Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On the occasion of finishing a draft

One of the tags on this blog is "the words on the page are the only ones people can read." I don't have it as an affirmation for others. I have it as a reminder to myself.

I have a problematic relationship with perfection.

When asked, I say that I began writing five years ago, when I applied to Clarion. This is exactly true - my application portfolio was made up of the second and fourth short stories I ever wrote. (I wrote four, and picked the two best.) But I had tried a couple of times - once in college, and once just after law school - to write a novel. 

I don't have the pages anymore, or if I do, I haven't refound them, so I don't know how far I got. But both times, I stopped writing when I stopped feeling like I knew what happened next. You see, I thought that's how writers worked - they got a story in their head, and then they told it, beginning to end. If I couldn't do that, obviously, I wasn't a writer.

I know. I know. And maybe there are some writers who do work that way. And I am happy for them. But I was so convinced I had to be perfect the first time out, I let that get in my way. I let it paralyze me, and keep me from trying.

The hardest thing for me, once I did start really writing, was letting go of the need to get things perfect in order to keep writing. I mean, I know all the things I need to say to myself, that finished is better than perfect, that sometimes you need to write the bad stuff to get to the good, that that's what revisions are for. That no one will ever see the shitty first (and second and seventh) draft unless I let them.

I know these things, but it's hard. When I feel the story going wrong, when I doubt my words, I shake and I sweat and I get sick to my stomach, sure that whatever talent or luck I had before has left me. I go and run until my head clears, or until I'm exhausted. 

The first time I finished a book-length draft, I printed the manuscript out, and set it up on the table, ready to read through and revise. I heard a funny noise, and I turned around to see that one of my cats had climbed onto the table, and was peeing all over the manuscript. I have no idea why. For a moment I lived in a metaphor. 

(One of my friends said exactly the right thing: "Well, Kat, there's your worst ever review sorted, then.")

I finished a book-length draft yesterday. As yet, no one has peed on it.

Five years ago, when I started writing, I couldn't have written this draft. Not for the "I'm a better writer now, and I needed to be better to write this story" reason, though I do feel both of those are true. But because the draft is full of holes - scenes that are noted only in brackets of [x needs to happen here], or scenes that are just dialogue. I already have notes to myself of things that I need to fix, and once I finish typing everything out of my notebook, and going through all the notes I wrote to myself while writing, there will be more. It's such a hot mess of a draft it's not even going to my agent or my beta readers before it goes into revisions. But I'm proud of myself for scrawling "ENDS" after the last sentence, and, more importantly, I trust myself to be able to fix the things that need fixing when I do revise.

Not more or less proud than I was the first time I did this. Just happy to recognize that sometimes things change, and that I was able to let them.


  1. Interesting! I always believed that it wasn't a complete draft so long as there were missing scenes along the way. I have roughly 85,000 words written, starting at the beginning and going through the end. But I've still been thinking that it wasn't a full draft because I have 5 - 10 gaps with notes of "[X] happens here." Maybe I should stop thinking of it as an incomplete manuscript and start thinking of it as a book with a few bits missing?

    1. I think you should think of it however feels right to you, and lets you move on to the next step, whether the next step is writing those scenes, or revising it, or sending it to your readers for their thoughts.

      I would not call what I have a book. It is no where near finished in that sense. I do feel comfortable calling what I have a draft partially because I always write very concise early drafts - I generally expect to add at least 30%. So having blanks where I know what needs to happen doesn't freak me out like it used to. I also feel comfortable calling what I have a draft because I have the main story arc complete - beginning, middle, and end. There are writers who wouldn't. But you have to trust what works for you on that project.

  2. This is exactly that my "finished" draft looks like, too! I only bothered to name four or five characters--everyone else, for 93,000 words, is [NAME]. Witty retorts are [WITTY RETORT]. There are also spots marked [PERIL!] and [MORE PERIL!].

    And yes, it is DONE. Even though my climax scene is [EVERYBODY FIGHTS!].

    What's your revision schedule looking like? I'm planning to open mine back up on August 1 and have something readable for Superhero Joe by the end of October. It would be neat to be back in the mines together.

    Congratulations again! You keep pulling it off. I am a fan. <3

    1. I love [EVERYBODY FIGHTS!] Fabulous.

      My schedule is basically start revising as soon as I have everything typed up, my notes organized, and my new playlist done. So probably sometime this weekend, maybe Monday. The list of things I know I need to fix is pretty loud in my head, so I want to keep the momentum going. I haven't set the finishing goal yet, but it seems like we're pretty close to the same schedule. We will write all the words!

  3. I finished a draft of my second novel a week or so ago. I finished a draft of my first novel in 1990. In between ... yeah, lots of years of self-doubt, projects abandoned halfway through, and more than anything: perfectionism. That's a killer. It's gotten me a novel that's in pretty good shape for a first draft, but it took me three years (or twenty-three?) to get there. I would probably be better off if I let myself write something crappy in six months and then spent six months revising it ... but that's when the old self-doubt kicks in. It's not easy to find the balance. After all these years, though, I think I've finally got it into my head that the real secret is to just do the work.

  4. This is the reason why I...okay, why I lurk on your blog. :)

    Well, that's a lie. It's one of the many reasons. It helps that I am a genuine fan of your writing, too.

    Anyways, to the point. I have absolutely NEVER thought about going about a draft like this. You may have single-handedly obliterated one of the major mind obstacles that has been standing between me and actually managing to finish a novel (well, a draft). Seems silly and like it should have occurred to me before, but there you have it. Thanks so much for sharing, and good luck with the next bits!

    1. Thanks. And lurk away, if that's what you prefer. :)

      But, more to the point, as you said - I am so glad that I was able to say something that helps you with your own writing. Good luck to you as well.

  5. Congrats on your draft finish!

    So far as starting at the start and ending at the general, that's how I write (with a few diversions from that pattern), but that's a stylistic choice, not a moral imperative. There are lots of things that make people "real writers".

    I think self doubt is a real killer, and it's a fine line to tread, self doubt vs. knowing when a story is actually going wrong.

    There's also the feeling of satisfaction and excitement when a story is going right.

  6. Not sure I linked to your blog (probably you left a comment somewhere else and I clicked) but congrats on getting to THE END!

    I just finished my first draft of my first novel, and now all I have to do is re-write to include all the bits I realized I need in chapters 9 and 17, but haven't worked in yet. And take out all the bits that built up to a ... oh, I don't need that bit, there go paragraphs and pages of hard work...