Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Insecure Writer and Slogging Through The First Draft


Today is February's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

What makes me an Insecure Writer this month?

The realization I’m an inherently slow writer and that there’s nothing I’ll ever be able to do about it. 

I’ve whined before about being a slow writer and have posted on the tricks I use to increase my writing pace, but thanks to last month’s SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) meeting, I now realize there’s something fundamentally different between myself and other writers. 

One of our guest speakers was Kristen Bartley Lenz, a writer who discussed how she wrote her debut novel, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go. One of the exercises her editor gave her for getting deeper into her characters’ minds was to free-write a scene for each character, a scene that never appears in the book. So after Kristen showed us the before and after versions of her first chapter, she read one of her free-writing scenes out loud, explaining how she’d used it to improve the chapter. 

All well and good—that is, until I heard the words. The free-write scene centered on the main character’s uncle, who was holding the main character in his arms in the hospital room right after her birth. It was a simple scene, full of introspection by the uncle; emotional, but not melodramatic; quiet, yet powerful. The kind of scene I’d love to be able to write. 

But then it hit me. Kristen had free-written this scene. No notes, no outline. She just imagined a scene and wrote down her thoughts as they came to her. She hadn’t edited any of the sentences. She hadn’t added words later. She hadn’t rearranged the order in which the sentences came out. And yet the words were already of publishable quality. Basically, she’d been able to write the whole scene as if it were happening in front of her, knowing exactly what to say and when to say it. 

I was absolutely dumbfounded. If I hadn’t already known her, I might have suspected she’d lied about it being a first draft. That maybe she’d read us a heavily revised version, not something that spilled out of her brain in perfect order. And that realization staggered me, because I know that no matter how hard I try, no matter what tricks I use, I'll never, ever, EVER be able to write like that. It’s just not in my writing DNA. 

I’ve read of authors who write 3 or 4 books a year and always wondered what their secret was. Turns out their words just jump right out of their brains in pretty darn good shape right from the beginning. I’m not saying these words couldn’t use some tightening here and there, but those are almost cosmetic changes compared to what my drafts require. I have to slog through my scenes over and over again, adding stuff I left out the first time, throwing out stuff that’s unnecessary, rearranging the order that stuff is mentioned. And that’s just to get the words in good enough shape so that my crit partners understand what’s going on. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for writers who have this ability. Heck, if words came that easily for me, I’d probably have taken up writing years ago. But the concept that someone can write a first draft in which less than 80% of it isn't thrown out or changed in subsequent revisions seems like fantasy to me.  Fortunately, I’m passionate enough about my stories that I know I’ll keep working on them until they’re done, no matter how much time it takes. 

But it can be damn frustrating sometimes. 

This month’s IWSG question is: 
How has being a writer changed your experience as a reader? 

Not much really. Sometimes I pay attention to how an author does certain things in order to improve my writing, but usually I read the story without thinking too much about it. Movies, however, are another story. I find myself searching for the various plot points during a movie, almost to the exclusion of the story itself. And if you read my previous post, you’ll know some of this habit has rubbed off onto my family members. I guess it’s one of the dangers of being a writer.

ChemistKen


28 comments:

  1. I find my first drafts are usually a mixture of brilliance and utter crap. You may have one paragraph that's already perfect, then three pages of nonsense that need tons of editing. So while a first draft will always need some heavy work, there are some bits here and there that actually sprung out of my brain that were already great, and that's always a good feeling.

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    1. That's kind of the way I thought it should be, based on my own experience. It was just shocking to find that there were writers whose first drafts are like 90% of the way finished.

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  2. Sounds like an awesome presentation with Krisitn. Wish I could have attended because I know Kristin too. I'm a writer like you. The words do not flow out like that. I have to write a draft and do heavy, multiple edits. And I don't think I'd ever be literally where wonderful words that fit together beautifully just flow out of my mind onto the paper. We need both kinds of writers so keep plugging on.

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  3. So here's the part you're not seeing: the twenty or so years she's worked to hone her skill, slowly training herself to write according to editors suggestions and strengthening her understanding of story and scenes. It isn't instant. I look at my first drafts of years ago, and I cringe. I look at the first drafts now, and they're not so bad. Given another decade, they'll even be better. Practice is the key, eh?

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  4. Okay, so yes, sometimes the words just flow. But no writer has that happen 100% of the time. No writer has it come out completely perfect every time. Nope. The first part of my novel The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller came out in a beautiful gush. Everything after that was something of a slog. And then I still ended up having to revise the first part. I can look back on the original novella and know it's gorgeous the way it came out, but I also look at the full novel and see how beautiful it is, too, after all that hard work. And I'm such a slow writer, too. Ugh. So I definitely feel you. Don't compare yourself or your process to others. Just do your thing.

