Techniques to Determine a Scene's Length
You know, for the most part of the day, we've been talking about techniques, and we've been talking about content generation. Kind of putting these principles to use to kind of seeing how they would, kind of work in the wild with your imagination. And, kind of, for our last sprint to the finish line here, I want to start to talk a little bit about revision. I want to talk a little bit about the remix process. Because, oftentimes, revision gets a very, very bad rap. And the bad rap goes like this. Writing a rough draft equals fun, revising equals bad. And I would argue that is exactly the opposite. I write the rough draft because I have to. I would make the argument that the rough draft is merely the lump of clay. The rough draft is merely the raw materials. And it's in the revision process, that we actually go about sculpting art. You know, oftentimes, I think writers put too much pressure on themselves for their writing to be good too quickly. Like, we all want to write like Toni Morr...
ison. I would love to write like Toni Morrison, but remember that Toni Morrison doesn't write like Toni Morrison at first. When you see a novel of hers, she's had years and years to remix and finesse, sometimes level, you know, start from scratch in certain sequences. We can sometimes be too mean to ourselves, and we want things to get better too fast. You know. And you've gotta focus on, kind of, the incremental improvement. Hopefully, they're getting better on a draft by draft basis. Although, here's a dirty, dark secret that most writers don't tell other writers. Oftentimes, draft two can be worse than draft one. Why is that? You finish a draft, you share it with some people to get some feedback, and you turn into this pleaser. You take in all of their information. You're like, oh, well, I'm gonna answer this on page 10, I'm gonna answer this on page seven, gonna answer this on page six. And you've taken away all that was cool about it. All that was surprising, all that was sort of mysterious. And you've made it very methodical, very pragmatic. Except we're not robots, right? And you've taken away the essence. You've taken away the guts. So sometimes I get e-mails from former graduate students, and the subject line is like, I ruined my novel. And that's just the draft two blues. You didn't ruin anything. I've never come across one thing that can't be fixed in the revision process. Anything, literally anything can be fixed as we remix. So even if draft two seems worse than draft one, don't fall into that pitfall. Just say, I'm not afraid of you, I'm not intimidated by you, I knew this was an option, I knew I could possibly have a draft two that was worse than draft one, but I'm gonna do the work, I'm gonna show up, I'm gonna write a little bit everyday, and I'm gonna make improvements. And then, from three on, you see, kind of, steady improvement on a draft by draft basis. Four is better than three, five is better than four, so on and so forth. So if you do have that draft two hiccup, don't panic. Although, if you need a pep talk, send me an e-mail. I'm good at pep talks. It'll be fun. And the idea being that we're gonna try to work through from the beginning, from the NACITS, to the polished, to the published. And knowing that there's gonna be a lot of work in between. And not put these external, insurmountable expectations on ourselves. So if, after nine months, you're frustrated with your art. Life's too short to be frustrated with your own art. You know. And anything you can do to, like, alleviate some of that anxiety. It's only draft four. It's fine that it's pretty good. It's only draft eight. It's fine that it's just good. Doesn't have to be great yet. One of the dangers about self-publishing, what people are doing right now, is it allows people to publish the pretty good. It's easy to publish draft five right now instead of doing the work. You know. Write draft eight, write draft 10, write draft 12. Nobody wants to read your pretty good book. You know what I'm saying? Have you ever gone up to one of your friends and been like, hey, read this book, it's pretty good. He'll be like, yeah, no thanks. I'm really, I'm busy, give me the greatest hits. You know, tell me the things that have blown your mind. I'll read those things. But you can put the pretty good stuff back and just embrace this iteration process. Draft one, draft four, draft eight, draft 10. And if your expectations are low enough, not low like. But low meaning, you're getting work done, and you're allowing yourself to feel good about it. You're motivated, and you're working hard, but you're not allowing that inner editor to be like, whoa, you've been working on this for 10 months, and this is all you've done? Gross! What's the matter with you? That inner editor probably never goes away, but I feel like we can turn her voice way down to some sort of susurration, some kind of whisper in the back of our head. We'll just say, like, look, it's not great yet, it's good. It's not good yet, it's pretty good. It's actually pretty bad right now, but I'm gonna keep showing up. I'm gonna keep doing the work, and 18 months later, 24 months later, 36 months later, I'm gonna have a really amazing piece of art. It takes me about three years to write a novel. You know, I've got friends where it takes six years to write a novel. Art is not efficient. I think that's one of the great mysteries of it. Don't expect your artistic process to be efficient. Like, it's not a race. Like, allow it to, allow yourself to explore, allow yourself to be inefficient. And while you're being inefficient, have fun. 