Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How To Throw Away Your Book, or The Art of Revision

Did you know it's Tuesday? Late Tuesday? I do...now. Yeah, I need help, what can I say? I guess sorry for the late post will have to do.

Anywho, last week I promised a WIFYR post, and here it is. Yay!

During WIFYR I was in the fabulous Martine Leavitt's class. I learned a lot, but one of the best things for me was a discussion on drafts. She mentioned that Cynthia Leitich Smith writes her first draft then destroys it--as in gone. Deleted. Poof.

If you don't believe me, read it in Cynthia's own words:
“I do this drastic thing... that freaks out my graduate students. When I'm finished with the first draft, I print it, read it once, throw away the hard copy, delete the file, and delete trash. Knowing as I go in that the draft is for my eyes only, that I'm not committed to it, frees me up to experiment. It gives me an opportunity to explore the characters and their world. I figure the best, strongest aspects of the character and story will survive when I write the second first draft.”

—Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith
from the Faerie Drink Review.
Check out more about Cynthia at her website.

Now, those of you out there who aren't writers might not understand how drastic this sounds. I'm not one of Cynthia's students, but the idea is still freaking me out. Writing a draft is like giving birth, but harder. And yes, I can see you out there shaking your heads, but I've done both, so I KNOW. It takes about as long as a pregnancy for me to complete a draft from conception to delivery, and there is a lot of pain and joy involved.

The thought of taking all that work and effort and love and throwing it away feels like murder, or at least the kind of craziness they lock people away for. But the more I think about it, the more it starts to make sense. Sort of.

Martine doesn't throw away her whole book, but she does write the first one hundred pages and then trashes those. She said that by then she's done most of her experimenting and has figured out the main character's voice, objects of desire, and all the good stuff, and she knows where the story really starts. Then she can write the real first draft without all the exploration.

A hundred pages may still sound like a lot, but I've chucked more than that before on projects because I didn't like the direction the book was taking. And do you know what, I didn't miss those pages when I rewrote them, because the best and most important things did survive. And it freed me up to really revise.

That brings me back to WIFYR. Both Martine and Heather Dixon talked about making revising become a true revision, as in re-envisioning the project to make it the best story it can be. You can't do that if you're married to your first draft. Why? Because first drafts stuck. They're supposed to. The first draft is when you give yourself permission to write crap and just get the story out there. If you hoard those words you spewed out, it's like trying to turn vomit into fine cuisine. I guess it's possible, but maybe that's why it took so many drafts for my first book to be readable. It takes a long time to transform raw spewage into yum.

Maybe it would be better to trash the gross stuff and start with fresh ingredients. The menu would be the same, but the result would be so much better, wouldn't it?

Now, I'm not saying I'm ready to compost my whole first draft on my current project, but I am saying I'm willing to completely re-envision it. Maybe my dark elf might end up as an alien, or maybe I'll scrap my whole magic system and come up with something new, and I'm even willing to say goodbye to my favorite lines of dialog. Ouch. But it's like Martine says, "You will get other great ideas, and they will be better every time."

What do you think? Would you have the heart and guts to delete your whole book and start from scratch? How about if you don't write, does this fit in with your own creative endeavors? Can destruction actually help creation? I really want to hear your thoughts.

Leisha Maw


Cherie said...

I think it sounds great. The ideas would all still be in your head, but more well developed.
Be brave, scrap the first draft.
Or at least hide it really well, start over and then compare the two.
I would be interesting to see the difference between that method and the blood, sweat, and tears of constant revisions.
Bet the scrap the first draft method is actually less painful in the end.
Now... don't let the fact that I've actually written very little since I've ceased attending college courses deter you from taking my excellent advice ;-).

Jonene Ficklin said...

Now that is drastic advice, but I can see the wisdom in it. I'm so emotionally attached to the first awful draft, it would be much simpler to start over using the parts that work, that are ingrained in my mind. Great post - and boy can you turn a phrase . . . "like trying to turn vomit into fine cuisine" - ha ha! Thanks for making me laugh!

Clint Stoker said...

I threw away my first fifty pages and started all over. I'm glad I did. My story has evolved in a completely different direction and if I would have kept those pages, I might still be trying to figure out how to make them work. This is great advice.

LeishaMaw said...

Cherie, I'm going to try it your way with Eddie. I'll rewrite it them compare. The experiment is on.

Jonene, any day I can make you laugh is a good day.

Clint, way to go! Is this recent?

Emilee said...

brilliant idea! Gonna try it. What's to lose since my group hated my first 10 pages anway. Thanks for sharing and being so on it to have this posted already Leisha!

LeishaMaw said...

Emilee, we can do it together and our brand new drafts will rock. :)

Sandy L. Rowland said...

I think I'm hyperventilating just thinking about it, but it isn't a bad idea. If this is your usual way of working, you won't take the first draft so seriously. Easier to do with just 100 pages. I'm looking at an entire manuscript. Ah, time to let go of what doesn't work.

Thanks for the timely post.

LeishaMaw said...

Sandy, the best and most important things will endure, right?


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