“The First Draft of Anything is Shit”

firstdraft

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

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-

 

 

 

A Few Thoughts on Writing

Most advice for writers online seems to impart information the adviser does not truly understand, advice unable to capture the nuance and complexity of writing (and reading).

The concept that is probably the most misunderstood and misused is “showing vs telling,” followed by the disdain of adverbs.

The best example of “showing” in English literature is Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants.  Because it is written in strict 3rd Person Objective, the reader only sees and hears what a camera would see and hear:

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

“They look like white elephants,” she said.

“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.

“No, You wouldn’t have.”

Some of the best examples of “telling” can be found in fiction for children and young adults. If you’ve read the Harry Potter books, you’ve read thousands of pages of examples of “telling.” Here is an example:

Harry had taken up his place at wizard school, where he and his scar were famous … but now the school year was over, and he was back with the Dursleys for the summer, back to being treated like a dog that had rolled in something smelly. The Dursleys hadn’t even remembered that today happened to be Harry’s twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn’t been high… .

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. J. K. Rowling.

Variations of the following are provided all over the web as an example of the sin of “telling:” She was cold.

The prescription offered to correct this mistake, transforming it from “telling” to “showing,” is always along the lines of: “The snow swirled around her. She blew on her hands then pulled her scarf tighter around her neck.”

Both are examples of scene setting description that do not tell you anything about the character’s thoughts and feelings, nor advance the plot.  And because they do not function as either character or plot development, that the first tells what the second shows, is irrelevant with regards to the prescription against “telling.”

The only meaningful difference between these two examples is that the first is a very efficient description and the second is a less efficient description.

Here is another example from Hills Like White Elephants:

The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot….

You’ll notice that Hemingway comes right out and tells you it is very hot. In the nearly 100 years that this story has been subjected to literary criticism, this sentence has never been flagged as “telling,” because it tells you nothing about the characters and doesn’t give away the story. The title does that.

A succinct, efficient description is all that is needed here, because the weather is not the point. Hemingway could delete this sentence and it would have no effect on the story. If the temperature was to marry the mood of the characters, it would be cold.

If Hemingway had spent 3-4 sentences establishing that it was hot, showing that it was hot, the reader would have been lead to believe that the temperature was important, because the time spent on detail is how an author clues the reader into what matters and what doesn’t.

Another example from Hills Like White Elephants:

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

This is perhaps the most perfect example of “showing” you will ever find. It is so perfect, the reader may not even pick up on the significance of this scene until after having read the entire story.

Many online writing gurus implore writers to more write elaborate, lengthy descriptions, full of novel metaphors, in order to avoid “telling.” But unless you are a very talented writer, following this advice will usually only serve to draw attention to your writing, which for me at least, is a much greater sin than “telling.” It risks annoying, distracting, or boring the reader, especially if you are composing metaphors. Metaphors are extremely hard to get right and extremely easy to get wrong, and everyone always assumes that they get them right, but they don’t, and readers pay the price.

How elaborate a description should be, whether you set the scene efficiently or inefficiently, shouldn’t be determined by an arbitrary rule about showing and telling (and it is arbitrary–all dialog is “showing;” if a character says “I’m cold” it does not count as “telling”). The amount of detail provided should be based solely on the needs of the story both at that moment and as a whole. And your actual skill as a writer.

I find that elaborate descriptions are best left to exceptional writers, and that encouraging writers, in general, to be unnecessarily verbose, does their writing more harm than good.

Most writers, and surely all readers, would be better served by Elmore Leonard’s tenth rule on writing: “If is sounds like writing, rewrite it,” than they would by having two extra sentences added to convey that a particular character was cold, so as to avoid the appearance of “telling.” Readers don’t want to be constantly reminded that they are reading as they read.

I’m not saying that “She was cold” is necessarily better than “The snow swirled around her. She blew on her hands then pulled her scarf tighter around her neck;” I’m saying that “The snow swirled around her. She blew on her hands then pulled her scarf tighter around her neck” is not necessarily better than “She was cold”. It is artificial to compare them out of context, which is how they are always compared by the writing gurus.

I would probably opt for just “the snow swirled around her.” From that it is obvious she is cold, the reader learns it is snowing, and unless her being gloveless is important, and unless the scarf will prove important later on, as a reader, I don’t care. It’s detail I don’t need. My mind provided her with the appropriate attire as soon as I learned she was outside in the snow.

Writers need to evaluate our writing as a reader would; ask ourselves: If I read this in a book I didn’t write, would I like it? Would I even care? We also must trust our readers, have faith that their imaginations will be able to bring our stories to life. While no reader wants to have to play games figuring out how things look, at the same time, they don’t want the way things look to interfere with their enjoyment of the story itself. A reader’s mind will fill the void.

The following paragraph is, for me, the most beautiful in the English language. I am honest enough with myself to know that it would take me six months to write even a shadow of it. But it provides a good rule of thumb for evaluating elaborate descriptions: the more elaborate the description, the greater the demand that the description be beautiful, and that it be used primarily to establish tone and subtext, to create an emotional response in the reader:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The last paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead”

(The last sentence of that paragraph surely ranks with the best poetry ever written).

You’ll notice Joyce had no fear of adverbs. I’m not sure when or how the war against adverbs began. I know Steven King is a champion of the cause to rid the world of adverbs, somewhat disingenuously given the frequency of adverbs in his own writing.

My guess is that the same misunderstanding about “showing vs telling” gave birth to it. Adverbs can certainly be misused, but they are simply another form of efficient description. And as the above excerpt shows, they’re critical to creating a sentence’s cadence and tone.

Even Hemingway, the most famous Minimalist writer of all time, used adverbs freely. His writing, like all Minimalists, is absolutely efficient, but his sentences are beautiful nonetheless:

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

 A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemmingway

Not only did he use adverbs liberally here, he repeatedly uses one of the most reviled adverbs of all: very. And he does so with great success, because no sentence ever written has been harmed by making it more pleasing to the ear, which is why the very’s are there.

The beauty of any sentence comes always from its cadence, and cadence is created primarily by adverbs and the word “and” (and commas too — they are the punctuational equivalent of “and,” but multiple commas in a short stretch can sometimes become confusing). Many misunderstand this, I think, assuming that the beauty comes from the words. There is not a single fifty-cent word in either Joyce’s paragraph or in Hemingway’s. They both used everyday language. They just used everyday language in exceptional ways.

Far more important than showing or telling or adverbs is being conscious of what you are doing when you write and why you are doing it and what you hope it will achieve. You should be able to explain why you made the choices you did — every one of them. If you can’t explain it, you should probably cut it.

A useful tool for both writers and reviewers is LiteraryDevices. net . It has definitions and examples of the all of the various types devices employed and available to writers.

[T]he term Literary Devices refers to the typical structures used by writers in their works to convey his or her message(s) in a simple manner to his or her readers.  When employed properly, the different literary devices help readers to appreciate, interpret and analyze a literary work.

Literary Elements have an inherent existence in a literary piece and are extensively employed by writers to develop a literary piece e.g. plot, setting, narrative structure, characters, mood, theme, moral etc. Writers simply cannot create their desired works without including Literary Elements in a thoroughly professional manner.

Literary Techniques, on the contrary, are structures, usually words or phrases, in literary texts that writers employ to achieve not merely artistic ends, but also give readers a greater understanding and appreciation of their literary works. Examples are:  metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole, allegory etc.

In contrast to literary elements, literary techniques are not an unavoidable aspect of literary works.

I’ll leave you with the best refutation of the assertion that adverbs weaken sentences that there is:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Verbs were meant to be modified and they were meant to be modified by adverbs.

-k-