Friday, December 23, 2011

Revising Utopia Project, part XI

It's only been about four months since I last posted about my progress on the Utopia Project. Long past time for an update.

(For anyone new, or interested in what the Utopia Project is, see this post.)

I've covered a lot of ground in the story since I last posted, as should be expected. The number of scenes covered, though, is quite small: six. Why? Well, there's the small matter of me spending an entire month on one scene.

It was worth it. (I'll tell you about that in a moment.)

What have I learned?

(Caveat: everyone works differently. My advice is exactly that - mine. Your mileage may vary.)

1. Frequency > amplitude. Write more often and you remove the pressure of writing a lot each time. From the start of September to the end of October, I told myself to write in the Utopia Project twice a week.

To my great shame, I only made that goal half of the time. Twice a week is not enough for momentum.

Then, in November I came across the concept of the 20-mile march, which is essentially what I've said above. Less, more often. I increased my weekly quota to four days a week, with the stipulation that my word count was between 400 and 1000. Four days a week means writing over half the days; 400 words is not so insurmountable.

I faltered during dead week, writing only twice, but from the beginning of November to now I've written at least three times a week. Much better.

All right, let's talk content.

2. Dissatisfaction is good. If you're in first draft stage, ignore this. You don't want to spend too much time looking backward. Your job is to get the story down. In first draft stage, I don't dare pause to consider the aesthetic of the scenes.

But in second draft stage, the story is down already. I can afford to plow three-quarters of the way through a scene and then pause, reflect, decide that it doesn't feel right, and re-revise from the beginning of the scene, or the beginning of where things started to go rancid.

This explains why it took me a month to write a scene that covers two days in story time. I was almost at the end when I realized it was completely devoid of emotional impact, and that the characters wouldn't really act like that. Going back to revise the revision doubled the amount of time I spent on that scene, but I ended up with a much stronger piece of story.

Note: On two separate occasions (not the scene above), I started to write from the perspective of one character, but then realized that another character who would be very important later on made a better narrator. If it was first draft, that's a case where I would advise redoing the scene. Unfortunately, at this scene in the first draft I didn't know the other character was important.

Now, however, I am a lot more familiar with my characters. That is essential; you must...

3. Know thy characters. Know what motivates them, how they want others to perceive them, what cultural or personal prejudices shape their viewpoint. To help with that, you can draw parallels between your characters and real people.

(I can easily see how that could go wrong, and I have to be on guard that I don't make horrible things happen to characters who are loosely affiliated with people I don't like for no other reason than that. But it's a useful way of looking at the problem sideways.)

If I don't know what a character is about, then I invariably struggle with a scene from that character's viewpoint. Right now, I have a problem in that a character I used to love writing has become a stranger to me: I change his past history a little and all of a sudden I don't know what's going on in his head. But I'll figure it out somehow.

On the other hand, if you can sink into a viewpoint character, then writing their scenes becomes a lot simpler. I'm in the middle of a scene in which an introvert without much in the way of social graces needs to make allies, and doesn't know how. I don't agree with a lot of his ideas, but I know how he thinks because I, too, am introverted, and by keeping his background in mind it's not impossible to reconstruct what could lead him to his current state, and extrapolate to how he behaves in the scene.

The point of which is: parallels also exist between your characters and you, so take advantage of it.

4. Let your life inform your writing. It's going to, anyway. All you can hope is that the people you may/not put into your story don't recognize themselves.


By the way, guys, I just finished reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. The notes I took might be useful for worldbuilding purposes, but aren't what you call organized. Would anyone be interested in seeing them? Is it even legal for me to share a chart I copied out?


  1. That is an accomplishment, finishing Guns Germs and Steel. I applaud you. :)

    I've never finished a long story (haven't found the right one yet, but this new idea has promise), but I can attest to the importance of revising once your story is down. If you fret about your word choice in the first line, there will never be a second line. I'm so bad about that. It's mostly the reason I never finish a story. That, and my stories never had plotlines (I haven't attempted a long story since, like, 7th grade. I recognized my lack of skill in the area then and turned instead to poetry and (shudder) roleplaying. Bleaurgh!)

    You also need to have other people read your story. Have lots of people read your story. The more people that read it, the more opinions you get, the more advice you get, the better your story becomes. I went through, like, 15 drafts of my angel story, which was only one seven-page-long scene. And if you find someone who's a good editor, use them. Constantly. My friend, she's not much of a writer, but she can make a story bleed. She always asks the important questions and somehow finds all the plot holes. Plus she claims to forget the story after she's read it, so every draft is a new experience for her. That's excellent for me since she finds new flaws every time.

    Yeah. I could keep gushing about her, but I'll stop for your sake. :)

  2. It took me about a month, but it was worth it. Thanks. :)

    Ah, feedback. I know I need it, but thus far I've made it too easy for myself to make up excuses not to get it. I'll have to do something about that. I also need to find me some editor friends...hopefully someone turns out to be as praise-worthy as yours!