Sunday, June 10, 2007

Beach Talk: First Drafts and Revisions

Spread your blanket under the nearest palm tree, make sure you've got plenty of sunscreen, and join us for a chat on the beach with Carrie Jones, whose first novel, Tips on Having A Gay Ex-Boyfriend (Flux-Llewellyn), was released last month.

Carrie is from Maine, and she's managing to stay cool beneath Florida's tropical sun at the moment with her favorite food... a Fudgsicle... while worrying (in typical Carrie fashion) if her bathing suit looks ok. (If you read her blog, which I do regularly, you know that Carrie worries a lot... and I mean a lot... about stuff like bathing suits and making good first impressions.)

After sharing her thoughts for our chat, Carrie even worried that she had simply babbled, which struck me as just amazing, because, well, nothing could be further from the truth. She is so generous (as you'll see), and I think you'll find her insights into the drafting and revision process enormously helpful. (If you do enjoy her thoughts, please let her know... just to reassure her that you found her thoughts worthwhile.)

Most likely, Carrie was this generous and kind person long before studying in Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children's program, where writers, regardless of age or awards, share what they've learned about writing with other writers to help bring more stories into the world.

If you happen to stop in Montpelier, VT on a Sunday morning and climb the hill to the Vermont College campus when a residency is in session, you'll likely find a handful of writers gathered in Noble Hall listening to a guest author share insights into his or her writing habits.

There's a kind of magic in such events--a little like entering a room while a magician's divulging his or her secrets--and Carrie, who recalls those magical mornings from her days as a student at VC, was kind enough to take a break from her work in Maine, where the roads are still muddy and the sky still winter gray, to recreate some of that magic for us at Wordswimmer.

So, take another sip of lemonade (or another bite of your Fudgsicle), dip your feet in the warm sand, and join us.

Wordswimmer: How do you begin drafting a story? What sort of things are you looking for... to keep going? How do you know when to discard a draft and move on to something different (or to something that the draft, unsuccessful as it may be, points toward)? And how do you sustain the momentum of a draft... once you're into it?

Carrie Jones: I just start writing. That’s it. I wish I had some amazing secret. Usually, I hear a sentence or see an image, and then – bing! – off I go.

Things that have inspired me to start drafting include:
1) A country music video image that I saw while running on the treadmill and switching channels;

2) An old love note from my high school boyfriend;

3) A random sentence that kept repeating itself in my head while I was taking a shower;

4) A hate crime.
I feel like I should apologize for the randomness of my drafting process, but Andre Gide wrote in Journals, “The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reasons write.”

I am an improviser when I write. So I don’t look for things to keep going. I just keep going.

When I was pursuing my MFA at Vermont College, I watched a lot of amazingly talented writers become stuck. They would fixate on a sentence, on a word. They would stress about words not yet written as well as words that already met the page. They would hurl their laptops out of windows, hide their crafts books, cry. A lot of port was passed around during our residencies. There was a reason why.

I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I began to think of drafting as improvisation. This was incredibly freeing.

In her book, Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson writes: “Improvisation has nothing to do with wit, glibness or comic ability. A good improviser is someone who is awake, not entirely self-focused, and moved by a desire to do something useful and give something back and who acts on this impulse.”

Improvisers focus on saying “Yes.” In improv, when two characters are doing a scene, both characters have to be positive, to say yes to each other's suggestions. If one guy stands up there and says, "Let's go party." And then the other guy says, "No way." Well... the scene falls on its face and everyone goes home saying they hate improv and the improvers think they suck and everything is just BAD, BAD, BAD.

Writing can be like this, too.

When our characters want to take us to new, unexpected places in the plot, we just have to go with them. If we don't, our story stagnates. We have to be willing to say "yes," to take risks with our characters and our plots and our language.

According to Madson, "Saying 'yes' is an act of courage and optimism; it allows you to share control. It is a way to make your partner happy. Yes expands your world."

That is my terribly long-winded way of explaining that I don’t usually abandon drafts. I say yes to them. I just keep writing.

When I write young adult fiction, I tend to do the Alison McGhee method of writing. What does that mean? It means I just write.

