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.
Anybody who's remotely paying attention should know that I love Scrivener. I'm near evangelical about its virtues for everything from novel-writing to blog-touring to academic blah organizing. (Yes, my academic blahs need to be organized.)
But there's something that happens to me when I write in Scrivener. It's so easy to start a new file that I end up with a file for every little bit of half-way coherent prose (I'm talking new files for single sentences, folks). Things get so fragmented that I feel like I need a vacuum cleaner to gather it all together again.
What I actually did was to resort to old-fashioned paper, as I explained here. Below are just a few of the zillions of little bits that I needed to place or discard, which was somehow too complicated on the screen. I kept shifting around stuff I really just needed to trash.
The paper solution is working out okay to get me through the end of a draft for novel #3, but I'm thinking... there must be a better way. Not a better way than Scrivener (impossible!), but a better way to use·Scrivener for novel work.·
The problem is that I write stuff before I have a clear sense of organization, not just of the novel itself but even of my writing of the novel. Perhaps the key is to start with better folders for slotting files I'm not ready to use in the MS yet.
I think my problem is that I put too much starter material into Scrivener when I should limit myself to just what is going into the MS. Part of this I blame on Scrivener's awesomeness, which includes handy places to append PDF and image files. That seemed very cool when I had hardly written anything and was hiding behind my research, but now that the MS itself has hundreds of files, those extra sixty down in research are just making me feel all the more encumbered.
For more ideas on how to handle planning and writing in Scrivener, check out this great post, which floats the idea of doing planning in Evernote and reserving Scrivener for "actual" writing.
I may try that for novel #4.
The husband and I just finished reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, and it has sparked lots of good conversation about our priorities for the food we put onto our--and our son's--plate. That's a conversation that started before we left for Paris and evolved as we witnessed how a different culture can have a very dramatically different relationship to foods, which is something that Pollan talks about quite a bit.
In Defense of Food isn't doctine-y at all, although in a few places Pollan waxes a bit too poetical for my taste about his garden and being part of an ecosystem (for me, my garden = cheap, clean veggies, pure and simple). And it taught me things about how food policy gets made in the U.S. that I'm really glad to know as a consumer and a parent. At the end of the day, now I know that we need to trust our own sense of what's right with food over anything the FDA or the American Heart Association says.
Pollan brings home the need for common sense over "expert" recommendations through his strangely moving chronicle of the rise of the low-fat movement in official dietary recommendations. Or maybe it was just moving for me because it made me think back to my childhood. My parents--striving to "do right" and follow the best recommendations--always bought low-fat everything. At the time, I don't think it ever occurred to any of us that (a) we were eating a lot more artificial or modified foods because of this or that (b) we were eating a lot more sugar and carbohydrates in products from which fat had been subtracted.
And that brings us to the main point of Pollan's book, which probably should have been the first thing I mentioned: what is meant by the title. When Pollan writes about defending "food," what he means is the notion that the food we buy and eat should be comprised of a combination of recognizable ingredients, not engineered "food products" (Read: convenience foods, chain restaurant menu items, and anything that has ingredients you can't pronounce).
Another great food book, The End of Overeating, illustrates in detail how these food products are different from actual food. The main difference is that, rather than being designed to satisfy, food products are designed to lead to more cravings. Whereas The End of Overeating focuses more on the engineering of specific foods, In Defense of Food looks a bit more at industry trends like marketing different foods to different members of the family and encouraging the notion that even at home, everyone should cook (read: microwave pre-package food substance) their own thing.
In our home, as we try to teach Liam to be a diverse eater while still giving him opportunities to enjoy the occasional treat, I am realizing that parenting a healthy eater really means learning to be a healthier eater myself.
Tis the season for YA book lists, it seems, but apparently there's a little confusion out there as to what constitutes YA. As in, my-head-in-a-blender confusion. As the blogger who will get even more of my love by the end of this post writes:
[YA] does not stand for “Young Age” nor does it stand for “Yeah, Anything.” It stands for “Young Adult,” meaning—loosely—“teen.”
Witness the confusion here. NPR, bless them, has got a mega-list of book titles up, and they are inviting you and everybody else to vote for 10 favorites. Now, the comments on this post are F.U.L.L. of people bemoaning the absence of their favorite "YA" books. Like... Alice in Wonderland, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harriet the Spy. None of which, you will soon come to understand, are YA.
Let the record show, though, that NPR's panel actually did a pretty good job of (gasp) limiting themselves to books that could be conceivably construed as YA.
Consider, by contrast, a recent Huffington Post slideshow on fearless YA characters that included in its list the following (very much NOT YA) titles: Encyclopedia Brown (possibly prompted by the recent death of the author?), The Phantom Tollbooth (huh??), A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, Ramona Quinby, The Secret Garden, and others undeniably outside the YA category by any definition... except maybe "not for adults." In fact, I'd say of the 14, only 3 of the titles (The Hunger Games; Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret; and The Chocolate War) are solidly YA. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are iffy.
