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Revision II

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It seems like many beginning writers have some misconceptions about how learning to write works. It's understandable, but still takes a lot of people in the wrong direction. For the record, this isn't how it works:

  1. First, you learn all the techniques that go into good writing.
  2. Next, you cram all those techniques into your writing as much as possible!
  3. This guarantees that your writing will be good.

Unfortunately, it's a lot more complicated and a lot more work than just that. People don't like to hear it, but it's true. This is closer to how it goes:

  1. First, you learn about techniques that go into good writing.
  2. Through practice, you learn to effectively use (and remember to use) these techniques.
  3. Along the way, these techniques become part of your artistic judgment, your idea of what makes good writing good.
  4. As you learn more, you learn not only how to use these techniques, but when to use them. It's no longer, "I have to use this technique," but "This technique works best in these circumstances." This is when your artistic judgment really starts to mature.
  5. And as your artistic judgment matures and deepens, you become a better writer. Hopefully you never stop growing. It's always possible to write a better story.

Learning the basic techniques on which good writing depends is invaluable. There's so much more to writing, true, but writing without learning the fundamentals is like trying to run with a broken leg.

Revision to Learn Technique

So how does this relate to revision? Well, at the beginning, the purpose of revision isn't actually to make your writing better. It's to give you practice evaluating your use of basic techniques, and to make sure you actually remember to use them.

Many college-level (undergrad) creative classes focus squarely on this aspect. There are so many basic techniques to learn that teaching just those is sometimes all they have time to do. The in-class workshops are there to reinforce this. Their main purpose is to make sure students are actually using what they're learning, not to churn out masterpieces of literature. It's revision at step 2, leading to step 3.

And that's great! Drilling the fundamentals until you've mastered them is important. However, sometimes people get the mistaken impression that there's nothing more to writing and critiquing than that, including an alarming number of critique groups. Everything is "show, don't tell," "more telling details," "more imagery in the setting," "more character backstory," "I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!" The broader picture is rarely discussed, if at all.

Revision to Refine Judgment

Once you have a good handle on the basics, it's important to move your revision and critiquing into the area of steps 4 and 5 to continue improving as a writer. It's hard at first, and really involves wrapping your head around realizing that:

Every work of art, including writing, is a compromise between various technical considerations. The more description you put in a story, the slower the pace will be. The more action there is, the less room you have for effective characterization. You can't write in first and third person simultaneously. Every choice to include something is, at the same time, a choice to exclude something else.

It's a large undertaking, and for most people it's easiest to start analyzing other people's work first, then taking that judgment to your own writing. These are the basic steps:

  1. Find a classic, well-written book/story in the genre you wish to write, be it literary, fantasy, romance, etc.
  2. Read through the work a small piece at a time (5-10 pages to start out with), making notes (actual notes) as to how the writer uses the techniques you're aware of. How do they describe the setting? What details do they use for characterization? Do they do anything you don't understand? Why do they describe the action the way they do instead of another? Does something not seem to work as well as you'd might expect? You're like an engineer taking apart an unknown machine to see what makes it tick.
  3. If you find yourself at a loss, ask a better writer for help, and keep at it. This is a skill that takes time to develop.
  4. When you finish reading the story, go back over your notes to see what you've learned. It could be a new way of describing, (using people's emotional reactions to an object instead of what the object looks like), a new way of using section breaks (a jump w/in a scene instead of a jump between scenes), a new sentence structure that's grammatically incorrect but makes sense and sounds cool, something you dislike so much you swear never to do it (like a main character who rambles)—who knows?
  5. Take what you've learned and look at your own writing. Would the new way of describing fit in there? Do you have a section break that could changed to make the rhythm better? Will the new sentence structure actually fit or sound out of place? Do your own main characters ramble?
  6. If you think your new insight has a place in your writing (or even if you're not sure), revise your writing and put it in! Then set the writing aside, and come back later to see if you think it improves the work. If not, try something else.
  7. Lather, rinse and repeat.

It's this combination of studying other people's writing and taking it apart, then applying what you've learned to your own writing, that truly broadens and refines your artistic judgment. This is also the stage when critiquing other people in a critique group becomes more important than being critiqued. You're not helping them become a better writer. You're giving yourself a chance to exercise your artistic judgment so that you can become a better writer (and hopefully not power tripping while doing it).

The Eternity Artifact by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

As part of my own continued development, I recently read The Eternity Artifact by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. What's unusual about the book is that it's written with four POV characters, all in first person, and as I was reading it, my analysis went a bit like this:

Whenever the narrative switches POVs, it starts a new chapter. That's awesome, because otherwise it would get really confusing really fast.

Even so, because the chapters are so short (some are only 1 or 2 pages long), I felt some existential whiplash at first, trying to orient myself, even with the POV character's name printed in large font next to the chapter numbers.

However, each section is done exceedingly well. The quality of each character's narrative is different enough that, after about 40 pages to get myself oriented, I no longer needed the chapter headings, and it's done in different ways.

  • Fitzhugh's sections use long-winded academic sentence structures, unneccesarily polysyllabic words, and makes quite a few of the words up.
  • Goodman's sections don't and his narrative drops thoughts and attitudes revealing religious fundamentalist and misogynistic tendences as well.
  • Chang's sections rely heavily on negative judgments of people and situations, as well as short, choppy sentence structures.
  • Barna's sections are filled with artistic dissatisfaction with one's own work (but very little sense of artistic inspiration, surprisingly).

Once I found my footing, the effect was pleasantly kaleidoscopic. Very unique.

On the other hand, a lot of the majesty and the grandeur of the setting seemed lost because there was no way for the narrative to break free of the character's skulls (and realistically, most people are more focused on their own problems than seeing the beauty around them). I'm guessing that's why Barna was chosen as a POV character, but something about his narrative struck me as more intellectual than aesthetic, and I didn't quite get wonder or awe.

I found Fitzhugh's and Goodman's sections easiest to confuse, just from the prose itself, but the fact that they were consistently in different sections of the ship and always engaged in markedly different actions made it easy to distinguish.

And then, takeaways to apply to my own writing, personally:

Multiple first seems to be dramatic but risky, and because it demands much more engagement from the reader, I'd use signposts like Modesitt and probably longer chapters so that readers have more time to get comfortable inside everyone's heads. The Eternity Artifact is already 367 pages as it is, though, so it might be an editing ultimatum in this particular instance.

If you're going to pull this off, you need to be a master at inflecting narrative to match charaterization, whether it's through sentence structure, diction, habitual thoughts and modes of description—preferably all of the above. Otherwise, regardless of any signposting, you're probably better off writing multiple close third, where the consistency in narrative voice provides a unifying effect instead of making all the characters sound and feel the same.

If sections start to sound the same anyway, giving characters markedly different jobs and/or environments should help.

At my current stage of artistic development, I think the effect is pretty cool, but I'd be careful with it myself and probably use it sparingly.

Conclusion

Years ago, I focused on description, alliteration, characterization, sentence structure, tightening, dialogue. Now the kind of thing I just talked about is what I'm interested in. I wouldn't have been able to effectively analyze (or use) this kind of multiple first POV back then, but I may be getting to the point where I can now. It's a process and a journey, and the only way to find out where it leads is to keep making that first step.