Teaching Turkeys to Fly

“More than half, maybe two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.” – John Irving.

Congratulations, you wrote a first draft. You are a novelist, a screenwriter, a playwright, a storyteller…by God, a writer.

Now, are you ready to get to work?

Some people compare writing to being god-like. If a first draft is like God creating the world in seven days, then re-writing is Darwinism. It takes millions of years, a lot of your favorite creatures won’t survive, and you still might end up with a bird or two incapable of flight.

There are a lot of different ways to re-write. I’ve read about and experimented with a ton of them trying to figure out how to get my turkeys to fly more than a few feet.

I have to fight the desire to correct spelling and grammar during my first trip through the manuscript. Every sentence glares at me with the accusation of “You did this to me! Now fix it!” But alas, they will have to wait their turn.  Before I spend a bunch of time etching a coat of arms on my great sword of war, I need to know if the blade is going to snap the first time I swing it at someone.

Does the story work on a functional level? Every scene should move your plot forward while simultaneously throwing obstacles at your protagonist.

Dwight Swain, writer of Techniques of the Selling Writer refers to “scenes” and “sequels.” “Scenes” show the protagonists acting. “Sequels” show how he reactions to the fallout of his actions. He goes so far as to break them down even further, but the idea is that protagonist spends a story pursuing a goal and failing at every turn, causing change.

All my scenes address that goal, essentially (stealing a phrase from my first screenwriting instructor Ron Peterson) answering the story question. The characters’ actions must feel real. If my character acts in an unbelievable way, given what the reader knows, then I failed and the scene needs changed or cut.

Even if a scene is perfectly good, if it doesn’t give the story something special or isn’t necessary, it gets axed. This is very hard to do sometimes, and is a by-product of my screenwriting training. Watch special features on DVD’s. You will quickly see how many scenes are deleted, even ones that were already filmed. Usually, they don’t add anything.

What I love about prose is the art involved in its writing. I love the use of metaphors, even in daily conversation, as my girlfriend will attest. I tie the metaphors together with common themes.  I spend a lot of time on word choices and the sounds they make adjacent to other words. I pace the sentences rhythmically, like phrases in jazz. I search for storytelling not only in content, but in structure.

My sentence mechanics guide is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It contains a spectacular section on unnecessary words. Just like every scene should have a function, every part of a sentence should have one, as well. Make your work tighter. None of the gears should slip. The machine should chug perpetually forward.

In On Writing, Stephen King advised cutting text by ten percent. I say go for fifteen. You can accomplish that easily. Axe those needless words, unnecessary sentences, and unmotivated scenes. Trim them all away. What you have left is the real story.

By the way, this blog is 550 words. It started at 900. I didn’t change the content at all.


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  1. Pingback: Teaching Turkeys to Fly « This Average Life

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