Friday, June 28, 2013

Why It's So Hard to Go From Last to First Draft

            When you’re writing final draft you’re crafting sentences, refining scenes, tweaking characters, sometimes tightening structure. It’s all about refinement. You’re living in your novel by that point. You’re comfortable. You’re excited. Each change seems to help. You know what you’re doing.
            Now, of course, you may be wrong. Writers delude themselves all the time. We need this delusion to keep writing. We need to believe we’re writing something well. But whether you’re right about the feeling or not, those final moments of the final draft are pleasant. You’ve made it to your destination or close. Not as perfect as you imagined it. Never that. It was always a bit better in your imagination than you could do.
            Still—not bad.
            And then a day or week or whatever later you start the next novel. And it’s a bloody mess. Did you ever really know how to write a novel? How could you possibly have finished one in the first place? You know nothing. You can’t even write a decent sentence or if you do write one the next one sucks. Characters are as thin as a paper. And where are you going? You’re wandering like a drunk failing a sobriety test. You think, Lock me up, please! Get me away from this!
            BUT “this” was how you began the last novel, too. Writing in the dark, stumbling and fumbling about, trying to find your way. One of the reasons it’s so hard to go from the last stages of a novel to the first stages of the next is the memory of those last stages is clearest in our minds. You yearn, if you’re like me, for the relative clarity and precision of the last work when you were at the last of it. But you have to put that out of your mind. Writing a first draft is a different experience. It has other pleasures, like the pleasures of discovery. Enjoy those. There will be plenty of time for all the refinements later.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A first draft is just the beginning. In a way, that’s liberating

It should go without saying but I think I’ll say it anyway. Revision is more important than drafting. Nothing wrong with NANO or any other method or deadline that helps the writer push through a first draft. My own process is to write a first draft as quickly as possible. Just get it done. Just finish. But here’s the thing—I push through knowing it’s going to be, well, basically, crap. 99.999999999999999999999999999999% of the time it is crap for me and most writers. (That’s a percentage arrived at after careful mathematical evaluation of absolutely no data—in case you were wondering.)

I’ve heard agents call December the cruelest month because people who do NANO finish their novels and send their masterpieces into agents. And naturally they are bad, no terrible, and agents get hundreds of ridiculously bad manuscripts because novice writers have written a draft of a novel and think they’re done.
NO. It just doesn't work that way for 99.99999999999999999999999% (or thereabouts) of us.

A first draft is just the beginning.  In a way, that’s liberating. You don’t have to get it right. You won’t get it right. You know this. You allow yourself to write on through the fog, the forest, the wasteland—whatever you want to call it. You accept there will be wrong turns and missteps and that acceptance helps you push through the very humbling experience of writing a first draft.

Revision, really re-seeing the novel in the first few revisions, and then revising language and re-seeing again and going through for particular problems and tightening characters and doing whatever you need to do over the next five or six versions of the novel—or however many it takes—is what shapes that rough draft into something that isn’t rough.

That’s how, in my humble opinion, a novel comes into being. It’s built and rebuilt and rebuilt. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Don't Fear The Semi-Colon/Punctuation Is Not The Enemy

“I’m afraid of the semi-colon,” a fellow writer said. Don’t fear the semi-colon. It’s just a piece of punctuation. And don’t hate it either. There’s no reason to treat the semi-colon like some undesirable who crashes a party. Some people do though.

Some people are worried they’ll use it wrong but others seem to think it will turn off readers. They feel it has a snobbish quality.  Why not just use a period and be done with it? What, you’re too good for a period?  

The semi-colon is just another punctuation tool we have in our toolbox of punctuation. I need all the options I can get. Anyway it’s a sophisticated and friendly little comma and floating period ;--what’s not to like?

The semi-colon (;) looks less powerful than the colon ( :) , but looks can be, as we all know, deceiving. It is the only piece of punctuation that has the muscle, by itself,  to separate two independent clauses (also know in most circles as complete sentences).  So if you have two sentences that are related, the semi-colon works quite nicely. Or if you have a lot of short sentences and you want a longer one for the sake of paragraph rhythm, it’s there for you.  The only thing you have to be careful about is that you do have two complete sentences (thoughts). A thought and a half (dependent clause, independent clause) will just need a comma.

Embrace the semi-colon.  Just not too often.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Element of Surprise

Don’t start a novel by having an outline that you’ve scratched in stone with diamonds. First of all, that’s a very expensive and difficult way to write. Secondly, you won’t want to change things. I think it’s essential that you be willing to change any outline you write because of the element of surprise. In this case, I mean the surprise most authors encounter in the act of writing fiction.

This surprise can happen in many different ways. Suddenly a character starts doing things you didn’t expect, or things happen to that character you didn’t expect, or a character you didn’t expect shows up in a “guess who’s coming to dinner” sort of surprise. Could be that the tone of the novel itself will change, giving the whole novel a different feel.  Could be many things. It’s the writing itself that puts you in places of surprise. And your surprise will translate into surprises for your readers.

You have to be open to these surprises to take advantage of their narrative vitality and importance.