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.

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.

Not Measured in Minutes or Hours: On the Writing Day (Part 1)

I love reading about the writing days of published authors and comparing them to my own. Seen close up, they don’t seem so different from how my writing day tends to go (or my writing hours, I should say). They too have a hard time staying focused! They too sometimes have no idea what they’re doing or where they’re going!

Sometimes there seems to be a world of difference between writing while having a full-time day job and writing as a day job (even a part-time one). Other times I think the upsides and downsides of each are probably roughly equal.

The writing day

Regardless, it’s comforting to know that, although I am a writer with nothing published, almost nothing finished, my experience of writing as an activity, a process, is not so far off from those whose work is out in the world. They get the words written and assembled into a shape fit for others to read, however impossible it may seem at one point or another, in a way that doesn’t sound so different from how I do it.

The internet offers up a multitude of details about writers and their writing day. I have too many favourites to fit into one post, so this will be the first part. I’ll share the second half next week.

Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Not all writing days are created equal, Ayòbámi Adébáyò writes in The Guardian. “On most days, I dragged my pen across the page, glancing over my shoulder at the wall clock to check if it was lunchtime, astonished by how long it would take for a minute to pass by. … I did write, but I also drew lots of squiggles in the notebooks because the right words just wouldn’t come.”

But then there are the special days, not like most days:

“Those special days are not measured in minutes nor hours but in chapters completed and sentences perfected. They don’t even feel like days, they are periods I spend in a magical place, unbound by the rules of a temporal universe. Usually, by the time I hit save before taking a nap, my word count has gone down but the world I’m creating feels more tangible than it did before.”

You never know when a special day will strike:

“The peculiar thing about those special days is that they sneak in like the regular ones; I never know when I’m going to write a sentence that transports me via some invisible threshold into another world. Now I think of those moments of magic as my reward for pushing through on the days when the process is quite tedious.”

Kazuo Ishiguro

On planning a story:

“I sit in a stuffy room and fill notebooks with possible relationships and situations. In nonfiction, authors have to do a lot of research before they write. I do the equivalent, but my research is not in libraries, or by interviews. I research the world in my head, the people, relationships, and settings.”

On writing the first draft:

“I write first in pen, deliberately illegibly. I pay no attention to style; my only objective is to let the ideas come out, to get past my own defenses. I write quickly and intensely. Ideas change; if I decide a character would be better this way, I make the change and carry on. I write 30-40 pages and stop. The first draft is a total mess.”

And then improving that first draft:

“I ‘pull out’ of the story to see its overall shape, stare at the numbered points, shape the ideas, see what’s original and what’s not, consider the forks in the road in the story going forward. Then I write the draft again, and repeat the whole process 3-4 times, until I write 30 pages I’m happy with. Then I move on to the next 30 pages.”

Literary Hub has many more words of wisdom from Ishiguro.

Stacy Schiff

On getting mired in the impossible middle:

“Somewhere around the midpoint of any manuscript — a point that by no means identifies itself as such at the time, any more than did the Middle Ages — you hit up against the Zeno’s paradox of writing. You can’t seem to get there from here; the end slips irretrievably out of sight. As with exile, or nostalgia, or unrequited love, you find yourself engaged with a place you cannot reach.”

And finally reaching the end:

“It’s all in the endgame. The bulk of the value comes in that final effort, those late-day tweaks, additions, epiphanies. They’re what make a good book a great one, a well-written one a gem. … You polish your first paragraph for the 200th time. You rewrite the entire manuscript, cutting the boring parts. Because of course only at the end do you at last figure out what you were looking for in the first place.”

Jennifer Egan

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz describes Jennifer Egan’s writing process:

“Egan writes her fiction longhand, at a clip of five or six pages a day, sitting in an overstuffed Ikea armchair that lives in her office, or, when the weather is good, in a Zero Gravity recliner that she sets up under the magnolia tree in her back yard. The process quiets her critical brain; she can let herself riff. After a year and a half, she typed up the nearly fourteen hundred handwritten pages she had produced and read them cold.”

Egan herself on the terribleness of the first draft: “The book was bad. … I did one draft that was absolutely unspeakable. But that’s normal.”

But sometimes not even a second draft is enough: “I thought very, very seriously about abandoning it, because I just thought, Hell — the distance between this and something anybody is ever going to want to read is too great for me to span.”

George Saunders

“What writers really do when they write” in its entirety is brilliant and worth a read through from beginning to end. His visualization of how to measure the quality of your writing and make small, continuous improvements is fascinating:

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

Emphasis on without whining. I’m not even sure I’m capable of being so objective about my own work. But the advice to improve your writing by being more specific is perfect:

“Under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.”

And more

For 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 sources for much of this post). And stay tuned for part two!

A Struggling Writer

Awaiting the next draft

I’m a struggling writer. I finished the first draft of two novels this year. Those two sentences don’t sound right next to each other, do they? But they’re both true. I wrote well over a hundred thousand words between February and July, but today both drafts remain in rough form, sitting in Google Drive, awaiting my attention.

I have extensive notes on the changes I want to make, and I’ve started rewrites on the second story, but it’s a daunting task. Where to start? I’m not sure where I’m going with either novel. I have no idea if they are any good. At the moment, I can’t see the path that will bring me to the next draft.

Besides these two books, I have beginnings and scenes and character sketches for a dozen other novels, scores of short stories, essays and blog posts and flash fiction. I have piles of ideas, document upon document of notes.

But I still don’t feel like a writer

I don’t know if I have what it takes to write a book that I, much less anyone else, would want to read.

I used to write all the time when I was younger. Stories for friends about boys, fan fiction for the shows and books I obsessed over. A personal blog I updated nearly every day, secret diaries, journals written under pseudonyms. I developed alter egos and fictional characters and alternate universes. I wrote the truth with a veneer of fiction, trying to turn appearances on the surface into something that reflected what was happening inside. But it became too revealing, too intimate, too much.

I never stopped writing, but for a long time I stopped wanting to write for an audience. What I write about evolved. My style and tone shifted. The doubt remains, but I’m slowly learning to push past it. I keep asking myself hard questions, and I don’t know any of the answers. What does this story mean? What is it really about? What am I trying to say? But that’s okay. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding. So I keep writing.

But it’s not enough just to keep going. I need to constantly get back to basics, relearn everything I think I know, think like a beginner. Like one of William Stafford’s aphorisms about writing from Sound of the Ax“I write not because I understand and want to expose, but because I understand nothing. I experience newness every day and write of it as the first tasting of interest.” I don’t write because I know anything special; I write because I want to figure things out.

Figuring things out

Michel de Montaigne is my favourite example of the person who writes to figure things out. As Sarah Bakewell writes in How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne, his essays “have no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance.” He argues one side and then the other. He changes his mind all the time. He is always seeking to enlarge his mind; always trying to find another perspective he hadn’t considered before.

I’m afraid of being misunderstood, or being understood too well. Maybe I’ll offend someone or make a misstep. But if I write to figure things out, nothing is set in stone. I’m likely to change my mind tomorrow if, as The Dude might say, new shit comes to light. I might change my mind, and isn’t that a good thing?

So, after a long break from writing online, I’m back. Ampersunder is different from what I’ve ever done before. It’s something new for me, and I’m excited to see what it becomes.

My writing life has been turned inward for many years, and it’s time to change. I’ve spent enough time writing only for myself, appreciating the inspiration and examples of others but not sharing or reaching outward. I’ve been hiding for long enough.


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