Reading, Revising, Rethinking

That draft I’d been working on since June? And trying to finish in August? I wrote the conclusion mere hours before leaving for our trip to Nova Scotia. It ended up at about 64,000 words, 111 pages, with a scene I had not in any way planned to write. But it got done.

Over the last month, I’ve reread the first 44 pages, making notes as I go. I’m not revising or rewriting, not yet. I’ve technically started the revision process but not made any changes other than maybe five words that were so incorrect I couldn’t let them be. But I haven’t been paying attention to the sentence level or the paragraph level, much less the word level. I’m not debating word choices or wondering if the dialogue works. All that will come later, in this master plan I’m creating as I go along.

Revising is like a foggy road

A foggy road in New Brunswick

For now, I’m reading to see what I have and figure out how to make it better. Add a new character, find a stronger motivation for this action, add more action instead of describing what a character thinks and feels. (Show, don’t tell.) I’m trying to see the story with a bit of distance to understand whether it works or not. (It doesn’t, not yet.) And think through the possibilities of how to deal with the problems and simultaneously figure out what the story’s about. All while taking copious notes.

And notes are indeed copious. I have a spreadsheet where the first column is the chapter, the second is the page number, and the third is a brain dump of critiques and ideas relevant to what’s happening on that page. Most of the notes are rambling thoughts about whether some element of a scene works, whether a character’s thought or feeling is convincing, how this part is connected to this other part that I still need to figure out. Most pages have a few rows.

Every time I write a note in a cell that goes beyond what a single row displays, I let the words run on into oblivion. There are many more words in one row than the spreadsheet can easily display. I don’t expand the cell to show the full text of what I’ve written. There’s no wrapping. I let the sentence end where it will. It’s not easy to reread the notes, because I’m not planning to do that for a while.

For the notes that seem the most important, the ones with ideas that appear significant, I put an asterisk in the fourth column, cutting off even more of the text than in the rows above and below. Showing less of my run-on thoughts, hiding them away for the time being, as a way to signal their importance to my future self, who will have to bring it all together and make some sense of it. And to reassure my present self that I don’t have to think about it just yet.

There’s a separate worksheet for notes that aren’t related to anything on a specific page. Overall structure, related plot threads. Research notes, character ideas, themes. Comments that wonder how the pieces fit together. A random collection of the things you’re compelled to put down when you’re trying to will a novel into existence.

The spreadsheet idea is something I heard on a forgotten podcast or blog post or essay. You read the first draft and write down everything you want to change before you start the second draft. That way you get a full picture of what you have and what you have to do. You wait to make decisions about what to change until you have a grasp on the whole, rather than trying to rewrite it from top to bottom or piece by piece. That sounded like solid advice to me, an excellent alternative to the stacks of unreadable comments in a Google doc, so I’m following it.

I wish I could remember where I heard about this so I could thank them. Or maybe I should wait until I know whether it’s actually been useful or not.

Changing the Whole Nature of The Thing: Zadie Smith on Some Aspects of Craft

I’m nearly finished the first draft of the novel I started in June, and I keep thinking about Zadie Smith. Specifically about her lecture, “That Crafty Feeling” (2008), where she describes two breeds of novelists: Macro Planners and Micro Managers. These are ugly words, as she says herself, but they usefully describe two methods of approaching the ordeal of writing a book:

“A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot, and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page. Because of this structural security, he has a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forward or backward, their difficulties multiply with their choices.”

Zadie Smith herself is a Micro Manager:

“I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose between three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea what the ending is until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

“Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line. When I begin a novel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I feel I have to be very careful: I can change the whole nature of the thing by changing a few words.”

For the Micro Manager, the first twenty pages of the book are “a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question: What kind of a novel am I writing?” The risk of this approach is that the first twenty pages can become “a pile-up of too careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the twenty-page mark is passed.”

How about a house building metaphor to make the difference between these two types especially clear:

“Macro Planners have their houses basically built from day one and so their obsession is internal — they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers like me build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.”

