Many years ago, I was an art teacher, first at the elementary level and then at the junior high. At the elementary level, kids loved art, At the junior high level, tension set in. They came in afraid because it was a required class and they didn’t have talent. They were going to fail. They didn’t know how to be an artist. That first day, they’d look at me with varying degrees of terror and anger. We didn’t want this, I could hear them thinking. It sucks that you’re making us do this.

So I’d start out with, “Suppose this was a Spanish class. Would you feel awful because you couldn’t speak Spanish? Of course not, you’d be taking the class to learn that. And you’re taking this class to learn art. I don’t care if you’re talented or not, I just want you to learn the basics of design.”

But I could still see the tension, so I’d get to the part that was really worrying them: the grading.

“Every assignment I give you will get three grades: one on design, one on originality, one on craftsmanship.”

“For design, I’ll tell you exactly what I need you to do: repeat shapes to make a pattern, choose a color scheme, vary texture, whatever. As long as you use the design element as assigned, you’ll get an A in design. I don’t care how awful your work is, if you used the design element as assigned, you get the A.

“For originality, I’ll look for how different your approach is. Did you do a picture of a tree by a lake or did you draw flying hamburgers? Did you do orange pumpkins or purple pumpkins with red ribbon stems? How did you make the assignment new, different, yours. If you used your imagination, you’ll get an A, even if the project is a mess and you screwed up the design part.

“And finally, for craftsmanship, if you used your tools well and executed your design cleanly, if you respected what you were doing enough to do it carefully, you’ll get an A. Even if your design is all wrong and you drew Mickey Mouse, you’ll get an A in craftmanship.”

“Nothing there requires talent. I don’t care if you can draw. I just want you to learn the basics of design while using your imagination and treating your artist’s tools with respect.”

At that point, I could always feel a collective sigh in the room, thirty kids finally breathing again. And as we did one project after another, they didn’t just learn the basics of design, they learned that they really were artists, that they all had talents in different areas which meant that the fact that their work didn’t look like the kid’s next to them was a good thing, that creativity was expression, and that they could be even more expressive once they had the safety of a framework: Design/Originality/Craftsmanship.

I was thinking of that tonight, thinking of the Nita story evolving and the Gaiman Snow White story I read earlier this week and of how difficult it is to write a story, to juggle all the different aspects of writing and storytelling and I realized that it all goes back to Design/Originality/Craftsmanship. Know your structure and the theme that pulls it all together; swing wide and high within the structure, no limits to your creativity; and then revise it to be tight and strong with beautifully clear syntax, no unnecessary words to clog up the works, no grammatical or punctuation errors to spoil a reader’s attachment to the narrative.

So discovery drafting is about originality, but it’s also about discovering the structure you need, not to limit yourself but to support you as aim for the moon. It doesn’t matter that I look at this book and think, “It’s not even close.” Of course, it’s not even close. I’m still learning this story, but every step I take that brings me closer to the structure I need, every step I take farther outside the box labeled “Crusie,” every word I cut and phrase I polish, brings me closer. It’s not about talent. It’s about creativity and craft.

And design, originality, and craftsmanship.

(How long ago was this?  The kids with me in my art classroom below are all in their forties now.  I’m old.)



Chapters. Bleah

Chapters are useless.  They’re arbitrary divisions in a story that serve no purpose except to give readers a chance to put down the book and never come back.  Unlike acts, scene sequences, scenes, beats, and all the other narrative units, chapters actually work against structure and meaning: you have to bend the book to make them work.  

But they’re standard, so they stay.   And I’m about to print out the first act which means I have to figure out where the chapter headings go so I put in transitions between the @#$%^&* chapters I don’t want in there anyway. Continue reading

Cutting the Breakfast Scene

I’m working on the assumption here that somebody out there is interested in this wonky stuff.  If you’re not, feel free to skip.  There’s math in this post.

So the Breakfast Scene at the end of the second mini-act was 3,524 words, and it needed to be a lot less. I don’t like scenes that are over 2500, even transition scenes like this one, so that was my upper limit.  I ended up at 2560, so pretty good but still more cuts to come on the paper edit.  Here’s how I did it.

Continue reading

How to Cut a Story

Discovery drafts almost always run long.  That’s because they’re writer-based drafts, not intended for readers or publication, they’re just the writer getting it all down on paper or screen.  You’re supposed to write long on a discovery draft; it’s the writing equivalent of taking the back roads so that you see a lot of stuff.  Yes, you’ll get there faster if you take the freeway, but all you’ll see is freeway.

But once you’ve explored, the next time you take the trip, you go for fast-paced and focused: You take the truck draft out on the highway.  You cut like crazy. Continue reading

Still Cutting Breakfast (Rev. with Hint)

So I’ve been cutting the hell out of the breakfast scene, and it’s no longer 4400 words. Now it’s 3400. Which means I need to go back in there and hack some more, at least another 600 words, plus I need to add a couple of sentences from the lunch scene. So it’s gonna be awhile. In the meantime, there’s an Easter Egg in the drafts you’ve read so far. In all honesty, I don’t expect anybody to get it because the reference is to a book I published more than a decade ago and it’s really, really obscure. On the other hand, you like puzzles. So there’s a single word in the stuff you’ve read so far that ties this book to some of my other stories.

If nobody gets it by tomorrow night this time, I’ll tell you what the word is. And it’ll still be obscure. When I plant an Easter Egg, I plant it deep.

Yeah, it’s too obscure. I’ll give you the word:


Get Your Knives Out

So I’m not a fan of scenes that run on too long. I’m not a stickler about it, but in the first act, I try to keep my scenes under 3000 words, 2500 even better, and then in the last three acts never top 2500, in the last act even shorter. I’ve been rewriting the breakfast scene which has to do a lot of heavy lifting, and I like it. But it’s 4400 words. That’s ridiculous. It must be cut.

I am still in the darling stage with it. I want EVERY DAMN WORD. But at least a thousand words have to go. Your job, should you choose to accept it, it to tell me where it lags, where it’s confusing, where you’d cut it. Feel free to be brutal. As always, I won’t respond for twenty-four hours–YOU WANT ME TO CUT THAT??????–because I need to detach for distance, but all feedback is more than welcome.

Yes, I know I keep exploiting you. But you keep coming back. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Scene is here.

Rewriting Button

The first time I wrote Button’s scene, I wrote it in Nita’s PoV. But Button has a big role to play in this book, and I need her PoV, plus Nita’s PoV was just more drunk Nita learning things. The second time I wrote Button’s scene, I wrote it in her PoV, but it was a just-get-it-down-on-paper version. That’s the one some of you read. This is the third rewrite of Button’s scene, trying to add some layers to her characterization. It’s not gonna be the last rewrite, either. There’s a lot more to Button that I already know about and I’m going to learn a lot more as I move through the book. This is why I always laugh when somebody asks seriously, “How many drafts do you do?” “Oh, two, three thousand . . .” * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Continue reading