Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Once more from the top! With feeling!

By day, I design databases.  I design a lot of databases.  And boy is it so much more fun than writing thrillers and mysteries!  (I can't complain.  Because of database designing, I can write in warmth and comfort, with a full stomach and a pot of coffee.) 

Each brainchild is larger and more complex than the last; with use, updates, add-ons and fixes, they become even larger and more complicated.  Sometimes, they outgrow their own stability and go kaput.

When that happens, there are two things I can do:  find the problem(s) and fix the database, or I can rebuild the whole danged thing.

The first time I rebuilt a database, I did it out of sheer frustration.  I was tired of making countless little changes, running tests and still finding it was wrong.  So I said, "Screw it!" and I gutted the database.  When I rebuilt it, it was four times faster and only took up a quarter of the space.  It was so efficient, I thought I'd done something wrong!  But no, all the data was there, it ran correctly, and better still, it was a little more robust in its operation - at four times the speed and one quarter the size.

So these days, I make a habit of rebuilding all my databases from the ground up.  If I do this every half year or so, it streamlines its performance, it allows me to check my methodology and verify my calculations, and hot diggity does it go faster afterward.  Sometimes I need to make minor changes between overhauls, but that's okay.  If they're important changes, they'll survive the next rebuild.  If they're temporary or unnecessary, they'll slough off during the next rebuild.

It's a big investment of time, and it hurts every time I do it - but each time I do, I learn something new.  I learn a new way of compressing four or five queries into one, or some sneaky way of eliminating unnecessary data that's been choking performance.

But the important thing is, I rebuild from memory.  Why?  Because memory is flawed.

Memory is finite. Your memory purges itself of stuff you don't need, and you retain only what is most salient (most important, most unusual, most often used).

I can remember what the output is supposed to look like; so in rebuilding the query to get the output I need, I have to refine the query knowing what I know now.  The rebuild automatically incorporates new knowledge and new skills.

I can't remember all the ad hoc queries I've designed in response to one-off requests here and there, so they don't get built in.  And since I don't need them, I don't need to port-over the old data associated with those requests either.

Unfortunately, I can't always remember all the output fields required, nor the best way to format date fields based on weeks and months, nor the best report layouts.  So, what I do need, I can go back and copy/paste over to the new database.  Everything else gets archived and buried.

In the end:  the utility is neat, tidy, faster, up-to-date - and, my database design skills are kept sharp.  Something I discover in the rebuild of this database could be the key to repairing that database over there.

So what, you may ask, has this got to do with writing?


Take your manuscript, for example - that lump of musty papers in the corner that has been driving you crazy for months and years.  It took you X-amount of time to write it, and it's been taking you 6 times that to edit it.  You go back to it now and then, fixing this scene, updating that grammar, toying with a character here or there, adding a paragraph or two of back story.  Maybe you've edited it from "One day" to "The End" five or six times over, saving each draft individually.  Still, it doesn't feel right, and you're tired of trying to figure out why.  You know the story is there, but you just can't get it out.

Now, you also have a couple of choices here.  You can continue on picking at scabs until you're covered in blood and styptic pencil marks, or you can rebuild it from memory.

This is exactly what I'm doing with Man with the Silver Tongue, the second in the John "Mummer" Stillman series. I'm scrapping all the work I've done up to now (all three drafts), and I'm rewriting it from word one.

You see, I've already written the first draft for eight manuscripts in this series.  I could theoretically just edit them and send them off.  But since writing those drafts, I've also written Her Poison Voice, the novelization of twelve radio plays, the entire Helix series, Lady Butcher and the Accidental Saint and a spattering of short stories.  After well over a million words written in the last four years, I should say I've learned a few new skills; between writing, editing, reading and receiving feedback, my writing is a quantum leap ahead of where it was in 2007.  I have infinite room for improvement, but I'm not the writer I used to be. 

I've also gone back and overhauled Mummer's the Word, which has affected every character in the series.  That means, if I edit, I'll have to change every line of dialogue, every motivation, every action and reaction.  In short, if it has letters or numbers, it needs to be reworked.  But if I don't do something drastic, The Man with the Silver Tongue will fall far behind its predecessor, and I run the risk of being a bit of a one-hit-wonder.

Now, I can go back to the original draft of the Man with the Silver Tongue, print it off, make a gazillion red doodles, then go transfer the changes to the soft copy - or, I can save the environment (and my sanity), and I can rewrite the danged thing, knowing what I know now.

There is a disadvantage, of course - time being the primary problem.  Once this net-new draft is done, I'll have to go back and do two or three more rounds of revisions for continuity, grammar and clarity.  Then there's the heartsick groaning at having "wasted" all the time I spent on the book up to now.

