Thursday, October 30, 2008

Chipping Away the Stone

Elizabeth Zelvin

Everybody knows that Michelangelo, widely accepted as the greatest sculptor ever, explained how he created his magnificent marble statues, including the David and the Pietà, by chipping away the stone until only the form imprisoned within remained. Writers, at least those who know that every first draft needs some revision, go through a similar process. Instead of quarrying the raw material, they create it by putting words together in a form determined by the mysterious process we call creativity. In fact, what writers initially do with words is much like what sculptors in clay do: building up one small bit at a time until a rough form is achieved.

After that, how sculptors revise a clay figure is a combination of of building, removing, and smoothing. We could say that writers do that too. But recently, after many years of writing, I think I’ve reached a new level of ability to critique my own work, and it feels more like chipping away the stone to reveal the story pared down to its essence, containing not one wasted word. At least, that’s the goal. Not being Michelangelo, I never achieve perfection. But the process feels much the same.

When I first joined Sisters in Crime’s Guppies chapter with the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober burning a hole in my computer, among the first pieces of advice I heard were these:
Don’t query agents or editors with a first draft.
Join a critique group.
Kill your darlings.
If I had followed all these dicta immediately, I might have sold my first mystery a lot sooner than I did. Or maybe it was meant to take the time it took to learn by my mistakes.

I was so excited about my manuscript that I couldn’t wait to send it out, so I experienced many rejections—and got many good suggestions—before it got published in a form far different from that original first draft. I did join a critique group, but it was the wrong one for me. I knew it when the elderly lady in the group told me my subject matter was “sordid.” (On the other hand, another member was the wonderful Krista Davis, who is a friend and critique partner to this day.) And I understood what “kill your darlings” meant. But for a long time, I couldn’t do it. Every clever phrase and carefully chosen word was so precious to me. How could I take any of them out, even in the interest of a tighter story? And not only my attachment to them, but also the fear that my creative well might run dry at any moment, prevented me from revising as ruthlessly as the material needed.

I know exactly when the shift took place. In 2006, I had the honor of being selected for a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, FL, working with master artist SJ Rozan. SJ both chose the participants and ran the workshop brilliantly, and it was a powerful experience. I learned a lot from the other writers. But SJ provided the moment of truth, some time during the second week, when she said, “Liz, you need to give us less, not more. Two clever lines in a paragraph are enough—three or four are too many.”

I went back to my room and took another look at the manuscript I was presenting to the group. (We “workshopped” three of the first four chapters of Death Will Help You Leave Him, the upcoming second book in my series.) For the first time in the 57 years I’ve been writing, what I needed to cut leaped off the page before my eyes. I could suddenly see the difference between the shape of the story and the bits of literary marble I could chip away. This new ability has stayed with me. In recent weeks, I’ve written two short stories. They’re a departure for me in that they’re not whodunits about Bruce, my series protagonist. In both cases, I envisioned the whole story, final twist and all, before beginning to write. So I was quite pleased with my first draft in both cases. But as soon as I printed them out and began to read them over, the marble chips began to fly around. So I grabbed a pen—and greatly improved the stories.


Chris Roerden said...

Your post reminded me of the answer given by a writer who spoke at one of the book fairs I attended this summer. When asked by an obviously new writer how much revision she did before sending her ms to her agent, the author replied 'none.' I cringed. Then she was asked how she knew when her ms was ready. She replied that she 'just knew.' I wanted to rip her throat out (figuratively, of course), but she added that she waited for her editor's letter before revising. (Aha! So Ms. Perfect DID revise after all.) Fortunately, the other author at this dual-panelist session balanced the other's ego moment with a dose of reality for the handful of new writers in the audience.

Though some readers are no doubt impressed by an author of 3 books who 'just knew,' I feel we do a disservice to new writers in making the process seem too easy. Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your own revision discoveries. I'm far more likely to accept 'I just knew' from you and others who acknowledge their self-development experiences.

Chris Roerden
Don't Murder Your Mystery

Kenna said...

Liz -
Inspiring ~ I'm struggling with letting my little darlings go, and it is definitely jarring at times.

Hopefully, some day, after struggling with it, I'll have the 'aha' moment and it will become easier! I'm still pretty green, so it may be awhile . . .

Thanks for sharing,