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Feb 13 11: Learning Experience

Six years ago I started thinking about a novel. Six months ago, I started writing it. And yesterday, to my surprise and delight and relief, I finished the first draft. I am pleased to announce the birth of MOJO CITY, Version 1.0, weight 98,000 words, length 450 double-spaced pages.

To do it, I had to learn a bunch of different lessons: How not to let fear of the blank page keep me from starting at all; how to maintain forward momentum on a project that, when I started, seemed impossible; how to navigate the straits between leaving room in the writing process for spontaneous moments of invention and knowing exactly how my story was going to get me from A to B to C and on to Z. But most of all, I had to learn how to write an imperfect draft without leaping off the balcony.

I mean, you hear this over and over: Your first draft will stink. Everyone’s first draft stinks. That’s what they do. But it’s one thing to hear that delivered as fact, even from teachers you respect at writer camp, and quite another to believe it. My own impulse toward perfectionism has always been my own worst enemy. It kept me from starting the book for years: what if I turn a good idea into a bad book? With a short story, you really can put off starting the first paragraph until you have the whole thing mapped out in your head. It’s a strategy that will produce completed pieces. But when you’re about to embark on a voyage of 98,000 words? Safer for now just to keep adding notes to the pile. Start later, when you’re more sure of what you’re doing.

But no. Did you know that if your character is standing outside a blown-up pizza joint talking to some cops but you really need him to be in Washington Square, eating falafel with a bodhisattva, but you don’t know quite how to get him out of his current conversation, you can just write

[AND NOW HE LEAVES AND ENDS UP TALKING TO C IN THE PARK]

and come back later? Like, in the second draft? And that’s a totally acceptable thing to do? So you can go on and write the scene that you actually have in your head, instead of agonizing over a transition that will make more sense later? It’s true! I did it. So can you. You can also direct your main character to the scene of an incident at $INTERSECTION, and then have him later meet a friend to hear a band called $CLEVER NAME.

This was a revelation. And, more important, it was the crack in the dam that let me get out of my own way and just write the damn book. Characters flat? Fix it in the next draft. Language undescriptive? Fix it in the next draft. Causality questionable? Chronology dodgy? Geography unreliable? It doesn’t matter. In the words of James Thurber, “Don’t get it right. Just get it written.”

You probably knew all this already, dear reader. But I spent a few long years fighting to absorb this truth into the marrow of my bones. And I don’t want to forget it. So I’m putting it here.

So that’s what I’ve been up to instead of writing the blog. How about you?

Commentary

I have two unfinished 80,000 word novels started. Each one written during the mad, mad month of November, which you may or may not know is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

I have no idea whether you know this or not because I have not read much of your blog. Am a newbie reader of yours who just surfed in - landing here from a knitting blog I think.

Check out: http://www.nanowrimo.org/
At the bottom of the linked page are words of amusing wisdom entitled “I Wrote a Novel, Now What?”

posted by Janey, Sep 15 11 3:54 PM

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