Thursday, December 17, 2009

On First Drafts

I've written four novels in the last three years. Wow, that sounds cool when I add it all up. Especially when I reread and see that I'm improving and getting faster with each novel I write. Some things I used to have to concentrate on now come naturally. (Other things, well . . . it's a work in progress. Literally.)

But I didn't set out to write four "practice" novels before I started polishing even one for submission to agents.

It makes sense, that I'd have to practice, learn, improve before being ready to create something worth publishing.

But I can't think about that and still write.

When I put everything on hold one November to draft my first novel, I refused to let myself edit or revise. I set aside all my fears and my internal editor. I told myself - as I typed furiously - that my prose sang. I told myself that I was writing The Great American Novel. I told myself that it would sell immediately after I finished it, before the end of the year, certainly. I told myself I'd be on Oprah and The Today Show and I'd make buckets of money faster than I could spend them.

That's what I had to do in order to get the story down.

Later there was plenty of time for doubt. Too much time, probably. I grew afraid to go back and reread. What if it's really really bad? And, of course, some of it is. But some of it is not!

Every step of the way, I have doubts. Is this the right direction for this story to take? Have I chosen the right perspective, style, character to tell the story? Would anybody want to actually read this? I know what's going to happen next; is it obvious to everyone? Does this suck?

One of my critique partners has a very different writing style from mine, and a different taste in reading materials to go along with it.

Earlier this week she told me, "I really like your story, your plot, your characters. I just think you need to work on your prose." She can't stand my pacing, my descriptions, my sentence length patterns, my sentence structures.

Maybe she's right, or maybe we just have different tastes. Either way, it's a bit disheartening to hear that your story and characters are good, if only you could just write.

Best not to think about that during a first draft. During the first draft, every time your fingers hit the keyboard, magic happens. Genius is transcribed. Something is created from nothing.

6 comments:

bingol said...

I'm honestly not sure what that means. It's like saying, 'I like your house--the rooms, the roof, the hallways--I just don't like the placement of the walls.'

If she doesn't like your prose, she doesn't like your story and characters and plot. She thinks you're too wordy and ornate and purple?

Sarahlynn said...

Yeah. Perhaps more of a light violet, but yeah. (What her editor told her about her latest novel must apply to mine as well. Different sub-genre and style notwithstanding.)

But she might well be right. (Low confidence writing week!)

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bingol said...

Well, first, I agree with smallawei.

Second, you never asked for my opinion, but here goes. That's both a tough thing to face and a v. easy one. It's tough to hear that, it's tough to get another kick in the teeth, which as writers is our primary diet. And worse, it's tough that she's probably right. At least, when I write a first draft in the heat of inspiration, it's inevitably overcooked.

So that sucks, but the easy part is: even if she's right, you're perfectly on track. Almost every writer faces _precisely_ this problem, and has to go through and cut the draft until it bleeds.

It's a sucky problem, like hitting the wall in a marathon. But also like hitting the wall, it's totally common--and everyone who finishes had to face it, at some point. It's not even a problem so much as a midpoint.

You write so clearly and precisely on the blog. That's one reason I read it, with no idea who you are. (The other being that I like to read a few blogs from people who are completely unlike me! Except you're a writer, so deep in your soul you're probably _exactly_ like a bald fat Jewish misanthrope.) It's clear you _can_ write. And finishing four novels is HUGE. I think NaNoWriMo does a great job getting people over that first hurdle. But it, perhaps, also serves to overemphasize it. Because the second hurdle is just as high. The first one is 'determination', but the second one is 'brutality.'

Sarahlynn said...

Does everyone else get a ton of Chinese spam? Or is it just me? What is it about my blog that attracts the Chinese spam? Weird.

The thing about the book my critique partners are reading is that it's the first book I've ever written outside of the NaNoWriMo challenge. I spent a long time plotting it out, getting to know the characters, etc. And I spent an even longer time writing the thing. More than a year, in fact, revising as I toiled along.

It's true that I'm too wordy, that a lot of my sentences could be more active, that I could add tension. (Now that I've written a few novels, the idea of fixing every sentence seems FAR more daunting than the idea of writing a first draft.)

But a lot of what this one particular critique partner wants to change is purely stylistic. She doesn't like what I call my voice. She suggests paring my sentences down to remove personality. I don't want to write a purely plot-driven book. (But looking at the beginning of this paragraph, "one particular" is clearly redundant. I do that a lot.)

I suspect she's right about some of it. I probably laid it on a bit thick and could get the same effect with a lighter touch. She also doesn't "get" my young main character or her gaming interests/habits/friends, so I suspect she's not my target audience.

She is, however, a published author and I'm taking her critique seriously. There's obviously something not quite working that I need to fix. This weekend, off it goes to another critique partner - this time someone across the country who I don't even know, courtesy of an online writer's group. I'll figure this thing out, or put it aside and write another. Le sigh.

Also, thank you. Very much. I do tend to be a bit fat and misanthropy, myself, but I'm rather the opposite of bald. As for Jewish, well, I suppose the Rudolph cookies give away my deep spiritual connection with my family's traditions. ;-)

bingol said...

Yeah, I should've said that, too. You've gotta take everything a critique partner says with a grain of s. That's true of agents and editors, too. And certainly 'published authors' often don't know shit. (And same goes for anonymous blog commenters!) They're often right ... but not always. And it's your book.

I tried Infinite Jest, the Best Book In the World, and couldn't get past page 4. I would've cut it to the bone, and ruined everything. People who don't read in your genre, or aren't part of your target audience ... that's tough.

My wife writers YA for girls, and I read and edit. But sometimes she just stets huge swathes of my edits, because I don't know anything about teen girls. She takes what suggestions work and tosses the rest.

What genre is it?