Friday, August 03, 2007

S.T.A.R.

Have you ever looked at or listened to something that just seemed...off to you? Have you ever read a book or story or piece of story where you put it aside and think, "yanno, that just didn't work for me." Or a painting that seemed just a little cockeyed but you're not sure why? Or a song that just fell flat (I make no pardons for the puns)?

Being able to articulate what doesn't work is a skill unto itself. Being able to articulate why is an art form. Also known by the form of distinctive literary torture known as Revision.

Now I know some writers who don't revise. They've got their storytelling process down, and once they start writing, it's gold to them. They are few, and some are very popular bestselling authors that have hit the Times. Many are plotters--zealously outlining and altering and re-outlining until the minute they start writing--the revision is in the prework for them. Some of them are just that focused. I envy them.

I used to have flashes of that kind of focus, where I'd write something, know it was solid, and be proven right later on. But the older I get, the less those divine lightning strikes seem to be finding me. Actually, what I think happened is that the older I get, the more I realize I don't know, hence the pressing need to develop some seriously keen revisioning skills, especially when I'm trying to tell stories that are more complex.

Unfortunately, revising isn't one of those things that can be taught, so much as it's something that needs to be experienced. Sure, you can take courses and workshops on editing, where proper mechanics are applied to the technical elements of writing, and some of the basic, measurable rules of storytelling can be checked off against a list. But the real, deep, get-in-there-and-rip-it-apart kind of revision, where you treasure-hunt for themes, symbolism, parallelism, and sometimes social commentary, in the text, put it in when it's not there, and have to cover your tracks well.

Something that I have been making do with as I learn about my personal revision process is a STAR list. The acronym, I borrowed from my days as a consultant in an industry that saw a lot of ex-career military folk. As soon as we started drafting, we started our STAR list. The two went hand-in-hand. If you had a draft, you had a STAR.

I've been keeping a STAR list for my current WIP, and lamenting the fact that I have this great list and yet...the pathway for removing items from the list is woefully nebulous. The list itself, by its own nature, is also woefully nebulous. But still fairly reliable.

By now, you're wondering what STAR actually stands for. It's full of the simple, practical eloquence characterized by the unique industry whose reality is characterized best as the bastard love-child of Dilbert, Beetle Bailey, and the TV cast of MASH. The STAR list is a list of Shit That Ain't Right.

Having a STAR list is only the first step on the road to revision that will turn a good work or a good start into something strong. But it's an important step, and how much more important can you get when you have your own acronym?

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