Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sea Cave: some thoughts on the revision process

Firstly, many thanks to Julie for following this exercise and then bravely sending her two drafts in.


I gave a few reactions to Julie's first draft in the Comment box below the First Drafts post and, since she asked for some clues, suggested how she might go about revising it. So you might want to look at that too.

Working with First Drafts
As Julie points out, this is not so much a first draft as a collection of sensory responses to an idea or vision she had after reading my initial post.

So a workable first draft needs more than a collection of single notes to support it, otherwise it's likely to run into problems during the redrafting process.

Better to keep such running drafts in your head rather than putting them down on paper before they are properly 'formed'. These proto-drafts can be played with mentally whilst doing something slightly mechanical like driving long distances, walking, doing the washing-up, or making love (only kidding!), where your subconscious can work behind the scenes on finding the best shape for them - a shape which will eventually become your first draft.

Second Draft Behaviour
The second draft of Julie's poem is an excellent example of what happens when revision pulls in on itself - probably due to this lack of structure in the initial draft - and sucks the movement out of the poem, or shifts it 'away from epic narrative', as Julie says in her accompanying note.

Quite rightly searching for a structure for this poem, since one didn't exist in her first draft, Julie has imposed a structure on the poem which doesn't fit her original vision. For this, she has chosen a default structure, if you like, based on the tight metrics of a two-beat rhyming couplet.

The original draft was free and loose, and displayed such traditional traits only in its dying moments; a last minute shift, by the way, which is classic first draft behaviour, rather like a lifelong atheist suddenly professing a belief in God on his or her deathbed - just in case!

If that happened in my own work, my first instinct would be to mistrust an impulse which led me to start rhyming and formalising a previously free piece of writing. Julie has done the opposite - not necessarily the wrong thing, in every case - and jettisoned the free writing to concentrate on the more formal part of her first draft, seen emerging in the last few lines.

My instinct here would be to unpick the stitches by returning to the initial draft and beginning a second 'second' draft, i.e. putting the first 'second' aside, and reserving the right to return to it later. This third draft would probably shift to the opposite extreme, looking to expand rather than contract the poem.

Again, many thanks to Julie for allowing me to use her poem as a pincushion. Whether you agree or disagree, please feel free to add your own observations below.

Remember, it's never a good idea to believe someone's advice if it goes against your own instincts as a writer. It can go against your pride, your ego, even your sense of identity, but never your instincts.

This post has been about under-writing as much as anything else; see David Morley's blog for some well-expressed thoughts on the opposite problem of over-writing.


Julie said...

Jane, this hits the nail on the head. I agree in essence - I felt it was an exercise in going from one extreme to the other - hence the comment re recognizing the validity of all poems being drafts.

Helps to feel the boundaries before going for the half way house?

Julie said...


My grateful thanks for the thoughtful observation and advice. Have found this a fascinating exercise throughout.


Jane Holland said...

No need for thanks, Julie. I've not only enjoyed doing this, I've also found it useful for my own purposes.

I spent the better part of this afternoon going over some poems still-in-progress and applying the same ideas to them as I did to yours above. The results have been good so far - but today's excellent work often looks thin and shabby in the cruel light of tomorrow. So I won't be sending any of those poems out just yet, in case I suddenly realise I've made a terrible mistake in my attempts at redrafting.

That's probably none too comforting to hear but it's important to bear in mind that, during the revision process, black may turn out to be white in the end, and vice versa. Only time will tell you for certain which is which, and even then, opinions may vary!

There's a simple - but lengthy - way round that dilemma, of course. First, develop your instincts through extensive reading, then learn to trust them.