“The First Draft of Anything is Shit”

I get ideas for stories all of a sudden out of nowhere and can see the scenes clearly in my mind’s eye before I ever attempt to write them (even months beforehand).

The idea for the To Thee is This World Given  came to me in March 2014. The next day at work I jotted down a brief outline on a yellow legal pad that would remain the same until the story was finished:

Two characters, a man and woman, meet on a road several years into a zombie apocalypse. They leave the road and go into the woods. They camp at the side of a stream where the woman tends the man’s wounds. They talk late into the night. The next morning they hike back to the road where they meet a third character, before parting for good.

The only  significant changes to my original concept were to make their relationship antagonistic (originally they had been much more chummy), to make their relationship with the third character friendly (originally it had been hostile), and to have the female character walk away from the male character (originally he had walked away from her).

While my stories may come quickly, the actual writing for me is not spontaneous. It’s the result of intense planning, outlining, reworking, refining, and even acting out. I frequently make the faces and perform the actions the characters are doing to figure out how to describe them and to make sure they actually work in real life. I also recite dialog out loud as I write to make sure it sounds like normal speech. All of this makes it a little embarrassing for me to write where other people can see and hear me.

It ended up taking me four and a half months to complete the novella’s 20,000 word first draft, and I ended up throwing out 99% of the text away in the second draft.

I started the actual writing the middle of April 2014. The first two lines I wrote were the first and last lines of the book — this is pretty typical for me, except that usually I start off with just the last sentence (I often can see the end of my stories before I can see their beginnings):

The First Line of To Thee is This World Given is The dead congregate; the last line is The living collide.

The only other text that stayed unchanged through all drafts was a paragraph of dialogue in which the female character is talking about the star Betelguese, the left hand of OrionI almost named  To Thee is This World Given, “The ninth brightest star” in honor of Betelguese. This paragraph is one of the most important for understanding the story:

Her voice was wistful, almost sad. “It rushed into existence and used up all of its fuel too fast. Just the blink of an eye in the lives of most stars. And right now its winds are crashing against everything in the galaxy, even us. And eventually it will explode outward and there will be nothing left. No star. No black hole. Just empty space. As if it had never been there at all.” Her eyes closed. “It’ll have had just a short, brilliant life that extinguished so much with it when it went.”

To Thee is This World Given is written in both third person objective and in medias resI wanted readers to experience the space between themselves and the characters in the same way and at the same time the characters experience the space between themselves. Third person objective and in medias res forces them to do so.

The reader is dropped immediately into the action and is never told what the characters think or feel, or how the characters got to where the story starts. They have to make that decision for  themselves, based on what the characters do and say (and fail to do and say). The reader is never told who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, who is the hero and who is the villain, who to root for and who to root against. Just like life.

The truth is that unless we are told, we never know what is going on in someone else’s head, and even then we have to take it on faith. The best we can do is pay close attention, but even then we often still get it wrong. How we decipher someone else usually says more about us than it does them. That’s a central theme of the book.

The slowest period of the entire writing process, which ended up taking me eight months to reach the final draft, plus another three months in editing, were the first six pages. Those six pages took me almost three weeks to finish, because I kept reworking what I had written the day before instead of moving on. So I got nowhere.

I was having a very hard time getting the voice right. It was driving me crazy.

The voice in third person objective is “silent.” There is no narrator, there is no “telling” at all. Everything must be “shown” through action, dialog, and description. In all other point of views the voice is obvious and can smooth over less elegant writing in the action and dialog. In third person objective, the action and dialog have to stand on their own, relying solely on the strength of the writing in each sentence. It requires tremendous discipline; it’s like a straight jacket, except that you are always fighting slipping into telling.

Additionally, by writing in medias res the story starts with no exposition, and especially early on, is in strict active voice; you just jump right into the action. The problem I was having was in not sounding like blocking, or like something written by a five year old.

(To this day, the first half of the first chapter remains the part of the book that I am the least happy with. I never could get it completely right).

In the end, I made a rule that the only thing I could read on a given day was what I was writing that day and that I could not re-read or rewrite anything I had written earlier. I finally began making progress.

I wrote every day from noon to 4 pm, longhand on yellow legal pads, and as I went along I created detailed outlines mapping out each chapter. In the third chapter, I realized that having the characters get along didn’t work, so I changed course going forward as if they had always not gotten along and stuck post-it notes on the early pages about what changes would have to be made in the second draft.

