Sunday, November 28, 2010

My editing process

I am knee deep in my third revision of my first novel. I just finished editing the fourth chapter of the book for the second time and I'm about to start on the fifth. There are fifteen chapters in total, but the last few chapters are much shorter than the first, so I'm about one fourth to one third done with the third draft. I figure I am going to need to do a fourth draft and perhaps also a fifth draft, but it's getting more enjoyable to work with the manuscript after every pass, so I'm not particularly upset about that.

I actually enjoy editing quite a bit more than I expected to. Right after I finished the first draft, I felt a little dismayed as I looked forward towards all the work I still had to do to "finish the book". However, I've found that I enjoy editing and rewriting much more than I enjoyed writing the first draft of the novel, which was frequently grueling work and not amusing at all.

My strategy for writing the first draft was as follows: just keep writing as much as possible every day. It's all crap, but don't worry about that right now. Even when you don't think you have any ideas, just keep writing. Even when a scene seems impossible to write, just keep writing.

This worked quite well in that it allowed me to finish the first draft (which was about 120k words) in about three and a half months. Of course, much of what I wrote on that first pass really was total crap and has been completely reworked multiple times, but that's not the point. I couldn't have made it better as I went; I didn't have enough perspective. I had to finish the entire thing and then come back to each detail later.

My strategy for editing is a good deal more structured. Many of these ideas were inspired by Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, which gave me a sense of direction where I would have otherwise felt out of my depth.

While working on the second draft, I read each word of the book aloud and reworked awkward sentences and passages, making the syntax sound more natural and improving my word choice. I also deleted about 5k worth of completely extraneous verbiage. Excess adverbs and re-re-stated sentences represented a lot of what got the axe.

Now, while working on the third draft, I have printed out each chapter of the second draft and am working through them one by one using the following techniques.

First, I read through the entire chapter and analyze in broad terms what works for me and what doesn't. Having a hard copy of the chapter in front of me helps me to let go of detail-oriented issues and to analyze big picture stuff instead. During this phase I'm looking at scenes and groups of paragraphs, not individual lines.

I'm able to pick up on a lot of critical issues using this strategy. For example, when I read Chapter One in hard copy, I realized that my main character's emotional reactions didn't feel authentic given the heinous things that were happening in her life. This problem was so deeply rooted in the narrative that changing things line by line would have been ineffective. I'd written almost all of it back before I had any real understanding of the type of book I wanted to write, and I hadn't been able to improve it much with the second draft.

Once I've read through the chapter, I might decide to completely delete some scenes and start from scratch; others might get heavily edited, and others still might get by with only a few adjustments. I rewrite new scenes in a notebook rather than on the computer for reasons I'll get to in a second. For the edited scenes, I simply make notations on the hard copy. Once I'm done, I reread everything I've rewritten or marked up from start to finish. If some parts are still awkward or don't ring true, I work on them some more.

After the chapter reaches what I feel is an acceptable level of not sucking, I type all of it up in a new document. This takes a long time, but it forces me to evaluate every single thing I'm putting in the new version of the chapter-- if I feel like I can't be bothered to type something up, it must not be so great. On the other hand, I know passages are good when I can stay interested while I'm typing them up, even though I've previously written and read and rewritten and reread them over and over again. Using this technique I've also caught some spelling errors that spell check couldn't-- things like "break" and "brake" getting confused-- and I've picked up on sentences with unclear subjects or objects.

I've already learned a lot about editing in the past few months. For example, if I were to do this all again, knowing what I know now, I'd use my third draft strategy for my second draft and vice versa. Knowing that some scenes will need to get rewritten from scratch, I think it would be a great deal more efficient to work on big picture issues first before I go through the effort of reading everything aloud to work on tiny details.

I've started to figure out how to use syntax and sentence order to convey meaning and create clarity. I'm not a particularly poetic writer, so my ultimate goal is to make my words as transparent as possible, clear windows through which the reader can easily comprehend my meaning.

I've also started to cultivate my inner sense of what sounds authentic and what doesn't, what 'works' and what falls flat. It's entirely intuitive. When I read certain passages-- the good ones-- I feel a peculiar emotion I can't completely describe. It's something like satisfaction, but it's tinged with nervousness and physical unease-- let's call it wordlust. Mostly I feel this when I read other people's work, but I'm starting to feel it with my own writing.
Honestly, even if I never get published, the wordlust makes the entire experience worthwhile.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Love and money

Since resigning myself to the fact that I will probably never make a living bellydancing, I have grown considerably more comfortable with myself as a dancer. I enjoy creating choreographies more, and I enjoy teaching more. I've always enjoyed performing, but now I feel less anxious about it.
Why does everything seem so much easier now?
I know a lot of this is because I no longer feel like I have to market myself; I no longer feel like I have to always be at the top of my game and represent myself in the best possible light without fail.
In fact, I even feel less anxious about the idea of self-promotion now. I feel like I could put myself out there (whereever "out there" is) and say "Hi, this is me, this is what I'm doing" and not want to hide in a hole any more. All because I'm ready to accept that it's not my job any more (although I don't have another job yet, but that's another story altogether).
What I want to know is-- professional dancers and artists-- how do you manage your work psychologically? How do you keep the love for your work alive while still making money off of it? How do you keep the anxiety about putting food on the table from bleeding into your creative life?
I don't get it.
I'm secretly worried that, should my book ever get published, I won't be able to write another one because I'll suddenly feel pressure over it. I'm pretty sure this is an unreasonable worry to have, given a.) I haven't finished editing it yet and b.) I haven't sent it out to any agents or publishers and c.) the chances of me getting published are probably slim to none. And yet...
Is there something wrong with me, or is this a common malady?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Watch and learn

