How to Establish a Hierarchy of Information in Scenes
So. Take two pages or, you know, I'll put that in quotation marks but just take a longer excerpt from one of your previous seven exercises from the day and shrink the longer excerpt, say a page and a half or two pages, and see if you can distill it down to just one paragraph. This is way harder than it sounds, (laughs) I promise. So does it makes sense what we're doing this time? Oh okay. Take two pages, roughly, page and a half, whatever you've got and distill it down to just one paragraph. This'll be our last exercise of the day. What I would like to hear is that typically one is much easier to execute than the other, and I would just like to kind of hear from each of you like which one felt easier and, you know, maybe if you could do a little self-diagnosis. Why do you think that is? And we'll start over here and we'll sorta just work our way around.
Most of the things that I did this whole time were in the kind of one paragraph range, so. Kind of... Condensing wasn't easy, like I...
had to kinda put things together in order to condense. So that was a challenge because, like for example, the one where we did the dog thief and then the consequences. I put those together because I had two paragraphs but wasn't super successful in shrinking it back down because it was kinda two separate things.
Well, what's interesting about what you're saying, there, is that typically we'll fall sort of into two rough camps. There are gonna be the people that write malnourished rough drafts and there are gonna be people that write like corpulent rough drafts, shall we say? Stuffed with too much stuff and again, neither is right or wrong, it's sort of just identifying which camp you're in. I'm a malnourished guy. Like my rough drafts of a novel are just these like (shuddering) 130, 140 page, skinny, little things of like missed opportunities and that's, that's my process. That's how I work, I'll do a draft that's 130 pages and then the next draft is gonna be this crazy expansion draft in which the next piece is 600 pages, and then the next draft after that will be 250 pages. So I alternate on a draft by draft basis. Concision, expansion, concision, expansion, until I find that particular story's or that particular book's sweet spot because some books need to be 175 pages, and some books need to be 300 pages, and some books need to be 500 pages, and it's up to us, again, to try it out a couple different ways until we find the one that's gonna work the best for that story. So maybe in your process, you're gonna sort be like me, in which the first pass is gonna be kind of half baked and then you go about like putting more meat on its bones, probably too much meat on its bones and then you'll start to pull stuff out from there. So that's something that I've found has really helped my process is to just give myself the freedom to alternate drafts and say, I know that this is gonna be an expansion draft. This is draft two, it's gonna grow. Draft three is gonna get a bit of a squeeze. Four will grow, so on and so forth until I find the sweet spot. Do you feel like you've written enough rough drafts over the, kind of the course of your life to say that you have like a style yet, or you're still kinda figuring out what that's gonna be for you?
I think figuring it out.
Yeah, right on. Cool. And what about in your world, how did that go?
I thought that both were equally easy and difficult.
(laughs) That's a very diplomatic answer.
Yeah, exactly, and I found expanding, at least the paragraph that I chose to expand on, which was the DUI one... I don't know. I thought it was pretty easy to expand on it, just because I feel like I wasn't able to say everything I wanted to say in the paragraph and so there's just, you know, stuff that was naturally left unsaid, but then I chose a different paragraph to shorten, which was, I don't know if... Like there was a paragraph that was longer that I'd written earlier about the dog and I found that like shortening that was pretty easy because I could just take out sentence, like just take out a couple superfluous sentences and the actual course of the paragraph like wouldn't change at all.
There you go, that's how you know that stuff doesn't need to be there. I mean, in a sense, revision's sort of easy at first. Like revision in an early draft is you keep the cool stuff and you kill the stuff that doesn't work, but revision gets much more difficult deeper into the process because everything is good and you're still gonna have to let some stuff hit the cutting room floor and those determinations, I think, are when you sort of get your black belt, you know, for sure, because it's like how do you make those determinations? There's probably no right answer. Each writer will approach it a little bit differently, depending on their aesthetics and aims.
I think like in the shortening portion of it, I would take out sentences but I'd also find ways to write the sentences that were already written better, I think, and so in trying to shorten it, I would make it longer, initially, and then re-shorten it.
Sounds about right. (laughs) Let's keep going, what about in your world? Which one seemed the toughest task?
I think expanding was harder for me. Except that I wanted to expand the scene that, it was the murderer scene, I wanted to expand that because I didn't want to give away as much or feel like I, so I wanted to draw it out, right? But the compression one, actually, was the moral dilemma one that, and I actually made it part of the murderer story in my head, so for me, like, I was going back to that other thing going alright, I've already said that, take that out. I've already said that, take that out, and so making it, and like you said, I made things longer but then made them shorter and I could make the sentences better.
