Intern Post, Kelly Vo: How Many Revisions Are Too Many?

howmany?

 

 

 

 

Let me clarify something first. My definition of revision:
Revision
[ri-vizh-uh n]
Noun
1. The act of completely revamping a previous version of a story.
2. When God looks down after creating the earth for six days and says, “Nope. Not so much.” And so He erases days two through six and starts again at day one. The general concept of creation wasn’t bad; it was everything that came after that was wrong.

Please understand that when I say revision, I don’t mean small edits. I mean that I trashed my previous story and started with a blank slate. That’s a revision in my world.

So, how many revisions are too many? I have asked myself this question countless times over the last six years. Six years. That number sounds frightening when I stop and realize that I’ve been working on the same story for over half a decade. Okay, so it’s not really the same story. In fact, in many respects it’s completely unrecognizable. But in my heart, it’s the same story.

Here’s how my novel began. It was my final semester of college, and I was on the top of my writing game. I wrote a short story as an assignment for my Advanced Fiction Writing course, and BAM, there it was—my future novel. Set in our world and a fantasy world, it was light-hearted, fun, meant for children, and I loved it. My classmates loved it too. And I thought, “I have the idea; that was the hard part, now to finish it. No problem!”

Two years later, college was long behind me and I hadn’t touched my story since graduation. I had thought about writing. I even broke it out now and then, but never with serious intent. So it sat, dormant but ready to be completed.

Then came NaNoWriMo 2010, and I decided to seriously attempt it. But my story couldn’t stay the same because I wasn’t the same. Suddenly within one month, it transformed from a child’s tale into a young adult novel. It was no longer light-hearted, but dark and complicated. And it was the beginning of a long journey of which I’m still caught in the middle.

Since NaNo 2010, I have revised my story over five times—until settling on an adult urban fantasy novel that’s still in the works. In some cases, my drafts have reached over 100,000 words. But inevitably, with every iteration, I reach a point where I scratch the entire thing. Whether I’m halfway through, a quarter of the way through, or even 75 percent completed, I always get to a chapter, a scene, or a character revelation where I get stuck.

Now, you might be thinking, “So, you get stuck. Figure it out and get back to work.” Well, I would love to do that. Unfortunately, when I get stuck, it’s because I find myself in a corner and even if I can, somehow, write myself out, that corner reveals something to me—that the story is not what I thought it was meant to be. Whenever I reach that point, I take a deep breath, shut my laptop, and make the decision to start over from word one and day one.
The amazing thing is, each time, my story has become better and better—more intricate and better thought out. The unfortunate aspect is, I have wasted so much time and scrapped so many stories. I have enough writing for two, if not three, books sitting on my computer, and yet I still continue to revise. At this point I fear I’ll never have a completed story, but I’m not sure how to fix it.

Can too much pickiness be a bad thing? Should I be more easily satisfied, or have each of my revisions been necessary to find the true story—wherever it is hiding?

I have to admit, there is a lot of frustration involved. I know the story is there, ready and waiting to be told, but where is it and how do I get it on paper?

When writing this blog, I asked myself the same question, “How many revisions are too many?” This is the fifth iteration of my blog, and as I write this sentence, I wonder if I’ll get to the next sentence or the next paragraph and decide, “No, this wasn’t the blog waiting to be told. I need to try again.”

Have you been here and faced these same struggles? How did you finally decide enough was enough, or are you still struggling like me?

For this blog at least, I’ve decided to suck it up and say, “Enough is enough.” I guess, you, my readers, will have to let me know if I made the right decision. And that’s the crux of the matter. At the end of the day, it’s not up to me. I could write the story that I know, I know, is the right story, but I’m the writer, not the reader. When all is said and done, the quality of my story, its effectiveness, and the joy it brings, is not only up to me. It’s up to you.

So be kind, dear reader. We pour our hearts and souls into our work and yet we are never fully satisfied, not until our writing makes it to you. When you read, remember that in your hands you not only hold the story you’re reading, but the endless revisions that helped it take shape. You can tell us if we did enough, if our writing passes muster, and that too many revisions were worth it in the end.

So, what do you think? How many revisions are too many?

Guest Blog Post, George Foy: Even When I Lie

George FoyUsually I write novels, not short ones either. I’ve been committing novels half my life. (I write “committing” because sometimes my novels feel like crimes: of self-indulgence, because what they earn doesn’t support my family; of hubris, because they create complex worlds that live on their own and surely piss off the gods, if there are gods).

What I’ve learned in writing is that a novel’s story-world, and the characters that live in it, have no respect for the world I live in. Of course I start off wanting, even needing to put in people and places I know, but the places and people in novel X have their own logistics, needs, and requirements; they have discrete hopes and angers and systems of measurement; and inevitably these take over. I have written about Africa, and France, and my native Cape Cod (Mass.,) and while I know well the places I describe, the characters live their way and rejigger their environments to match.

