Monday, January 10, 2011

Ain't good enough for you

I used to think that books were written as they are read: first a title, then the opening words of the first chapter, and then on and on, until the end. That there were no corrections or alterations made, except for fixing typos, or perhaps removing an errant semicolon.

Truly. No exaggeration. This is what I believed.

It was, you see, the way I wrote. A research paper for school would be written the same way as an in-class essay: a brief to medium period of thinking, followed by the writing of the paper. I did not do multiple drafts. Until graduate school, I didn't need to. So I assumed that Real Writers, who were, obviously, by their virtue of being Real, much better than I was, wrote in the same way, just, you know, better. 

(I think, perhaps, I am not the only person who has ever held this assumption about Real Writers. Whenever I have taught a writing-intensive course, I have put Stephen King's On Writing on the syllabus. There is a section at the end where he shows part of his revision process. Reading this section tends to cause a wide-eyed, hair-clutching reaction of surprise that someone of King's stature is not perfect straight out of the box, and relief that do-overs are allowed.)

The problem with assuming that Real Writers did not commit word to page until the word was right and perfect meant that when I first tried my hand at writing fiction, I became absolutely certain I had no talent for it. I ran out of perfect very quickly, you see, and because I couldn't rekindle it, I assumed that I would never be a writer.

Accepting that my drafts are as imperfect as I am, and that I am still a Real Writer is the hardest thing for me. Paralyzingly hard, sometimes. There are things I can't do, even in draft zero. I cannot start from anywhere other than where I think the beginning is. I cannot leave bracketed scenes - you know the [awesome space battle HERE!] sort of place holders. I've gotten better at moving on from sketched in scenes as long as I know the emotional state of my characters. I can leave a sloppy sentence that is almost there. I've learned that sometimes, interesting is better for a story than perfect.


  1. There's nothing to make me "tsk" at myself like coming across all these optimistic notes while reading the first draft: "[insert relationship convo here]".

    As far as 'perfect' goes, I'm slowly coming to accept that stories are really these disgusting tentacly, zombified things...You think they're dead, i.e. irrevocably done and condemned to stay in one state...And then they start twitching again. Oh baby it hurts so good.

  2. Sweet fancy Moses, thank you. Honestly, I felt the same way when I started writing seriously (high school and college attempts don't count. That's my story, and I'm stickin' to it).

    I wrote academic papers the same way you do. I wanted to approach fiction that way, too. I rarely did any major editing on my school papers. I thought Real Writers practiced much the same.

    I was relieved when I found that wasn't the case, because when something didn't turn out perfect, it was okay. I could go back and FIX it. Or try to. For me, personally, I know that I need to get more comfortable with larger scale edits. My default is to tweak, but that isn't necessarily beneficial.

    I can't do brackets, either. If I get stuck on what to name a character, I have to stop. Oddly, if the name is wrong, then the character feels wrong.

    Your blog always reassures me. I end up feeling hopeful--and less like I'm doing everything backwards. Thanks for that. :-) ~Ali

  3. Steffi - your zombie analogy is extremely appropriate in the context of the current WIP. So many dead things, not the least of which are huge sections of prose.

    Ali - I'm glad you are reassured. When I started reading writers' blogs for ideas on how to write (rather than for just, I like this person, and so want to read everything she writes), the entries that were the most encouraging for me were the ones that talked about the things that went wrong. Not because I ever wanted anyone to have bad days at the office, but because they gave me hope that I could come back from mistakes and bad days, too.