Butterflies keep turning up in my work, as you can see even from the cover art (and titles!) of What Can't Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Recently I saw a beautiful photograph on Flickr* that got me thinking about what it might mean that I keep seeing butterflies in the inkblots of my characters' worlds.
It has to do with obvious things, like my iron-clad optimism. I like (and need) the notion of change and growth. Of breaking out of confined spaces. Of surprise. After all, I believe no one is more surprised by transformation than the butterfly himself.
But there is something more to the butterfly thing. Fragility. Flight. Upward movement. Silence. The ephemeral.
That seems to be the direction the butterfly theme is taking in novel #3, which is darker still than The Knife and the Butterfly. The butterflies in my WIP seem to be a kind of negative image, their absence marked out by the contours of events. I think maybe I am the only one who will see them, gathered in the shadows.
*"Rorschach" by Robby Cavanaugh. It's not available for reposting via CreativeCommons, but it is so worth the click. Go on, click. You won't be sorry.
To help YOU go write today, I'll share my number 1, go-to method of getting my style muscles in condition.
There is something to be said for having a shock-proof shit detector that can be turned "off" for the purposes of drafting. That is, an editor you can shut up long enough to get the words on the page.
I've already hoorayed over the triumph of finishing a draft (just the first of many, mind you) of novel #3 and managing to crank out 200,000 words in a year with a focus on plot.·
But in all that FAST writing, I had a recurring fear that I was steadily killing my inner stylist. Was I losing the art of the well-turned sentence? Had I become deaf to the music of language in favor of the blunter instruments of plot twists, drama, and suspense? Would I ever write another paragraph that, even if it took me an hour, had all the harmony and cohesion that are missing in our world?
As a reward for finishing the draft and because, let's face it, my style muscles have gotten a little weak, I'm taking a break from story and plot and returning to my first love: the sentence. Here's a lovely demonstration of why it matters to take time with the sentence:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals--sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
(Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. Mentor, 1985)
There are countless books of writng prompts and exercises out there, but I always come back to my favorite approach: starting with sentences I admire in books I'm reading. Try it! Here's how:
Find a paragraph of prose you admire. Write it out longhand just to get the feel of those amazing words coming out of your own pen (on loan). Notice the joints within and between sentences, how they fit together and flow.
Now write your own paragraph (on whatever subject you choose), modeling each sentence exactly on the paragraph you admire. Try to stick to your model; the idea is to pay attention to how writing moves at the sentence level—and to get infected by gorgeous prose. Here’s an example:
Gil Adamson’s opening sentence in her novel The Outlander: “It was night, and dogs came through the trees, unleashed and howling.”
Ashley’s sentence: It was noon, and salmon arced up out of the stream, rainbowed and gleaming.
What’s awesome about this prompt, which I shared with figment.com here? You can use it over and over, so it’s a perfect building block for a writing ritual. Best of all, you can surprise yourself into a twist in your narrative.
For me a first draft is like that impossibly slow climb to the top of a roller coaster... a roller coaster from hell that keeps getting higher and higher so that you spend WEEKS thinking, I'm almost there... I'm just scenes away... I'm almost there... a few more clicks and clacks...
But... it doesn't go on forever. I have finally finished a rough draft of novel #3, which has been on my heart and mind for years and has been on my desk for the past ten months. For me, that last word of the first draft is only the beginning, the moment before the drop on the roller coaster. It's exhilerating and terrifying.
is a beast, weighing in at over 170,000 words. (All those words will not, I assure you, survive into the final version.) Now the manuscript is in the hands of my most-trusted beta reader, and I pray she will wield all her numerous swords--Blade of Efficiency, Exwordilur, Scenecutter, Adverbbiter, Enemy of Infodump, Bane of Flashbacks, and Claritybringer are some of the weapons in her arsenal--to help me hack off the unnecessary limbs of my monster and uncover the leaner, meaner badass of a book within.
And that's how I see a draft: it's not the book, it's what I'm going to build the book out of. The material is rough as hell, but it'll do for a start. It'll more than·do, I hope.
In fact, as someone who once obsessed over the placement of every modifier, I see roughness as a sign of progress. I surprised myself with this project by learning to put plot first. I might have overwritten (okay, I definitely did), but I wrote faster than I ever have before, cranking out over 200,000 words in a year.
Working fast and rough means I'm learning the difference between drafting and writing. The former is when I put words on the page toward the story I want to tell. The later is when my words take on a life of their own. I'm putting my inner bitch of an editor in her place (for the record, that is in a dark closet with duct tape over her mouth). Soon she'll have her day.
Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame has said, "if you love your first draft, it probably sucks." This is precisely the kind of unhelpful remark that can be crippling and panic-inducing for a writer. Loving a first draft doesn't mean that you think you're done or that it's perfect. God, no. It means you see what it wants to become, and if you don't love that, what the hell is the point of taking the plunge for it?
I'm not afraid to say it: I love my first draft enough to fight to make it a novel.