01 Jun

Revision Pyramid

Posted in Craft, Process, Psychology, Tips, Writing

Last week Lady Glamis at The Literary Lab raised an interesting question about critique and how many times we writers are conditioned to look only for the negative.

In response to this thread, I started pondering how we critique not just other writers’ work but our own.  Just as I am a believer in focusing first on big picture issues when I read pieces from other writers, I find that approach also works best when revising my own work.

As a former student of psychology, I’m reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where humans will fill their most basic needs first (food, water, shelter) before trying to fill needs that fall higher in the pyramid (love, companionship, success).  My own revision system falls into a similar pyramid shape:

Character: Whose story is it?  This is the most basic part of the book.  If you don’t have a compelling character, then the rest of the pyramid will fall apart.  (Notice I say “compelling” character and not “sympathetic” or “likable,” but that is a topic for another post.)

Plot/Story: What story are you going to tell?  Now that you have a character in place, the character needs to want something and that want will drive the story.  Things need to happen to get in the way of that want.  There needs to be conflict.

Structure, POV and Voice: How are you going to tell this story?  These are the main choices you make when you decide how to tell the story.  The voice of the narrator ties in directly with point of view and the structure you choose for the story.

Description and Dialogue: Decisions made at this level are less about “big picture” and are smaller in scale.  At the same time, though, they are not as nitty-gritty as the revisions at the top of the pyramid.  Description and dialogue also tie in closely with character development and elements of story so this is why they are in the middle of the pyramid, serving as a bridge between the macro decisions at the bottom and micro decisions at the top.  Description and dialogue also clue in the reader to Where and When the story is taking place.

Theme: This is all about the Why.  Why are you telling this story?  Why do we want to read it?  Usually these answers only come together once you’ve written a draft, maybe two, which is why theme falls at the top of the pyramid.  Very rarely do stories start with a theme and grow from there.

Language:  At the very top we have the micro decisions.  Word choice.  Grammar.  Spelling.  Small stuff.  Just because the writing might not be super-smooth on the language level doesn’t mean it can’t shine at the character or plot levels.  What I try to stress to writers is that the bottom of the pyramid is the hard part.  If you nail that, you’ll have done the hard work.  Language is just a matter of using spell check and keeping a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style on your desk.  And getting a trusted friend to proofread when you’re through.

Basically, revision all comes down to this:

Don’t sweat the small stuff until you’ve dealt with the big stuff.


20 May

Schedules of Reinforcement and the Query Process

Posted in Psychology, Writing

Once upon a time, a behavioral scientist called B. F. Skinner discovered that if you rewarded rats with a cookie every time they pressed a button, the rats were more likely to repeat said behavior.  The same is true for people.  Give a kid a cookie when the kid asks for one and chances are, she’ll ask for another.  And another.

Where things get dicey is that if you mess with how frequently the reward is given, you can actually increase the reward-getting behavior substantially.   It comes down to what researchers call a Variable Ratio (VR) Schedule.  This is the most treacherous schedule of reinforcement because reward is given after a random number of responses (red line on the graph).  In other words, give a kid a cookie, but only after she asks for it a certain number of times.  Then keep changing that number on her.  Chances are, she’ll ask even more often than if you just gave her the cookie when she asked in the first place.

What does this have to do with the query process, you ask?  Some might argue that the query process is a variable ratio schedule.  This carrot of publication success is dangled in front of us and as writers we have no way of knowing which query or which submission will be “the one.”  We never know when we’re going to get a “yes” so we all keep sending out more queries and more submissions, inundating the market, thus making the reward schedule even more random.

Personally, I think that’s a rather glum way of looking at things.  To me, writing is more than just a behavior motivated by the reward of publication.  Rather, it’s a quiet act of persistence driven by the knowledge that if I do what needs to be done, something good will come of it.  Maybe it won’t be the thing I wanted or when I wanted, but if I show up at the page good things can happen.

What about you?  How do you view the writing process?


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