Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

On Crap First Drafts and Listening to Your Inner Critic

I'm off to the Festival of Writing at York this weekend, which is both exciting and a little terrifying. Part of the package is two one-to-one meetings with agents (or book doctors, but I've plumped for the agents). When I originally booked to go to the Festival, I was hoping to have a polished draft of my novel in something close to its finished form. As it turns out, this was wildly optimistic of me. But that's okay, because being wildly optimistic is pretty much the only thing that keeps me going with this book-writing malarkey.

The changes I need to make to my book are so profound that I need to rewrite it. I can't edit my first draft into shape, I need to start over. Luckily, the opening chapter is one of the few that survived the cull, and this has been sent off, along with a brief synopsis, to the agents I am seeing at the weekend. The synopsis reflects the changes I intend to make in the next draft, which I've had a few months to think about, so that's okay too. And in the event that either of the agents wants to see more, I'll be honest and tell them how long I think it will take me to get the next draft whipped into shape. It's not like they'll be twiddling their thumbs waiting for my masterpiece.

Apart from planning the new and improved version of my book, I've been pondering how I got myself into this mess in the first place. We are told to allow our first drafts to be crap, but surely ending up with something that is un-editable is not the goal? So, where did it all go wrong?

First and foremost, I was too fixated on my word count. Not the daily word count, but the final one. Daily word counts are good. You need to be doing the work. But keeping a running total of those words, watching the total climb towards something vaguely book-length, can be a very bad idea. Some of those words belong in your draft, some don't. It becomes tempting to think of them as the essential building blocks of your book, and a such, you can't delete them. You just can't. It feels like pulling a block out from the bottom of a Jenga tower. And the longer you leave that brick in, the harder it is to pull it out. Eventually you can't even see it anymore, but it's in there, making your whole edifice unsound.

And that was the other thing I got wrong: being afraid to delete things, to change direction, to see that something wasn't working and to junk it. Time and again I was told: don't delete anything. Just write. For many people that is probably good advice. For me, it was disastrous. There were several points where I had moments of epiphany, better ideas that meant junking weeks or months of writing to make them work. I should have done it. None of the work was wasted - I had to go the wrong way to be able to recognise the right way when I saw it. But I was afraid to do it, afraid that I would lose the momentum, never finish that first draft if I kept second-guessing myself.

There is a big difference, though, between dithering over your first draft because you lack confidence and experience, and ditching a draft or part of a draft that you know is not working and is not going to work, especially when you have an inkling of what would work better.

I think this is especially true for me as I'm a panster, not a plotter. If you are writing to see where it takes you, you have to be prepared to recognise when you've got yourself down a blind alley. And it's not just about the plot. Quite early on, I started wondering if I should be writing this book in the present tense. Now I'm about to start the rewrite, it's blindingly obvious that I should have listened to myself. It's not just a matter of going through and changing the verbs. Using a different tense would have led to a different voice as well, maybe the voice I was looking for but never found in the whole of my first draft (apart from that one chapter I still like, that is written, surprise surprise, in the present tense).

So why did I stick so doggedly to a method that wasn't right for me? Mostly because it's only with hindsight that I can see the problems. And I do understand the rational behind the advice to just write it and let it be crap. I can see how constantly second-guessing yourself and trying to making everything right will stop you getting the first draft finished at all. Maybe if I had started making drastic changes, and cutting out big chunks, I would have started to lose confidence and momentum. It's impossible to know. But I do know that, for me, some courageous editing as I went along would have been entirely preferable to where I've ended up.

I'm still in a better place than I was a year ago. I'll be starting this second draft with much more courage and conviction. I'll write it the way I know best. I'll remember what's good about my short fiction and I'll bring that to my novel. I can't write a book I think people might want to read. I have to write the book I can write best.

So, here's a great big hug for all of you who cheered me on as I roared through that first draft. For a while there, I thought your faith in me had been misplaced. But remember that wildly optimistic streak of mine? It's back.

NOTE: Next up will be my contribution to the Writing Process blog tour. If ever there was an opportune moment to examine my writing process, it is now.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Later is Now.

I'm writing a novel. You know this already, especially if you follow me on Twitter. I never let a WIP crisis go untweeted. It's coming up to a year since I started (properly) working on the book, so it seemed like a good time to look back at what I've learned. There were two big lessons for me, one at the beginning of the process of writing the first draft, and one at the end.

1. Writing a Novel is a Very Much Like Eating an Elephant.

Which is to say, one bite at a time. As a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool short story and flash fiction writer, the idea of writing a book seemed not so much daunting as unsurmountable. I struggled with anything over 2,000 words. How could I write something at least forty times longer?

The answer was not to look the whole thing in the eye, just at what was on my plate at any given moment (I'm not sure how much longer I can sustain this eating metaphor. For one thing, it's making me hungry). My eureka moment came when I decided for the umpteenth time to get to grips with Scrivener. I'd had it on my laptop for years. I had various first chapters written in Word. I didn't see how the two things worked together.

