A Journal of Practical Writing(Updated 1-30-16)
- Anthony Trollope's Discipline
- A Conversation About Keeping Drafts with Suzanne McConnell, NancyKay Shapiro, Diane Simmons, and Meredith Sue Willis
- Ed Davis on When to Stop Editing
- Those Handy Little Binoculars by Sarah B. Robinson
- On Writers Groups by Troy E. Hill
- Dialogue: The Spine of Fiction by Meredith Sue Willis
- For links to a list of various articles on the web of special interest to writers, click here.
Anthony Trollope wrote many, many novels. He also worked much of his life full time as a Post Office inspector and surveyor, and in his forties began to write on a travel desk as he made his almost daily train rides. Here is how one biographer described his discipline:
...For years [Trollope] had been making scrupulous records of his daily travels and expenditures for the Post Office, keeping track of every mile, every shilling and penny. In his commonplace-book of the 1830's he had said a young man ought to keep a careful account book of every monetary transaction, that his own failure to do so had brought him near to 'utter ruin'. Now, past 40, he adapted ledger-like columned record-keeping for his writing, marking off the days in weekly sections, entering daily the number of pages written each session, and then noting the week's total. His 'page' had approximately 250 words. He set a goal of 40 manuscript pages per week. He would have preferred to work seven days a week, but of course there were weeks when he could only manage a few days, and some weeks when illness or pressures of other work kept him from writing altogether. He usually managed the 40 pages per week; on a few occasions he pushed himself to more than a hundred pages in a week....
(N. John Hall, Trollope: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) p. 143.)
Suzanne McConnell, Carole Rosenthal, NancyKay Shapiro,
Diane Simmons, and Meredith Sue Willis
At a recent writers' peer group session, NancyKay Shapiro was reading a new draft of a short memoir piece we had heard once before. Suzanne McConnell asked to see the previous version. NancyKay said she didn't have it anymore because she had discarded the old version. She reworks the piece as she goes. Suzanne expressed horror. She told us she keeps all her drafts, prints them out, looks back frequently, and even reverts to the previous versions.
We talked a little more about this part of the writing process, and on the way home, I thought more about it. Most of the members of our writers group are old enough–or old-school enough–to have done at least some writing before everyone had a personal computer. Some writers, of course, still choose to draft by hand. All of us, though, one way or the other, have made changes in our process. For example, I've always been a fast but very sloppy typist, and one of the great gifts of technology for me has been never having to retype. I work on the same electronic file as if it were a lump of clay I can reshape or add to. Only occasionally do I make a digital copy of the whole file (I back up my work every day, of course). I label this version for future reference "Draft of Fall 2014" or "Early notes–spring 2016," etc.) Also, I sometimes draft a whole novel before I make a hard copy print out. Psychologically, it's important to me not to discard things, and the vast digital storage space on a computer makes this little reassurance practical.
For this article, I invited the group members to tell how often they save complete drafts, whether they print them out, whether they ever use them again. Do we, in other words, mostly rework what's there, losing past versions, or do we systematically preserve everything?
Suzanne McConnell, an award-winning fiction writer and fiction editor at The Bellevue Literary Review, is presently working on a nonfiction book about the writing advice of Kurt Vonnegut. She said, "I do keep drafts. Roughly, I compose something from beginning to end to lay the paint on, and then I make a clean copy and start reworking it. When that gets coherent, I make another copy and revise again. That third draft I may keep re-working until it's final, or maybe make another copy to revise. The piece I read [from the Kurt Vonnegut project], for example, has three drafts, but the last one has been re-worked quite a bit. It's refining work, not discovery or placement. This method works well for the Kurt Vonnegut project because my first draft contains mainly his quotes lined up in more or less the sequence I'll use. The next draft is filling in between, roughly. The third is a much better revision. I do all those single-spaced so I can see it better, and in the final draft [which I'll bring] to the group, I make it double-spaced. (This is only true of the Kurt Vonnegut project where I'm relying on his quotes and want to see the proportions). I also keep a list of something called 'out takes:' Cut or alternative phrases, sentences, ideas, etcetera. I keep track of which draft by dating it and labeling '1' or '2'."
Suzanne also says that in her editorial position with The Bellevue Literary Review, when she is exchanging work with writers, she labels the back and forth by numbers. She tried to do this with her novel, but found that it got confusing and problematic, especially labeling the differences in chapters: she would forget what was in one and not another. She says she will look for another system for her next novel.