People are often surprised at how long it took me to write the first 20,000 words. The thing about a novella is that everything included has to pull its weight. Everything is Chekov’s gun. Every word has to count. Whereas the difficulty in writing 100,000 words is in having enough to say, with 20,000 words it is not saying more than enough. This was compounded by how tightly structured To Thee is This World Given is. On most days, at least half of my time was spent organizing and mapping out what I was going to write.

I didn’t keep a copy of the first draft. Every time I finished re-writing a corresponding section in the second draft, a handful of yellow pages was tossed into the recycling bin. At the end, a mountain of scribbled-on yellow pages that no one ever saw but me.

At least once a day I said, “God, this is garbage.”

Not getting demoralized was hard.

I couldn’t see how I would ever get anywhere close to being happy with the story.

But I had a little post it stuck on my desk reminding me that the first draft of anything is always shit. I had another ordering me to not edit as I wrote.

It’s better to press forward and throw it all away, than to stand still and have nothing to throw away. Ernest Hemingway threw away the first 3,000 words of  The Sun Also Rises and re-wrote the ending of a A Farewell to Arms forty-seven times.

-k-

You can read about the themes in To Thee is This World Given, in my post  The Hardest Thing in Writing is Simply to Tell the Truth

Some of my thoughts on writing in general can be found here and here.

 

 

 

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Some Thoughts On Beta-Readers

Great advice!

Writing Is Hard Work

Every indie writer needs a good set of beta readers.  However, the choosing of beta readers is a task not to be taken lightly, and it is the writer’s responsibility to help the beta readers do their job efficiently.

I’ve chosen beta readers in the past who have been excellent at their job, and some of them unfortunately have not given the proper feedback to help me write a better novel.  I do not blame these beta readers for not providing the critique I needed, as I didn’t really give them the tools they needed to be successful beta readers.

The most important thing you can do when selecting beta readers is that you should select people who read often, who read the genre of fiction you are writing, and who are generally good communicators at least in writing.  You should also either pay them or reward them somehow for helping…

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Struggling authors, please read.

We loved this. We thought we’d share it =)

Author Kyle Perkins

By Kyle Perkins.

So lately I have heard from a few people that they feel like they should just give up on writing because for whatever reason, they are feeling like it just isn’t worth it anymore. Whether they feel like they aren’t getting enough attention, don’t have enough fans, or whatever the case may be, they are wrong, and here’s why.

Writers and authors have a gift, and because we have that gift, we have an obligation, a responsibility to use it. We may “just” arrange words in such a fashion that people enjoy reading them, but a heart surgeon “just” transplants hearts, and astronauts “just” go to space. We need to stop treating writing like it is simply a hobby that “anyone” can do, because that’s not the case. We “just” take people to places they can’t go on their own, and give them a form of escapism…

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On writing

We liked this and thought we’d pass it along =)

Have We Had Help?

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Why do we write? Why do we feel driven to do it? Perhaps its a state of mind. Some believe it is a calling.

One thing is certain, many like myself willingly sacrifice what most would consider a normal existence for an impoverished lifestyle of self-imposed solitude in order that the story which has consumed us for months or years in many cases, finally appears in print.

Pass any of us in the street and you would be hard pressed to pick us out of the crowd. Most of my neighbours have no clue that I’m a published author. If pressed by one of them, would I tell them? Maybe, if I thought they were genuinely interested. Most are not.

Touch wood that so far no one round here has ever asked me the inane question that writers of my acquaintance in the US have been confronted with from time…

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“The Hardest Thing in Writing is Simply to Tell the Truth”

The unifying theme behind To Thee is This World Given is that we are not an inherently selfish, callus, violent species. While I don’t believe we are inherently good, I do believe we inherently desire to be so, which is diametrically opposed to our supposedly sociopathic nature depicted by The Walking Dead and other books, movies, and television shows in the post-apocalyptic genre.

For the most part I believe we are basically a pretty decent species. After all, there is no other species on the planet willing to adopt the offspring of another, rear it as a family member, and do everything in its power to keep it safe and sound (especially the offspring of a species that used to eat them). That’s pretty exceptional when you think about it.

What I don’t believe is that we have to love each other. That’s unrealistic, even as goal. I don’t even believe we have to like each other, we just have to try tolerate each other, not harm each other, help each other if we can, and at the very least acknowledge that we’re all just struggling to stay afloat in our own way.

