Mette Harrison On Revising The Right Way

Posts in the Writing Wisdom category are primarily for my creative writing students. Most consist of quotes from others that I want to pass along and sometimes I offer up the things I’ve learned as well.


In a Facebook post titled “You’ve Got Revision All Wrong” author Mette Harrison breaks down where many writers go wrong with thinking about revision.

When I was in high school and college, teachers would talk to us about revising papers and focus us on fixing sentences, rearranging paragraphs, and choosing better words. Which is definitely revising on one level. The problem was that when I became a professional writer, I realized that this was the very last stage of revision, basically the copy-editing level.

The revisions that I do before I get to copy-editing are massive. MASSIVE. Like, every single word of the manuscript changes. Sometimes all the scenes are in the right order (Ha–this is never true, but we’ll pretend it is for a little while). It’s just that I have the voice wrong. Or the point of view. Or I change the rules of magic. Or I have to tweak a character’s motivations. Or the setting is now historical–or isn’t historical anymore. Or I’m now writing a series instead of a standalone. Or a thousand different changes that probably sound like they’re small in terms of scope, but in fact change every single word of the book. Because my descriptions are going to change based on how my character changes. And how I introduce the magic or offer setting details changes if the point of view is different.

I know that some writers manage to figure out these kinds of problems before they start writing a first draft, but I’ll tell you honestly, not many do. Even writers who outline extensively find a ton of problems that require massive, massive revisions. And the writers who aren’t finding their problems by writing drafts are spending just as much time (IMHO) figuring out the problems in their heads.

Almost always, when I see a writer who isn’t making progress from draft to draft it’s because they aren’t either willing or able to make these kinds of revisions. They hold tight to their original vision of a project because they think that’s what people mean when they say to “write the book of your heart.” Or they honestly don’t know how to reimagine everything from the bottom up and let everything go in order to rebuild something that’s even better. And do it again and again and again in order to get a manuscript that’s ready for publication.

Read the whole post, as she goes on to say many brilliant things.

Years ago a writer (can’t remember who) said that her revision process went like this:

  1. Print out first draft of novel
  2. Delete the file
  3. Start a new file
  4. Write the novel again using the paper draft (with corrections!) as your guide

I have not gotten to the point where I’m willing to delete old versions. However, I do take a blank slate approach to revision, especially with short stories. Sometimes the fiction needs that much of an overhaul, and so I sit with my marked up manuscript and maybe notes from my beta readers and I start typing. Maybe not every single word changes (I now have a DARLINGS file, though). But I’m not beholden to anything I wrote before if it doesn’t fit.

How do you go about revising? And how extensive are your revisions?


image credit: woodleywonderworks on Flickr

Breakable Rules: You Must Write Every Day!

Posts in the Writing Wisdom category are primarily for my creative writing students. Most consist of quotes from others that I want to pass along and sometimes I offer up the things I’ve learned as well.


Write Every Day is an oft-given and basic piece of writing advice. If you want to be a Real Writer™ you must write every day, no matter your circumstances, no matter your lack of inspiration. Put that butt in that chair and sit there and write. Every day.

Even Jerry Seinfeld agrees, and he’s a huge success. (He has a productivity trick that helped him accomplish this that I use myself because it is quite motivational.)

The problem with Write Every Day as a dictate from on high is that it creates a huge amount of pressure. And, as author Daniel José Older explains, that doesn’t work for everyone.

Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.

Yes to that. Not everyone is motivated by deadlines and hard goals. For some, writing on your current work/s in progress every day might not be feasible, might not even be what you need to do. Older again:

Every writer has their rhythm. It seems basic, but clearly it must be said: There is no one way. Finding our path through the complex landscape of craft, process, and different versions of success is a deeply personal, often painful journey. It is a very real example of making the road by walking. Mentors and fellow travelers can point you towards new possibilities, challenge you and expand your imagination, but no one can tell you how to manage your writing process. I’ve been writing steadily since 2009 and I’m still figuring mine out. I probably will be for the rest of my life. It’s a growing, organic, frustrating, inspiring, messy adventure, and it’s all mine.

For myself, I find that I can’t always move forward in my work progress every day. Sometimes I need to work out why a scene isn’t gelling or a character isn’t behaving in a way I want in my own head before trying to do so in words. Sometimes I find I really need to get a bit of research out of the way to make the next chapter or scene flow. And sometimes I’m really busy with work projects.

The problem that arises for me is that I can’t not write for too long otherwise I run into trouble. Author Justine Larbalestier is the same:

If I don’t write for a month then I find it very very very difficult to get back into it. And the longer I’m not writing the harder it becomes. My writing muscles atrophy. I need to write—not every day, but at least three times a week—to stay limber.

