The Zalon: what a great idea for Kellie Jackson to take her Words Away salons online with Zoom.
I was the guest at Monday night’s inaugural Zalon, when over 80 writers of the ever widening Words Away community (now playing simultaneously in California and Oregon and Portugal) showed up to discuss Revising and Editing.
Some things we talked about:
* The distinction between plotters and pantsers is one I don’t really believe in: any writing needs both planning and freer-style composition.
* And while we are at it, can I add that I truly loathe the words pantser and pantsing? They feel like demeaning descriptions for an intuitive and exploratory stage in writing.
* First drafts are not shitty, but precious – even if Anne Lamott’s essay ‘Shitty First Drafts’ is essential reading. No draft along the way is shitty if it gets you where you have to be: again, why cloud your thinking about your early forays with such negative terminology?
* Editing is just as creative as writing your first draft: a holistic approach.
* Clarify your intention: decide what the pay-off will be – for you in the writing, and for the reader in the reading.
* Really take the time to take stock of your narrative content (characters, settings, dramatic situations), and work out what’s at stake before you dive into detailed and committed work on narrative style and form – unless, of course, style and form are what’s really at stake, i.e., they contribute significantly to the pay-off. To help, sometimes it makes sense to do exploratory work on the side, away from the main body of your manuscript: writing experiments, freewriting, journal writing, reading.
* Understand the difference between writing and publishing. Something else I forgot to say: much about revising is about technique – commanding craft in ways that gives your writing greater energy and force. But, too, much in publishing is about taste, however much you polish your manuscript. If you are interested in being published, agents and editors will be assessing your writing based on personal preferences and fashions too.
* It really helps to find trusted readers with whom to exchange work: writing partners or writing groups. Not only do you get a fresh pair of eyes on your writing, but you develop editorial skills to bring back to your own work too. I wish there were a good place for writers seeking writing partners to meet, but social media often provides a starting point. To be revisited …
* Something I never got to say: of course we proofread our cover letters and submissions, but doesn’t it get a bit prissy and gatekeepery when, during presentations to budding authors, agents and editors scold writers about typos? Of course we know we have to proofread our work! But in the age of the autocorrect even the best of us make ducking mistakes. And we have to save something for the ducking copyeditor, don’t we?!
Be professional, of course. But to me it is far more important to pay attention to: not being boring, and writing something that makes us want to READ ON. When I am reading a cover letter or synopsis, I’m looking for signs of life, not carefully chilled prose.
Things I find more of a turn-off: comma splices and run-on sentences (which unless you’re writing stream of consciousness can suggest a lack of clear thinking): convoluted syntax; opaque writing (a catch-all term for many forms of dull prose); writers who are looking for ‘a blueprint for publication’ (a big red flag for me – my usual reply being ‘Sorry, I’m busy for the coming year slash rest of my life’).
Thanks again to Kellie for asking me along – I look forward to attending other Zalons, which are a great way of sustaining connection and community while we are forced to stay at home.
I hope to run an online course on revising and self-editing later this year – subscribe to my blog if you’d like information in due course.
Blog posts on revising and editing
The posts linked below describe in more detail exercises useful in revising as well as other practical tips for drafting:
Suggestions For Self-Editing – various practical tips
Childhood Revisitations – a writing experiment I mentioned in the Zalon
A Gift on Every Page – including a few ideas for formatting your manuscript for reading and editing your own work
Spring Clean-up – thinking symbolically about revising, in this case using analogies from gardening
Resources and books useful for revising that I mentioned (or meant to)
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft and The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction
Stephen King, On Writing
Nina Schuyler, How to Write Stunning Sentences
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey (a great exercise: applying its ideas to a favourite book or a work that somehow influences your own writing)
Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
Susan Bell, The Artful Edit
Scott Pack, Tips From A Publisher: A Guide to Writing, Editing, Submitting and Publishing Your Book (which includes an excellent discussion of models of publishing – not directly relevant to revising quite yet, but a context all authors need to grasp)