pre-planning, rewriting, and moving into different reader piles

Did you know the plural for crisis is crises? I did not.

It takes about a month to go from one project to another for me. Day 2, I am convinced I am never writing again. Around day 15, an inkling drops by for a visit. It could be a character, a plot, a world, or an image of a scene with high emotional consequences.

But then, I wait at least two more weeks to start. I think about what the shape of the story will look like. It’s like planning a road trip by only deciding on what major places you want to visit. How I get there, with what, and on what roads are all decisions that I make the day I’m writing that particular scene.

So I don’t do much with pre-planning beyond developing the biggest complications I’m writing to. Everything is completely elastic and anything can be lost to the arrangement no matter how vividly the idea for the important scene seemed. What matters most in the story is a plot that can demonstrate who the characters are, who they need to become to succeed, and what that success will cost them.

In an old Vlogbrother’s video, John Green breaks down what a first draft is. I wish I could find it, but it’s more than a decade old at this point. He said that the first draft is the clay you gather from the riverbed and then purify so that the clay on the work surface can be used to make the ashtray second draft.

My first draft clay isn’t even purified. I completely rewrite about 80% of the text from draft 1 to draft 1.5. Draft 1.5 to 2 writes half of what I’d already rewritten. If I’d been able to bring a third draft of the work to class, the polishing techniques we learned in my MFA would have been fine. But it assumes the author can make the structural changes necessary to get from draft 1 to draft 3 on their own.

Hell might be other people, but it’s also arguing with past versions of yourself who could be no more convinced than you could have been at their stage that craft of writing is essential to the creation of art.

It’s a complicated system of skillsets that need to work together to make sure that the conflict drives the character development the best way it can to cause your character to succeed or fail at their task in a way that engages the ideal reader.

The joke about knowing art when you see it is an oversimplification of the ability art has to move the viewer of it. Not all art is intended for all audiences so there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” art. There is only art that moves its ideal viewer and work that doesn’t succeed in its attempt to do so.

Underpublished writers fall into the trap of confusing a method that is successful because it works reliably for the average learner with a program that is successful because the outlier can make it work reliably. Any writer can tell a deeply moving story. Only writers who understand how to use craft can do so deliberately.

I had to realize I needed to learn craft to make my work do what I wanted it to. It meant seeing a bigger story than the one I could create with my raw talent and limited skills. Underpublished writers are not unpublished writers. They have had success in the past selling the best of their work. I’m a die-hard skeptic, but I have to live with the knowledge that a tarot card reading made me realize I still needed to learn how to write and a Starbucks coffee cup changed the tragetory of my writing.

But just as I’d really established myself as an ebook author whose writing made enough to have some serious fun with it, I went to Starbucks and read a coffee cup. That was in 2015. The cup’s quote on the side of it warned against the trap of being successful at the wrong things. I realized if I wanted to be mainstream author, I would have to give up writing what was easy and learn how to use stakes and theme to create bigger work that would engage the mainstream, jaded speculative reader I wanted.

A reader may not have physical piles of books lying around but the books they have possession of metaphorically divide into a “to be read” pile, the “currently reading” pile, and the “will buy next thing from author because the experience I got out of the first book was worth it” pile. The ideal is for any author’s work to start on “to be read” and finish on “will buy next book from author”.

But there are a lot more metaphorical piles readers have that authors never want to see their work on. Books on the “to be finished…eventually” pile rarely get off it. Authors on the “have given up on” pile need an expensive second chance to try to engage that reader again.

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