'Cause, normally, when someone calls you inefficient, you're like, that hurts my feelings. But I'm calling you the good sort of inefficient 'cause you're a working artist. You're prioritizing your art. You're taking the time to create, even though your life is crammed full of responsibilities. The last thing you wanna do is have these insurmountable expectations that are making you feel bad about the work. A little bit here, a little bit here, a little bit here. Does that make sense, what I'm saying? There are a lot of different ways for us to approach the revision process. But since, today, we've primarily been focused on generating scenes, I thought it would work to kind of start with what I like to call the water balloon fight. And what we're thinking about with this analogy of the water balloon fight, is for us to say, how can we figure out exactly what a scene's proper length is? I have a scene right now, it's eight pages. Is it the best it can possibly be at eight or would it be better at six or would it be better at 10? And how am I making those determinations? You know, I think what's really important to me, as an instructor here, is that you feel armed with the techniques to sort of solve these problems after today. So you're not just at your house sort of watching that mean cursor flash in your face, being like, I know we talked about some stuff, but now that I'm alone, I don't know how to do that. Why is a water balloon fight helpful for us to be thinking about revision? So remember when you were 10, remember when you were eight, remember when you were six, and the neighborhood kids were gonna get together for a water balloon fight. Do you guys have water balloon fights? I love water balloon fights. We should have one after today in the parking lot. Here's how a water balloon fight typically went in my world. I would see that one person. There's always that guy. You're like, you're the person I wanna smash with this balloon first. Like, I'll get to you others eventually, but there's that one person, like, you're gonna get the first. You're gonna get the first balloon. So I would go to the sink, I would put the balloon on there, I would turn on the faucet. It's filling up, I'm like, Tommy, here it comes, Tommy, here it comes, Tommy, here it- And I'm getting greedy. I'm just letting it grow a little bit too much, a little bit too much, and then bam. It blows up. And I've got water all over me. I'm not gonna be dissuaded that easily, right? I get another balloon, put it on, start filling it up, and this time, I over correct. I fill it so it's like that full. I go up to Tommy, throw it, and it hits him right on the chest and just falls on the floor. So I go back to the sink. I've learned from my mistakes. It's neither going to be too full, nor is it going to be too empty. I'm going to have that Goldilocks right amount of water. It's plump, it's delicious, and I will vanquish my foe with this beautiful water balloon. I walk outside. I throw it at him. Victory is mine. Revision, ultimately, sort of works the same way. And this is when it's very helpful for us to take advantage of the fact that the computer makes it so easy for us to save multiple versions of the same file. So you have got your eight page file saved, and it's in some sort of digital safety deposit box, nobody's gonna mess with that. But you've copied it over here, and now, you're gonna mess with it. Now you take that eight page scene, and you do an exercise of compression. It's eight pages, now it's six. Maybe some words can still go. It's six, now it's five. You get that one 'till you think it's functioning as optimally as it can. So you have the eight page version that you like. Keep in mind, you're satisfied with the eight page version. But you're a rigorous explorer, and you wanna make sure that you do your due diligence. You've got the eight page one saved. Now you have got your five page one saved. Now, you're gonna blow it up. See if there were any missed opportunities. You copy that file over again, and, instead of eight pages, you're gonna make it 12 pages. You're gonna make it 13 pages, you're gonna make it 50 pages, as long as it feels like it needs to be to make sure that you've capitalized on every narrative opportunity that you see in that portion of the book. And then you let it steep. If we're ever able to be objective with our own work, and that's a very big if, if we're ever able to be objective with our own work, we just need some space. So you have those three versions of the file and just put them aside. And I mean don't even open them for a month. For six weeks. Write some poems. Milk a goat. Build a bomb. Do what you gotta do to, like, stay out of those documents. So when you come back to it with some fresh eyes, you can read all of them and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each, and build the one that's gonna make the most sense to you. I think we often do a disservice to our narratives if we try to do too much troubleshooting in our heads. If we just say, like, I'm a very enlightened author, and I've written this very