In his book About Writing, Samuel R. Delany compares writing to an addiction:

…your mind becomes… addicted to the pleasure of writing. …while the pleasure is there (it’s unique; very real; all writers experience it), the truth is, it isn’t that great. You need lots of it to effect the “addiction” that will keep you at it. Though the practice of writing has the structure of an addiction, it’s a mild one–one remarkably easy to wean yourself away from, even accidentally or through inattention.

The way I reconcile this with the idea that you don’t have to write on your work in progress every day is that I make it my goal to do one ten minute writing exercise a day. Ten minutes is not a large chunk of time, so even in a busy life I can find the moment to sit down and do it. Even a short exercise keeps my creative brain engaged enough to make it easier to get back to writing on my work in progress when I can. And on those days I do an exercise right before I get to the main writing in order to turn off my horrid little internal editor.

This is why I did the Writing Exercises class last year and why I started The Picture Game a few years back. That one is simple: find a picture, get out a notebook or open a blank word processing document, set a timer for 10 minutes, take no more than 30 seconds to take in the picture, then write until the timer dings. No stopping to correct spelling or to think, just keep your fingers moving.

There are plenty of places[1] to find different writing exercises that keep you limber but won’t make you feel pressured. Find your level and what works for you and do that!

Whatever you do, know that there’s no one right way to be a writer, no one thing you must to, no one path you must follow.


image credit: photosteve101 on Flickr

Footnotes

  1. Some of my favorites:

    All with great exercises to do alone or with other writers.[]

me with Delany, Diaz, and Liu

Discussions About Diversity In Science Fiction

me with Delany, Diaz, and Liu

NPR Books and Code Switch ran several great pieces for Black History Month this year, including the Hidden Black History one I talked about the other day and this one on letters and black history that I also wrote. My bud Alaya Dawn Johnson also put together a fantastic post wherein she interviewed some great Black science fiction writers about their impact on the genre and on shaping the future.

To the extent that science fiction is the literature of ideas, of plausible futurism, of extrapolation from social trends that can help us locate ourselves better in the present, we have helped to make science fiction more relevant than ever. Afrofuturism was a hugely important phenomenon in the black community, but George Clinton or Sun Ra never got invited to a World Science Fiction Convention. Last year, the groundbreaking musical artist Janelle Monae, whose work is strongly inspired by afrofuturism, received an honorable mention for the prestigious Tiptree Award for her album The Electric Lady. The lines are converging; we are rewriting our futures.

Please read the whole thing, it is well worth it.

And if you’re interested in such things, last week I was on the Marc Steiner Show talking about Octavia Butler (it was the anniversary of her death) and the state of Black science fiction. My fellow panelists, Ytasha L. Womack, adrienne maree brown, and Jason T. Harris, were a delight to converse with and big props to the host for keeping the conversation lively. When you have an hour listen to the podcast.

Let’s Talk About “Comfort Zones”

Danger Zone

Of the reactions to the piece on challenging yourself to read non-white, cis-het male authors for one year, I find one to be very telling about people’s assumptions of reading experience. Paraphrased, it goes something like:

But in her piece Tempest said that she only read fiction within her comfort zone!

What I’m understanding is that these decriers think that when I made the choice to not read fiction that bored me, made me mad because it wasn’t good, or offended me, I was looking to only be comforted.

I think the fault lies in the conception of what “offended me” means. Because people who are steeped in some kind of unexamined privilege often see Being Offended as Being Made Angry or Being Made To Feel Mildly Uncomfortable. That’s what I see as being behind all those “You’re just looking to be offended!” cries when a woman or person of color or any number of people from a marginalized or oppressed group points out offensive stuff.

The assumption is that I can choose not to be offended[1].

A white man might read stories written by other white men that have offensive to black people stuff in them and not even notice. At all. Or care. At all. Or, if they notice, the experience may be one of, “Oh hey, that’s not all right.” But it doesn’t hurt that white male reader.

Offensive stereotypes of black or brown people as ignorant savages hurts me. Fiction wherein women are only in the story to be sexual slaves without agency or even names hurts me. Even casual, offhand, not blatantly racist/sexist/whathaveyou offensive crap bourne out of a writer’s ignorance hurts me. Literary microagressions.

When I read fiction–especially for pleasure, but even for the purpose of analyzing it so that I can grow as a writer–I don’t want a majority of my experience to be about getting hurt. And a lot of the time the white, cis-het male writer behind those stories has not given two thoughts to privilege or stereotypes or that social justice warrior glittery hoo-ha crap[2]. So I stopped reading them.

