Monday, August 31, 2009

What My Typewriter Taught Me About Revising

Years ago when I got serious about writing, back before computers were something an ordinary person could own, I bought an electric typewriter. It cost $100 used, which was a lot of money. My monthly rent for the three bedroom apartment in a small depressed mill town where I did my writing was also $100.

I did a lot of writing on that typewriter, including the piece that became my first sale. It was a long biographical sketch of Louisa May Alcott's childhood which I sold to American Heritage. Unfortunately, the editor who purchased it died shortly after the sale, and that piece never saw print--though, rather miraculously, I did get paid in full for it.

Typing my manuscripts on that venerable machine taught me a valuable lesson I frequently forget now that I have computer. When I was done typing up something new, I'd often go over it and revise, writing my revisions in pen or pencil in the spaces between the lines. Invariably, when I went back to the piece the next day, I'd note that the revisions I'd made at the end of my writing session had weakened the writing. Since the original was still there, this was not a serious problem. I just ignored the revisions and stuck with the typescript.

But then the computer came in and made it easy to revise away the first draft simultaneously with writing it. Those revisions left no trace of the original behind.

Now, knowing that revisions can weaken my writing, I do my best to keep earlier drafts and compare them to revisions to make sure I haven't drained the life out of the piece. But it's a constant struggle.

One way I fight this tendency is now is that I write my first drafts using a simple writing device called the AlphaSmart. I learned about this device from other writers who recommended it on one of the RWA discussion loops years ago. I have written several books on it since.

The AlphaSmart's interface is so clunky it is difficult to do anything on it but straight ahead typing. It weighs almost nothing, so I can curl up in bed with it, snuggle into my pillows, close my eyes and start reporting on the scenes that fill my imagination. When I'm done I plug it into a USB cable and upload whatever I've typed into a text file or Word. It runs on 3 AA batteries which will usually last me about four months with daily use.

The AlphaSmart helps avoid the revision demon, but only for the first draft. I learned a vital lesson last year when I pulled up what I thought was a current draft of one of my novels and got to work on it, only to realize a few chapters later that what I'd been working on was not the current draft, but an older one. When I went back to look at what had been my real current draft, I was struck by how much better the earlier draft was. The writing in the older version was spare and to the point. The earlier revision I had done to it had added lots of words, phrases and descriptions that slowed down the reader.

This past winter, when I revised the version of Lord Lighting I just sold, mostly what I did was take out the extra words and scenes I'd put in in previous revisions. I cut a good 7,000 words out of the manuscript and it was a lot better for it.

So now that I'm working on the first draft of my next book, I'm giving a lot of thought to how to restrain myself from what I am starting to think of as "destructive revision." I've gone so far as to contemplate writing my second draft the way I wrote drafts in the bad old days--typing the whole thing in from scratch while reading the printed version of the first draft.

I'm not sure I'll go that far. Human fingers can only take so much and after a lifetime of typing mine have a tendency to protest when I type for 5 hours straight every day. Still, I'm going to do what I can to keep myself from adding anything but the words and phrases that have to be added to make the story make sense, to set the scene more clearly, or to strengthen the dialogue or character motivation.

It's a balancing act--in my revisions last winter I did add a couple paragraphs to the beginning of Lord Lightning that made the difference between the query bouncing back unread, as had happened in the past, and my getting four requests for the full manuscript from top agents. Sometimes something is missing and putting it in makes the book better. But if nothing else, I'm going to keep my early drafts, and check back from time to time to make sure that my revisions have made the work better, not worse.

I'll also wait before revising. The most destructive revisions, in my experience, are those I make when I'm soaked in the work and haven't taken a bit of time to step back and get to where I can read what is on the page, not what I think I've written.

What do you do to prevent destructive revisions from draining the life out of your work?


Pamela Cayne said...

Jenny-I started writing on a Brother word processor that I got when I started college back in *mumblty-mumble* and you're right--editing is just not the same. I do find though, that my revisions are stronger as I go along, but I chalk that up to being a panster, and my first draft often looks like a spaghetti explosion.

My destructive revisions come from blindly following a crit, and I have kicked myself many times for not just sifting through the good stuff and throwing out the rest, instead of changing everything suggested. That's the stuff I go back to and change back to its original form.

P.S. Congrats on Lord Lightning--it sounds fabulous!

Other Lisa said...

I can only think of one project where the revisions might have killed it, and that was one of the first long things I ever wrote (actually, THE first). Generally, revising is a very positive process for me. But I do save a lot of different drafts of the WIP, particularly if/when I cut things - you never know if those might be useful somewhere else...

Shayne Parkinson said...

That's interesting - and I think I'm just the opposite. I'm inclined to throw everything into the mix in my first draft, and revisions are as much as anything about paring down.

I do carefully save earlier drafts, because every now and then (maybe two or three times in a book) I'll realise I removed something that really needs to be there. And of course text that's been lost takes on a mythical, never-to-be-equalled quality :-)