enlightened scene, and it's fine. How do you know? Who died and made you boss? You like this scene, then it's fine, eight pages, well, cool. Now, make it five, now make it 15, let them steep. Collect as much active evidence as you possibly can. That way, you're not just doing the eight page version 'cause it's the path of least resistance. The eight pages generated, the five pages generated, the 15 pages generated, you go away, you rest your eyeballs, you milk that goat, you write that poem, and then you come back, and you evaluate the narrative on its own merits. It will be obvious which one works better than the others. The simplest way that we signal importance in the book, or in an essay, or in a short story, is just by sheer page real estate. Like, I'm no mathematician, right? But if your book is 200 pages long, and a chapter is 20 pages, that's 10% of the book. Like, you're setting an incredibly high value assignment for that movement of the book. Whereas, there's another detail over here. 200 page book, but now, you've only given it two dependent clauses. It adds up to 11 words. Well, that- This math is, like, way above my head, but, you guys, we can see, it's a much less of a value assignment, right? We're assigning a very low value with it by how much time we're setting aside for the reader to interact with it. Does that make sense, what I'm saying? So we can use length to signal importance. We can also use placement to signal importance, and we'll get to that in a minute. But I think length is sort of, one of the easiest ways we can set value for our scenes. Eight page, five page, 15 page, let it rest, come back, and just see which one plays. See which one is gonna work the best for whatever your authorial intent is in that particular moment. You want this to be this really exciting, climactic action, and in five pages, I just feel like I'm going a little bit too fast. I want to slow down a little bit so the reader has the opportunity to, like, really feel the danger, the stakes are mortal. I want her inside this. So I know that the five one's out. The eight page, the eight page sort of works too. But I just feel that if I render this moment slower, it's gonna create more emergency in my reader. She's gonna be like, what's gonna happen, what's gonna happen, what's gonna happen, and because it's this prolonged experience, she's flipping pages, and she's having fun. And so, in this particular example, the 15 page is the one that you would wanna go with. So my point is, is that there's gonna be no hard and fast rule. And there's gonna be no one size fits all answer. Like making art never works that way. What we wanna do is to make sure that we're trying to honor the work by approaching various chapters and scenes from as many different angles as we possibly can. Writing different versions with different value assignments. You know what, I thought this moment was gonna be really, really important, but I wrote it, and I realized it's the next scene that's really important. So I'm gonna take this 10 pages, and I'm gonna truncate it to four pages. But now it's actually just more of a moment of connective tissue getting me to this really meaty moment that's on deck. Does that make sense, what I'm saying? The cool thing about these value assignments is that you're doing a lot of these things just on your hunch, just on your instincts, just on, you know, the type of reader you are. And now, you sort of come back with a more fastidious eye. You come back with a more organized eye to really evaluate if this scene is accomplishing exactly what you want this scene to accomplish. So what would be another way that we can do that? I always try to establish some sort of hierarchy here. A hierarchy of information. Because I don't want these pieces of information to exist in some sort of zero gravity world in which everything is equally weighted. I want to find a way to hint at, you know, these are the three most crucial pieces of information. Those are the top of the hierarchy. This is bullet point one, this is bullet point two, this is bullet point three. So if there's eight things that you're hoping a reader is gonna grab onto, it's not, oh, I'm just gonna put all eight in there, and hopefully, she'll get it. Right? We're gonna make sure that we're really hitting the top of the hierarchy first, and probably, last. And so, we kind of, hit the first impression, and the last impression, so it has the opportunity to really stick with them. The other thing about the establishing of a hierarchy is, some people do this digitally with Scribner. I know Scribner's got this kind of like corkboard functions in which it allows you to use flash cards. But I'm a very tactile learner, so I do the same exercise, but I do it in an analog way with three by five cards. So I'll have a whole wall, when I'm in the middle of writing a book, I'll have a whole wall of my office, which is the hierarchy of information. So that this one three by five card would say, the plot push in chapter four is x. I hope my reader retains why. They need to know z or the book won't work moving forward. So those would be sort of, like, at the top of the hierarchy to do that for plot. And then you do the exact same thing for character. We've been talking all day about making sure that our characters are monochromatic, so we're making sure that we're