Now, let me buffer all of this by saying that I realize not everybody is as YA obsessed as us author/librarian/publisher/editor types. But guess what? There's no longer an excuse because a brilliant blogger over at Clear Eyes, Full Shelves has generated this wonderfully useful (and funny) guide to YA identification.
Did you think that YA means "teen characters"? Or that everything you read as a teen was YA? Or that if it has a cartoon on the cover, it must be YA?
If you answered "yes" to any of the above, that's okay; we can still be friends. But you do need re-education.
For the record, the Carolrhoda Lab (my publisher) mission statement contains my favorite definition of YA--or at least the YA I write: "distinctive, provocative, boundary-pushing fiction for teens and their sympathizers."
Oh, and there's more discussion of defining YA here, if you still have an appetite for it.
I'm in the middle of living something new: writing hungry.
I've always seen the idea of the starving artist as an unnecessary cliché, but I'm as close as I will likely ever be to living it. (I certainly hope this isn't our new normal!) We are paying half of our income to cover childcare this summer so that I can have time to finish my draft of novel #3.
Okay, so I'm not exactly hungry. We live in America, after all. But I am painfully aware of the economic price of my creative efforts right now, of the sacrifices my family is making for this work to be possible. All this, without any certainty about when novel #3 will sell--or how much we might expect for it.
I'm not far enough into the experience to know how things will turn out. On a Writing Excuses podcast, one of the hosts said, "I find feeding my family to be a powerful motivator," when asked about how it feels to be a "career" writer as opposed to having a day job.
On the other hand, though, here's what one of my favorite misbehaving characters, the nephew from Diderot's Le Neveu de Rameau, says about poverty and art:
Oh, Mister Philosopher, poverty is a terrible thing. I see her crouching there, with her mouth gaping open to receive a few drops of icy cold water dripping from the barrel of the Danaids. I don’t know if she sharpens the mind of the philosopher, but she has a devilish way of cooling off the head of a poet. People don’t sing well under this barrel.
Will writing hungry be a powerful motivator or a chilling force? I'll keep you posted.
Who else is thinking about race in fiction AND has battled evil garden invaders?
The answer is.... Justine Larbalestier* (psst, that asterisk means "see memorial footnote below")! On her blog this week, she has a great post about handling race (and racism) in her current project. Also if you dig around her site, you'll find this post where she mentions her warfare against basil-eating slugs. Why the heck am I talking about her battle against slugs? It's about solidarity... In light of my current offensive against a whitefly infestation, I need a sister in arms.
That solidarity carries over to writing, too, since we're both dealing with how to write about race and racism in the 1930s, although J.L.'s work is set in early 1930s in NYC and my novel #3 is set in East Texas at the end of the 30s. In her post, J.L. points out that "a distinction has to be made between depicting the racism of a particular time and being complicit with that racism." I'm not so worried about that problem as I am about another one that J.L. mentions: the danger of turning all white people into villains. She writes,
Some of my characters are white. Most have the racial attitudes of their time. If I depict them accurately they can only be read as villains by contemporary readers. But if I depict them as thinking and acting like a twenty-first century liberal white USian then I create a very unrealistic depiction of the time and place. Which makes me wonder why bother writing an historical?
I get to sidestep this a little since the color spectrum I'm working with is fuller; my protag is Mexican-American, her twin (half-) siblings are mixed, and her love interest is black. Because the East Texas town of the time didn't have three-fold segregation like regions with heavier Hispanic populations (a bit more about that here), Naomi and her sibs manage to slip into the white school, giving me a lot of situations where I need to deal with particular patterns of racism.
J.L. also points out that even those sympathetic to the situation of black individuals could be hideously patronizing in the 1930s, and I agree. I have some of those folks in my book. But I also think that there are wise souls in every time who think a bit outside of the paradigms of their world. This needn't be a protag or even a main character (indeed, let's avoid having a white character "rescue" people of color), but the presence of such an individual can help readers recognize that the author isn't trying to vilify white folks.
Like J.L., I have been struggling with the question of what to do about the N-word in my novel. I'm mildly obsessed with a feeling of authenticity in dialogue. Dialogue shouldn't be a facsimile of reality (boring!), but it should gesture convincingly toward it.
This is why The Knife and the Butterfly contains a number of words--and sentiments, especially about women--that aren't at all an expression of who I am. They're part of who the protag (a teen male) is at that moment, and I need them so that I can show how his experience deconstructs that bravado (at least partially).