If you try to find your way to the villages in the novels I’ve written about the Cape, for example, you will get lost. Guaranteed. The characters insisted on a street in Hyannis, a bar in Chatham, a patch of woods in Wellfleet, a smell from a house in Cotuit. And while they might have started off as a fisherman I worked for, a woman I lived with, they soon chose their own paths, and became someone significantly different.

Of late, however, I’ve been writing short-short fiction, a lot of it based on things that happened in my real life. The stories are so short that the characters come roaring onto the page as themselves, the original Maddy, Pedro, Kurt, in all their ballgowns or sweatclothes, their valiance or lazy cowardice.

This raises issues. Some of the stories involve people who don’t behave well. Some of them are family members. They are racked by obsession or drink, they make fools of themselves over women (or men). They don’t have time to alter the narrative, or dress themselves as other than who they are in real life. And if the people involved read the story, they will recognize themselves, and be hurt.

Is it worth hurting someone in the interests of literature? On some level, I believe it is, or should be. When I think of what a writer is supposed to do, I always remember Tony Montana’s line from Scarface: “Me, I always tell the truth–even when I lie.” In fiction as in non-fiction, a good writer will always paint a perspective of how the world truly works and how people function. That perspective illuminates, explains, and most importantly of all, makes us feel the impact of those mechanics. The writer will paint this way no matter what the cost.

If that means putting someone real in the cast of characters, and person “A” is hurt by his inclusion, “A” should know that his pride or trust have been violated in the interests of a higher truth, a finer Art than people normally practice in daily life.

And, yet–I don’t buy it.

I suppose, if one of my short but hurtful pieces could provably, immediately save the lives of people dying of thirst in Somalia, one could make a case that the ends justified the means. But justifying deliberate harm for whatever reason is always a risky argument because such arguments will inevitably be turned around to justify goals that are not cut and dried.

And it’s more likely that the sky will turn green or that Fox News will report objectively than that my writing should save the life of anyone. Bring insight, maybe. Cause pleasure, I hope. But save lives–nope.

In those circumstances, I can only say that if I have to make the decision, I’ll opt not to hurt. Or at least, I’ll fudge the names and identities of characters to the point where they can’t be recognized. Is that a cheap compromise? Maybe. But it’s what I do.

I don’t think Tony Montana uttered words to illustrate this position, so I’ll refer instead to the artist Alberto Giacometti, who once said, “In a fire, between a Rembrandt and a cat, I would choose the cat.” Art, and writing, should value life above all else. And they should demonize hurt, not cause it.

Guest Blog Post, Bethany Reid: The Writing Assignment

“Work on one thing until finished.” –Henry Miller

“Try not to shoot off in every direction like fireworks.” –a Fortune Cookie’s advice

Bethany ReidBesides being a poet, a wannabe novelist, and mother of three teenaged daughters, I also teach English, full-time, at a community college. I do committee work. I advise. I’m busy. I like to consider myself the queen of getting-things-done. Many of my students, on the other hand, haven’t figured out how to find time to do the reading and studying  that they need to do in order to be successful in my writing classes. So this quarter, I decided to try a social experiment.

It helps that we’re reading a book of essays, Real Questions, that focuses on contemporary issues like what we eat and what media we consume and how we conduct our relationships. While reflecting on such things, it seemed plausible to imagine making some real changes in our own lives. What if we each changed one thing, and wrote about it? I worried that it sounded a little hare-brained, as if I were practicing to become a life-coach. The students loved it. Only a handful of them wanted to change something to do with writing or studying, but they all wanted to change something.

I cooked up a multi-part assignment in which students  1) write a blog-like proposal about something they would like to change, something they can actually DO, daily, for the next forty days of the term; 2) write a persuasive paper about why such a change is desirable; 3) tweet or just write a short reflection which they share with the class daily about the change for those forty days; and then 4) write a follow-up, reflective essay about how their experiment worked out.

In the proposing stage, goals tended toward “Lose 30 pounds,” or “Become a nurse,” or “Get an A in this class.”  One man wanted to quit smoking, which I applaud, and another wanted to “be happier,” which I wouldn’t mind doing as well. But even quitting smoking is not quite in the category of “doable,” at least not in the sense that after fifteen minutes one could declare success.

You can write a novel, you can lose 30 pounds, you can quit smoking. But you can’t really do those things right now, today. The first part of this social experiment, it turns out, has been a critical thinking step of figuring out how to narrow one’s focus, how to break things down into parts so small that they’re not merely doable, but scarcely avoidable.  I told them to think of things they can do in a single fifteen-minute increment.

When I thought seriously about what I could do, right now, and repeat for 40 days, I decided that the one change I craved was getting through my interminable novel rewrite.

WritingI’ve written this on a list of goals before, and I immediately began to line up my excuses for why it was impossible. This time, however, a voice intervened, a voice I knew—it was the voice I had been inflicting on my students for two full weeks. You can’t rewrite your novel today, but you can write on the novel. So I decided on writing, at my desk—like a smoke break without the cigarettes.