showing or rendering new aspects of what makes our character unique. So you would have a similar flash card on the wall that says my character reveal in chapter two, is that Debbie is disillusioned. And then you can stand back, looking at your litany here on the wall and say, I say the same thing in chapter five. So I'm either gonna kill one of them or I'm gonna tune one of those moments so it's saying something a little bit different for my audience member to take away. So if your first draft, you wanna think about yourself as some sort of improvising jazz musician. Where you're not, like, engaging any of these more fastidious skills. You're free, you're improvising, you're just kind of following, kind of the gust of creation. But then, when we come back in revision, we wanna be a little bit more organized. We wanna have the eye of, like, a CPA. Or a tax accountant. We're going back and saying, okay, what am I actually accomplishing in chapter three? What's actually on the page here? What's this contributing to the overall effect? And then you can kind of, if you can't articulate it in a sentence, if it's requiring, like, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, well, maybe your value assignment's a little messed up there. Maybe there's too much information in that particular chapter, and the water balloon's gonna blow up in your face. And then maybe you look at chapter seven, and there's only, like, one little thing happening. One teeny little plot push. And that's the water balloon that you throw at somebody, and it hits them and just falls onto the floor innocuously. We overfill, we underfill until we find the right way. So, again, don't try to do this in one shot. It won't work. Allow yourself the latitude to approach it from multiple angles until you find the one that's gonna allow it to accomplish what you're trying to accomplish in this scene, or in this chapter, if it's a memoir. Or a novel. The other thing to remember here is that every writer will have her own math. What the hell do I mean by that? If you're a minimalist, like Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, maybe you're only hoping that your reader's gonna retain two pieces of information on a scene by scene basis. You have two bits of information that's all they have to remember. To move on to the next moment. If you're a Maximalist, like our old pal, David Foster Wallace. Rick Moody. Maybe it's 30 pieces of information. And, again, there's no right answer here. It really just depends on the sort of writer that you're trying to evolve into. You know, does that make sense, what I'm saying here? I don't ever want it to feel prescriptive. I want it to feel as though you're trying to find your space on kind of the minimalism to maximalism spectrum. The big risk, if you're trying to have your reader remember 30 pieces of information, that she's probably gonna miss 10 of them. David Foster Wallace would say, that's not my problem. That's her problem. You know? Raymond Carver, on the other side of it says, you know, nope, I work in these miniature models with simple choreography, but in the midst of that simple choreography, the subtext is absolutely bold and electric and beautiful. So it isn't about, ooh, look at all these things I can throw at them. It's about curating it in the right way that they're only having to have two or three pieces of information, and then we move on. So, again, there's no right answer here. I just want you to start thinking about the kind of writer you want to be. 'Cause we all, in this room, probably want to be a little bit different writers. I'm such a nerd that every New Year's Day, I write an aesthetic manifesto. How nerdy is that? It's pretty nerdy, right? And what I'm doing, is I'm trying to say, like, this is how I wanna communicate with my reader this year. These are my preoccupations right now. These are things I'm chewing on, these are the things that interest me. And I've done it since my mid-20s. I'm 40 now. It's interesting to kind of look back on, and be like, god, the thing that interests me on the page when I was 27 doesn't interest me at all anymore. Or 31 or 38 or all these sorts of things you can sort of, like, watch the evolution of what kind of preoccupies you on a daily basis. But if you have some free time this week, and the prose isn't flowing smoothly, write a little manifesto. Just answer the question, what are you trying to get good at? We're all trying to tell a compelling story, but how are you trying to tell a compelling story? Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a beautiful writer. James Baldwin was a beautiful writer. And they were both trying to tell a compelling story, and they went about it in vastly different ways. And neither is right or wrong, obviously, but they knew who they were. And you can never kind of start that process or that interrogation early enough, right? To be thinking about why you want to talk about these things. Aesthetically, how are you trying to get this across to your audience. What's the tone? What's gonna be the voice? What will be, sort of, the dominant passion that you're gonna try to unpack? In this particular narrative. And all of these things work together, right? How you answer your aesthetic manifesto will then determine or will at least help you determine how you're gonna be filling up your water