Not my type

I keep thinking about this because I’m not sure which type I am. I plan in only the most basic sense, with only the roughest of ideas about the kind of novel I want to write and about the protagonist and their journey. Start at the beginning, continue to the middle, and finish at the end. The house of my novel is in no way built when I begin, and I’m still trying to figure out what style of furniture I want. Actually, even coming to the end, I’m still not quite sure if it‘s a townhouse, a McMansion, a chalet, or a shack in the wrong part of town (it’s a bit like playing M.A.S.H.). Would dwelling on the first twenty pages help me figure that out?

I charged through my first twenty pages and did not look back. Did not edit what I wrote the day or the week before, because how else do you write sixty thousand words in two months with only an hour or two a day? Revisiting and obsessing over anything slows me down and cuts into my breakneck speed typing time. Make a note of the problem, the gap, the thing I‘ll need to think about later, and then move the hell on. I know I‘m going to rewrite it all later, so what‘s the point of trying to rewrite it in pieces, instead of waiting for when I have an idea of what kind of surgery the whole thing will need? (Reconstructive, extensive, excessively risky, with an intense recovery period.)

The final few thousand words

Obviously, I don‘t need to fit either of Zadie Smith’s types. I can write my novel however I want. But I still keep worrying, just a little bit, as I face down these final few thousand words, these last few scenes, that I‘ve gone about this all wrong.

Of course I’m questioning everything I’ve done to get here. Because why not. What I’ve accomplished is just not good enough. Could be better. Could make more sense, have better sentences and paragraphs and chapters. Better character names, more character names. (Fun fact about this draft: the protagonist does not yet have a name; she goes by A.) Could be so much more than what I’ve made of it.

But this doesn’t help. Here’s what I really have to say: I’m almost finished another first draft. It’s easier and it’s harder than the first two and a half times. Different but mostly the same. I doubt it’s going to get better until I really and truly face down the revision process. It’s going to be much harder than getting down a lot of words every day. More things are going to change more often than I can imagine, and I’m probably going to change them back again before I revise it again. And that’s going to be fine.

But not until after I take a vacation. Drive across the eastern bit of this mighty continent, stand on some rocks to look out at the ocean and breathe in the salty air, and drive back again. We’ll see what that will do for me.

Doubt and interrogate

Maybe I shouldn‘t be reading lectures and essays like this when I‘m in the thick of writing. They make me doubt, just a little, that I‘m doing it right. But that doubt can be good, because it keeps me out of the bubble. Keeps me thinking about the parts beyond the story itself, the bizarre reality of what I‘m making with all these words. I do think that helps.

Zadie Smith’s whole lecture is worth the read for anyone embarking on the thrilling voyage that is writing a novel, if only to interrogate the usefulness of the question of aspects of craft and decide that there is no one right way to go about any of it. A little bit of everything seems true. It just depends on the day.

Scaffolding

I‘m going to end this with a part of the lecture that gives me comfort at this stage and which I hope to remember when the time comes:

“When building a novel you will use a lot of scaffolding. Some of this is necessary to hold the thing up, but a lot isn’t. The majority of it is only there to make you feel secure, and in fact the building will stand without it.

“I use scaffolding to hold up my confidence when I have none, to reduce the despair, and to feel that what I’m doing has a goal, some endpoint that I can see. I use it to divide what seems like an endless, unmarked journey, though by doing this, like Zeno, I infinitely extend the distance I need to go.

“Later, when the book is printed and old and dog-eared, it occurs to me that I really didn’t need any of that scaffolding. The book would be far better off without it. But when I was putting it up, it felt vital, and once it was there, I’d worked so hard to get it there I was loath to take it down. So my advice, if you are writing a novel at the moment and putting up scaffolding, well, I hope it helps you, but don’t forget to dismantle it later.”

