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2003-11-21 7:22 PM
Writing in Drafts
Typing an entire story over, from start to finish, is better than changing things around onscreen.
Before the accusations of oldfartdom start, hear me out. I grew up with computers too. I used to travel with a Macintosh SE and log on at 300 baud from hotels that barely had phone systems. Trust me when I assure you that I understand I Can Only Write On A Computer. I was the one on mystery convention panels who got disgusted when the old farts said things like "I don't process words. I write them."
The reason I'm writing about this is an email I sent to some collaborators, explaining my draft numbering system. I do not (says this email) number drafts the same way other writers do. Other writers call it a new draft each time they retype it. I approach it more like software companies approach version numbers: When there's significant enough change, I call it a new draft. So while the screenplay I just finished says "Third Draft" on the title page, by the traditional way of reckoning, this is at least the Tenth Draft--and that's not counting the 30 or 40 times (or, okay, maybe 80 or 90 times) a lot of it got altered onscreen. I have a whole grubby, marked-up stack of previous printouts that say things like "Third Draft, Second Re-Key, Plus Alterations."
The difference between onscreen alteration and fresh retyping is the difference between editing and writing. Changing things onscreen is changing things. You see something, you think hmm..., you change it this way, you change it that way. Don't think I'm deriding this; I do it constantly.
Putting hard copy next to the computer, opening a fresh Word or Final Draft document, and starting over is not changing things. It's writing. It doesn't use your intellectual/critical editor mechanism; it uses your desire to write truly and well, starting with nothing. When editing, the eye can track over something iffy and not necessarily stop, because it's used to seeing that thing. When rekeying, your writing self halts you the moment you try to transcribe something from the hard copy that isn't quite right. Because of the things you learned during your previous draft, you now know it's not right. So you can't write it.
You can edit something you know isn't true. But you can't write it.
You're not changing things around. You're writing. "Rewriting" and "editing," despite their interchangeable common usage, are different things. Editing, you're using your knowledge and your feelings to analyze. Rewriting brings your body into it. Your hands don't want to type stuff they know doesn't work, and sometimes--often--they'll stop short when your eye would have let something slide. And often, it's not a minor detail. It's a major character thing, only you didn't know your characters as well before.
But now your body does, so when it gets to the line of dialogue that's been there since draft one, which got through your previous six onscreen edits, it balks. It refuses to proceed. It sends a work stop order up to the brain: "I ain't typing this. Send me something better."
I hate rewriting. I hate starting from scratch. It's annoying; it's painful. It's extremely inconvenient. By the time the third one rolls around, it's sheer drudgery, and I'll do almost anything to avoid it. And each new draft hurts worse than the previous one, because each time, a greater percentage of it is actually finished, so you're just slogging through longer and longer transcription jobs, with fewer and fewer interesting challenges and opportunities to create vivid imagery, cool ideas, or striking dialogue.
But it works really, really well.
The results are so much better than what I get when I move things around on a screen that I don't think I'll ever again feel that something is finished until it's been through the process of rewriting, or transcribing, or rekeying, or retyping, or whatever you want to call it. Onscreen editing is essentially about rearranging what's there. Retyping runs the entire story through your brain again--it forces you to write the story again--only this time, the you that's writing it knows it better.
I resisted this idea for a long time. I was a child of the computer age, after all. I've been online for a quarter century; I was one of the people who was reverently amazed when suddenly, we could email people on different networks just by adding an @ sign! I had three novels out. What the hell did I need with the Old Fart Method?
Then came this one scene in THE NIGHT MEN that I just couldn't get to work. I'd change this. I'd change that. I'd try a different approach. I'd rethink the characters. I'd make up new strategies. And it got better! But "better" isn't the point--"feels true" is the point. And it wasn't getting there. And I was on a deadline.
So, remembering both Michael Seidman's opinion on the subject of rewriting, and his opinion that he'd already paid me an advance and I owed him a book for his Fall schedule, I tried the thing I'd been resisting for years. I printed the scene out, put it next to the computer, and started typing it again, just straight transcription. And almost immediately--I think it was two sentences in--my hands froze. The next sentence needed to be a line of description that wasn't there. And then I got to the dialogue, and the hands froze again: That's not what he says...
Whether you'll think the scene's any good is your call, but it's the one that causes the most discussion when I've talked with groups about the book. (I don't have a copy here at Starbucks, but I'll post the page number when I get back home.)
If this were an article or essay intended for a paying audience, I'd doll it up better, and give it more of a hook and an arc. All it is, though, is a computer-age writer trying to help a few others skip over some down time. The method works. Writers who are into it for the process--that is, the fun part--don't need it. Writers who are interested in the results... Well, next time you're stuck, just try it. Print out hard copy, put it next to the computer, and start transcribing, word for word.
Let me know how far you get before your hands balk.
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