balloons. Are you gonna be more on the maximal side, are you gonna be more on the minimalist side. My advice is always to try not to be too much of, like, I'm maximalist person. Like, be a chameleon. Like, do what the writing requires of you. Certain chapters, certain points of view, certain characters will require you to be a maximalist. And certain consciousnesses, certain points of view will require you to be a minimalist. I think the best writers are able to disappear inside the concerns and the preoccupations of their characters. Be some sort of literary chameleon, in which they're driving all of these determinations. And we're just saying, I think this would be the best way to tell your story. I'm trying to do right by you. I've decided to spend three years of my life writing a book about you. I'm gonna try to do it the best way that I can, and that's always gonna start with listening. It's always gonna start by listening to what that particular character is whispering in your ear as you continue to generate more material and more material. The other thing I've noticed in my own process is that if I look at a narrative the same way for too long, I stop seeing its flaws. So say there's six scenes that, say, I'm putting together. Scene one, scene four, scene six. And if I edit it in that order for too long, I stop hearing things. So as I get deeper into my revision process, I do some disjunctive editing. In which, you're like, what does that word mean? Instead of going, scene one, scene two, scene three, scene four, scene five, scene six, I'll have a day where I do, scene three, scene one, scene five. And if I'm editing out of sequence that way, I can't be thinking about causality, and I can't be thinking about the adjacent material. I'm just analyzing that one scene. Is it accomplishing what it has set out to accomplish? And this is when value assignments become huge assets for us. It's six pages right now, but the last scene was six pages. I'm worried that my reader would be slaking for a little variance here. I'm gonna tweak this one a little bit. I'm gonna make it a little bit longer. I think there's a window. There's a missed opportunity here, and I want to expand this moment. So the disjunctive editing, or editing out of sequence, really helps me to see things that start to evade my filter. And sometimes it's just as simple as, changing the margins, or changing the font, or changing the pitch, just so the words aren't existing in the same, exact portion of the page. If it's in Courier, put it in Garamond If it's in 12, put it in 14. If it's double spaced, make it single spaced. Anything you can do to make the material seem pristine. To seem uninvestigated, to seem something that you haven't even dove into yet. That's what we're trying to accomplish. To keep it fresh for you. And at a certain point, stories need to be oral. You have to read your pieces out loud. By the time a novel of mine is published, and this is not an exaggeration, you can ask my, pulling her hair out wife, I have probably read a novel out loud at least 100 times. Is that a compulsive? Yes. And I'm not saying you have to go to that extreme. But hearing it out loud, you will catch things that are getting by your radar. Think about characters have a certain time signature. You know? This character is sort of going in four, four. We're this, we're this, then all of a sudden, the next sentence is like. And we're like, whoa, we skipped a beat here. We changed time signatures. I need to tune this sentence so it stays true to the musicality of this particular player. This is how she sounds if she needs to sound that way from the beginning of the story to the ending of the story. You know, and then, Stephen King's old rule that, like, any book can be 10% shorter than it is right now. That's something that I always do when I'm getting, when I'm just about to send my book in to my agent or editor. I'll do that 10% rule. So if it's 300 pages, I'll cut out 30 pages. And it's usually never large swaths of material. Like, I would be so late in the process that I'm not gonna suddenly say, chapter 11, forget it. It's pulling a paragraph here, three lines here, four lines here, half a page here. And all of a sudden, it accrues to 30 pages along the way. But I'll tell you that editors rarely, maybe, like, one out of a thousand would say, can you make this book longer? Like, what they're always interested in is, like, distilling. Getting down to the essence. Saying it in as few words as possible. You know, unless you're the disciple of Wallace. Unless you're gonna be a maximalist, and then you would follow different advice, and you would follow different principles. And we wanna kind of get it as far as we can on our own. But eventually, you're gonna need to invite some other people in. Trusted readers. If I was in your position, I would try to be exchanging pages with other writers. 