Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Liberation of the “Shitty First Draft” (or Don’t Get Stuck in the Bog)

© Marlo Garnsworthy 2013

Years of editing have taught me a great deal about writing, and I’m very grateful for it. But an editor’s path can be a tricky one when it comes to writing her own book. As so many of you who are inclined toward self-editing will know, it’s so easy to get mired in the morass of perfecting each paragraph in chapters one to three, when you really know you should be leaping with abandon though the narrative.

Anne Lamott, in Bird By Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life (what’s not to love with a title like that?), speaks of the importance of allowing yourself to write “shitty first drafts”:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep       you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.  

Possibly you, like me, have more than one manuscript that has been well and truly stymied before the halfway mark by agonizing over individual scenes (or, more often, sentences) before you have the basic plot down. If one is lucky enough to feel the rush of love that comes with a new project, one should keep going and not fuss it to death a few steps in. There will be time enough for revision and the subtleties of each phrase later on. Plenty of time to fill in the richer details. Loads of time, in fact, as revision should be at least nine tenths of writing a book. (If you love revision and editing, as I do, that’s great news. But if you’re past the honeymoon phase with your project, or if you never really fell in love in the first place, you’d still be well advised to forge ahead and not edit. You’re already on the edge of a soul-sucking quagmire.)

I'm finding it's very freeing to allow yourself to write stuff that sounds awful (rather like this sentence). I’m taking my own advice on this project I started a few weeks ago, and I’m writing mad wonderful garbage. At least, if I were to read it as an editor, I’d think, “Oh dear, we do have quite a bit of work to do here, possibly starting with the basics of sentence construction, but there’s something special about the story.” But I’m not editing; I’m just getting scraps of scenes down. I’m letting characters say what they want to say even if it’s repetitive or nonsensical right now. I’m catching incomplete impressions, jotting unfinished and ridiculous sentences, and I’m ignoring my spellchecker until the end of each writing session. I’m letting the story reveal itself as I forge about it without stopping—and lo and behold, it is.  

The only time I’m returning to a paragraph is when something additional or better occurs to me in a flash of inspiration as I pass by it. I must admit there have been a few sentences that I have tweaked, but only—and this is the kicker—ONLY when a better way to say something comes to me as part of this naturally energized process, that is, only within the pure flow of inspiration. If I catch myself starting to fuss, I stop and move away from the paragraph or scene. Among other strategies and even more strategies I’ve discussed before, try simply scrolling through the manuscript or through your notes until something else catches your attention. Turn your focus to another scene altogether, whichever tugs you hardest, and then start writing forward afresh. 

Your draft might sound like muck, but you’ll be finding your way across the narrative terrain, though possibly chaotically. Sure, you might arrive muddy, disheveled, feathers askew, but you’ll be creating a map, almost by default, which you can later refine and revise. You’ll know the basic way, relatively quickly, and with MUCH more FUN. It doesn't mean you won’t write some dead-ends on your map along the way, because there will be some, of course. 

Move on through that mucky, messy, probably non-linear first draft, before the energy and the will to make the journey flee. Before you lose sight of what you really wanted to write about. Before the maps for possible plot-lines are so thick around you, you cannot see your way past them. Before you're afraid to even try. Don’t get bogged down planning the trip and what you might need along the way, or whether you even know where your story is going. Start somewhere (wherever you are is just fine), and just get on your way. Because it’s extraordinary how you tend to get where you want to go, if you keep your gaze fixed on the horizon, stare less at the stuff by the wayside... and just start writing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Out On a Limb

© Marlo Garnsworthy 2013

Beginning another new project has been the very last thing on my to-do list. But phrases have been whispering in my mind, repeating and growing in number, as I go about doing other things. While I scramble some eggs or dump out the compost, phrases have been turning into sentences and racing by me, soon sucking along in their wake characters and flashes of scenes. I’ve found myself clutching my notebook at all times (especially between 1 and 4 AM), pencil to page in sudden, unstoppable bursts in order to capture them before they slip away.

This story is the type that comes out all at once, all scattered little pieces blowing about, beginning, middle, and end all right there just waiting to be caught and shuffled into place. It’s a powerful feeling, when a story comes at you in an unbidden whoosh like this. It makes me chuckle out loud as I write, even though it often comes when I’ve been thinking about things that are hard. When I’m in it, I wish writing were always like that; probably, it would be exhausting if it went on too long.   

But it is magical, rare, and powerful, and feels somewhat like falling in love. But as in any passionate relationship, one comes to the end of that first rush; the flashes of pure inspiration are starting to hint that they might be slowing just a little. I haven’t hit the wall yet, but experience tells me it’s coming. What seemed pure and beautiful has some warts, and sometimes it’s grumpy or uncooperative in the morning. My mother talks about the “13-Week Rule” in relationships—the thirteenth week being make or break time. I’m closer to thirteen days into this story, and I’m pondering: How do we know whether to commit to further exploring and developing a manuscript? How do we know when to let go?

Sometimes you have to break up with a project, I’m convinced. Over time, some projects become, like some relationships, pedestrian, uninspiring, unsurprising, detrimental to your psyche, and ultimately unworthy of continuing. And sometimes you just grow out of them. I’m sure most of us have a few manuscripts like that in the drawer. But sometimes you’re so connected to a project that your belief in its worth doesn’t alter much over time, even though the project itself may have its ups and downs, even though you must step away from it now and then to get some breathing space. 

Have you ever broken up with a project? Did you say goodbye amicably, simply lose interest, or was it a tumultuous separation that left you weeping and gasping? Did you dive straight into another to replace it? Have you gotten back together with a project you thought you’d left behind? Do you juggle several at once? Have you plodded through a literary relationship you dreaded was going nowhere but had invested too much in to drop? Would you rather take the safe route and stick with a project you’re sure to handle easily, or would you dare go out on a limb for the challenge that truly inspires you?

It can be all too easy to retreat when you find yourself in the weeds. Because if you don’t really love the project deeply in some way, you’re making an enormous and somewhat dubious commitment if you decide to marry it despite your ambivalence. So doesn’t making the decision to fully commit to a project come down to how it makes you feel deep down?

I think creating a truly strong manuscript worthy of submission is like having a deep, true love: worth sticking with when things go from pure inspiration to tangled complexity; something you can’t seem to let go of no matter how much easier it would be to do something less challenging; always worth exploring just a little bit longer. And it’s something that won’t let you go in return.

So if you’re brave, you commit to it (as I’ve decided to commit to this story), even though you know it will be pure hard work at times, even when you might not have expected to be writing it, even when you’re not sure how it ends, or even quite what it is. Because, like falling in love, who knows? How often do you experience something mind-blowing? And isn’t that why we’re really doing this? 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Sendakify Project

School Library Journal posted the fun and interesting results of the Sendakify Project today, in which illustrators were invited to depict a scene from a Maurice Sendak book in the style of another illustrator. 

You can see the results here. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Musical Interlude: Running Through Woodland

Picture by me, in the woods near my home.
I am heavily into a new story this long weekend, the kind of story that began whispering phrases at me over a week ago, whispers that grew louder and became sentences wailing at me to write them down. A character and a story appearing almost out of the ether. 

Writing is most enjoyable, and often more powerful, when it comes like that.

So, today, a little writing music. Enjoy.