1000 Words Every Day

I participated in #1000wordsofsummer, a sort of challenge to write 1000 words every day from June 15 to June 29. Jami Attenberg started it on Twitter as a thing with a friend, but it spread quickly on Twitter and Instagram, with hundreds of people playing along. It’s simple: Jami sends an email every morning with words of encouragement and advice from writers. And you write 1000 words every day.

When I saw the original tweet back in May, it seemed like a great idea. Totally doable (I wrote the first draft of two novels last year, not quite at a pace of 1000 words a day, but pretty close) and maybe even fun with a virtual accountability group of strangers. So I added it to my calendar, signed up for the mailing list, and then promptly forgot about it.

At the time I was working on the second draft of one of the aforementioned novels. I wasn’t thinking about a new project but struggling through the problems of the current one. I had reached a point where I had no idea where the story should end up. The book wasn’t playing, and I wondered if it was time to try something different.

Then I kept seeing the challenge in my calendar as the start date approached and, without thinking about it consciously, without planning it at all, a new idea began to brew.

I made some notes the night before and started writing the first draft on June 15. It sounds simple when I put it like that. But it’s an accumulation of what I’ve already done. It’s a different approach into a universe I’ve been writing in and thinking about for a while, something that finally feels like the beginning of something. It starts at a simpler place, at a point further away from where I’ve already been. Just to see where it goes. No pressure.

What’s become clear from this experience is that I’m all too eager to start new projects. The revision process is so difficult and, so far, uncharted. I have no idea what I’m doing. The process of writing a first draft, however, is familiar now. I know that I can write a novel-length project; when I sit down, the words will come eventually. At this point, that part is comparatively easy. What I haven’t figured out is how to take the next step, closer to the finished project. I don’t yet have faith that I am capable of editing a project to completion. And at this point it’s still scary enough that beginning a new project feels safer.

So far I’ve been able to avoid facing the flaws in the projects that are still in draft. I haven’t had to deal with the mistakes I’ve made, which means I haven’t been able to learn from them. After not having anything close to a finished product, that’s the next worst thing: I could be writing better first drafts if I were more intimately acquainted with what I’ve been doing wrong in them, by having to fix them in subsequent drafts.

My routine for the last two weeks has been the same as before: I write morning pages for about ten minutes first thing in the morning, drink a cup of coffee, and get to writing. I usually get the day’s 1000 words done in an hour. On a good day it’s more words in less time. On an imperfect day, I need another half an hour later in the day to make up for the slack. That’s the beauty of this challenge — without it, I would be satisfied with 300 or 500 or 700 words, but I have a goal to reach, so I put in some extra time to make it happen. Always it’s easier than I think it’ll be. Which doesn’t make it seem any less impossible when I sit down to begin.

Some of my favourite parts of the #1000wordsofsummer daily emails are Will Leitch quoting Roger Ebert — “The muse visits during the act of creation, not before” — and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney talking about “the deeply unglamorous task of tolerating yourself long enough to push something out” and Hannah Tinti comparing writing to pottery because the failed creations recycled into the clay ages it like a fine wine and Ada Limon on silence being the place where writing begins. I almost never read the emails until after finishing my 1000 words every day, but they remind me of what I’m working toward and what I aspire to do.

If all goes as planned, by September I’ll have another first draft completed. So many things could happen before then! If I get there, it’ll be time to get beyond the first draft. It’s terrifying to face what once made you so proud but may turn out to be a pile of garbage. It’s not enough to be proud; you have to keep going. You have to figure out where you went wrong and how to fix it. So that’s my next step. After this one, enough of first drafts. Time to face it.

How Writing Has Been Going Lately

I wrote the first drafts of two novels last year. I wrote them quickly — the first in three and a half months at around 800 words a day, and the second in less than two months at about 950 words a day. I started the draft of a third novel in early December. I expected it to come out as quickly as the other two, but so far it hasn’t. 

Writing lately

Writing lately has been slow. I try to work on it every day, and sometimes I fail. My average pace is somewhere around 200 words a day, and I’m nowhere close to the end of the story. There are many days where I’ve written nothing at all and other days where 300 words feels like a feat of incredible strength. It’s been months since I’ve written several hundred or a thousand words in one session.