However, in sticking to women, people of color, LGBT, and other authors from marginalized identities, I was not reading in a “comfort zone.” I was not more comfortable, I was just less likely to run across fiction that hurt me. But the stories were certainly not universally comfortable to read. Not at all.

I’ve never sought out comfort when looking for new things to read. A thing may become a comfort read once I finish it. In fact, much great fiction makes me uncomfortable, which is a big plus.

The first time I experienced this was in high school. I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred[3] and it made me profoundly uncomfortable. I still remember the almost panic feeling I got when I imagined for a moment if what happened to Dana happened to me. I was sure I would not have made it at all. The thought that it might happen was terrifying.

This was the first time I understood how fiction can affect a reader. No book, even books I loved, had ever made me that uncomfortable. And I had never identified with any protagonist so deeply.

Same thing happened with Derrick Bell’s The Space Traders. Oh man, that story jacked me up for years. Because everything Bell wrote in that story was so true. 100 percent truth.

Truth is rarely comfortable.

So no, I did not escape into my comfort zone when reading non-white, cis-het male authors. In fact, I put myself more and more out of it as I went. Because not all of the fiction I read catered to the mainstream gaze. And the gaze it catered to wasn’t necessarily mine, either. There were stories that challenged my notions of how stories are supposed to go, how plots are meant to unfold, how characters must be constructed and revealed and relate[4]. This is what happens when you step out of mainstream culture’s comfort zone.

That’s probably why so many people are scared.

Footnotes

  1. Which is… no. I can choose not to tell you I’m offended. I can choose to hide that I’m offended. I can also take the offense to heart, consciously or unconsciously, and feel like I’m worthless. I’m not going to do that just so you don’t have to hear me talk about offensive shit.[]
  2. This is not true for every single one of these writers. Noting is true for every single one of any kind of people. But these days I am less willing to give a new author from this group a try unless I see some evidence that they have thought about these issues. That’s not a hard thing for me. Thus I end up reading some of the best white, cis-het male SF/F authors publishing today. WIN.[]
  3. This was assigned reading, too! Yeah, I don’t know how that happened.[]
  4. If this all sounds like some awesomepants to you, then I suggest you go through my Favorite Fiction archive here on the blog and check out my column at io9.[]

Just Say No to One Planet, One Language

One of the things I find a wee bit annoying about this Slate piece on science fictional languages is that it heavily references Star Trek (not even real Trek but that JJ Abrams thing from 2009) yet keeps talking about all science fiction writers like we all do it this way. Granted, there are some literary examples given, but they are very few and not the focus the way Star Trek is.

Darmok and Jelad at Tenagra
Dathon is having none of your linguistic simplicity, no sir.

First, let’s talk about Trek and alien language and culture. The thing all TV and movie iterations of Trek have done is treat each planet like it has one culture and one language. This is why Uhura’s line about three dialects makes some small sense in the world of Trek because Romulus, Star Empire it may be, metaphorically represents one country. A country that is probably small in comparison to Vulcan or Earth since it’s made up of the descendants of refugees.

It’s the same with every Trek culture. Only the ones we see multiple times ever move away from homogeny. How many years and new series had to go by before we saw a non-white Vulcan? There was once an “albino” Klingon, but otherwise they’re generally dark-skinned in TNG-era Trek. They do have different head ridges as time goes on. Did we ever see a Cardassian that didn’t have the very same coloring, bone structure, and facial markings as the first one we saw?

Even the humanoid species that looked exactly human on the outside lacked variation: with few exceptions they were all white people. If we got wild there might be a green person or a blue person with funny horns, but always the same blue or green or whatever.

To go along with the thing where everyone on the planet looks the same (even the same haircut. Do Romulans even have barbers? They would have the most boring jobs ever) the cultures were always the same across the planet. Everyone would talk about how to deal with the Bajoran people or Trills or whatever as if there was only one way to do so. One culture, one society.

The only time I remember TNG-era addressing this was an episode in season 7 when 2/3rds of a planet applied to join the Federation while the other third wanted nothing to do with it. Still though, that’s just two societies on one planet.

I realize that this is part of the utopian vision of Star Trek. That as people of different planets evolved and mass/instant communication became possible, soon they would all become one global society. That’s certainly the way Earth is presented. In the 24th century we’re all one culture: American culture. You can pretend Picard is French all you like, even with his strangely British accent, but you cannot tell me he acts in any way specifically French or even in any way specifically like a man who grew up three centuries from now.

That’s not the point, of course. Because science fiction is about us, right now, and always has been. And I have no beef with that, theoretically.

However, my story in Federations was written specifically in response to TV science fiction ideas about homogeneous alien cultures. I reject them. And I believe a lot of good science fiction novel and short story writers do as well. Because we’re not constrained the way TV writers are.

