Always Grumbling

draftHere’s what I tell my writing students: Write your first draft as fast as possible. Don’t spend time worrying about grammar, punctuation, or spelling. Don’t pause to find the right word or the right sentence. Don’t refine descriptions. Write without thinking. Write like a freight train, roaring down the track.

It’s good advice. I just wish I could follow it.

Here’s how I actually write my first drafts: Stare at the blank computer screen. Move things around on my desk in a futile attempt to organize it. Look at pictures of my granddaughter. Write an opening sentence. Delete it. Write a new opening sentence. Write two more sentences. Read them over and delete one sentence and one phrase. Check my email. Watch the blue jays forage on the lawn outside my window. Write another two sentences. Start the second paragraph. Delete the middle sentence of the first paragraph. Rewrite the description of the chimney at the end of the first paragraph. Write two more sentences of the second paragraph. And so on. You get the idea.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. But not much. My first draft process is excruciatingly slow. And whenever I’m working on the first draft of a novel, I complain about how hard and frustrating this part of the process is. I long for the future point when I’ll be able to work on the second and third drafts, when I’ll know where I’m heading and have a clear structure to work with. I know I’ll be so much happier.

This, of course, is nonsense. And by now I should know better. Every time I’m in the middle of the later drafts of a novel I find myself yearning for the freedom and soaring creativity of first draft writing. And vice versa.

Part of this is probably just human nature – the “grass is always greener” syndrome. But something else is going on, I think: the bilateral nature of writing. First draft work relies heavily on creativity and intuition, while later drafts lean on editorial and critical thinking. A writer needs to be skilled in both approaches in order to write a satisfying novel. But their nature and the experience of working in these two modes is quite different. So it’s easy, when immersed in creative mode, to imagine that the editorial mode is easier and more enjoyable. And when struggling in that mode, it’s tempting for the writer to look over her shoulder and romanticize the freedom and open-endedness of first draft writing.

Or maybe it’s just my contrary nature. But it does sometimes seem as if – no matter where I am in the process – I’m always grumbling.


Keep On Piling On

helpIt’s a familiar issue that recently came up in my fiction writers’ group. “Murdering your darlings” refers to the necessity writers sometimes face of deleting our best lines, sentences, and/or pages, in order to improve the overall work. It happens to all of us who love wordsmithing. We fall in love with an image and find just the right words to capture it, only to realize (or be told) at the end of the day that they’re “not working” and have to be removed or drastically revised. All our lovely words and images go down the drain.

A parallel phenomenon can happen with our fictional characters, especially our protagonists. We get to know them so well – spending months and sometimes years with them – that we fall in love. Our protagonist feels like a real, living person who we think of almost constantly, imagining what he or she would do in hundreds of situations. Sometimes we even care about them so deeply that we don’t want to do anything that might hurt them. And so we protect them as we do our children. We do our best to make sure they sail through their lives without much stress. When we give them problems, they’re tiny problems, easily solved. We make sure they remain pretty much unscathed.

This is where the trouble starts. Because our characters – our protagonists especially – need to face hard problems that are difficult to solve. In fact, the harder, the better. It’s only through facing adversity and pain that our protagonist’s true nature is revealed. As all readers know, one of the great pleasures of reading fiction is seeing how characters face and overcome life’s most demanding challenges.

Facing adversity is, of course, something our real children must do as well. But a parent’s job is to equip the child with the necessary strength and skills to meet those challenges. The fiction writer, on the other hand, is in the business of doling out adversity. Falling in love with our characters is often a necessary step in writing a work of fiction. Yet it also can tempt us to protect those same characters from too much struggle, thus undermining our efforts to create a satisfying novel or short story.

trouble3Instead, a fiction writer must access her inner bully and pile on the problems. In fact, the more problems, the better. When your character sets her sights on a goal, put it far out of reach. When he stands up and dusts himself off, knock him down again.

Be ruthless. Keep on piling on.