I tried to suggest this in To Thee is This World Given from the very beginning with a pair of quotes from Siddhartha and Charles Dickens:

“What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world where each person is clinging to his or her piece of debris? What is the proper salutation between them as they pass each other in this flood?” Siddhartha

“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide, and if that spirit go not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.” Charles Dickens

In To Thee is This World Given, two-thirds of the character interaction is cooperative, and the two best adjusted characters are the two most cooperative ones. Additionally, basic human decency comes up in dialog scattered throughout the story and is shown in the “hobo code” that people use mark to the roads to let others know that lies ahead and where to find things like food, water, and shelter.

While I made up my own symbols, the road markings in the book were inspired by the actual hobo code of the 1930s. The fact that the real hobo code developed is, itself, a testament to human nature.

A second theme in the story is our fallibility in interpreting and understanding other people’s motives and personalities, and the fact we often deceive ourselves about our own. This is alluded to by the title itself.

To Thee is This World Given is comes from one of the most famous quotes in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, Young Goodman Brown:

“Now faith is gone…[t]here is no good on earth; sin is but a name. Come devil, for to thee is world given.”

Young Goodman Brown centers around the title character’s shifting interpretations and opinions of his neighbors’ motives and personalities, as well as the reader’s own shifting interpretations and opinions of Goodman Brown’s motives and the reliability of his conclusions.

In the story, Goodman Brown’s neighbors are revealed to be hypocrites; however, the reader can’t be certain that the part of the story in which the reveal happens actually took place or not. It could have been a dream or a hallucination, for instance, and the only time the reader actually sees the neighbors undeniably in action, they behave the opposite of how they behaved in the dream-like reveal. So the reader must decide if the neighbors are hypocrites or if Goodman Brown is deceived. Because the story is written in third party objective and in medias res, the reader has nothing more to go on than what Goodman Brown sees, hears, and says.

But if you move beneath the superficial story, you realize there is only one character that is undeniably a hypocrite, and that is Goodman Brown. He is everything he condemns his neighbors of being, and everything he condemns them for doing, he does, himself.

The final theme in To Thee is This World Given is that we are our actions. There are no good or bad people, just good or bad actions. The difference between a hero and a villain is that the villain is honest and up front about doing bad things, while the hero creates elaborate excuses to justify doing bad things. Hero’s suffer from Goodman Brown syndrome.

This is why I did not give my characters’ name. Names are authorial and reader short cuts into character personalities — “Bubba” forms a completely different picture than “Allister,” for instance. Even common names influence one’s perceptions of a character — John tells a different story than Jack does. If a character doesn’t have a name, they can only be evaluated by their actions, which are either good, bad, or neutral, or more typically a hodge podge of all three

I also had the main characters address this theme directly when they argue about Superman and Lex Luther, and indirectly when they argue about the refusal of the leader of Britain’s south pole expedition to let his surviving men try to continue on to get help.

I think of my story as sort of a moebius circle. Every element can be traced back around itself to one of these themes, all of which are already inherently intertwined with each other to begin with. Each time you run your finger along the story’s edge you end up in deeper layer. There is the superficial story, and beneath this, a story about the fallibility of perceptions and expectations and conclusions and justifications, and then at the deepest level, there is a story about the world as it is today.

Plots to me are not the stories, to me they are just the way stories are made sensible to other people. The stories are the truths about the spaces between people, and between what we believe is the truth and what the truth really is.

 

-k-

You can read about my experiences writing the first draft, in my post The First Draft of Anything is Shit.

Some of my thoughts on writing in general can be found here and here.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the Time to Write To Thee is This World Given

Virginia Wolf once said that one needs money and a room of one’s own to be able to write. But what one really needs is time. Money and a home are just the currency needed to purchase it.

Ever since graduating college, I had been trying to find a way to both support myself and have enough spare time to write.

In the 1990s, I lived in Manhattan, attended NYU’s Publishing Program, and worked in the editorial departments of various houses, hoping that by working in publishing I’d have a better chance of my manuscript being read.

But as you probably already know, it’s challenging to be able to write while working full time, especially if you don’t write in a heavily formulaic genre and you have to share 800 square feet with five people (publishing doesn’t pay so well). So, while all that time I had an “in,” I didn’t have a finished manuscript.

After a while the realization set in that the whole point of my working in the industry was moot and I ended up in law school (all but two of my roommates from that time also went to law school, of the two others, one stuck it out in the industry and one I have know idea).