As much as I’d love more alien cultural diversity in Star Trek, I recognize that it’s mostly metaphor. I also recognize that if we were going to be super realistic, TV episodes would be boring as hell. Can you imagine the tediousness of having to deal with multiple governments and cultures on every single planet? It’s hard enough to deal with just one.

If Star Trek can’t do more than one culture per planet, how do you expect more than three dialects of Romulan? Even if you adhere to the thinking of a planet = a country, most countries have more than three dialects going on. But in every episode we’d be figuring out how to talk to new aliens or even some the Federation has already met because they’re not in the Federation yet. The universal translator takes care of that for us and we can move on to the story.

For the sake of the narrative and simplicity you have to be willing to put up with some handwave.

That doesn’t mean the same applies to science fiction literature. It shouldn’t, at any rate. I wouldn’t assume that it does.

I’m not as up on my space opera as I probably should be, but I know for my own works I try to be careful about falling into planet = one culture thing. Same as I try not to fall into the Planet With A Universal Climate trope. The SF I’ve read using that is also usually more on the metaphorical side and I’m down as long as the author clearly knows what she’s about. It’s when authors get lazy that this becomes a problem.

It seems like an awful lot of work to have to come up with multiple cultures and societies and mention multiple languages and dialects when you write stories dealing with alien worlds or even colonized ones, right? That’s because it is. This is what makes fiction rich and complex. And no, it doesn’t mean having to work out every single detail, it just means not falling back on what’s easy. That’s okay for TV, not so much for literature.

Even though the Slate article is at pains to try and paint the single language thing as scientifically valid, I don’t see that as the way to go. From an alien perspective all of Earth’s languages might seem, at the core, to be all one. And on a certain level that might be right. That doesn’t mean it’s a universal truth, does it? The way different cultures use language has huge effects on how the people in those cultures think, and dealing with those differences has a huge impact on how we Earthlings deal with each other and how we’d deal with alien cultures.

I’m just sayin’: leave the one language, one culture, one planet simplicity to TV. Because it’s TV.

Seanan McGuire on why she will not add rape to her stories to add “realism”

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you know my feelings about the way rape is used in most fiction. If you’re unaware or have forgotten, please click over to my post here, my post on ABW, and my post on Jeff Vandermeer’s blog about the subject.

The bottom line of each of those is that I really do not like it when authors decide to have their female (and it’s almost always female) characters raped for bullshit plot or character development “reasons”. The kind of writers who do this are generally not very good ones since they have to use cheap tricks in order to show that the female character is “strong” or the male character is “evil” or to wink and nod to any reader out there who might think that a female character could possibly ever get away with being smart and confident and badass without being taken down a peg.

I also get angry at this trope because I firmly believe that it contributes to rape culture in a big way. When the message from fiction is constantly that rape is inevitable, especially if you as a woman step outside of the box of what is acceptable, and that’s just how it is. Whenever I suggest that authors just NOT include rape as an inevitable consequence of being a woman in fiction, I get told that this is completely unrealistic.

Thus, I am not at all surprised that this happened to author Seanan McGuire:

Last night, I was asked—in so many words—when either Toby or one of the Price girls was finally going to be raped.

Not “if.” Not “do you think.” But “when,” and “finally.” Because it is a foregone conclusion, you see, that all women must be raped, especially when they have the gall to run around being protagonists all the damn time. I responded with confusion. The questioner provided a list of scenarios wherein these characters were “more than likely” to encounter sexual violence. These included Verity forgetting to change out of her tango uniform before going on patrol, Toby being cocky, and Sarah walking home from class alone[1]. Yes, even the ambush predator telepath with a “don’t notice me” field is inevitably getting raped.

When. Finally. Inevitably.

My response: “None of my protagonists are getting raped. I do not want to write that.”

Their response: “I thought you had respect for your work. That’s just unrealistic.”

Go and read the whole post, because everything that Seanan has to say in response to this nonsense is right on and should be read by every person ever, especially authors.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again: Writers, when you write fiction you get to create the world. Yes, even if are writing in the “real” world and not that of the speculative, you get to decide what happens to your characters and why. Spec writers in particular get to create stuff out of whole cloth, if they like. And more of them should choose not to bring rape into their narratives. Because if we want to create a world in which rape happens less, we need to show worlds where rape isn’t the inevitable consequence of being a woman.

Then maybe there won’t be readers out there who claim that no rape means a book is unrealistic. Because: really? Gross.

Footnotes

  1. Does it occur to anyone else that this person has thought way too much about the ways in which these characters may end up raped? If I were Seanan I would stay away from the fan fiction for a bit…[]