Negative One Drafts and Revision as Rejection

By Your Salonniere

At negative one draft, meaning the number of drafts that have come to fruition has been too many to count. Previous incarnations of the projekt include:

  • handwritten
  • typed
  • arranged
  • re-typed
  • tweaked and tightened
  • re-arranged
  • print out
  • read through
  • re-write

In his This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley counts the first reading as another draft and probably, by that logic, any hard-copy reading of a manuscript generates a whole new revised draft, simply by the act of reading and processing material.

James Scott Bell agrees with this practice as he outlines in his Writers Digest article, “The Five Step Geyser Approach”. Bell advises waiting two weeks before reading the first printed draft since distance allows the mind to cool rather than pushing through in the white heat of the moment when a writer may be too up front and close to the projekt to see straight.

Careful reading of the printed first draft could involve:

  • Making an outline and therefore re-outlining the entire projekt for plotting purposes
  • Arranging scenes
  • Adding new scenes
  • Diagramming character evolution and devolution
  • Note where characters witness other’s transformations and when and who doesn’t
  • Tracking plot-lines and sub-plot-lines
  • Assigning where new tidbits of information, observation, details, and ephemera can give texture to scenes and exposition
  • Count the scenes
  • What needs to be dramatized
  • What hasn’t been exploited
  • Where can the character’s life be put on the line
  • Where should the story-lines explode
  • Note what can be skipped
  • What needs to be rejected
  • Imagery, symbols, metaphors
  • Recurring phrases and words
  • Vertical moments

Revision the first couple of times is  something to feel one’s way through, relying on instinct and sensory experience. It’s a blind journey, and the process feels like only experience a dozen or two dozen times is vital to start recognizing shapes and forms that make sense.

Naming these shapes and forms becomes easier with more revision. Translation is key since there’s translating what’s on the page and translating what needs to be on the page. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden watching for patterns, noticing similarities and differences gives order to an otherwise amorphous world. But even when a form is named it still needs to be placed in the hottest spot. How do all these shapes fit in a way so the structure moves with urgent and meaningful pacing?

Jonah Lehrer, in his “How Do We Identify Good Ideas” from Wired writes on the necessity of honing a critical eye to discern between what is a good idea and what is dross:

Nietzsche stressed this point. As he observed in his 1878 book Human, All Too Human:

Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration … shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects…. All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.

Notice the emphasis on rejection. Nietzsche eloquently describes the importance of not just creating but recognizing the value of what has been created.

But this raises the obvious question: How can we sort our genius from our rubbish?… how can we become better at self-criticism? How can we get excel at the rejection process?

For all intents and purposes, revision is rejection. Whittling down and rearranging to see what holds water. Just as in basic grammar, the same rule applies whether composing a lean and concise sentence or a lean and urgent story. Bring the subject and verb to the front of the sentence and let the rest follow. Or bring the conflict, the scene with the most tension, the moment where the character has the most to lose, to the front of the chapter or at the beginning of the novel then let the rest follow.

More on negative one draft revisions forthcoming. In the meantime, here’s a song dedicated to the painful but necessary process of rejection. In revision, even the writer gets to practice the power.

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