I already write every morning and blog about it, but writing in the afternoon—evening as a last resort—would double my time with the pen. It could make a difference in my rate of progress.

For her first day’s reflection, one student lamented that because the baby kept her up late the previous night, she didn’t get up early and didn’t do the two hours of work on her home business that she had intended. She couldn’t even start, she explained, because her desk was a mess and the thought of organizing it overwhelmed her, and then the baby woke up, and then it was time to plunge into the day. And now here she was, the day half-done, opportunity missed.

And there was that voice again. Wiser than my voice. Don’t give up. Spend five minutes tonight before bed clearing off your desk. Take out one project and lay it out. Just one! (Maybe you’ll actually do something on it! Maybe one step will turn into more!) Check today off your list. Done. Don’t excuse, negotiate, I told her.

I shared a quote that helped me get through my doctoral dissertation when my daughters were small, something the sculptor Barbara Hepworth—mother of four children including triplets—once said:

“I loved the family and everything to do with them….We lived a life of work and the children were brought up in it, in the middle of the dust and the dirt and the paint and everything….I found one had to do some work every day, even at midnight, because either you’re a professional or you’re not.”

How did my own plan work out? The first day it was 5:30 before I remembered. I needed to go home. Then my 13-year-old daughter wanted to go out for coffee and do homework. I, too, had homework, essays to read, a short story to reread in preparation for the next day.

But I couldn’t escape the voice. It’s not midnight yet, the voice said. What would I tell my students? Fifteen minutes? How can you begrudge yourself 15 minutes?

So I ordered my decaf latte and my daughter ordered her Frappuccino and we found a table. I set up my laptop. I went to www.e.ggtimer.com and set it for 15 minutes. I pulled out my manuscript and I started reading and making notes. I circled an image and I brainstormed and I suddenly saw something I hadn’t seen before. I worked for 25 minutes.

I can’t wait to tell my students.

Imaginative Skeptics

Ian McEwanAuthor Ian McEwan recently visited ASU for a lecture in partnership with the ASU Origins Project and the Center for Science and the Imagination. At this co-sponsored event, Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Sweet Tooth and winner of the Man Booker Prize, and Lawrence Krauss, cosmologist and theoretical physicist at ASU, discussed doubt and skepticism in relationship to writing, as well as the interplay between science and literature.

The first question posed to McEwan and Krauss contained the overarching theme of the discussion: what is doubt and skepticism and how is it approached in writing both fiction and nonfiction?

McEwan began by defining doubt as “someone hesitating before a problem or outcome…pausing before a moral choice.”  He explained that the novel is a secular form which is invested in individuals and is at the heart of doubt and skepticism. Using Hamlet as the quintessential example of a self-examining and moralizing character embodied by doubt, McEwan described literature as reflective of the relation between consciousness and doubt in examining human actions and motives.

In reply, Krauss examined uncertainty in nonfiction, the scientific version of doubt. According to Krauss, uncertainty quantifies science because it imparts a worth on scientific discovery and establishes a value of correctness or probability. Although uncertainty is valuable to science, Krauss discussed how in writing scientific articles, his copy editor eliminates uncertainty and ambiguity even though “there is no absolute truth in science…it’s either very very very likely or very very very unlikely or in between.”  While uncertainty is crucial to scientific discovery, he explained that the human condition does not allow for doubt in something we like to accept as pure fact and truth.

In discussing the place of the scientific account in the narrative spectrum, McEwan commented that “science invades the territory of land held by the novel.” He explained that as science progresses, it seeks to quantify how we as humans make our choices. Understanding human action, as defined by science, forces the novel into a position of doubt as it must change its set of approaches in human emotional analysis. The novel, McEwan argued, is in a position of vague threat due to the increasing advancements of science because “if [science] changes the novel, it will change everyday lives.”

The moderator asked both lecturers to discuss how each conveys skepticism and doubt in a narrative. McEwan characterized his approach as a bottom-up–not a top-down–matter. In paraphrasing a 1953 lecture by Nabokov, McEwan said that one’s job as an author is to find the details; what a novelist has to do is build a world where skepticism is possible.

In contrast, Krauss’s approach to skepticism in nonfiction is a top-down approach, which to him is the best tool a scientist can use. For Krauss, skepticism is best utilized by conveying shock to the reader because “the easiest person to fool is yourself.” By getting someone to make the discovery that what they believe is wrong, it opens up the possibility that everything else could be wrong and leads to a questioning everything.  Krauss argued that it is vitally important for a scientist to be brutally honest as “little accidents can have a profound impact.”

In their examination of doubt and skepticism, McEwan and Krauss spent a substantial amount of time examining the vitality of the novel and writing. Writing doubt takes different forms in each genre, and as science alters humans’ understanding, fiction writing will alter as well in a continued attempt to clarify the human condition. This intimate discussion between two prominent masters of their field stirred a thought-provoking lecture in the exploration of how these two fields affect and alter one another.