Feline Editor

Discover, Compose, Revise

  Feline Editor I am a huge fan of reading about writing. I pore over writer’s blogs, read books about writing, even scan twitter for #amwriting tweets–so, when a friend challenged me to write a post about my own process, I accepted enthusiastically. I write six days a week. On weekdays, I write first thing in the morning so that I can offer my most rested, least cynical mind to the creative work I love. On Saturday or Sunday, whichever day is less burdened by social obligations, I spend another three or four hours at the keyboard. The other elements of my process change and flex, but this daily discipline of simply putting in the time remains unchanged. Part of writing well is giving yourself permission to write poorly–to write past that inner critic who tells you, “it’s no good.” When you write every day, that permission comes more easily–because even if you pump out ten pages of ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY, you know you’ll be back in the ring tomorrow to take another swing. Each word becomes less precious, your ego loosens its grip, and the Muse finds it easier to guide your fingers to the right keys.
I organize the more fluid elements off my process into three phases: Discovery, Composition, and Revision. Like the stages of the grieving process, or of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the phases of my writing process don’t always happen in the same order, and one phase doesn’t need be complete before the next can begin. The way the phases interact with one another changes depending on the story I’m writing and the needs of the characters in it.  

DISCOVERY

The Discovery phase is about connecting with what I’m about to write. I call it Discovery (rather than pre-writing or outlining) because it feels like the ideas come from without rather than from within. Discovery can consist of journaling, free-writing, creating short pitches, writing “what if” questions, smashing two disparate ideas together (STAR WARS meets CATCHER IN THE RYE), or just making lists. When I’m in the discovery phase, my writing time has very little structure. Often my sessions are boring and feel unproductive. THAT’S OKAY. That bored/dissatisfied feeling is just my ego trying to get me to quit. The real fruit of these sessions usually falls from the tree while I’m in the shower, while I’m driving to work, or at 3AM the next morning when I can’t sleep because the word “chatura” appears to me in dream. (This actually happened. I googled it, and the first hit was “chaturanga,” which I took as a sign that I need to get my @#^ back to the yoga studio.) Pre-writing and Outlining limit me to the ideas already in my consciousness. Discovery requires that I have faith that the right idea will present itself to me. It is the most uncomfortable phase of my creative process because I cannot quantify or describe the work I’m doing. I cannot answer the question, “how’s the writing going?” The feelings that accompany this phase range from boredom to despair to that nearly unbearable sensation of tip-of-the-tongue anticipation. It’s misery and glory, but boy oh boy do I feel alive.

COMPOSITION

Composition starts when I know who my main character is and I have a pretty good idea of what challenge or changing force she will encounter during her journey. I am a fan of the three act structure, probably because of my film school background, but also because it mirrors the stages of our daily life: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Morning, noon, and night. Birth, life, death. For most stories, I create a very vague outline that follows a three-act structure. Let’s take Star Wars as our example. Because we love the Star Wars. ACT I 1. Luke–miserable farm boy, desert planet, dreams of being a pilot. 2. Luke meets Old Wizard who tells him about the force and invites him on a quest to save the galaxy from the Empire. Luke refuses; he has to stay and work for his uncle or something. 3. Aunt & Uncle are slaughtered by an invading force (figure out who & why later) so Luke decides to go with the Old Wizard. ACT II 3. Luke meets new friends (don’t know who yet but they will be touching, hilarious, and 3-dimensional.) 4. They join him in the quest to rescue a princess who knows how to unlock the secret that will allow the rebels to win. 5. Villain appears and kills Old Wizard as Luke watches. Now Luke has to see it through. obi-wan-darth-vader ACT III 5. Luke decides to join the rebels, risking his life for a greater cause to attack the Death Star and free the galaxy. 6. In the heat of battle, the Old Wizard speaks to Luke from beyond the grave; Luke has absorbed his teachings and is now a man. 7. Luke fires the shots that destroy the Death Star, sending The Villain spinning helplessly into space. Okay. That’s a crude outline–but that’s what I start with before I sit down to write Chapter One. It’s all I need. The rest are details, which my mind will invent spontaneously (or rather, draw from the ether, take the Muse’s dictation, if you prefer.) while I’m sitting at the keyboard. This rough outline is part of the Composition Phase, not the Discovery Phase, and I’ll tell you why: when I write an outline, however vague, I am making conscious decisions about the story–or at least, it feels like I am–and I try to put this part off as long as possible. I ENJOY this part, because it feels good to start stacking up the word count, but it’s very hard to go back to that clear white space of discovery once you have started down the path of composition. So the outline I sketched out above is more or less in my head before I sit down to write it. I will usually invent some crappy filler while I’m writing the outline just so it feels complete–but I know I will change it later. I’m holding my ideas loosely now. Once I’m in the throes of actually writing a first draft, the process becomes less procedural and more instinctual–and it changes from story to story, so it’s difficult me for to describe the process in a specific, quantifiable way. I have written a few manuscripts start to finish without looking back. I have written one starting with a far more detailed outline. I have written another in bursts of three or four chapters, which I would then go back and revise before moving on. You really have to trust yourself here. Many authors advocate NOT rewriting as you’re writing–and for you, that may be true. The temptation to stay and fiddle around with words you’ve already written is a strong one, like the pull of the Dark Side. Facing a blank page is by far THE HARDEST (and the most rewarding) part of being a writer. It is much easier on the stress level (and more satisfying to the ego) to polish existing words than to forage into the unknown at the risk of bringing back nothing of value. You know yourself better than I do. If you get caught in endless loops of rewriting, give yourself a limit. Commit to writing for three days straight, then rewriting for one, then going back to the blank page again. The only real rule I follow during Composition is Do It Every Day.

