#ApocalypseNation #amwriting #revising #cleaninghouse

Why so many drafts? Why so much work?

It’s because you have to get everything into the piece. You can’t pick or choose, not in the beginning. Everything has to go in. All the characters, the landscapes, the details, the dialogue, the mysterious stuff that bubbles up from inside that you can’t control, the mystery, the entire story arc—you can’t leave any out.

Early on, it seemed like it was imperative to only write what I thought needed to be there. I attempted too much cutting and paring from the start. It took me maybe ten years to learn that I had to include it all. And it took another five years to discover that I have to take most of it back out. I have to put it all in at the beginning but then I have to take most of it out by the end. That’s why it takes so long. How many times did I get stuck somewhere in a story and decide that the only way forward was by “figuring something out?” How many times did I let that stalled motion kill the story, while I slogged through the muck of “figuring”? There’s no figuring involved. I simply had to learn to put it all in and then be patient. The stuff that needs to be cut loose will rise up all by itself.

It’s like moving into a house. You have all this stuff that you bring in. You might have thrown away a few things before you moved, but still there’s boxes and bags everywhere. You brought everything that you thought was important. All the boxes sit around and you maybe set up the bed and hook up the cable that first night, but you’re exhausted from loading and hefting your stuff. And then you probably have to go to work the next day so you let the boxes sit for a while, pick through them after you get home, or on the weekends. After a few weeks, you’ve been living with all the stuff out and about and you can see things a little more clearly. You have the spices in the cabinet and the DVD’s in the rack and the sheets and towels in the closet. You’re really starting to see the place—really starting to make it feel like yours. Some pictures go up on the wall and then you decide you need a new lamp and maybe some new curtains. The pile of stuff is no longer that big. You get the place decorated the way you want it, adjust the angle of the television, bring in some plants to brighten up the study. Finally, you decide that you really love the place and you’re about to settle in and relax for a while. It’s then that you notice all the leftover boxes. A lot of that stuff that you brought with you is now superfluous. So you begin to throw stuff away. Some of the stuff you store in the attic, just in case, but mostly you can clear out everything you don’t need. Only once all that stuff is gone can the place be really finished.

It’s the same way with drafts. Everything goes in the first draft, even the stuff you don’t think you’ll need in your new place. Everyone works differently, of course, and you may start throwing stuff out early, but I’ve found that I can’t go throwing stuff away until I find out what I need. That’s what’s happened with my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. I thought I was done drafting. It felt “finished.” But I was still at that stage of home decorating where I was blind to all the boxes in the corners, filled with unnecessary belongings. With a little editing help from a fantastic new friend, I found that I had a lot of things I could cut, throw away, reshape, or store in the attic. Now Apocalypse Nation is bright. It is a literary thriller—as much about people and sacrifice as it is about things that go bump in the night. I have hope that it might find a home. You are going to want to read it. Stay tuned for further developments.

Summer Writing Awesomeness

I drafted by longhand all summer with a strange feeling of joyishness about the work. I did not look behind. I wrote forward, a slim plot scratched out to keep me on track. I was unsure what I wrote each day because I never reread. Only forward. Only now. Now, I’m transcribing the longhand to a word document, typing it out, the first step in a multi-step revision process. And although I feel strange admitting to liking the story–let alone loving it, or being totally jazzed by how it is unfolding–that is exactly what’s happening. It’s a very strange story but on each strange page I transcribe, I feel like I’ve tapped into something good. I still have miles to go before I sleep, but–dare I say it? Admit it?–this writing is making me happy.

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A little revision show…

I talk to a lot of people who want to write. Almost none want to revise. You better start liking it, I say, because it’s the only way. Some writers do more, some less, but all revise. I’m in the “more” camp. It takes me a long time to get to where I want to go. Hence my sluggish pace at producing new work. Here’s an example:

http://player.vimeo.com/video/18086543

Revision Stuff from Clark Knowles on Vimeo.

More notes on revision…

I spent some time talking with a former student today over coffee. He’s a serious writer and has just had his first acceptance for publication. He’s applying to MFA programs and I told him that I thought the most important thing he could do between now and the time he started at whichever school he attended was to practice daily his craft. It seems that many people want to write, but think of writing only in vague terms, vague longings to be heard, to have an audience. Those folks get to the MFA thinking that it will make them writers. The deadlines, the classes, the instant community, all of these things make it easy to be a writer during the time one attends the program. Some folks don’t really write before they get there, and many don’t write after they leave. The reasons are complicated and quite varied, and I can’t state that I know for sure what it all means, but unless you are willing to do the work before you attend school—do the work while attending to the daily life of chores—the school will be but a busy interlude of letters. Same goes for after school—the long, sometimes lonely work of filling blank pages. It’s tough to approach the page day after day knowing that the reality of writing is quite different than the dream of writing. Part of this revolves around revision. It’s taken me a long time to learn how ruthless I have to be in revision. I have to maintain vigilance against the “okay” sentence and dismiss the voice that tells me a sentence is “fine.” I don’t want okay and fine, but I find myself skimming over okay and fine sentences all the time. I’m trying to approach writing differently now than I did in my thirties. Here are the first two pages of the third story of my recent batch. As with all the stories I wrote for this collection, I wrote the whole story longhand, transcribed it into the computer, fixed it as best as I could on the screen, and then printed it out. Now the real work begins.