Hustle for that Flow

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Sometimes I like to talk as if I know the first thing about how to write stories. I do it mostly to psyche myself up, to convince Inner Daniel that we know what we’re doing here and that everything is going to be alright. When morale is low, I try to focus on the things I know to be absolutes. One space after a period. Words go left to right. And my favorite: you gotta hustle for that flow. There’s no way around that last one. Trust me, I’ve looked for years.

I saw a post on /r/writing several weeks back about someone asking if it is necessary for them to completely rewrite their first draft. And at the time, I remember letting out a haughty yes, you poor dumb bastard. But then I remembered I don’t know the first thing about how to write stories, so I fixed myself a cocktail and thought about the question some more.

The truth is, you don’t have to do anything, but you have to do something. If you can write a first draft and then edit inline all the way to a finished product, then great, I admire you and think you have a winning smile. I can’t do that because of the lack of flow, the lack of movement from one sentence into the next. To me, in-place edits of complete sentences and paragraphs feels like patching drywall and doing a really shitty job of it.

 

Better analogy: it’s like trying to play or rewrite a few bars of music without taking the rest of the piece into account.

That’s how I feel about it anyhow. Feeling that flow from one sentence into the next, the tempo and tone of it… that’s what really brings the language alive.

Flow is one of the few reasons I do a complete rewrite from Draft 0 into Draft 1, and Draft 1 into Draft 2, and so on, until everything is smoothed.

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Smooth is one of my favorite words to use during a read-through because it specifically calls out flow. The story is humming along, everyone’s doing their thing, and suddenly you find a paragraph or sentence that just doesn’t fit. Maybe you were in a hurry to write, maybe you’d lost your train of thought, but whatever the case, it’s time to do some work.

You could just edit it in-place, but much like practicing those few bars of music, sometimes you need to the context of the entire piece to make it sound right.

Today is May 11th, 2018, and on my desk are 349 marked-up pages ready to be rewritten. I have emails from alpha readers with feedback that ranges from “cool story bro” to detailed analysis of each chapter. My notes. Their notes. Two decks of cards to be shuffled together. In sequence, creating something completely new.

I’ve lost my own thread here.

Rewrites are hard. They’re work, and work is daunting. But to stand up and loudly proclaim I wrote this story perfectly on the first try just seems… foolish. So much can change between the start and the finish. So much can change each time you re-read the story.

For example, a lot of my alpha readers hated one of the MC’s relationships with his girlfriend. I didn’t do a good job of explaining it and it might be too complicated to present in the short amount of time available, so I’m going to rework it to require less explanation. Another MC had this whole disciple-God relationship thing going on that I’m going to change to a father-son dynamic because of reasons.

I don’t know how you’d make those edits inline, but I do know that if you go word by word, copying from one Word doc into another, you can smooth out the changes on the fly and make sure it all works together.

It reminds me of that one Eminem song:

“Music is like magic there’s a certain feeling you get
When you’re real and you spit and people are feeling your shit.”

Same for writing. Let the story flow. Let your readers get swept up in it. It’s hard work, and you’ll have to hustle, but it’ll be worth it.

And This is How I Revise

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I don’t know anyone who enjoys revisions like I do. But then, I only know a few authors and they’re all that weird, tight-lipped kind of writer who doesn’t really want to talk about their “process” because either they’re not confident in their process or, more likely, they’re too confident in their process and they don’t want to give away trade secrets to little old me. Yes, this combative stance is why I don’t know more authors. Anyway, the alpha period on Hybrid Mechanics is finally up, so it’s time to get back at it! Here’s where we’ve been and where we’re going.

A lot of the questions I see while lurking /r/writing are about the process of writing a book. I find those questions reassuring because they’re the types of questions I should have been asking earlier in my writing life. For some people, the characters and the plot and the narrative come together easily, but when they reach the end of their first draft, they don’t know where to go.

Then, they have two options:

  • Stumble through the publication of multiple books until they find a process that works and hope that day comes before the last threads of their sanity break free and float away like dust motes in the harsh rays of a mid-afternoon sun shining in through the askew slats of aging blinds on ancient windows in a condemned house on the bad side of a one stop sign town in April of 1921.
  • Ask /r/writing

As far as my process goes, we’re now moving to Draft 2 of a numbered draft system that begins at 0 and ends at N.

  • Draft 0 – 100% pure, uncut Colombian garbage, devoid of continuity and direction
  • Draft 1 – 80% pure, uncut Colombian garbage, with hints of continuity, direction, and purpose.
  • Draft 2 – The first real hint of a manuscript

A lot of great things happen in Draft 2. After all, the main plot points have been set, geography has been mapped out, and the timeline is stabilizing. And yet, there’s still time to move everything around. That’s why I like doing my Alpha reads at this stage; if there are major changes to make, the paint hasn’t dried yet. By that metaphor, the paint hasn’t really been applied yet.

The transition from Draft 1 to 2 begins with what I call The Killing of Mother Earth Printout.

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Look, I’m as averse to killing Mother Earth as the next guy, but nothing beats holding paper in your hand and slashing at it with a red pen. For this draft, I like to print out each page with a bunch of whitespace to the right for notes and what not. Sure, it takes twice the paper to print, but that’s why you bought 100% eco-friendly, dolphin-safe paper from Whole Foods, right?

The printout serves as both manuscript and notebook, and now that alpha readers have had their turn destroying my work, I will set about marking all the problems that will need to be fixed. At this stage, I’m only taking notes and suggesting fixes; I don’t touch the Word doc. Partly is because I need to understand the book as a whole before starting in on edits, and partly because I want to give the Alpha reader stragglers a little more time to send me feedback.

My goal during the read-through can best be summed up with one word: smoothing.

Things that need to be smoothed:

  • Character motivations (did they get what they wanted or do I need adjust what they wanted?)
  • Character dialogue (creating distinct voices is always a challenge, but there are lots of tricks you can employ)
  • Character personality (are they CONSISTENTLY funny? sarcastic? depressed?)
  • Timeline (for example, story takes place in 2017 and X/Y met ten years ago yet you say they met watching The Good Place which first aired in 2016)
  • Geography (draft 0 created a fictional building to suit the story, draft 2 molds the story into a final version of that building)
  • Narrative style (in 3rd person limited, each character has different narrative style, and it’s important that elements of that style don’t overlap)

There are maybe a dozen more that aren’t as vital at this stage, but always good to think about.

To return to my original point, I really enjoy this stage of revisions. This is where a majority of the technical magic happens. Drafts 0 and 1 may tell the tale and be creative and exciting and full of twists and turns, but going forward, my job is to make all of that look effortless and more importantly, intentional.

And that, to me, is what separates tiers of writers. The hard part of writing a story isn’t being intentional — anyone can write with intent. The hard part is understanding that you’re responsible for every paragraph, sentence, and word. Everything. You can’t half-ass anything in the story because the reader is trusting that if something is in your story that you meant it to be there.

That’s a huge responsibility, one a lot of writers don’t figure out until later. I certainly didn’t. It’s also a huge demand, one that makes it impossible to say writing a book requires X revisions.

Writing a book requires N revisions, with N being the number of revisions it takes.

Sorry, /r/writing, but you’re just gonna have to keep working at it like the rest of us.