Saturday, January 09, 2010

Taking A Step Back

You know, I think writers need to take a step back every once in a while.

Hold on--before you get all riled up and think this is a pronouncement from the muses or whatever, let me explain myself a bit.  This has been coming up a lot lately, both in my editing work and my writing so I think it's worthy of exploration.

One of my writers (yep--I have the editor hat on at the moment) and I were talking about her latest WIP.  She was ready to bang her head against the wall (figuratively) because she felt the manuscript needed some major revisions but couldn't figure out exactly where.  Now, I've been there.  I've been there a lot.  Hell, I bought property there, so I could makes those moments more comfortable with some plush furniture and a few well-chosen but soothing pieces of art.  Oh, and a margarita machine. Margarita machines make everything better.  At any rate, I told her to send the manuscript to me and forget about it for a few days. I would look at it as a reader not an editor (the distinction there is important) and get back to her with my thoughts on it.

So then today, a thread shows up on Absolute Write about turning off your inner editor.  My response was simple--the inner editor (a mythical beastie if there ever was one) doesn't need to be involved in the act of creation.  If you get distracted by all those squiggly WordPerfect lines in your first draft, shrink your window down to only a few lines and just keep on writing.

This is easier said than done.  There's a lot of pressure on writers these days to be better technically. We need to know our grammar, spell words correctly (and according to common usage in your native form of English), punctuate appropriately and avoid passive tense.  We have to keep from head hopping, keep our narrative voices distinct and precise and for God's sake, avoid all those darned adverbs and exclamation points!

In other words, we're putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to write perfectly...erm...well. 

Yet, the whole purpose, the raison d'etre of a first draft isn't to write perfectly, it's to tell the story. Plain. Cold. Simple. Tell the story. Not tell the story while minimizing participial clauses, but to take a character or set of characters from the beginning of the story (better drop them right into the action) through the conflict to the ultimate resolution of the plot and, if you're me, killing a few Elves along the way for fun and profit.

Nowhere in the directive "tell the story" is there anything mentioned about grammar or point of view. You know why? Because those issues are addressed in revisions. Because the first draft is not the final draft. Most writers (at least the ones I know) revise and edit obsessively after their manuscript is born.  It may only take me a month to write a 150,000 word manuscript, but it'll take me at least half a year to get it done. When it's done, it will have lost a ton of words--mostly adverbs. I confess.--and the words on the page are *hopefully* better than the original ones.  All those dialogue tags with adverbs?  Those become sentences of action. Instead of "he barked angrily" after a snippet of conversation it's "He slammed his fist into the trunk of the closest tree, oblivious at first to the nasty mixture of bark and blood on his knuckles." There's nothing really wrong with "he barked angrily" but in order to give the story more life, the active sentence is better.

Writers are stressed out enough as it is.  Few people will ever understand the sense of accomplishment one gets from typing the words "The End" on the final page of a hundred thousand word novel. Unfortunately, writers think that all one hundred thousand of those words have to be perfect at the moment they are written instead of at the close of an exhaustive and thorough revisionary process.

That's simply not the case.  It doesn't matter what the words are in the first draft. No one sees that draft but you, the writer, and maybe a really trusted beta reader.  What matters is that the first draft tells the story, from beginning to close, in such a manner as to engage the reader.  You don't get cast in a play and open the next day; you have a lengthy rehearsal process.  What writers need to realize is that the first draft is the rehearsal process for a novel.

So take a step back. Ignore the little voice that's arguing with you about the best way to write that sentence. Just get the story down. Then, when the first draft is done it's time to catch your breath.  Close down that file (save and back it up first!) and take a few days off. Then, and only then, go back to it, read it all the way through and then--and only then--whip out the trusty red pencil and rip it to shreds.  Trust me. You'll be happier and probably healthier if you remove the pressure for perfection from that first draft.