NancyKay Shapiro, author of What Love Means to You People, said, "In writing novels, I do a lot more draft keeping, and also tend to have a file called 'Scrap' into which I'll paste anything I cut out that I don't want to say a permanent goodbye to, in case I later decide it was golden and should be reinstated. In writing something short ....it just didn't occur to me to do the draft thing. Now I'm more aware I'll put that into practice. With [my new] novel, though, I tend to find that beyond a certain # of pages, having multiple drafts of the same material ends up adding to my sense of being overwhelmed by it."
Adding to the consideration of multiple drafts as both enriching and a little dangerous, Carole Rosenthal, author of It Doesn't Have To Be Me, wrote," I'm one of those writers who save drafts of what I'm working on. The reason for that is that I sometimes find an earlier draft more concise, more direct. I can be myopic when I'm revising, inserting too much detail, too many insights. However, there is a downside to saving drafts, particularly of long works, and that is confusion, too many similar versions. Then the process grows unwieldy, particularly with longer works."
Finally, Diane Simmons, whose upcoming book is The Courtship of Eva Eldridge, said, "Like Nancy Kay I find it crazy-making to save too many drafts of something long. So I just seem to truck along. Though if there are significant out takes I try to save them in a file labeled "title.outtake.date." With shorter pieces, at least when it gets to the point of sending it [out], I save the file, labeling it to whom it has been sent, person or publication. Mostly I do this because sometimes there are comments or even an acceptance, and then I can't remember what stage the piece was at when I sent it. Never quite as bad as my friend who once got a glowing acceptance with no idea what piece she had sent!"
By Troy E. Hill
While classes can be vital, especially with the right teacher, writing groups offer a number of benefits: low cost (no cost if you have a free meeting space), more frequent opportunities to have your work reviewed due to fewer participants, a safe atmosphere for honest feedback resulting from meeting over a longer period of time, and the chance to have a select group get to know your work in depth.
I've been working with a writers group for more than a year and a half, and it's proven invaluable for my fiction. The ongoing feedback keeps me motivated to rewrite and edit, and all of us seem to be inspired by a deadline. I don't feel the need to implement or address every comment I receive, but almost every one is worth considering. Even if I don't necessarily agree with a particular comment, it can still spur an idea for taking my story or novel to the next level.
The important thing in forming a group, of course, is having people whose criticism is insightful and that helps you write the piece as you envision it—and of course you want to respect the work of the others since you will be reading it frequently. That doesn't mean that everyone needs to work in the same genre. Diversity in the work and members is always enriching.
My group formed out of a novel writing class at a local University. Once the course ended, a few of us who had talked about forming a group reached out to the people we felt would best fit our needs (based on their work submitted in the class and the feedback they gave). We ultimately formed a community of six writers. Over time, a couple of people have had to step out due to business in their lives, and we've brought in others.
Our format is to meet every other week with three members submitting twenty-five to thirty pages for review a few days before the meeting. That way, everyone gets the opportunity to submit about once a month. Sometimes members pass if they aren't ready and others get to submit more often if they are.
We all live and work in New York City and split the cost of renting a small rehearsal space for three hours, which comes to about ten dollars per person. One member moved away, and she joins via Google video chat. While some groups meet entirely online, ours appreciates the sense of community of meeting face to face.
I have attended seminars and heard of groups in which members write during the meeting from prompts and other exercises. This can be fun and result in surprisingly solid nuggets to start new pieces. I've also heard of exercises that help writers develop characters and plot points within a work in progress. For our group, the ongoing feedback is the priority, but I keep these exercises in mind to potentially mix things up in the future.
Online classes can also provide forums in which you may find writers interested in forming a group. I'm currently taking a class through One Story, and there are over a hundred people in the class discussing the assignments on the discussion board. The students are from all across the country and even overseas, so this would more likely result in an online community, though you may find other students nearby.
Good luck forming your group and keep writing!
I'm a relatively new writer, especially when it comes to fiction. In the course of writing an historical mystery novel for teenagers, one based on actual people, places, and things, at first I used actual names. But during the revision process, over the years I've decided to replace the actual names by substituting fictitious ones.
One Y/A mystery novel workshop leader advised against the practice of using actual names of people, places and things. Obviously, locals who would read the work may take issue with how something they are so familiar with is portrayed in your story. And, when using actual names of places, your accuracy may be called into question, unless you know for certain "Maple Ave. is exactly 1.5 miles northwest of Edgewood Street." Knowing how difficult this could be, I had to ask myself, "Is the writing good enough—without actual names--to stand on its own?" My answer was "I'm not sure." And, "Would the use of actual names in a fictitious piece benefit the reader?" My answer was "Not necessarily." Since my revision process on this novel is ongoing, I need to be willing to ask myself tough questions. Crafting and revising should reward both the writer--and more importantly--the reader.
