Friday, October 8, 2010

Revisions and the Writerly Eye

Every novel is in part the result of decisions the author has made and most of the time, I am sure, those authors have made different decisions than I would have made had I been writing their book. Sometimes this results in my surprise and delight as a writer comes up with something much more cool than I ever would have stumbled into. Most of the time these decisions are invisible to me and I'm just caught up in the narrative.

Sometimes, I find myself thinking along the lines of, "Gosh, I wish he hadn't done that. I hope there isn't going to be a lot more of that as we go along." This is what I think when, for example, the author telegraphs a punch or gives a clumsy explanation for character action or lays out a slab of prose that doesn't flow well with the surrounding prose or just uses a word I dislike (for not all words are created equal, and some words are just ugly in the ear and invoking them destroys the poetry of the passage).

Anyway, this is what I think of as reading with my writerly eye: remaining vigilant to lapses of craft in whatever prose is before me. It's an irritating way to read and frankly it's caused me to read much more slowly than I did in the past. This writerly eye is, I am sure, a by-product of my own writing and revising, because it is the way I read my own works.

This doesn't mean that my inner editor is my primary reader, though. I read first and foremost for pleasure, like any other sane person. Reading just feels good in my head, and I love the simple process of converting graphics into concepts and stories and gosh, but whoever invented the alphabet and writing is my best friend forever. I also read for surprise, for the delight of character and plot and theme and all the other values I have learned to appreciate in fine writing. The writerly eye is more like a separate and parallel process that goes on in the background while I read. Sometimes I think of a narrative as a river through which I am wading upstream and my inner editor is like a hand trailing in the water and sometimes things that don't belong in the river get caught by the fingers of that hand. If it's my own narrative, I pull the seaweed or tin cans or other junk out of the river and throw it to shore and then admire the clean sparkling water flowing around me. If it's someone else's book, the junk remains caught in my hand until--if it's not a well-written book--too much of it collects and I decide to shake all the crap off my fingers and go find a different river to wade.

What I'm doing here, of course, is searching for the proper metaphor for the process of revisions. Some of it is like trailing your hand in a moving river, but some of it is like untangling a knot of string, and some of it is like taking in the waist of a pair of pants and some of it is like patching a hole in a wall and some of it is like planting bulbs in the fall and hoping they'll all bloom beautiful flowers in the spring and some of it, of course, is like trying to decipher Linear B when you have no knowledge of ancient Minoan.


  1. You said Linear B again, dang you.

    The one thing I didn't say before is that I appreciate your emphasis on a book being the product of an author's decisions.

    When I finally realized that, it was very empowering as a writer. For a long time I felt trapped without knowing. I wrote the things I wanted to say, and that's how they had to be said. That's why I hated revisions and criticism so much.

    As soon as I realized that I was actually making a choice with everything I wrote, that there were a dozen other ways to say and accomplish what I wanted to say and accomplish, I was suddenly free to enjoy revisions, editing, and criticism. They didn't mean my writing was bad. They meant that I might have been better off with another choice.

    It also meant that when I got a critique or an edit, there was often yet another alternative, that I could now see would make both me and the editor happy.

    Long live choices!

  2. Loving the last paragraph...sentence...ramble. Hah.

    Seriously, I did a post about this recently. Reading with a writerly eye can be time consuming, and for me it can suck the enjoyment out of it. But how does one make it stop? How do we really shut up that internal editor?

    Not quite sure. I have started making a firm commitment before I begin reading to read for one reason or the other. I'm always up for learning something new within the craft, but sometimes one must shut everything else off and just enjoy.

    Nice post.

  3. I'm inherently lazy. So turning off the internal editor just to read a book is pretty easy for me - someone has to make either very large, noticeable errors or have a running string of them before I'll put a book down. It's happened (and most of the time I can tell from the first page if a work will be readable), but for the most part if the work's been edited, I'll skim over the errors. Head-hopping has been really bugging me lately in a lot of self-pub stuff I've read. I don't like it - makes the reading "jerk-y".

    With my own work, my need to have it read smoothly and make good, logical sense wins over laziness, so I work hard at making the prose itself seamless (or as much as I can). Because I'm lazy but can't ignore my own standards, I compromise by whining about my revisions nearly the whole time I'm doing them. ;-)

    I dearly hate revisions - nearly as much as I love drafting. The point at which I finally get to send my work off to the editor? Bliss.

  4. I am coming, more and more, to love revisions. I think I enjoy the process of re-writing more than the process of drafting. It feels more creative, the results are more immediate and satisfying and I get most of my best ideas during rewrites.

    You know what sort of stuff doesn't get my inner editor's attention? Kids' books. Last night I read a 1938 book called "Mr. Popper's Penguins" and it was not the loveliest of prose nor the most fabulous stories, but not once was I tempted to put it down. So I think that the more what I'm reading is like what I'm trying to write, the more critical I'll be.

  5. I've only had Mr. Popper's Penguins read out loud to me, which seems to help my writerly eye not play as much of a part. Not sure what would happen if I actually read it.

    Fun story, though.

  6. Nevets: I'm also working my way through Michael Bond's Paddington Bear books. One ought not be afraid of the classics.

    Last year I tried to read Laura Ingalls-Wilder's The Long Winter but I just kept thinking, "Wow, Pa is a real asshat" and I had to put it down.

  7. I also bow and scrape at the feet of whoever invented written language.

  8. I had a great time working with my editor last year on "strengthening" the novel, as she called it. What I discovered is that the book had been with me for so long that I could no longer see it clearly, or see a way to improve it. Having an expert outsider came to it fresh was wonderful -- her insights, suggestions, and ideas got me excited about the work again, and made me *want* to make the revisions. I find this a lot harder to do all on my own.

    As for reading, I tend to let a lot slide for the sake of entertainment, though I will throw a novel across the room for factual inaccuracies and/or logic lapses. I'm more forgiving of word choice/grammar errors, though not to excess or egregiousness. Right now I'm reading a novella which has had a few glaring ones, but the author was 16 when she wrote it, so I'm cutting her more slack than I might otherwise.

    About 50-75% of my reading matter is nonfiction, which doesn't usually have such issues.

    I do like your river metaphor.

    -Alex MacKenzie

  9. @Alex - Funny you should say that about non-fiction. That's one thing I miss about grad school. The texts were a rest for my brain from all this fiction stuff, which is pure work.

    hahaha So messed up.

  10. Secret Garden is on my re-visit list for later this year. And eventually I need to buck up and read Anne of Green Gables.

    I can't deal with the Wilder books.

  11. I miss Paddington Bear. I should re-read those.

    And Stuart Little too. Love E.B. White's books.

  12. I like your wading metaphor, Scott. I don't feel like that at all, but I still like it.

    These days when I read, I think I'm constantly trying to figure out a writer's intentions. I try to understand what they were trying to do because I guess I think that will help me understand the book better. For the writers that really inspire me, the ones that I feel are writing similar things to what I write, then I'll often compare my decision making process with theirs.

  13. Like Davin, I'm constantly trying to figure out intentions because I feel like that's a more objective way to read works.

    That said, I can usually turn off my inner editor while I read other works for pleasure. Usually...

    I love revising much, much, much more than writing a first draft. Writing a first draft is like pushing a boulder up a mountain. I don't know why I keep pushing that boulder...maybe I like how it looks falling down on the other side each time I get it up there?


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