Tag Archives: craft

Thoughts on the Shitiness of First Drafts

I’m working on the first draft of a novel. I hate first drafts. Short stories are bad enough, but novels are much smaller boats set adrift on bigger seas. Many writers have commented at length on this process, but I’ll put my trust in Hemingway. He summed it up best: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

When I first came across this quote, I thought someone made it up. How could an undisputed writing master utter such profanity? As I continued in my scribble quest, I thought it meant that first drafts need to be tidied up. Kinks must be worked out, language made pretty so that it flows. Though even then, I thought Hemingway resorted to such a  statement due to having imbibed a bit too much the night before.

Many years later, I get it. First drafts are gangly beasts. First drafts pass out on the floor, quivering masses that drool and fart and disgorge fleshy things. In the first draft, a new character will suddenly appear halfway through and act like she’s been in the book all along. The names of places, characters, and things will change, then change again, then change back again. A factory will produce Twinkies in one chapter, heart monitors in a later chapter, and then settle on Chevy Priuses by the end of the book. The main character will set off on his journey, only to be hijacked by his sidekick who demands that he is, in fact, the main character. In first drafts, the end that seems so crystal clear in the beginning, will wither into hilarity before 50 pages are written, not just snuffing out the much celebrated light, but taking the whole tunnel with it.

I always understand how to write a chapter just as soon as I’ve finished writing it. This is the tricky part. The first draft black hole. I now resist the temptation to go back and make things right. Instead, I take notes and move on to the next chapter, which in turn will only reveal its true form once I’ve slogged clear through it. Often, the chapter before or even one much earlier in the book will change with it. Which is why there is never any going back. I’ve tried that before, and produced some very lovely first chapters. Anyone want to buy a first chapter? Cheap.

When I reach the end, the first draft–clunky though it may be–is a thing of beauty. It went from nothing to something, a miniature big bang. First drafts are manuscripts that live across parallel universes. The trick is to get all the way to the end to understand which one belongs in this universe. Only then do I let myself go back and write the far more fulfilling second draft, yanking the remaining bits of the story into this universe.

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Interactive Story is an Oxymoron

I’m reading The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. The book is based on the work of Joseph Campbell, an analysis of the basic elements of myth and story that stretch back for millennia. Fascinating stuff, if not entirely new.

Since I got the book, it’s been released again as a third edition. This bit caught my attention in the introduction to the 2nd edition, from 1998:

Shortly after the first edition of this book came out, a few people (threshold guardians) jumped up to say the technology of the Hero’s Journey is already obsolete, thanks to the advent of the computer and its possibilities of interactivity and nonlinear narrative. According to this batch of critics, the ancient ideas of the Journey are hopelessly mired in the conventions of beginning, middle, and end, of cause and effect, of one event after another. The new wave, they said, would dethrone the old linear storyteller, empowering people to tell their own stories in any sequence they chose, leaping from point to point, weaving stories more like spider webs than linear strings of events.

It’s true that exciting new possibilities are created by computers and the nonlinear thinking they encourage. However, there will always be pleasure in “Tell me a story.” People will always enjoy going into a story trance and allowing themselves to be led through a tale by a masterful story weaver.

I’m not sure if Vogler goes far enough. More than ten years later, the iPad is heralded as a miraculous device that will usher in a whole new type of storytelling. The idea that stories are destined to be reinvented as interactive experiences predates the looming ebook tsunami. Presumably, it was also predicted long before the hyperlink came along. But such thinking fails to understand what a story is at its core. If the basic structure of the story hasn’t changed in a few thousand years, it has nothing to fear from ebooks. New devices will create whole new types of games… but story, nope.

AmphitheaterIf stories were meant to be interactive, the stage would never have been invented. Actors would have just scattered through the crowd and everyone would have become part of the production. Instead, we got the amphitheater that separates the storytellers from the audience. Centuries later, movie theaters are dark for a reason that goes beyond helping us see the film. We want to get lost in the story. Is anything more annoying than someone yacking on their phone next to you at a movie? Nope, because it pulls you out of the story. And those choose your own adventure books that they had when I was a kid were fun, but a novelty. I remember that I had to pick what happened next, but I don’t remember any of the stories.

The power of a good story, in part, is that it does have a definitive beginning, middle, and end. There is cause and effect. Life hardly ever works that way. Stories do, and appeal to a need for such order that is almost primal. Once we have to choose what happens next, order evaporates and with it the story. It becomes a game at best, a chore at worst. Instead of laughing at someone else’s mistakes or commiserating with their plight, the reader of an interactive story shares responsibility for its outcome.

Experiencing a story only works when it’s a passive medium, and that’s okay. Interactive story is an oxymoron.

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Small Books on Writing by Big Authors

No matter how a book is ultimately brought in front of readers, its success all comes back to the writing. I love books on the craft of writing by pretty much anyone, but those that I’ve found most helpful are by writers whose work I envy. Perhaps not surprisingly, these all tend to be short books that distill decades of expertise into a couple hundred pages.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: This is a  collection of essays originally published in the 70s and 80s. It’s as much stories about a life in writing, as it is writing advice. I love the image of Bradbury on his lawn with his typewriter in 1942, when he was in his early 20s, crying with the realization that he had just finished his first really good story. His most memorable advice is that writing is akin to acting like a small lizard in the desert, run fast, stand still. Don’t edit so much when rough drafting, just get it down and then come back and fix things later.

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin: This book is more about the nuts and bolts of writing than the others on this list, a good intro for those new to the craft or a refresher for those more experienced by one of the world’s most talented wordsmiths. Her advice that’s done me the most value is that to read passages aloud, even though it made me feel a tad self-conscious at first. If you trip up reading your own words, the reader coming at them for the first time will stumble right out of the book.

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith: While the title implies this is just about suspense fiction, it applies equally well to all stories aimed at pulling the reader in and keeping the pages turning. She details how to take an idea, and build it out into a full-fledged story with numerous examples from her own work. Though perhaps most helfplul is her advice that the first person a writer should try to please is yourself. The rest of the world will come later.

On Writing by Stephen King: This one seems to make every writer’s list, and with good reason. What I remember most about it is the image of his wife wheeling his typewriter in front of him while King was in bed recovering from injuries after his infamous run-in with a van. Every writer needs someone like this, a partner to  kick you back into the writing even if you’ve been literally run over by a bus. King goes on to detail how his writing became a key part of his convalescence.

There’s a bookcase more of writing books that I’ve collected, but these are the four most worth mentioning. If you know of any other noteworthy tomes on the writing craft by its maestros, I’d love to hear about them.

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