So where does that leave me with the N-word in novel #3? I would never dream of inserting it with anything close to the frequency with which I am sure it was uttered in 1937 East Texas, but to omit it completely seems wrong, too, although as one commenter pointed out, we can generally count on readers to fill in at least some of the trappings of racism on their own.
Right now I am using the N-word in the mouths of a few characters in their most extreme states. (I did the same thing with the F-word in The Knife and the Butterfly and managed, by the end of writing, to cut down the frequency pretty dramatically.) I will have to decide later if the N-word needs to come out altogether. I'm not sure, though, that in a book that deals with lynching (as mine does at one point) that it's right to excise it. After all, this was a time when some white people still attended lynchings as if they were picnics, keeping photos as souvenirs or to send as postcards.
For now, I'll just keep writing. And following the discussion on J.L.'s post here.
*It's possible (ahem, probable) that I have a professional crush on Justine Larbalestier. Not that I want to be·her--or to have her particular challenges when it comes to getting publishers to behave properly (I mean that whole white-washing thing with Liar). But I do admire her bold stance on various issues and her adventurousness·as a writer (check out this challenge list of genres and subgenres she wants to hit at least once). I also love her use of footnotes on her blog. This footnote is a tribute to all that awesomeness. And like the mention of slugs, this footnote has nothing to do with what today's post is about.
What can you do in those infamous fifteen minutes of writing each day (the daily chunk of time I had for writing most of What Can't Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly)? And what if you're not in the middle of a project? I plan to start dishing up some of my favorite writing prompts to entice you to bring writing into your daily life.
At a recent writing group meeting, one of my writing buddies challenged us with the following fabulous prompt cribbed from a session at the Indiana University Writers' Conference. Under the prompt, you'll find an unedited version of my in-session work (WARNING: dubious merit).
PROMPT: Write a postcard from an emotion (as in, the emotion is your current location, where you're writing from).
CONSTRAINTS*: (1) Refer to something that you've brought with you. (2) Include one action with a muscular, surprising verb. (3) Ask a question. (4) Use a phrase like "I always believed," "they say," "all along," "we should have," or "I think you would," (5) evoke a palpable landscape. BONUS POINTS: use a surprising adjective/noun combination (my favorite from writing group: "deadfly words").
* A quick note about constraints: for me, writing prompts like these with fairly detailed requirements are the best. Weirdly, the more constraints, the more creative I feel. The flattest exercise prose seems to come from prompts that are too open.
STOP! NOW GO WRITE!
My humble attempt at a postcard from an emotion:
Postcard from Expectation
You were right, it's all queues and waiting rooms here. I haven't made it through a single attraction entrance or into any of the offices that ring the many reception rooms. Traffic doesn't move at all; the drivers lose themselves in anticipatory loops. They wait for red, they wait for green, they wait for yellow. It's not like you'd think, though, no snarky comments or shoving in line, no fingers tapping out their impatience on waiting room armrests, no young mothers huffing angrily into their bangs.
I'm writing to you from a pale green room, crowded but not overfull. From what I can tell, nobody here worries if their name will be called or when. A man with a bottlebrush mustache pats his belly lovingly. A little girl mimes the unwrapping of a candy bar, a granny with spotted hands winds yarn around her finger. Can they all be so sure that what they await is behind one of these doors?
I haven't caught it yet, whatever they have, but it's in the air like humidity, throat-tightening and tugging at the corners of the mouth. The place is lousy with Mona Lisa smiles, but I try not to mind.
I think you would know how to handle yourself here. Why don't you give those narrow, dusty streets of Despair a rest and join me for a while? Bring your open hands; that's all you need.
A while ago I wrote about how Scrivener was the perfect tool for drafting a novel. I need to revise that statement. Scrivener is the best electronic tool. Why the qualification? Because ordinary paper always, always calls me back.
Scrivener is a dream for drafting, especially for someone (ahem...) who likes to make heaps of lists and obsessively subdivide her material into reorganizable chunks. I also love the cleanness of being able to move through hundreds of files in a single pane without those pesky Word windows piling up and misbehaving.
But... After all my elaborate folders, character files, and color-coded classifications and comments, in the end, I need paper. For the current revision, I am working between Scrivener and a paper draft that I have manually cut and paste onto colored construction paper to sort out the development of different plot threads. With paper, I can surround myself with something material·and feel the power to move the pieces around and assess the changes.
I think there is a touch of fetishism in this method. I get an actual thrill from laying things out on paper--especially paper filched from one of our Texas host's amazing scrapbooking stash. Our two-year-old Liam knows what I am talking about. Recently he learned to open doors and, while we were playing hide-and-seek, let himself into the strictly off-limits scrapbook room. (Anyone who has ever SEEN the quantity of scissors and sharp things involved in making a scrapbook will understand the prohibition.) His words upon entering the room?
I feel much the same way. Paper is, quite simply, this writer's best friend.