When a contractor gets the big stuff done on a job, she or he and the homeowner makes a punch list: a list of all the little stuff needed to completely finish the job. Technically it’s anything that did not conform to specifications, but it’s the little stuff, too, that just got lost in the big tasks. It’s about this time in a book that I do a punch list for all the things that I’ve forgotten or let drop, changed in one place but not another, forgot to layer in, details that are important but not addressed yet, etc. I have a much more complex list of big issues to solve for character, plot, and theme, but the punch list is little stuff that’s still important. Such as . . .
So here’s the problem.
On the one hand, I’m getting all the info I need to write the rest of the book in the first chapter.
On the other hand, I like books with fast starts.
So I did some vicious cuts. Continue reading
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.)
One of the weirdest things I discovered early in my career was that a story I’ve been writing on a screen not only looks completely different on the page, it reads completely different on the page.
That’s why a paper edit is crucial. Continue reading
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
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.
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
No, not me, I’m pretty chipper here, getting plenty of sleep, beautiful day, everything’s fine.
I’m talking about exhausting my text by rewriting. Continue reading
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:
First, thank you all very much for the feedback.
Second, I agree with almost everything. Here’s a discussion of the comments as of midnight last night: