Sunday, July 10, 2016

On Under-Writing VS. Over-Writing

You know what advice you get every time you start edits on your novel? It's CUT. Cut this. Cut that. Cut had. (Some of these are generally true, like seriously go through and cut every other that, you probably don't need them.) But for those of us who start with bones and work outward, this advice is more often than not--wrong.

In a world that seems full of advice for those that over-write, those that pound out 100K word-plus first drafts and then trim, squeeze and massage their books into a shape that makes the most sense, the under-writers are left feeling a bit out of place.

I didn't even know there was a word for the way I wrote until a week ago when a writer friend pounced on me and said, "I just read this article about the difference between under-writers and over-writers."

It was like a lightbulb went off. I understood why so much of the editing advice I'd seen just didn't jive with the way I wrote.

Because I am not an over-writer. I do not start with hundreds of thousands of words. My first drafts are short. Lean. Sparse. Like a desert spotted with small oasis of information. The advice, while good for those who do write that way, doesn't work for me.

I was left constantly thinking I was somehow doing it wrong. That my method of writing, the thing that worked for me, was wrong. Eventually I just stopped caring about that and found my own ways of working through the editing problems an under-writer faces with their manuscripts. I would go through my drafts, flagging scenes that needed development, and sure, there were generally some cuts made but when I write a second draft, for every 500 words I cut, I usually add in another 1500 or more.

One good example of this is the first draft I wrote of my most recent WIP, Bloodlines. That first draft was 40,000 words. Done. Dead. The new draft, with savage cuts, changes and alterations? 85,000 words. This is a pattern I've repeated with nearly every book I've ever written. Drastically short initial drafts that then fill in as work through the edits.

And it's not a wrong way to work, it's just a different way to work. For me, the idea of writing down hundreds of thousands of words, knowing that I'll be cutting half, seemed--odd. Not right. Because it wasn't right for me. My first drafts are bones. The skeleton the story stands on. Edits are the part where I start adding in meat and flesh (to continue this rather macabre comparison), painting in the finer details. For those of you out there that are like me, those of you who don't over-write, there's nothing wrong with working this way.

Yes, there will be things you cut. Yes, there will be things you change. But your end word count should be higher at the end of the draft than it was when you started, not lower.

Another example would be this book I wrote that, for the first time ever in a first draft, broke 100K words. I was shocked. Confused.

And then I realized, it's two books. Not one. TWO. I broke it apart, rewrote both drafts and was left with book one at 73K and the other at 84K. I believe one started at somewhere around 60K and the other around 40K. I added, I cut, I prodded, poked and finagled. But the massive cuts you generally see advised never happened.

Whatever way you write, if it works for you, keep doing it. And if you, like me, are an under-writer, you are not alone. You aren't writing the wrong way. You're just, different.

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