'Cause writers read differently than just readers do. We read for what's under the hood. We read for like, hey, I saw you do this thing on page 37, why are you using that technique? And then the reader would never say something like that. So if you know other writers, you just met four other writers today, you know? If you wanna exchange e-mails, exchange e-mails, and, you know, keep the ball rolling. Anything we can do to foster camaraderie is a great asset for us. They're gonna read them. They're gonna have opinions. They're gonna share these opinions with you. Now, how the hell do we tell the difference between helpful criticism and unhelpful criticism? There's no easy answer there. You know, I think a lot of it is being self-aware enough to know what you're trying to accomplish in this story. And saying to yourself, I don't think what you're- this piece of constructive criticism lines up with the story I'm writing. And I'm gonna put it aside. But you also don't wanna wrap yourself up in some sort of literary bulletproof vest and not listen. Oh, you just don't get me. Oh, you just don't get me. Oh, you just don't get me. Well, if enough people just don't get you, like, maybe the story's bad. You know, I'll tell you a story from my last novel. It's called All This Life. And I sent it in to my editor, and he said, I really like the plot, and I like the characters, and I like the emotional trajectory, and I said, great! This is an unbelievable phone call. And he said, but. I said, uh oh. And he said, your tone's wrong, and I want you to rewrite it from scratch. So I sit with that for a minute, and I say to myself, is he wrong? Or do I just not want to do the work? 'Cause, like, that's a terrible thing to do. You can't copy and paste for tone. Like, a tonal rewrite means you open a fresh document, and you just tell the whole story from scratch. So for two days, I walked around complaining. What's his problem? He's wrong, and then, you know, I fell into a deep depression for a couple days. Just like, ate takeout food and felt sad for myself. And then, eventually, I said, it's important that my loyalty is not to my own hubris. It's important that my loyalty is to the book. So I'm not saying I'm going to do it his way, but I'm going to try a couple pages. So I got a cabin in Joshua Tree, drove down there, and I said to myself, I'm just gonna do the first 50 pages Dan's way. Just to get him off my back. Just to say I tried it, and I'm right, you're wrong, ha ha. And I probably wrote four pages and was just like, son of a bitch. He's right. I gotta do this. So between August and December of that year, I opened up a separate document, and I just retold the whole book. And it was crazy, and it was gruesome. It was glacial. But it made the book so much better. So my point is, don't be too dismissive of other people's constructive criticism. Don't just take it all in. But in the name of wanting to write the best book that you possibly can, be open to suggestions. Maybe it is a bad idea, and you should disregard it. But if I didn't listen to Dan, I would have published a version of that book way, way worse than the book that we built together and published last summer. I mean, he made that book so much better. And a part of me wanted to be petulant about it. I wanted to be like, this isn't my first rodeo. This is my fifth book. Who do you think you are? But what would that have accomplished? Again, I had my draft saved. No one was gonna mess that up. I was just gonna get in there and try a couple pages his way. And I'm so thankful that I listened. Does that make sense, what I'm saying? So we're not just trying to say, I'll do everything you say. 'Cause then, you're gonna lose your identity. You're gonna dilute the potency of the product. But we also wanna listen for when good suggestions come in. And sometimes good suggestions require the most work. But at the end of the day, I'm so glad that I took the extra five months and did that really rigorous rewrite. 'Cause the novel, which is called, All This Life turned out so much better than it would have if I had just been like, this little brat. You know, this little diva about it. Don't you know who I am? He did. Know who I was, and he didn't care. And I thank God everyday that he challenged me. You know, that he said, like, you're capable of doing a better job than this. You're capable of doing a better job than this. So I'd like to do two revision exercises. One on compression and one on expansion. So you start to just hone that editorial eye to say, maybe this moment should be shrunk, and maybe this other moment should be blown up a little bit. So the first way we're gonna go is give it the opportunity to grow. So look back at any of the seven exercises that you've done today. Excuse me. Look back at the seven exercises that you've done today and find a paragraph that you think has the potential to blossom if it had more real estate allocated to it. And take that one paragraph, and try to blow it up into two pages. You know, we might not, you might not get to two pages because you're only gonna do this for six or eight minutes. But do your best to get it to that quantity, and see if there are, in fact, some missed opportunities there or ways to enrich this sequence for your audience to interact with. Does that make sense, what we're doing here? All right, happy writing. Or happy editing. We will talk about both of these exercises at the end of doing the next component. So we've flexed that muscle of expansion. We've seen what it's like to identify that a paragraph hasn't been capitalized on. There were some missed opportunities in our initial execution. And we sought to rectify that by blowing it up and assigning a higher value assignment for that particular portion of the story. And now, we're gonna do the exact opposite.