REVISION

The word “edit” doesn’t inspire me. I prefer “revision.” Editing makes me think of red pens and paper cuts–but revision carries with it a potential energy, an excitement, a promise that I’ll bring something new to my manuscript. RE. VISION. To see something again. To imagine something anew. When I sit down to revise, I start with a goal and a timeline. Both may change during the process, but I have to start somewhere. Many writers think their goal in revising is to “make the book better.” There is one big problem with this goal: it’s impossible to measure success. I’ve started out with such vague directions, and I always end up rewriting and rewriting until I begin to wonder when it’s all going to end. Ever had a project you that dragged on for years? This could be why. That’s why I find it important to diagnose my first draft and set specific goals for revision. I get notes from my writing group and my reader friends, and I write down goals. Let’s say I’m sitting down to revise my YA sci-fi manuscript. Currently it is 150,000 words. I know (from reading Mary Kole’s WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KID LIT) that 150k is about 60-70k too heavy for a first time YA, even in the sci-fi realm. So, my first goal is: 1. Trim 70k words That is a specific goal! There will be no doubt when I have accomplished it. Then, I might have some notes from my writing group or my friends (or my agent or my editor if I’m that far down the pipe) that the love story between my protagonist and the Pancake Maker’s Daughter needs more development. So I might add: 2. Develop romance between MC and PMD. This is less measurable than word count, but when I send sections to my writing group and/or reader friends, they’ll let me know if I’ve fixed the problem. I find that one or two big goals is enough to get me started. I know I’ll find more problems in the manuscript and add goals along the way. The revision techniques I employ vary wildly story to story, but there’s one I use almost every time. I call it Retroactive Outlining, and here’s how it works: For each scene in the book, I write a short summary on an index card. For example, I might write, “Luke meets Obi-Wan,” or “Harry duels Malfoy.” No details, just the bare bones of the scene. If I have trouble boiling the scene down to a single line, that’s I sign I may need to rewrite it, or cut it altogether. Sometimes I use colored pens, a different color for each character, or for each story line. Once I have the cards laid out, I have a good idea of the story’s structure. I can start to see where I’m going to find those 70k words I need to cut. Those holes in the love story my friends saw become apparent. Theres one other technique I want to share. I call it a “Chapter Matrix.” Essentially. it is a spreadsheet with a column for each plot line or character, and rows for each chapter. I learned this technique from J.K. Rowling, and you can see her version here.

RESOURCES

Here are some of my favorite books about writing: The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield On Writing by Stephen King The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King The Elements of Style by Strunk & White The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt Thanks to Quinn for this blogging challenge. I hope reading this gave you some insight into your own writing process, and perhaps some new ideas as well.

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Jeff Garvin

Author of SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN. Vegan, Gryffindor, aspiring revolutionary.

Comments (4)

  • Daniel Zarzana (@bookthump)

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    Great article, Jeff! Thoughtful and helpful. I don’t write fiction – or at least none that I am proud to admit having written – but I think your process works for writers of all kinds. My process isn’t a process at all. I tend to just sit down and vomit words onto the screen and then frown at the results for a while before clicking the Publish button. Slight exaggeration, but you get my meaning. I have been struggling with a review of a novel I just finished reading, having difficulty establishing the framework. I think I’ll use your process and see if it helps.

    Reply

    • Jeff Garvin

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      Thanks, Dan. Your “frown” comment made me laugh out loud. I’ve found your reviews coherent and enjoyable, so I wouldn’t worry about changing YOUR process too much. That’s the great part of blogging–the excitement of one-click publishing.

      Reply

  • Quinn Wynes

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    Love it!
    I totally relate to your take on the Discovery phase. I would often sit at the table for hours with blank sheets of paper and colored sharpies, just thinking and scribbling down ideas. I’m a visual person, so being able to color code things and move around the paper helped me see the whole picture.
    Your detailing of the Retroactive Outlining is a great technique I’m going to borrow. It allows me to properly evaluate if something important is actually happening in a given scene, because if I can’t condense it into one line of action that’s evidently important, than somethings wrong. If there’s information or themes that I’m still needing to further emphasize in my manuscript, then I can see all the places that are lacking where I can add such information/themes and make the scenes important.
    I used the Chapter Matrix at the start of my very first novel. Now I’m planning to revisit that technique to really connect with the other characters who I’m not in their heads all the time.
    Love the post!! Thanks for going above and beyond in your replies!

    Reply

    • Jeff Garvin

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      Thanks Quinn! Love your colored pencil idea…I am NOT as visual a person but I’d probably benefit from that technique too.

      Reply

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