Sunday, May 22, 2011

And let yourself let go

Writing a novel is hard. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever done so (or if you have, and this is a surprise to you, please do not tell me of the ease with which your prose lept upon the page. My poor, fragile ego will not stand it.). I like a good challenge, me, so I like to throw additional difficulties into the process.

I'm currently - if you are a very generous person - revising. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird talks about the need to write a shitty first draft. Let me tell you: I got that one right. Basically, I threw tens of thousands of words at a notebook and checked to see what would stick. Characters changed their names, their professions, died, and resurrected. (In at least one instance, I didn't notice that I'd brought someone back from the dead until I reread the draft.) And those aren't even the biggest changes I'm making. 

Because I write by my headlights, because I believe that outlines are Satan's traps for the unwary, I don't know what is going to happen in the book until I need it to happen. And I'm fine with that generally, because plot is the last thing I care about in a book. What happens? Meh. But to whom does it happen? and what does it mean that it did? Those, those things I care about.

For me, the "to whom does it happen?" is the question that begins the book. I need a character I care enough about to begin writing. "What does it mean that it did?"  - the thematic question - is the question that organizes the book, that is the reason why I am writing it. Unfortunately, I sometimes (as in this case) need to get to the end of a draft and have the general idea of what happened, before I can find the thematic and emotional through lines that carry the story. 

The problem is, without that thematic through line, without some idea of why I am writing this book, what the larger purpose of the story is (and yes, I know that sounds like such an English professory sort of thing to say, but I am an English professor, and one who knows what kind of story she wants to read, and what kind of a story she wants to write) it is very easy for me to stop writing. It's easy to feel like the book isn't working. Because it isn't, not yet. I'm writing without having all the pieces.

For me, right now, that's the hardest part - to keep writing, without all the pieces. To trust myself enough to know that I am leaving a breadcrumb trail and that the ravens won't eat all of them before I find my way back. To let the shitty first draft be a map - one that marks the edge of the world, and says "Here there be dragons" but has compass rose and key all the same.


  1. Exactly. You have to know what it's about, or find out what it's about. And once you know, that's your map though the second draft.

    And what it's about has NOTHING to do with what happens.

  2. Kat, these are true things. You write it to figure it out. And then, you know. You start with an idea and build on it.

    The shitty first drafts are soul-twitchingly (that's not a real word, but it should be) awful. I have several I'd like to burn, but from each one, I've learned something.

    And BIRD BY BIRD is a favorite of mine. For what it's worth, I know that you can kick the hell out of this manuscript. As for resurrecting a character, it worked for Buffy. *grin* ~Ali

    I'm rewriting and revising right now. It is a circle in hell that Dante forgot. But by the end of it, the story will be better. Things will work better.

  3. Oh, the shitty first draft is essential. And I'll raise you the possibility of shitty second drafts, too. That's how many it took me to understand what was actually going on in my novel.

    Also, I've been killing and resurrecting my main characters more times than I can count! I'm still not sure what the body count will be at the end... ;)

  4. I am writing my first no-outline novel in a while, and it is a whole different kettle of fish for me. I feel like I'm walking through a wild forest full of bears eager to eat me. Reading your post makes me look ahead to the editing process and wish I'd bought a sword & some armor. And a surveying team. ;)

  5. Always interesting to read/ think about the writing process.

    I think we can all agree that first (second, third...fourth...) drafts can be shitty indeed, but I have to say that, so far, there is nothing in writing I enjoy quite as much as writing that first draft. It's just pure fun to produce all that stuff. Once the "I know what it is about" stage is reached, writing changes into a kind of focused, intense, tense, draining activity (a bit like open heart surgery, I imagine - not the moment to break out the vuvuzela, or to grow tentacles). But the shitty first drafts are always fun...Now, if they were a bit less shitty...

    About outlines, though...I enjoy them. They can be useful sketches, I find. "Could the book play out this way? Or this way? What about if we put the ending first?" I sort of need to see it in front of me in order to take it seriously. Outlines never last, though. One day, I want to keep track of all the outlines that ever existed for each of my novels. Now that will be a cringe-fest...!

  6. Monica - for the first book, there were two REALLY IMPORTANT things I needed to know about one of my characters. It took, of course, two different drafts to figure those things out. The third draft was pretty decent, though.

    Steffi - I think you and I have mirror opposite writing processes (at least for now - if I ever try an outline, I know who I'm going to talk to!).For me, the first draft is agony, but the revision, when I can feel the pieces come together in my head, that's the fun.

    It is somewhat reassuring to get the reminder, through seeing what someone else does, that there is no right way to write, other than whatever works for that book at that time.

    Neil - my response is turning into a entire other entry in my head. So for now, thanks.