Monday, August 1, 2011

How to Handle an Epiphany

Is it any wonder that my last post was about our new twin foster kids, and that I haven't blogged once since then? Just when I thought my life had reached maximum craziness....

But they're probably (almost definitely not) asleep in the next room, so I have a free moment to ask a question:

When you're in the middle of your first draft, and an epiphany changes the first half of your book, do you revise the beginning before you go on? Or do you prefer to avoid losing momentum?

This is an especially hard question if you, like me, are a NaNoWriMo-er. Even in months that aren't November, my technique has always been to plan, make notes, and play with index cards, but when the writing starts, it's sixteen hundred words per day, no stopping, no snacking, no sleeping.

BUT that always gives me a jumbled mess of a first draft, and that's why my revision process often takes eleven times as long as my first draft time (that's an actual estimate, not a random number).

BUT...that's not necessarily a bad thing. Once I have the characters detailed and the plot written out in rough draft form, I really feel like I can get out my chisel and glitter pen and get to work making it a real story.

So that's why I'm here with the question, even though I haven't had a chance to write at all today or do anything much besides trying to prevent foster kid #7 from licking my arm--because I happened to be standing where a great idea landed this week, and I need to know what to do with it.

How do you handle an epiphany?


  1. Somewhere along the way, I got some advice to just keep plowing forward. Need to change something in the first half? That's what rewrites are for. Just keep going.

    And after producing an unreadable first draft with a half dozen "plot twists" of that nature, I've decided that was terrible advice. :)

  2. I think that there are two types of writers, whether of fiction or nonfiction. One group soldiers on and produces the requisite number of words with little or no looking back through the whole slog of the rough draft. They complete their draft on the forecasted day and begin the work of revision right on schedule. (This is how most movies are made today, so I hear. They are filmed the way sports events are televised--with lots of cameras covering what's done from many angles and distances all at once, which means that the editing phrase takes months and months because it starts with so much raw footage. Faster film stocks and digital editing make this method standard.)

    Other writers won't release a fixed amount of writing (a sentence, a paragraph, a day's labor) if they see specific things about it that need improving, which makes epiphanies invitations to restructure. They figure why do later what I know needs to be done and could be done now while fresh in my mind? So the first draft takes longer for them, but it is in a more recognizable shape when it is done, a shape closer to completion. (This is the way movies used to be made by many, such as Hitchcock, from pre-drawn sketches of each shot, called storyboards. When the filming was completed, editing the film was simple--the footage was fitted together in jigsaw-puzzle fashion. It would only fit the one, desired way.)

    It's almost as if the method of writing chooses the writer. People who start getting impatient as they try to trim a wordy sentence from today's output and who start to think that they may never finish at all if they keep pulling at the threads of their sentences are type one people, I guess. But if they do this revision and are thinking that the time is raising their writing to a higher professional level and that this daily getting greasy by working under the hood will keep the book's engine running well for the duration of the whole trip, then they are a type two person.

    Getting an epiphany is a bigger, more dramatic way of calling attention to these two personality types. Some would see the epiphany as the result of getting their brains into their material as deeply as they had. They would see doing a partial draft that had to be mostly junked as worthwhile since it led to the epiphany, and the epiphany can revitalize the book. That was the goal of starting the draft, anyway--getting a good epiphany that would make the whole book exceptional. They would restructure. Others would see the epiphany as too much of an interruption from an already good design and would table it for after the draft is done when it could be reconsidered and used to full effect.

    There are comforts and cruelties with both approaches. The good thing about responding to the epiphany is the feeling that the writing is moving to a higher, better level and that the epiphany has been earned through hard daily labors. The danger of following the epiphany is that no draft may ever really be finished since the nature of thinking and writing brings new insights continually to the mind during composition. The comfort of ignoring the epiphany is progress--more words on the page. The danger is that the writer is leaving no room for spontaneity and that the finished product will be too by-the-numbers, too canned. A writer needs to find out which kind of person they are and work out a method for maximizing the comforts and steering clear of the cruelties.

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