But there's an advantage too.

In the process of rewriting Man with the Silver Tongue, I've been forced to remember all the salient points (the essential story, what makes this story unique from the rest of the series, what holds it together as a unit).  Because I've already done this story before, I know where I'm going with it.  I already know how the story is going to end, which means I already know how it's going to build toward its climax.  Tobin Elliott would probably call these Key Scenes.

As I review what I remember of the essential story, I can test the very core of the plot for flaws.  And what's funny about this step is that I'll often "remember" exactly how the plot resolves - even though that's not how I wrote it originally.  In fact, the original story may not have made sense to begin with!  Memory is flawed, not only because it's finite, but because it's subject to change - and the writer can use this to his or her advantage.

Also, knowing what I know now about the personality of my main characters, I've had to make subtle changes to the plot between Key Scenes. This gives me the opportunity I need to drop in sparks, tension and chemistry, which I use to build those transitions and add depth and realism to the plot.

On top of that, having written eight books with these characters, I have a much better idea of where I want to go with the whole series.  And yes, I do know how the series ends.  What I don't know is how many books it'll take me to get there (or rather, how many books publishers and readers will let me get away with in this series).  With that in mind, I can set Silver Tongue in line with the series arc.  I'd been writing in the dark the first time around.

Once I have in my mind for this book the Key Scenes and the transitions between them, I can see a general shape of the whole story; i.e. 1/4 of the manuscript takes me from this scene to that plot twist, the next 1/4 needs to be about how he begins to investigate "this", then right at the midway point "that" needs to happen, and "this" needs to happen immediately before the midway point, which means I have to explain how he knows "that" at around the 1/6th mark, etc. etc.  Believe it or not, I do all that in my head, and rarely on paper.  If I forget something, I probably didn't need it; if it was important, I'll remember it as I write, and I can always go back to drop in those few lines I'd missed.  (Ah, modern technology - ain't she grand?)

All of this allows me to keep the manuscript nice and lean.  I don't fall into the trap of adding gratuitous back story or action for the sake of shaking up the boring scenes.  If you keep only the good stuff, there are no boring scenes.  I also know what to leave out of the story, before I write it (or what to take out as soon as I realize it's derailing me from the character's true personality or the real plot).

 Once the Silver Tongue plot was refined in my head, I realized I had to dump a dozen superfluous characters.  I would have spent hours surgically removing them from every scene and snippet of dialogue, had I edited the story.  Now, I don't have to reassign actions or re-attribute speech.  Those characters, actions and speech bubbles are simply gone.  But had I gone back to the original draft, I would have fallen in love with those characters all over again, and I would have bled every time I put red pen to paper.  It's easier to cut out what you can't remember.

And because I'm rewriting it from the top, I'm putting into practice what I've learned since writing the original draft: how to animate of action and dialogue in the mind of the reader, how to add conflicting character motivations, how to modify sentence structure to improve pacing, how to add keynotes instead of catchphrases to help distinguish one character from another in dialogue, and how to slice out unnecessary characters before they bog down the plot.

Finally, because I'm re-writing, I'm actually flexing my creative muscles, and not just the self-critical ones.  Every time I write a new story, I improve the way I edit; likewise, the more I rewrite stories I already know, the better I get at writing fresh material in the first draft.

So is this the solution to your cranky manuscript in the corner?  It might not be.  After all, I've written five distinct and complete versions of Hawkeshaw/Her Poison Voice, each with different characters, settings and plots.  I still haven't captured the story I want to tell.  I may end up doing a sixth incarnation.  But, bad as they might be, not one of those drafts has ever been a waste of time.  Even when I'm writing badly, I can learn something new.
But think about it:  if it took you 1000 hours to write, and it's taking you 10,000 hours to edit, you could have rewritten it by now. 

If it's "sooooo close" to what you want, do not rewrite it.  Add the subtle brushstrokes required to bring out the light, and muscle out any errors.

And beware of gritty reboots.  Yes, it worked for Batman Begins.  But look what Van Helsing did to all the classic Universal monsters!  In going for the funny/gritty/action-adventure blockbuster, Universal went over the top, and destroyed the essential characters (click here and watch between 4:02 and 5:08, and you'll see what I mean). And, it made me cry for three months straight. Your rewrite should hang off the essential story and characters, and not on a desire for "more action!" and "more drama!" and "more special effects!"

If I don't know what I wrote or what the story was about, I don't rebuild it.  I only rebuild what has kept my imagination, despite those 10,000 hours of editing.  If I can't remember how the story goes, it gets archived, buried and left behind.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is sigh, turn your back, and try something new.

1 comment:

  1. Over 1 million words? We often say that after the first million, you get better... and you're already there!