shaken & stirred

welcome to my martini glass

3.14.2005

writer porn, or lessons

"The work is never done" is one of the most frightening sentences in the world. I'm not sure how true it is either, but I have to at least believe in a stage of abandonment that feels like doneness.

But, for those keeping score at home, this is going to be about how little I know.

As you may remember from all those long stretches of extreme boringness and nattering, I finished _a draft_ of my YA novel Girl's Gang a while back. I was pretty happy with it. I thought it was relatively done. And, relatively, I guess it is. There is a beginning, middle and end. There are parts of it I'm extremely happy with. But I've realized (not necessarily all on my own, more on that in a moment) that it was still closer to a first draft than a last one. But I was ready to be done with it. Ready to be done with the book should never, ever be mistaken for the book is done.

I sent it to a couple of people, an editor and an agent. The agent requested some rewrites that didn't necessarily resonate with me, but gave me the prodding I needed to send it where I should have when I thought it was "done" -- to the sharpest editor among my writer friends. (Writer friends, you may now compete to prove me wrong on this score. I will just sit back and reap the benefits of your fine editing.)

A digression here on my process: I learned most of what little I know about writing among a group of outstanding screenwriters in a private online workshop I was in for three years or so (and am currently MIA from). They were amazing and so a big part of my process became handing over stuff and getting instant new, keen eyes on it; they were hardly ever wrong and their feedback always improved the work. I also learned how to helpfully (hopefully) critique other people's work from them, no small thing. Cut to my first real attempt at writing prose in several years, this young adult novel, and the need for those same ruthless kinds of eyes. The problem being, of course, that in draft 1.0 to 1.1, which my in-person fiction writing group suffered through and improved, I wasn't even anywhere near the finish line. They helped immensely, especially considering they weren't necessarily all that familiar with YA as a genre (we can argue whether that's even a fair characterization later, but for now, it's a marketing category, it's a genre). They got me closer to being finished.
I want to be clear here: I wasn't tough enough on my own work because I stayed too close to it for some reason. _I_ never got that shock of recognition and understanding of what needed to happen and how it could be better. I never separated from it enough. So, mostly, other than the beginning and ending, not that many changes were made. Unfortunately.

The upshot is this: I know what needs to happen now. My writer-editor friend gave me marvelous suggestions and a spectacularly thorough line edit. The book will be better. It will be the book I wanted to write without knowing it. The revisions are going to take some work.

The lesson is this: make sure the book is actually done before you try and sell it. Send it to your toughest, best critic first.

So, I was faced with a dilemma. It may shock you to find out that even though I blah and blah on here all the time, I keep a lot of secrets from you people. I rarely if ever talk about my work (the writing), which is obviously a huge part of what I'm doing and thinking about. The dilemma was whether to have crap content or take a hiatus while doing this mountain of work the book needs. I think I have a lot to learn in this revision. I'm intrigued by the possibility of using this space to figure some of that stuff out. I know a fair amount of writers read this blog, many of them light years more accomplished than me. Which is my way of telling you I'm blushing even writing this, but once I post it, I'll have committed to being honest about the process while it's going on. So, apologies to those who do not want to hear me natter about this stuff for one month or two, or however long it takes, but my head will be in writespace and so will Shaken & Stirred. If nothing else, as a way of staying focused among all the life noise. (There'll be other stuff too, promise.)

Part of motivating myself to do a big project is writer porn!

Writer porn being, of course, the books you take out of the library on writing. Now, they can't be just any books. They have to be good. They have to promise some nodding, some ability on the part of the writer to motivate (good teachers do this best), and they have to be by people who can and do write themselves. The library gives you the ability to try them out before plunking down cash and adding them to that particular bookshelf in your home. I started one of the two I took out from library this morning and it has not disappointed. It's fantastic, and I expect I'll be quoting snippets of it here for days to come. It's The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch. (Koch ran the Columbia MFA program for years and has written several acclaimed novels.) Here's the section that most describes the task I've got in front of me:

Fast or slow, once your first draft is done, be ready for it to be bad. Some parts may give you a pleasant surprise over how good they are, and the whole may not turn out to be quite as horrible as you feared during your very worst moments. Even so, it’s going to be bad. Do not let that badness bother you. Use the badness. I once heard Philip Roth tell a crowded roomful of writing students that, when it came to sheer stinking lousiness, he would match his first drafts against those of any writer in the place. Your own first draft will probably be ragged, inarticulate, blundering, dull, and full of gaping holes and blank spots—a mortifying mess. Use every mistake. The inarticulate parts point to where you must make words say exactly what you mean. The ragged parts point to what you must polish. The gaping holes tell you what has to be filled. The dull parts tell you unfailingly what must be cut. The blank spots show exactly what you must go out and find. These are infallible guides, and though they talk tough, they are your friends.


And then this:

Except for the miraculous times when it doesn’t, EVERYTHING YOU WRITE WILL TAKE LONGER THAN YOU THINK IT SHOULD. What’s more, not one of your readers will ever give a damn if you wrote your story in a half an hour or half a year.


This is going to be interesting. I'm on the high wire.

And yes, I'm still pecking away on the new book, the next book, the one that will be easy. It'll be easy, right?