Cool and I think it also speaks to the fact that there are always gonna be redundancies in early drafts. In a sense that's a great problem to have, right? Because now you've got four lines saying the exact same thing, like, pick the best one and get rid of the other ones, but if you just have that one line to choose from, how do you know if it's the best one? There's no contrast there. So cool, I love that. And what about for you? (laughs) Have both mics. There you go. (participants laughing)
I think I do the malnourished drafts, so mine were probably shorter than other people's, as well, and I've found that when writing in general, I sort of flesh out everything sort of roughly and then sort of build on that and, you know, sort of then take away again when I'm through the editing process. I've found making it more concise, I mean, I probably didn't have enough in the initial sort of body of text to sort of cut it down too much further, but I do like it. I like sort of being able to sort of, you know, that I felt that I could make it, I could finesse it and it was a lot sharper. Just given, you know, taking out words. It's easy to put in extra words which you sort of don't need and I enjoy sort of removing them. It sort of felt sort of like spring cleaning.
Oh I like that, I like that too. A friend of mine is a tattoo artist and we were talking about revision a while ago, and she said, I can only revise a tattoo for a certain amount of hours or the skin starts to rip, and I thought to myself, I wish we had the equivalent of that, right? Because we could just edit forever and at a certain point, you're kind of just spinning your wheels in the mud. It's such a difficult determination to make, especially when we're on the level of diction. Like when do we wanna leave an adjective? When is that spoon-feeding? When are we being too demonstrative? When are we editorializing? You get to these points where you're saying like gosh, I wish the page would just rip like my arm, you know, so the tattoo artist has got that freedom. I gotta stop. But we don't have to stop. (laughs) That's the scary part. Last but not least, could you move one more mic back there please? Great, thanks.
So I discovered two things. One is I actually do like to write shorter. I'm kind of used to doing that because I always say, when I was doing work for law firms and things like that, sometimes I'd have to write like a tagline. You know and seven words was more expensive than writing, you know, a whole brochure because it takes forever to find just the right, you know, connection of thoughts in a small amount of text and so I, on the one to shorten, I have the dog stealing one, which I wanted to get across this kind of humorous idea, in a way, that the dog was really her brother who had died of an overdose, and the cop comes in and asks the dog's name and she tells the name of her brother, Robert, and then she says the dog's looking funny at the police officer, wondering if the police officer knew the brother, too, from another time and place, and by tightening it, it got interesting. You know, the little words fell of here and there so that it became like, you know, six lines. The interesting part stayed, which is what I wanted to sound like curiousness and then on the one I tried to expand, it was around the drunk driving thing in which the guy actually drunk-drived and killed himself, but I didn't know enough about him to expand, so what I was writing felt really superfluous, like it didn't matter. It was like I was painting a picture of the diner and the places around it, it was like who cares, I kind of got to and I was like, I don't know enough about him yet to be able to tell the story and then I started getting a little closer to nobody knows him. He lives alone in a trailer park and his son had just died in Vietnam and you know, it's like oh, but there was a caution to go, I don't know enough yet to expand it. So that was really good learning for me.
And what's cool about what you're saying, too, is that you're doing double duty. You're saying, yeah this is superfluous and nothing that I'm writing right now is gonna make the final cut but I'm also going to allow myself to just explore a little bit because maybe three quarters of a page of drivel will lead to that one line where you say, (snapping) now that's what I can use. Because I think that's what's fascinating about the revision process, too, is to say to yourself, it doesn't matter if the first four pages get nixed if you had to write the first four pages to get to number five and number five is where the good stuff is. Well cool, thanks all of you for weighing in on that. I appreciate some... insight into what sort of writer you are and hopefully these are kind of things that you can kind of glean about your own process, today, and bring them home with you, in terms of your own remix or your own revision process like it felt good to blow this moment up. Maybe there are missed opportunities in some other pieces I've generated, or gosh that one tightening exercise made it really obvious to me that my stories are over-written and now I wanna go back with that kind of Stephen King eye and see if I can cut that 10% off and maybe that's not enough. Maybe 10% is Stephen King's rule and your rule is gonna be 20%, to go back to the kind of, the editor eye that we were talking about early. They rarely tell you make it longer. You know, distill. Find its essence, find its essence. Try to say it in as few words as you possibly can.