Once I decided to change the actual names throughout my 60,000 word document, I had a daunting task. I also had a serendipitous moment at a workshop. (Just had to throw in that wonderful word.)
Right before I decided which fictitious substitutions I would use for my story, another workshop facilitator clued the participants in to that little, tiny set of binoculars in the upper right-hand corner of my Microsoft Word program. Clicking on the binoculars enabled me to search for a word I had used, like the city of "Lewisburg." Magically, the tool brought up every page where Lewisburg was found, and even highlighted them all. I was able to click on the "Replace all" option, and type in "Lewisville" (not much of a change, I know) and all of them instantly changed to the new word. I had to be careful, though. Upon visiting further revisions in my text, I simply liked a new word better than one I had used originally. I wanted to replace a town's name, change it from "Clear Springs" to "Spruce Springs." (Kind of sounds like Bruce Springsteen, I know.) But it occurred to me I may have used the word "clear" throughout my novel, as both a verb and an adjective, and I certainly didn't want anyone "sprucing" their throat. In using my binoculars to highlight every time I used the word "clear," I discovered I had made my protagonist and his girlfriend "clear" their throats eight different times, and they didn't even have colds.
First published in BigCityLit. For the whole article, with exercises, see http://www.nycbigcitylit.com/contents/ArticleWillisPanel.html
Many years ago, while working with some fifth graders, I referred to dialogue as the spine of fiction. "What's a 'spine'?" called out one boy. His friend said, "It's like the back part of the skeleton that holds you up." "No," said a third kid, "The spine is where the nerves go. It carries the messages."
Exactly. All of the above and more. Dialogue does many things at once. Characters show what's on their minds and what they're made of. They may lay out some background facts the reader needs. Above all, dialogue is where the story's essential conflict is dramatically revealed. "Spine" may not be your image for dialogue in fiction—one of my writer colleagues calls it the "spark" and another says it is the "adhesive"—but when you think back over a novel you've read, you most often remember the scenes in which something important happened, and usually it happened as the people were talking.
Of course some fiction, like parables and tales, depends on narrative rather than scene and dialogue. Some experimental fiction has as its subject the play of language rather than character and event. These remarks about dialogue best fit fiction that uses the conventions rather than overturning them. In such convention-using fiction, the real subject is the people and what happens to them, and thus it shouldn't be surprising that the emotional content is demonstrated most vividly when people interact with one another. Indeed, in my writing (although hardly in everyone's), dialogue is often the climax of a chapter or story. Several of my published novels actually end with a line of dialogue, and others have dialogue within a few lines of the end. Do you remember De Maupassant's story, "The Necklace?" Even though much of the story is narrative, it ends with a dialogue between two women, and the very final words are an unembellished spoken revelation by one woman to the other. I'm not suggesting this as a prescription for fiction, only to emphasize the importance of dialogue and how it carries the drama and sometimes emblemizes what came before.
Dialogue is also closer to the thing it imitates (conversation) than any other element of fiction. In real life, a person's appearance is an impression you get in a single glance, and you observe the details piecemeal over time. Description of a sword thrust is much slower than an actual sword thrust and has to be described by analysis or metaphor. But conversations, in real life as in fiction, are actually made of words, and words in print can be read aloud in something close to real time. Description can be extremely well written and important to the story, but it is not very much like the thing it describes, whereas dialogue comes as close as fiction can to an identity between artifact and what it represents; its pacing can thus create a special bond to the real world.
I had a student once who wrote almost no dialogue but lots of long, beautiful passages of description. Her work was the kind that caused people to say, "How well written!" It was highly finished—and extremely static. It lacked the life that fiction is capable of. To me, fiction is not an object to walk around and contemplate. Rather, fiction moves, and moves the reader with it. At its best, fiction gives a reader the experience of plunging into another world and riding as in a flume to another place. Since dialogue is where you often find the drama, it is thus the part of prose that propels the reader through the story.
My student decided to take a play writing course in order to improve her dialogue writing, and when she returned to her novel, it took off with animation and energy. She had learned to see her conflict dramatized and to hear her characters' voices.
Troy Ernest Hill is the author of the recently published novel, MYXOCENE, and the novella, "A Revelation." His work has appeared in Sobotka Literary Magazine, Underground Voices Magazine, and The Circus Book. Learn more at troyernesthill.com.
Sarah B. Robinson has had numerous articles and essays published in newspapers and magazines, such as Outside Bozeman, WV Living and Morgantown Living. “Donovan’s Intuition” is her most recent short story, published in Diner Stories: Off the Menu in 2014.
Meredith Sue Willis is the publisher of this Journal. Learn more about her at her website.