If you're an artist, everyone in this world has something to teach you, even people who are less skilled than you in a particular discipline-- even people with no training whatsoever. Once I realized this for myself, I've been able to learn so much about my two main creative areas of interest-- dance performance and writing stories-- through simply observing my reaction to the work of other artists.

This might sound kind of saccharine or sentimental, like "Everyone has something to share!" "Everyone has a unique and beautiful creative voice!" I do believe those things (for the most part), but that's not what I'm trying to say. What I really mean is that by being a mindful consumer of art, it's possible to learn things you can't learn in a classroom setting.

Allow me to provide an example.

Every time I watch a bellydance performance, I do the following:
-I pretend that I've never seen or heard anything about the dancer(s) I am watching before in my life, including the style of bellydance they normally perform.
-I try to ignore indicators of skill level unrelated to the actual dancing, such as the way the dancer is costumed.
-I try to abandon any feelings of competitiveness towards skilled dancers.
-I try to forget what I've been taught compromises a "good" versus "bad" performance, or even "good" versus "bad" dance technique.
-I try to pretend I know nothing about the current trends in bellydance (as I know that my natural tendency is to dislike trendy things simply because they're trendy, and that's not really fair).

As I watch, I try to think about the following:
-What stands out to me the most? What do I think I'll remember later?
-What do I think the dancer is trying to convey? What are their intentions for the performance? If I can't tell, why is it confusing?
-How is the dancer interpreting the music? Do I find it effective?
-When do I find myself losing interest or focus on the dancer? (i.e. when do I have an attention deficit moment and start thinking about bacon or the scientific method or somesuch?)
-When does the dance transcend a simple display of technique or skill? When does it have the ineffable quality that makes things interesting to me? When does technique (good or bad) stand in the way of conveying this ineffable quality?
-Does the dance make me feel anything (besides hungry or sleepy)? Why? Do I like it?

and, just generally speaking,
-What parts of the dance 'work' for me? What parts don't?
-How can I integrate what I've learned into my own performances?

Sometimes you will not be able to articulate why you like (or dislike) something, and that's fine. This isn't the same as dance criticism; you don't have to be able to support your feelings. In fact, your irrational likes and dislikes are really what make up your particular sensibility as an artist. It's important to recognize them for what they are, rather than ignoring them or trying to justify them with logic.

I have found that, more than anything else, this kind of exercise has helped me develop my creative voice as a dancer. By ignoring what I think I am supposed to like and searching for what I really respond to deep down in the hideous pitch-black depths of my abyssal soul, I have figured out what I want to convey as a dancer, as well as what I am not interested in pursuing.

I do not think I could have done this just by taking classes and watching videos of myself. Teachers can tell you what they think makes a good performance, but they can't tell you what YOU think is compelling, and most people are far too anxious about their own skills as a dancer to detach and actually learn things about stagecraft while watching their own videos.

I don't think that it's good enough to watch only popular dancers. In fact, if you only watch your favorite dancers, you've compromised the objective of this exercise from the outset. This kind of learning requires that you turn off the part of your brain that reminds you what other people say you should like so that you can learn what you really do. It's not about figuring out who is a good dancer and who is not. Remember that even amazing dancers present lackluster performances from time to time, and lackluster or neophyte dancers sometimes come up with amazing performances. Moreover, it's frequently easier to learn from a performance from a relatively unknown dancer, simply because it's easier to forget what you know about them if you really do know very little.

Over time I have also learned to distinguish between things that I enjoy and things that really resonate with me. I don't emulate everything I enjoy. I can't-- I don't have enough time. I have to spend my time working towards what I deeply want, not the things I have a passing interest in. I'm also learning that some things work excellently for one dancer and terribly for another-- even if both dancers have roughly the same skill level-- due to factors like personality, training, body type, and physical limitations. There are things I wish I could do, or that I wish would somehow start 'working' for my body, but I can't or they don't so I spend my energy elsewhere.
Remember-- unless you are a true prodigy, you can typically choose to be great at a few things or mediocre at a lot of them.

Through observation, I've learned that I don't care about style or genre any more. I've become an omnivore. I tend to really enjoy the performances that make me stop thinking about technique. When I watch some dancers, I feel like the actual physical movements they perform become transparent and almost disappear, becoming a window to a deeper kind of communication. I enjoy the same thing in books-- when I forget about the words I am reading and feel transported into the raw experience, that's when I'm really hooked.

So, that's my creative goal-- to create this experience for other people, this kind of post-analytic state of pure enjoyment. You might find (or you might already know) that your objective is entirely different, and that's awesome. This goal isn't THE goal, it's just my goal. Watch quietly, and hear your inner voice tell you what yours is.