I chose law because I had the grades, did well on the sample LSAT test, and wasn’t good enough at math to go to med school. My plan was to work for a few years, scrimp, and be able to buy an inexpensive house outright, which would free me from having to work so much that it would interfere with my writing.

What I didn’t know was (1) that I’d leave law school with student loans that rivaled most people’s mortgages; (2) that I’d have to work at least eighty hours a week at a firm; and (3) that the housing market would experience the worst inflation in history. So, as you can imagine I didn’t get much writing done.

During this period, the thought that I was running out of time and not doing what I was supposed to be doing became more and more urgent, until around 2006 or 2007, when it turned into an all encompassing preoccupation that didn’t let up until I actually began writing To Thee is This World Given . I would sit at my desk every night researching cases and typing memos, thinking, “I am not supposed to be doing this,” over and over and over.

Then something happened. It would end up providing me with enough money to live off of for about a year and half without having to work.

In March 2014 I was offered a settlement from my firm, and so I had a decision to make:  refuse the money and continue working for an employer I’d grown to hate; take the money, be responsible, and find another job right away; or take the money, be irresponsible, and begin writing, knowing that the longer I remained unemployed the harder it would be for me to find another job.

I chose to write.

And I wrote every day, four to six hours a day, for nine months. As soon as I started writing, I felt for the first time in my life that finally I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. For the first time, I felt absolutely content.

It’s been two years since I began To Thee is World Given  and one year since it was released, and now I’m back to where I was before  trying to figure out how to have both enough money to live and enough time to write. But I’m no longer frightened by an insecure future, and I look at the problem now as finding enough time to work, not finding enough time to write.

You can read about my experiences writing the first draft of To Thee is This World Given, here.

 

You can read about the themes in To Thee is World Given, here

Some of my thoughts on writing in general can be found here and here.

-k-

 

 

The Science of Writing Slowly

When I wrote To Thee is This World Given, both my first and second drafts were written longhand on yellow legal pads, and even as I typed the third draft, every iteration of each reworked sentence and paragraph was handwritten on a combination of legal pads and post-it notes. The revisions to the fourth through the tenth, and final, draft were also longhand changes scribbled between the lines of the printed manuscripts.

I always assumed that my preference for longhand was just an old-school crutch, because my writing always seems to have a clarity that my typing does not.

But it turns out that writing slowly actually does improve the quality of one’s writing. The results of a study in the British Journal of Psychology, released in January, showed that participants who were forced to slow down their writing by typing with only one hand wrote with greater sophistication than those who were allowed to type quickly with both hands.

Typing can be too fluent or too fast, and can actually impair the writing process….It seems that what we write is a product of the interactions between our thoughts and the tools we use to express them.

[S]lowing down participants’ typing by asking them to use only one hand, allowed more time for internal word search, resulting in a larger variety of words. Fast typists may have simply written the first word that came to mind.

Another study released in 2011 found that writing by hand strengthens the learning process, while typing impairs it. 

The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses….When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback are significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.

Our bodies are designed to interact with the world which surrounds us. We are living creatures, geared toward using physical objects — be it a book, a keyboard or a pen — to perform certain tasks.

For myself, I’m able to see inconsistencies and weaknesses in my writing more vividly when I write by hand, and they bother me more intensely, to the point I that can’t ignore them, then when I type.

One thing I’ve noticed in works by the indie authors that I have read, both fiction and non-fiction, is a hastiness. Even when the writing and editing are sound there is a hasty, rushed quality to it as if the author is not fully aware of what he or she has written.

It may be that the real difference between great authors and ordinary writers is not just innate talent, but the speed and haste with which they write.

Consider this quote from Hemingway:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review, Interview, 1956

Or this one from Faulkner:

Faulkner: Since none of my work has met my own standards, I must judge it on the basis of that one which caused me the most grief and anguish.

Interviewer: What work is that?

Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury. I wrote it five separate times, trying to tell the story, to rid myself of the dream which would continue to anguish me until I did.

William FaulknerThe Paris Review, Interview, 1956

Or this one from Renard:

Style means the right word. The rest matters little.

Jules Renard

Or even this famous one from Twain:

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Mark Twain

If you would like to improve your writing just slow down.

You might also like my posts: A Few Thoughts on Writing, The First Draft of Anything is Shit, and The Hardest Thing to Do is Simply Write the Truth.

-k-