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[process] The New Model Process

Editor’s note: Despite earlier assertions, wit and erudition are briefly in evidence due to a long layover in Denver, and me having just finished working on a short story, and stalling before working on another.

I have been asked by a couple of folks to expand on my passing references to the New Model Process. As I explained recently in this post:

Both and the mighty Ray Vukcevich told me years ago that there was no such thing as revising, there was just more writing. I think maybe I finally understand them.

It’s a weird feeling, like suddenly noticing the sky is blue. So many people have slapped me upside the head with this over the years, from to Gavin Grant to I don’t know who else. It finally penetrated.

The backstory here is that I spent a week at Rio Hondo last June. This was in the company of a number of fine writers, including Karen Joy Fowler and Maureen McHugh. Karen and Maureen cornered me one night, along with Leslie What and Eileen Gunn, and gave me a kindler, gentler what-for about me being a lazy writer. (I’m loosely interpreting here the gist of a sincere and challenging conversation that went on at great length.) We talked about my career goals, my writing process, and specifically how I approached the text.

In effect, since I started selling professionally I’ve always been good at certain aspects of craft, such as lyrical prose and descriptive writing. This has permitted me to get away with a certain laziness of structure and characterization, since when I’m firing on all cylinders I can generally wrap things in teh shiny. I’ve been a good writer for a long time, but I’ve also been very much standing in my own way.

Then there’s my long-held opinions about the first draft process, what calls “the race.” I’ve always written what are sometimes called “vomit drafts”, meaning, a draft which emerges in one swift, dense passage without a pause and lands on the page, waiting for someone to come along and clean it up. In my case, my vomit drafts are startlingly clean. Early in my career, I discovered that if I messed with them very much, I broke them. Specifically, I broke the voice of the story — voice has always been part of what sells for me. Revision has never been a special favorite activity of mine at the best of times, and I came to be suspicious of it as being just as likely to detract from my process as enhance it.

A lot of people have been telling me for ages that I’m mistaken about this. has braced me at length, as have and many other folks. What it boils down to at this level is that I’ve long since developed enough craft and skill to cope effectively with revision, but I’ve been in an old pattern of thought about it.

I’ve built my career, and achieved a fairly high level of recognition, on stories written very quickly and revised with a very light hand. The problem is, I won’t get better doing that.

For whatever reason, I was ready to listen to Karen and Maureen about this that day in New Mexico. Like I said before, it’s like waking up and discovering the sky is blue. I’m not making excuses for my work, or my classic process. I’m very proud of my career, my stories, my books. It’s just that I want to get better, maybe have a shot at being great some day.

Here’s what the New Model Process boils down to for me.

  • Write first drafts more slowly. This cuts my raw throughput almost in half, though I’m still quite fast by most rational standards. What I do with the slowdown is watch the words and the sentences far more carefully. Where I used to deliberately avoid revision or correction while drafting, with the exception of gross typos, I’m trying to be a lot more thoughtful about what’s going on in the word layer, the sentence layer, the paragraph layer, the page and scene as a whole
  • Stronger focus on revision. Make a line editing pass. Then make a characterization pass. Then make a plot logic pass. Then make a prose style pass. Look it over carefully, still taking great pains not to sand off the voicey edges. I think this is possible for me now in a way that it wasn’t five years ago because I have so much better a sense of craft and a much more finely tuned control. I think of this not as sanding down the draft — how I used to view revision, and why I had so much trouble with it — and more like lacquering a fine piece of wood. I’m adding finish, color and depth, while preserving the grain and character of what lies beneath.

I’m assuming this seems painfully obvious to most of you working writers. For me, it’s a whole new discovery. I’ve written and completed exactly two stories this way — “Witness to the Fall” (which will be out in a magical crime anthology from Daw next year) and “America, Such as She Is” (which is under consideration right now). I used these principles on the final working pass at Escapement, which probably benefited the book considerably.

The fact that I keep learning, sometimes in such a big way, is a source of pleasure to me. It means I aten’t dead yet.

Writing the next novel should be a real eye-opener.

ETA 1: The obvious metaphor here, which I danced close by several times without explicating, is that my classic process treated revision like sandpaper, while the New Model Process treats revision like lacquer.

ETA 2: My historical relationship to revision goes a long way toward explaining why some of my best work has come from collaboration. The two stories I’ve had in the Dozois-edited Year’s Best Science Fiction were both co-authored with , while and I have a joint piece in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction.

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