“Second Draft Problem!” I threw up my hands, and my writing group laughed.
This happens frequently as I stumble like a drunk zombie through the prose in the first draft of my future best-seller. (Mmm…. local best seller? Mid-level seller? Self-pubbed fiction that only family has bought?) I’m trying to embrace the first draft philosophy– you just have to write it, get the words on paper, find your story, don’t judge yourself. And so I have a new mantra- “Second Draft Problem!” I repeat this to myself every time a turn of phrase falls flat, when a scene feels boring, when a plot point doesn’t quite work. Push on, I tell myself, liberating Current M from responsibility. Future M will solve this for us in the second draft. Just keep swimming, and Future M will deal with this later. Future M will save us, erase all our writing sins, squeeze blood from turnips.
Man, I can’t wait to meet Future M. She must be an effing genius. And really wise too. She’s the wittiest person ever, and she solves plot puzzles like she’s the new Agatha Christie. I bet she’s great at editing, too. In fast, I’m counting on it. Plus, she’s a champion at time management and organizational skills. She’s got all kinds of multi-colored Post-It notes and color coding pens. Not that she needs them; her mind is like a steel trap. She’s even figured out how I’m going to get health insurance if I ever manage to have the kind of writing career where I don’t have to work a 9 to 5 and lose my employer funded benefits. Future M is ON IT.
I’m a little concerned, though, because Future M already has a lot on her plate. She’s supposed to figure out financial planning for me, too. And she’s gonna be pretty busy becoming fluent in French. When I imagine the future, I’m always fluent in French and wearing really fashionable scarves. So, she’s gonna have to start getting into fashion magazines in her spare time. She might also be a little tied up with all the dinner parties she’s hosting. She better be hosting some dinner parties, or else why do I own a rotating chalkboard serving tray? And what if Future M can’t deal with my manuscript because the Zombie Apocalypse finally happens? Or she’s working in a factory mill because China finally calls in our debts to them and turns our whole country into one big production line?
It occurs to me that Future M evolves from Current M. Current M would feel a lot better about the odds on this evolution if Current M thought something magic would happen in the meantime to create Future M. Current M imagines this:
Tired, “Winging It,” Dullsville Current M + SPARKLING MAGIC EVENT= Energetic, Deliberate, Modern Algonquin Roundtable Future M
But the truth is, Current M is more likely to have to trek through some dark places and do the mental equivalent of P90X so that Future M can emerge with her toothpaste ad smile and bon mots dropping from her lips like rain.
And so Current M turns back to her laptop and promises Future M she’s on the way. Current M still has First Draft Problems.
Have you read Stephen King’s On Writing? Just read it for the third time in my efforts to get a fake MFA in the next month while I gear up to Write The Novel. You can read my review of it on my writing blog, but I don’t think you actually need to go read my review because I’m just going to tell you now that I really like it and it’s a great resource for beginning writers. Folksy but firm, practical but amusing.
Since I’m collecting writing wisdom, thought I might share some high points. One of these days I’m going to do some kind of data analysis on all the writing advice from all the authors I like and prove that there is no correct way to write. But here’s what Uncle Stevie thinks.
*Plotting? Don’t do it! Your characters will tell you what to do.
In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life though your speech. You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway, is nowhere…. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless… second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. … my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.
* Where should I write? In a quiet place, no TV, no phone, door closed, desk in corner of room to remind you that writing should reflect life and not the other way around.
*How much should I write? Every day, at least 1000 words. Write at the same time of day too, if you can help it.
Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind… Writing is at its best—always, always, always—when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like it best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle.
*How long will it take? Three months for the first draft, probably
* How long do I let the first draft sit? 6 weeks.
* Do Not: use adverbs, write in the passive tense, get carried away with descriptions, write above your natural vocabulary, start out thinking about symbolism or theme
* Do: Keep dialogue tags simple, read or write 4-6 hours a day, look for natural symbolism and themes in your second draft and then polish them up so they shine
So we read to experience the mediocre and outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.
* Do Not: Rely on the muse, but DO: make a comfortable place for him/her to land.
And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night—six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight—so you can train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work on vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction. But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal… don’t wait for the muse…. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re doing to be every day from nine til noon or seven til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.
* Characters? Very important. In fact, they should grow and the stories should really be about them and not just “what happened.”
* What to look for in editing?
During the reading, the top part of my mind is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns: Knocking out pronouns with unclear antecedents, adding clarifying phrases where they seem necessary, and of course deleting all the adverbs I can bear to part with… Underneath, I’m asking myself the Big Questions: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme? I’m asking myself What it’s all about…. What I want most of all is resonance.”
*Critique groups? Meh. More important to have an Ideal Reader whose taste and opinion you trust. Write for them and pay attention to what he/she likes or dislikes. Too many writing classes make you too impressed with your own intelligence and imbue meaning where things are really more simple..
* And finally, the point of it all:
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay?
And there you have it! Next stop: vacation home in Florida.
Another year, another stab at sticking to resolutions.
This year, I have basically no intention of going to the gym every single day or systematically cleaning out a room in my condo once a month. I’m not going to pretend to give up sugar entirely or cut down TV watching to one hour daily. There’s no use attempting to learn knitting or promising to make my bed every single day. Read the rest of this entry