the hyper-tight form of the short story.

I hope these comments have been useful, or at least entertaining. Feel free to ask any follow-ups in the comments below. Thanks to Bill and Tamlyn for their questions.

One Comment on “A Couple of Questions on Writing”

  1. See, I’m different when it comes to the criticism. If it is right on, I usually say, “Hell yes, I kind of knew that was a problem.” But I often have no idea how to fix it. (Did I mention I hate revision? That’s why I hate revision.)

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