That sounds like a lot, but on a day like that, the majority of the words are terrible. The volume is important, though. The point is getting inside the writing, moving forward, thinking of new ideas while in the thick of it, not from the outside. In the middle of a thought about something else finding insight into what is really going on in a scene. There need to be a lot of words because it’s often only at the end of a long stretch of sentences that something good or useful emerges.

Most mornings I type up a few sentences and call it progress. I feel lucky if I manage more than one paragraph. Sometimes that tiny beginning turns into something bigger and I get a few hundred words down in a morning, but most of the time it’s just words that reiterate something I’ve already written, that add a silly thought on top of another silly thought, that carry on a conversation with nothing in it. I don’t feel like it counts as progress.

Shifting form

Part of my problem with writing lately is that the story doesn’t even feel like a novel anymore. Somewhere along the way, the part I’m working on turned into a short story. Part of me wants to continue the novel, while another part wants to cut out this piece and work it into a thing that stands on its own. 

I’m meandering on the outskirts of the story, looking backward at what I’ve already written, wishing I could make something of that, rather than continuing to move ahead. But having begun a novel that shows signs of going somewhere, I am compelled to continue it. Yet having a vision in my head of a short story, I am compelled to consider what it would mean to have a short story finished, done, without having to commit to an entire novel yet again.

A novel is fundamentally different from a short story. I can’t hold them both in my head at once. I’m finding it impossible to have it both ways. So I creep cautiously along, barely making any headway. And I keep thinking: what if it were a short story, something I could submit somewhere for publication on its own?

Writing lately

One step at a time

It feels so important, the piece of fiction you choose to be the first thing you send out into the world with your name attached to it. So I’m trying not to think about it. There are no limits to the kind of writer I can imagine myself being. I have not chosen a voice, a genre, a geography, a set of themes, a primary concern. Those choices shouldn’t be important. I feel nearly as likely to publish a contemporary romance novel as a book of prose poetry or an obscure literary novel or a self-help book. And with thinking about what I want to try to get published first, I feel like I have to choose. It’s a decision I don’t want to make. Is that why I’ve been slowing down?

After all the first drafts I’ve been writing lately, I really just want to finish something that I can put in front of other people. I don’t know what will happen after that, but that’s the first step. I have a sentence-generating itch in my fingers that won’t go away, not even on those zero-sentence mornings. The inevitable feelings of inadequacy and frustration and fear should make me want to quit. Instead they’re the motivators for continuing to work at it until I make something that I can maybe, if I squint and tilt my head and not think too hard, be proud of.

More Interesting than Everyday Life: On the Writing Day (Part 2)

Last week I posted quotes from five authors on the details of their writing day. Today I bring you six more insights into the fascinating everyday life of the published author.

As of Friday I’m off work for the holidays, so it’s an ideal time to knuckle down for at least a couple of days of serious writing and editing. Unlike Alain de Botton, I don’t write at the office, so I’m looking forward to being at home for days on end. I’m not sure I’ll accumulate enough stop-start writing days to earn a flow day, to use Hilary Mantel’s nomenclature, but I’m going to try. I don’t plan to wait for the desire to write, as Patti Yumi Cottrell does, but I do count on floundering and blushing at least as much as Sebastian Barry might.

Galway

Hilary Mantel

On the start of her writing day:

“I get up in the dark like a medieval monk, commit unmediated scribble to a notebook, and go back to bed about six, hoping to sleep for another two hours and to wake slowly and in silence. Random noise, voices in other rooms, get me off to a savage, disorderly start, but if I am left in peace to reach for a pen, I feel through my fingertips what sort of day it is.”

On flow days:

“Days of easy flow generate thousands of words across half a dozen projects – and perhaps new projects. Flow is like a mad party – it goes on till all hours and somebody must clear up afterwards. Stop-start days are not always shorter, are self-conscious and anxiety-ridden, and later turn out to have been productive and useful. I judge in retrospect. On flow days, I have no idea what I’ve written till I read it back. It’s a life with shocks built in.”

