I should have titled this blog post: How Not to Start NaNoWriMo. But instead I went with something a little more motivational.
Sigh. My NaNo month is getting off to a slow start. Why?
I looked back.
I didn’t really have a choice. See, I was writing my second book when the copyedits came through for my first book. So I had to put book two down in order to finish book one (which was an exciting adventure of its own!). Now I’m writing book two again (and using NaNoWriMo as my motivator/deadline/piano hanging over my head). But in order to get my head back into book two, I had to read what I’d already written. And then it was really easy to start fixing what I’d already written. Which means I’ve been doing more editing than creating.
Looking back over what you’re writing, while you’re writing it, presents two potential pitfalls:
1. You realize what you’ve written sucks and you lose motivation.
2. You try to fix what you’ve written and you lose momentum (and time).
Unfortunately, I’m guilty of both.
Last night I groaned to my husband about my first draft. “Ugh!” I said. “This is the such a shitty first draft!” (See how I borrowed Anne Lamott’s phrase there?)
He asked, “Well, is it better than your last first draft?” And then he asked, “Is it better than your first first draft?”
Grudgingly, I said yes.
“Then you’re making progress. Keep going.”
(Let me pause here a moment to say: my husband rocks.)
Jumping from copyedits of the first book — which had already been through a few revisions and was pretty darned polished! — to re-reading a partial first draft set me up for failure and frustration. What was I doing, comparing a polished manuscript to a rough-hewn first draft?! Oh silly, silly me. Even though I had to go back and read what I’d written so I knew where and how to pick up the story again, getting back into the game has been like trying to ride a bicycle uphill. Ugh. Thankfully, I feel like I have a handle on the story again and can start picking up speed. I’m eager to see those NaNo numbers rise.
When it comes to creative work, momentum is a kind of tenuous thing. Once you have it, try not to lose it, especially by going back and rereading what you’ve already wrote.
Whatever you do, keep moving forward!
So I’m working on some projects right now, and as usual, I have to keep the Yousuck Monster at bay. You know, the one that sits on your head and tells you over and over how awful your writing is and how you’ll never make it and you should just give up now.
Well, today I had an idea. A new defense of sorts.
When the Yousuck Monster shows up and you’re really feeling down about what you’re writing, go read the first thing you ever wrote. Or as close to the first thing as you can find. You know, that story you wrote six years ago that you were sure was going to launch your career. That brilliant idea that no one had thought of before. That beautiful prose dripping in detail and sensuality.
Not as good as you remembered it, is it?
That’s because in the last six years (or however long it’s been) you’ve grown as a writer. You’ve learned how to avoid adverbs, passive verbs and adjective storms. You’ve learned to really see a setting before putting your characters into it. You’ve learned to dismiss your first idea and your second idea and even your third.
You’re getting better every time you sit down to write. The draft you’re working on right now — the one the Yousuck Monster is hassling you about — is so totally way much better than that first story, isn’t it?
Now flick the Yousuck Monster off your head and get back to work.
My husband and I are in the garage, painting. He’s building a shelving unit to hold our many books. The boards are arranged on a tarp on the garage floor, and we’re painting the base coat.
The paint is thick and white. I’m enjoying the way the roller slips through the paint tray, the way the latex smooths onto the wood. As I paint, I try to cover my track, try to erase the edges the roller creates. The work is meditative and rhythmic. I’m in the zone.
My husband works quickly, painting twice as many boards. “You don’t have to worry about the roller marks,” he reminds me. “This is just the base coat.”
And of course, I think about writing. Because I find a way of relating most things in my life back to writing.
I used to subscribe to the “throw up, then clean up” school when it came to writing first drafts. I wrote fast, throwing words and ideas on the page, knowing I could be messy because I would go back and clean up the words later. Writing this way is exciting. It’s a rush. It’s what writing should feel like, right?
Well, painting those boards made me see that somewhere along the line I’ve slowed down my drafting. I pay more attention to word choice and to the shape the story is taking. Writing this way takes time. It’s contemplative. It’s the opposite of a rush. More like a long walk toward a desired destination.
The first way makes me think of a Jackson Pollack painting. There’s art there, but maybe it’s difficult to see. The second way makes me think of a Picasso. There’s art there, too, but the shape and form is more apparent. (For the record, this is just a metaphor. I’m not knocking either painter. And also for the record, The Old Guitarist is one of my favorite paintings ever. Just saying.)
But I’m wondering: is one way of writing the first draft better than the other? My gut says no. If you keep writing and revising, you’ll end up with a polished product. Maybe the second way will get you there sooner, though, because you’re filtering your ideas and words before putting them on the page. What do you think?
On a number of occasions, I’ve asked my teacher, James Sallis, about his process. Does he “throw up and clean up”? No. He searches for the right word and image before writing it down. He says he’s been writing long enough that now it’s second nature. He doesn’t make as many mistakes up front.
I remember hearing Walter Mosley read a chapter from his then-WIP. I asked him how many drafts that chapter had been through. He thought about it and kind of shrugged. “Four, maybe?” Sounds like Walter Mosley has drafting down to second nature as well.
When I think about my own writing, it makes me glad to think I’m moving toward that level where I’m more conscious of the work I’m doing while I’m doing it. But part of me also misses the rush of the wild throw-up drafting.
My question for you is: are you a Pollack or a Picasso? How do you write that first draft? Do you throw up and clean up, or take a slower approach?
Please just don’t tell me you sit down at the blank page and create a refined Rembrandt. That might send me over the edge. I’ll have to go cut off my ear or something.