Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Tip Tuesday: No Back Editing!

So you've done your pre-writing, you've found your rhythm, that perfect time when your imagination is supplying you with dynamite scenes and characters and setting, and things are going great. But then, as you write, you suddenly have this spectacular idea for chapter six, something that will make your story sing and zing. Problem is, you're on chapter ten. What do you do?

It's time to establish what I think is a pretty good rule when it comes to writing, and it's this: no back editing.

What's back editing, you ask? It's going back in your story, while you're still writing it, to fix some detail or another. This, folks, is a bad idea for a number of different reasons.

Remember last week, when we spoke of inertia? Nothing kills forward momentum in writing a story better than stopping it to go back and fix something you've already written. By the time you're finished, you have to pick up where you left off and get started all over again. Now granted, if it's just a few minor tweaks here and there, it may not seem like a big deal, but it adds up.

There's also the practical concern of adding a lot of unnecessary extra work to your writing. Let me give you an (admittedly exaggerated) example.

Let's say you're writing a sci-fi adventure. Your dashing hero, Zap Ramrod, has a coy and coquettish female sidekick named Naomi. You're hard at work on the first draft of Zap's epic adventure when, about a third of the way through, you have a brilliant brainstorm: Naomi should be an alien. It's sci-fi, right? You gotta have aliens!

So you go back through the first half, replacing Naomi with the newly created alien, whom we'll call Riff. You even add a few extra scenes detailing how Zap and Riff met each other. You get to the point in the story where you had your brainstorm and keep going.

But then, about two-thirds of the way through, you realize that Riff is coming off as a stereotypical alien. He's not a good fit after all. Besides, "Zap and Riff" sound a bit too close to "Zapp and Kif," and you don't want folks to think of the guys from Futurama. Riff isn't working out. But that's okay, you've got a new idea: a smart-alecky robot named RK-717.

So back you go, through the first two thirds. Out goes the scenes with Riff. In go the scenes with RK-717. And you even add two new scenes for the 'bot, one where Zap buys RK-717 at the used robot emporium and another, a haunting soliloquy from RK-717 about how his kind are treated as second-class citizens. Great stuff! And when you catch up with where you were, off you go!

Only . . . three quarters of the way through, you're sick of typing RK-717. It's not that great of a name. And besides, the 'bot isn't really working for you anymore. Brainstorm! Why not replace the 'bot with another human, a bald Pakistani boy, one who grew up on a colony populated with the descendants of folks who were abducted by aliens in the 20th century.

So once again, you go back through your story, replacing all of the robot references with the boy. And so you finish out your story, fully satisfied . . .

. . . until you actually read what you've written and realize that Zap needs a woman's influence in his life, a romantic foil, if you will. And so, when you do the first rewrite, you wind up replacing the bald Pakistani boy with . . . Naomi.

Now think about this. By back-editing, you had to recover the same territory several times, only to wind up going back to what you started with. Like I said, this is an exaggerated example, but it illustrates my point. Back editing is counter-productive. It's better to keep moving forward, even if new ideas occur to you as you write.

That's what I do while working on a new story. I keep a small notebook next to my computer. If I have an idea of how to fix a scene that I've already finished, I jot down the idea and keep on moving, incorporating it into my writing as I go.

So in my above example, if I were writing this sci-fi adventure, if one would read the hypothetical first draft, they'd find Naomi in the first half, Riff in the next part, RK-717 in the next, and the unnamed Pakistani boy in the last bit. It'd be a mess, but that's okay. That's what first drafts are for. And I'd only have to fix half of the book instead of rewriting the whole thing half a dozen times.

I could keep going, but you get the idea. Don't back edit. Keep the momentum going, and worry about editing after you're done with the first draft.

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