Patti Yumi Cottrell

The author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace in an interview at The Creative Independent, on not writing every day:

“I have to feel a desire to write. I don’t know if there’s ever an end goal in mind. But I just have to feel like I really want to do it. I have to feel borderline desperate. And then I want to write. That’s what motivates me. Going long periods without writing, where I’m just doing other things, helps create that feeling of wanting to write.”

On surprising yourself while you’re writing:

“It just feels like an ecstatic and magical thing. You didn’t realize something could happen and then you make that happen. It feels clarifying in a way, because it’s like something was there all along but you didn’t know it. And then you’re surprised by it. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself through writing.”

Deborah Levy

The author of the excellent novel Hot Milk writes in a shed she rents from a friend. She plans her routes, follow directions, but still gets lost:

“When I begin writing a novel, I usually know where I want to get to, I just don’t know how to get there. I plan a route and follow my directions. Sometimes this works well. Yet, it’s when I detour from the map and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes. In case you think I like getting lost, I should tell you that I resist it with all my will. This is always a futile battle. Eventually I surrender to the unknown route, write for a few hours and take a look at the new view.”

On getting to the end:

“As far as I’m concerned, the writing life is mostly about stamina and the desire to give my complete attention to language. … To get to the finishing line requires the writing to become more interesting than everyday life. This is not as easy as it sounds, because I have never found everyday life boring.”

Sebastian Barry

On ideal writing days: “Those ideal days begin when I have managed to survive that awful waiting period with a novel when you are writing, but also crossing out crossly, beginning again, floundering, panicking, blushing in the privacy of your workroom.”

On getting down that first good line:

“But the gods maybe have pity at last on the poor author sequestered there, struggling with his book, and eventually a serviceable first line is rendered from the heavens. The whistle-tune, the birdsong of the book. The relief is immense, and that strange and uncharacteristic courage to proceed descends.”

Alain de Botton

On writing in an office environment:

“I act almost normally, from the outside, clicking away at the keyboard. Even though I may inside be tempted by all kinds of emotions, I handle myself with calm and reserve – which is not the limitation it may sound. It can be the greatest freedom, sometimes, to have to repress some of what you are. I sit quietly for hours. I’ll have a sandwich at the desk. I can’t sink into despair, scream or act all poetic: other people are watching. At the office, there’s a chance to edit yourself, thankfully. That’s why I go there.”

On the gap between who you are and the work you do:

“My writing ends up sounding quite different to the way I feel inside. That’s the point. It tries to understand, to be serene, to be competent. Perhaps this ability to have a gap between who you are and what your work is like doesn’t just hold true for art: it’s something all work offers. … Work gives us a chance to give our better natures a go.

“It’s great to make things tidy via work. The wider world will always be a mess. But around work, you can sometimes have a radically different kind of experience: you can get on top of a problem and finally resolve it. You can bring order to chaos for a bit.”

Elizabeth Strout

The author of Olive Kitteridge can write anywhere, but her favourite place to write is at home.

“These days I write first thing in the morning after having breakfast with my husband; my writing day starts as soon as he leaves the apartment, which is usually right after breakfast. Then I clear the table and sit down to work. I write mostly by hand, transcribing it on a computer when I can no longer read my writing, when I have made too many marks on the paper to be able to see the scene I am trying to write.”

On writing scenes separately and then piecing them together:

“I am a very messy worker – I push these scenes around our table. It is a big table, and over time I realise which scenes are connected. I have never written anything from beginning to end, not a story or a novel. I just collect different scenes, and the ones that aren’t any good to me, get slipped on to the floor and eventually into the wastebasket. (There are many of those.)”

And more

For much more minutiae on the lives of writers, I suggest Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, The Paris Review Interviews Volumes I and II, Writing Routines, and The Guardian’s “My writing day” series (which supplied quotes for some of this post). And in case you missed it, check out part one!