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  5. I'm a pantser, but it takes a lot of revising after the fact! I watch movies with a much more critical eye now too. That's why I prefer to watch films at home, so I can comment as it goes along. My husband is the same way!

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  6. I'm not a fast writer but I am an over-planner so that the words come out cleaner.
    Maybe you should try her exercise and see what happens? Maybe without the pressure, those words will flow.

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  7. Words jumping out of writer's brain and onto the page is always exciting. Great idea that she shared with you.

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  8. My work doesn't come out a jumbled mess, but it does take a lot of editing passes to get it into shape. That takes time.

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  9. Sometimes my words come out right the first time. Sometimes I have to labor over them until they sound proper. My short stories might come out 90% done. But my big book chapters usually get rewritten over and over and over again.

    BTW, I tagged you on my blog today. :) MWAHAHAHAHAHA!

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  10. I too am in awe of her. I've heard writers who say the story pop fully fleshed into their heads. Not me. I've taken to trotting the dog around the neighborhood, hoping for inspiration.

    Still waiting...

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  11. I have friends who write 3 or 4 books a year, too. And I don't know how they do it. Well, they don't have day jobs. I'm sure that helps. Still, I'm not sure I could pump out 4 books a year full-time job or not.

    How being a writer changes how you watch movies and TV should be a question of the month. :)

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  12. I have a friend who writes first drafts that seemed like finished products to me. I am in awe too but I accept we're all different and work at different speeds. I'm faster when I don't worry about making it perfect.

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  13. One of my CPs (Kate Larkindale) has always been able to do that. She can not only hurl out words that are beautiful, emotional, and powerful (and not a cliche in sight) on her first try, but she can do 5k in 2 hours. She's just a born writer, although her Achilles heel is Big Picture problems.

    I'm like you. I plod. Maybe 8 hours to write 1k. And then I look at it the next day and gasp in horror -- did I really write this confused crap? Where was my brain? It takes about 3 revisions till it's smoothed out enough (not even good, just not horrible) before I can give it to CPS. Then it'll need about 5 more revisions till it's publisher ready.

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  14. I hadn't thought about it like that. You're right! I don't have pretty first drafts when I look at it through the pacing window (or the description window) and I need MAJOR work to put it together!

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  15. I missed the last post so I went back and read it - love it! My fammily and I discuss netflix shows and movies we watch like that.
    I wish I could write good stuff all the time. The hard part for me is that some days I have those super sweet, awesome moments when I picture the story and it all rolls out on the page, and then the next day, I barely make any sense. Evening that kind of thing out in revision is not much fun. Despite "everyone" saying that good days and bad days produce the same kind of writing, I disagree. Some days, my writing is just junk. I write a lot, produce a fair amount, but you'll note that my writing is yet at the level I want it to get to.

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    1. case in point - the typo in family
      and, I meant "not yet at the level"
      agh.

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  16. Yeah. I'm not a fast writer either. I'm faster now than I was when I started but I'll never be a multiple book a year person.

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  18. I hear you, Ken! I'm a very slow writer too. It's maddening. It's frustrating. But I try to shove all that aside and just plod along at my own pace. Hang in there! Take care!

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  19. Each writer has their own way of writing. While one way might seem more appealing and certainly easier, we have to just accept that we aren't the ones who can write 3 or more books a year. Such a shame too!

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  20. I'm not a terribly fast writer either, Ken. If I have a choice (and it's not always possible!) I prefer to dedicate decent blocks of time to my writing rather than half hour here or there. I guess we are all different and it is about doing what's right for each of us. Happy writing is the most important thing.

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  21. I edit as I go. That's just how I do it. All writers work differently. I am jealous and amazed by those writes who can write 3 books a year, but I'll never be that writer.

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  22. Free-writing sounds like letting go. Mixing it with a first draft could lead to major breakthroughs. :-)

    Anna from elements of emaginette

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  23. The words flow like that for me, but only for this subgenre of mystery. I struggle writing other stuff. The important thing, as you mentioned, is your passion for your story and your dedication to it. That's what keeps you persevering.

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  24. Wow, interesting story. I don't know if could write like that either. Great post.
    Happy IWSG Belated Day!
    Juneta @ Writer's Gambit

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  25. We all write differently, and each work is different too. Some pieces will come together easier than others. When that'll happen is a whole other story, though. :)

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  26. "...the concept that someone can write a first draft in which less than 80% of it isn't thrown out or changed in subsequent revisions seems like fantasy to me." Me too. Kudos to those writers.
    So I'll just plod away, as per usual. I'll get there. You will too.

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