Back in the nineties, before social networking or even blogs had been invented, I belonged to a chat list for published writers. You carried on a slow conversation with like-minded people by sending e-mails to a central server, which then sent them out to all members of the list. Tom Clancy, another list member, used to give a piece of advice to writers who were stuck at various stages of the writing process: “Just write the damned book.”
I think of that advice whenever potential clients ask me to read over the first few chapters of their work in progress, to make sure they’re “on the right track.” They don’t seem to realize that there is no track. When you write your first draft, you lay the tracks as you go. As you follow your story, you may find out that a minor character moves to the center of the action, or that a plot twist you’ve been building toward for a hundred pages just won’t work. Or your story may simply transform into something else as you write it. In its original draft, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was magical realism, with Simon having genuine mystical visions and sacrificing himself willingly at the end.
The process is a little different if you work from a detailed outline, but not much. True, you do have an idea of where you’re going when you actually begin writing. But some of the creativity and surprise – the getting to know the story and characters – that other writers experience with the first draft, you get with the outline. And no matter how detailed your outline might be, you should still treat it more as a guide than a rulebook. The actual process of getting the story down on paper has a unique intimacy and particularity. Stories are organic. You’ve got to let them grow as you write, even if you’ve already built a trellis.
Still, the problem those clients are looking to me to solve is real — a lot of writers get lost in the middle of their first draft. One reason may be a lack of confidence and drive. I find it’s usually second novels that I’m asked to keep on track. Many writers enter the field because they’re burning to tell a particular story. But after the first novel is done and they launch into the second one, they often lack the passion for the story that got them through the first novel. After The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan began and abandoned seven different second novels — at one point breaking out in hives — before writing The Kitchen God’s Wife.
You can also trip up on your first draft by focusing on the mechanics of writing – like the beginning writer who recently complained on the Writer Unboxed Facebook site that, whenever she read a how-to-write book, she felt like she was going about it wrong. It’s easy to get so obsessed with the technical details – how you’re managing your micro-tension, if you’re giving your readers enough physical description to imagine the scene, whether your antagonist is sufficiently balanced or your dialogue is pithy enough – that you can’t find your story. You’re like the centipede who was asked which leg she lifted first when she walked – and never walked again.
On the other hand, not having a firm enough grasp of the basic skills of storytelling can also run a first draft into the ground. If your descriptions are inept, then your locations will never take on reality. Flaws in your management of point of view can keep your characters from coming to life. So what you’re writing may feel flabby, impotent, just plain wrong, which makes it hard to keep going.
So how do you thread the needle between being aware of the mechanics of writing and ignoring them enough to focus on your characters? [Read more…]