Ann Lamott, in her writing guide, Bird by Bird, advises writers to move forward without editing until reaching the end of a “shitty first draft.” I’ve tried this approach and I’ve also written a chapter, taken it to my writer’s group, revised it, and then moved on to the next chapter. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. But whichever method is used, a warning is due.
I started my first novel in the mid-nineties. It arose out of a short story with a minor character demanding that his story be told. My story about Lum, a white intersex Appalachian woman had a character, Smiley, who was a Black peddler in the same community. So I took off with his story, initially calling it a novella. I noticed that writers often mislabel novels as novellas until they realize that there’s more story than they thought. I started a workshop run by a writer who is an excellent editor. We could turn in pages every week, and then we’d have a chance to read to the group every three to four weeks. My optimal plan was to give her pages one week, get back her comments the next week, and then revise based on her input. Then take it to the class and revise with their suggestions. That plan went along well until I got to the end. Then I started all over again. And then I workshopped the whole thing over again. And I joined another more casual writers group, so I was getting even more feedback. Other writers were also bringing their work back for their third or more read through.
I met an agent at the Atlanta Writers Conference who, after reading the whole novel, advised me that there was not enough connecting Lum and Smiley. She suggested either adding more association between them, or separating the novel into two. Lum’s story is about a spinster not having her own residence, but moving from one relative’s house to another as they need her for child care, housework, hog killing, etc. I decided Lum deserved her own story and I pulled her chapters out, only to find that I didn’t have enough for a full novel. I added new material; and, instead of taking new chapters back again and again, they got one pass only with the teacher and were seen once by the class and the other group.
I think workshop leaders do their writers a disservice by encouraging or just not discouraging three or more readings of the same material. Over-revising can take the freshness and energy out of a piece. Also, a lot of time can be spent revising chapters that may not end up in the finished book. And for every time it’s brought back, someone will find something that needs to be changed.
Libby Ware is the author of the award-winning novel LUM and co-author with Charlene Ball, under the pen name of Lily Charles, of Murder at the Estate Sale, to be published August 15, 2020.
* * *
|photo by Amy Gibbons |
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!