I write the scenes that inspire me. Sometimes they are out of order. Sometimes they aren’t. When I write this way, without worrying about what comes next, it’s quite fun, and I never have issues about writing a certain amount every day. However, it is always terribly skeletal. The story is just the barest of bones. I like that. It makes revising so much more fun.

However, with middle-grade fiction, I am a plodding-along-following-the-story-arch type of writer.

Wordswimmer: Why the different approach for middle-grade fiction?

Carrie Jones: I think I approach middle-grade fiction less spontaneously because it's a harder genre for me. It is much more difficult for me to write in the third-person point-of-view, and I think that there is an authorial tone, a conviction, that is implicit in that point-of-view that makes me shift gears, slow down, and really make sure that the authorial voice is worthy of that kind of power.

Wordswimmer: Back to drafting...

Carrie Jones: I have a difficult time giving up on a draft. I tend to write the entire thing out instead of giving up at page 50 or 80. I also work on multiple pieces at a time. So, if I’m stuck at page 230, I can skip on over to a picture book revision.

It’s some ridiculous Yankee work ethic.

I think I’m so afraid of being unable to finish something that I go as fast as I can towards the finish line. I’m afraid that if I stop, I’ll never start again. I just keep saying yes.

You can go with the swimming metaphor here if you’d like. And the truth is, that’s how I am about swimming (I am not a great swimmer) or kayaking (I am a much, much better kayaker). If I see the goal, I just chug towards it full-steam, even if my arms ache and I’m dehydrated and I’m dizzy... because I don’t actually trust myself to start again if I stop.

It’s pathetic really.

In writing, this means that I write every work day, that I make lists of writing goals for the month and page goals for the day. I keep saying ‘yes.’

Wordswimmer: Once you've got a draft... how do you go about revising it? Do you jump right in or do you let it sit a while? (Do you revise as you produce the draft?) Again, what are you looking for...and how do you sustain yourself over days when it might seem like you've got nothing more than a jumble of words and unconnected scenes?

Carrie Jones: I love revising. I think it’s a great unveiling of the text and it’s hard for me to wait before I jump back into things again. Fortunately, I have a large cache of duct tape and I wrap it around my fingers to keep from typing.

Basically, for the first revision, I wait at least a week before I look at things again. This is hard but necessary. I usually wait a month for the next revision. This is almost always a deeper, more structural revision. The first revision usually consists of me asking questions such as:
1. Why did I make this character obsessed with duct tape? Should I pump it up more?

2. Oh, man, how DO I make this character based on an evil president lovable?

3. Why do I write anyway?
I also revise as I produce for young adults.

Wordswimmer: But not for other types of writing?

Carrie Jones: It sounds strange, but it's almost as if I'm accessing different parts of my brain for different genres. Writing non-fiction feels quite different to me than when I write YA. It's much more like fitting pieces of a puzzle together as I write the first draft, before I even put the words down. In YA, I logic things out as I read, developing layers as I revise and write almost simultaneously. With middle grade, I seem to need to world-build more. I write and then revise. I'm not sure I can make sense of it. That's not terribly helpful, is it?

Wordswimmer: Actually, it's very helpful to learn about the demands and challenges posed by different genres. Back to revision, though...

Carrie Jones: Revision is usually a happy time for me because I think of it as play time. I think Kafka said, “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” That may not be a perfect quote. I apologize.

For me, that quote resonates when I think of drafting. It’s then that I feel the solitude of empty pages waiting for words and ideas and action and character. However, once I start revising, I don’t feel alone. I have already been into the abyss and found some interesting things there. My diving gear worked. I’ve resurfaced and I’m still breathing.

Revising is a time to explore those things I found beneath the surface. It’s a time to layer them, play with them. I love it, love it, love it.

Wordswimmer: Thanks so much, Carrie... for sharing your thoughts and love of writing with us.

For more information about Carrie Jones and her work, visit:

Other interviews with Carrie appear at:

For information on Andre Gide's Journals, visit:

To learn more about
Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson, check out:

And for anyone craving a Fudgsicle, this site's for you:

1 comment:

Jack said...

Hey Bruce, nice to revisit Vermont College and the creative times we spent there, and especially nice to visit this week with Carrie. I read her blog now and then, and enjoy her intensity and verve. It comes across here in her discussions on writing YA and MG fiction. Thanks for sharing with us, Carrie.