So I set the false-start chapters to one side and started over, this time using Scrivener. And the thing about Scrivener is that each scene is a separate document. Each scene. Each. Scene. Light bulb moment. I needed to write this book one scene at a time. I didn't need to think about whole chapters, let alone the whole book. Just one scene at a time.

This is perfect for me, because I'm a pantser, not a plotter. I had the vaguest idea of what I wanted my book to be about, but I knew the story and the characters would evolve in the writing. I had a clear idea what my opening scene would be, so I just sat down and wrote it. Then I asked myself what the next scene needed to do. Did it need to advance the story? Introduce more characters? Backstory? Flashback? Develop existing characters? Set up upcoming key scenes that I already had in mind?

In this way, the novel grew, in bites of between 1,000 and 2,000 words. Sometimes I'd be in the middle of writing a scene and realise it wouldn't work unless I added another scene earlier in the novel. The beauty of Scrivener is that you can skip back and slide in the bits you are missing. Or move scenes around when you realise they are in the wrong place. The key for me was knowing exactly what each scene was for before I wrote it. All those years of short story writing taught me that every word has to earn its keep. That's true whether there are 2,000 words or 80,000 words.

However, the more words there are, the harder it is to know which ones are really pulling their weight, which brings me on to:

2. What Do You Mean It's Crap?

The oft repeated advice about writing a first draft is to just get it done. And to get it done, you have to allow it to be crap.

Now, at first this made no sense to me. Why would I want to write something crap? When I write short stories, they don't differ much from first to final draft. Everything that is good about them is there in the first draft. Everything after that is polishing and perfecting.

Pfft, I thought. The first draft of my novel is not going to be crap. It's going to be refined, exquisitely written, needing but the lightest of editing touches.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's crap. Or rather, it's the kernel of a good book wrapped in crap (I'm liking this metaphor even less than the elephant one. Moving on…)

My characters are underdeveloped. Many scenes are underwritten, while in other places the prose is overwrought. Exposition has snuck in while my back was turned. At least 10 per cent of the words are superfluous.

Am I downcast? Not a bit (well, okay, maybe a little bit). The analogy I like best is this: when you're writing a first draft, you're just pouring sand into a box, to shape into castles later.

There are good things about editing, like stumbling across bits of writing that are really quite good. Like finding out how clever my subconscious is, making connections, echoing themes throughout the book without me even realising it. Like allowing myself to spend an hour or more on one small passage, staring out the window, writing, deleting, writing again, not worrying about clocking up the word count but making every word the right one.

Because that's the key difference between writing and editing. When you're writing,  you can always come back and fix it up later. When you're editing, later is now.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The First Draft Blues

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, someone told me they believed I'd one day be a writer. I believed it too. That fact that the person who told me this went on to be a successful and award-nominated novelist and screen-writer themselves only reinforced my confidence that one day I too would be a published novelist.

Gradually, though, it dawned on me, that I'd have to actually write a book to make that happen.

And then followed years and years of not writing a book and hating myself for it, of waking up every January 1st and thinking: 'Here I go again, not writing my book for another year'.

I did eventually start writing, of course, but it was short fiction. The shorter the better. I had some success and thought, okay, this is what I'm good at, this is okay, I'm still a writer. I told anyone who would listen (or asked) that I was pretty sure I'd never write a novel, because it just wasn't where my talents lay.

And then I had an idea for a book. Still I procrastinated, but the idea wouldn't go away.

Last April, my husband bought me a new laptop and gave me a deadline: 20,000 words by the end of the summer, or the laptop went to my teenage daughter. Ah, he knows me so well. I exceeded his target a month early and I was on my way. Writing a book.

Some ten months after starting, I've nearly finished the first draft of my novel. I should be cock-a-hoop, right? Punching the air, typing THE END in the biggest, boldest, most italic-y font I can find.

But I'm not. And that's okay.

The thing is, I have a lot of words, but they don't feel like a book yet.

I have a sort-of story, my protagonist goes on a journey, but I know it needs more narrative drive.

I've discovered what my book is about in the process of writing it, but I know I need to draw out the themes, strengthen them, weave them through the fabric of my book so it's less like crochet and more like a tightly-woven damask that shows different colours and patterns depending on how you turn it in the light.

I have characters, quite a few of them. Most of them are engaging and interesting. Almost all of them are more engaging and interesting than my protagonist. I need to make her more than just a sounding board, less reactive and more proactive in her own life. I need to find out what is unique about her AND what makes her like everyone else.

I have important scenes that are woefully underwritten and less important scenes that go on and on and on. I need to look at the balance of my book, the rhythm, the pace.

I need to do all these things, and more, before the big heap of words I've put together resembles anything like a book. And I'm itching to get on with it. Getting to the end of the first draft is a notable achievement, but it feels more like a mid-point than anything else. Hence the lack of air-punching.

My aim is to have a solid second draft done by the summer. If you hear whooping across the internet sometime in late June or early July, it'll probably be me, typing THE END.

And then, following feedback, I'll get cracking with the third draft. And maybe, just maybe, by then I'll have written a book.