14 Comments:

  • At 4:26 PM , Blogger Dave said...

    No one sees my first drafts. Ever. It would be terribly unfair to inflict that on anybody, particularly myself. I'm in a writer's group, and what I show them has usually been revised at least twice. I realize not everyone takes that approach, but I'm definitely of the "writing is rewriting" school.

     
  • At 4:32 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    FWIW, I at least am as interested in hearing what you have to say about writing as I am in hearing what you have to say about everything else. So, no apologies necessary!

    -- Niall

     
  • At 7:20 PM , Anonymous Holly Black said...

    I am very interested to hear what you have to say about writing--it's like writing porn that I don't even have to go to the library to read!

     
  • At 7:39 PM , Blogger chance said...

    so after like 90 tries blogger lets me comment.

    I'm also interested in reading your writer porn.

    (also, gimme book!)

     
  • At 9:20 PM , Anonymous eek said...

    "Ready to be done with the book should never, ever be mistaken for the book is done."

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

    I thought I had finished my book last May. I was happy with it, I had a great mentor who gave me tons of freedom to figure out order and structure myself, made thoughtful suggestions (all of which strengthened my vision), and solid peer-review. Then I stopped tinkering with it, until a new friend (kickass poet and decisive motherfcker) asked to see my book. He did a shuffle act that amazed me, rearranged the entire work and made it more than what it was. He made the whole thing sing.

    I'm glad I was able to step back from the work enough to see that his radical suggestions were just what I needed.

    I'm looking forward to the Writer Porn. Sing it: I just can't get enough!

     
  • At 11:34 PM , Blogger Janni said...

    EVERYTHING YOU WRITE WILL TAKE LONGER THAN YOU THINK IT SHOULD.

    Isn't that the truth.

    I think I need a note over my computer. "Writing takes lots of time. Stop angsting over it."

    I've had exactly one book be easy. After that, I thought all my books would be that way. (cue maniacal laughter)

    I'm still waiting for another book that writes itself, instead of making me work really hard.

     
  • At 7:01 AM , Blogger gwenda said...

    You guys are the best. I will happily supply you FREE, nonlibrary-based writer porn.

    And, sadly, Dave, I left out the zero draft and the unfortunate first readers of that -- who actually were extremely helpful. I think I'm trying to count screwy so it won't be apparent what draft I'm actually on (and really because I don't feel I deserve full draft credit for a couple of these in the middle). But this is fodder for another porn post, so I'd better save it.

     
  • At 12:29 PM , Anonymous Christian Bauman said...

    Best advice I ever got: When you're absolutely, positively convinced your novel/story/whatever can get no better, when you're sure it's time to sell that puppy...at that point, put it in a drawer and wait 2 weeks.

     
  • At 1:15 PM , Blogger Dave said...

    That's very good advice.

    I'm trying to organize a thought. Hm. I think it has to do with, in my case, realizing that the only way to write better stories was to take more time. Not to send out stories before they're ready. To really listen to the critiques and try to reconcile the comments with my "vision" of the story. It's tough because I'm not a patient person, and this business moves slow enough already.

    Anyway, me too on wanting the writer porn. Bring it on!

     
  • At 2:02 PM , Blogger Jenny D said...

    Yes, bring it on. That's a great post. I rewrote my first novel so many times (DRASTICALLY, too) that I can't even count. And I thought my second one would be so much easier... and it has been, in a way, but I did two stringent rewrites in the last 6 months at the behest of my genius agent, and I've still got (what I hope will be only) one more round of revisions to go before she even sends it out. Part of this has been pushing really hard to make this book something that will *sell*--which might sound like a bad kind of selling out, but I'm a lover of great commercial fiction & I'm really committed to the idea of making this book appealing and engaging to the largest possible number of people. Which may not be that large, but still...

    Good luck with the book(s)!

     
  • At 7:47 PM , Blogger gwenda said...

    Again, I love you all.

    Jenny, is this the book that at least tangentally touches on anarchists? I don't know anyone I'd talk to for mroe than five minutes that won't appeal to.

    I'd intended another entry today but got overwhelmed with actual line editing and other stuff. Headache + tired eyes = need for wine and Deadwood. More tomorrow about the folly of polishing a mess and how good life really is.

     
  • At 9:25 PM , Blogger unsaid said...

    G,
    I've been fooling around with the same collection of poetry for how long?!

    I'm looking forward to reading whatever you have to say about writing. Bring on the writer porn!

     
  • At 10:50 PM , Blogger Debbie said...

    This is my first time visiting, but if your novel is anything like your blog then I'm sure it'll be wonderful.

    The whole "As long as your writing seems effortless, it doesn't matter how effortful it is" thing reminds me of Yeats's "Adam's Curse."

    We sat together at one summer's end,
    That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
    And you and I, and talked of poetry.
    I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;
    Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
    Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

     
  • At 4:24 PM , Blogger PigeonintheSun said...

    Oh, God, I love this term. Writerporn is EXACTLY what I have on my "special shelf." It's embarrassing, but it feels soo good. My friend and editor John Trimble (buy his book, "Writing With Style") sent me this link. What a pleasure to chill with other writers again... You have a new fan.

     

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