Defensive Writing

A few weeks ago I finished a major rewrite/revision - those words mean pretty much the same thing to me at this point - and I hope that'll be the last one for this book. (Oh, look, I already lied. I intend for there to be one more after my sister reads. But THAT is the last one. Hopefully.)

After I finished the rewrite, my husband read for me and gave me some very excellent feedback. I dubbed last week Overdrive Week because I was determined to apply all of his feedback in five days.


Usually my deadlines are optimistic, but I killed this last one. I was done by 11AM on Friday, at which point I looked around, trying to remember what people do when they're not revising books.

Now that I've caught you up, here's what I wanted to talk about: Defensive Writing. This is a term I made up last week when I was going through Derek's notes. Basically, there were a lot of points in my novel where I would over-explain or justify a situation in a way that disrupted the narrative. I didn't know I did that, but I know exactly why.

I love to read and discuss other people's books, and just like how everyone at a party gets drawn to the kitchen, book discussions are drawn toward the holes. The tropes. The missing character motives. The deus ex machina. The "Why didn't the character just do this? It would have been so much simpler" etc.

I look for these holes in books and I've been on Goodreads enough to know that everyone else does, too. And it's not because we're jerks, trying to tear each other's work apart. We're lovers of literature. We look for the weak points not because we want to find them, but because we don't. We want to search and think and discuss and come to the conclusion that This is a Great Book. For me, finding a single great book I can recommend to everyone is enough to justify reading a dozen books that are just meh and one or two that I donate because I can't stand the sight of them.

So the problem is not that readers look for holes in stories. The problem is that when I wrote the draft Derek critiqued, I had written it like a reader. I saw all the places where people might poke the plot with a stick to see if it collapsed and I added a few extra sentences to prop it up. There were a lot of sentences in that draft along the lines of,

MC knew this wouldn't work because A and this wouldn't work because B, which meant C was the only option.

Derek pointed out quite rightly that 90% of the time, such justifications for my choices are unnecessary and they come across as defensive.

I've spent the past few days thinking about how to avoid this pitfall in the future and here's what I've come up with: I'm not going to try to avoid it at all. I'm going to let myself trip into the pit because that's what drafts are for.

I don't ascribe to the idea that stories are like dinosaur skeletons waiting to be unearthed, but I do believe it's necessary to write a whole lot of crap before you realize what a story needs. For me, defensive writing is part of that crap, part of my process, and now that I know about it, I can make later drafts that much stronger.

That's all for now. Good day - or good morning, or good night...good afternoon?

What time zone are you in?

just kidding