Friday, January 21, 2011

A Writer's Greatest Gift

I'm struggling a bit with The Bones in the Closet. It's okay, I like the characters and general situation (three siblings and a computer nerd friend + dog on a secret road trip to break a family curse) but - well, like I said, I'm struggling a bit.

I find myself worrying about it, especially when I sit down at the computer and nothing comes. But then I remember one of the most important things about writing, and I start breathing again.

Writers get a gift. They get the luxury of writing a shitty first draft.

I don't know why, but some people think writing should be easy. It's not like it's work, is it? It's not like you're digging a ditch or selling insurance. It's just writing.

Well, sometimes it's hard bloody work, and nobody writes a good first draft. And that's okay, because no one but the writer will ever see it. That's not me talking. That's every writer I've ever heard talk about writing. In his outstanding On Writing, Stephen King talks about writing the first draft, then sticking it in a drawer and forgetting about it for a month. Then he picks it up and reads it to find out what he's been up to. Sometimes you don't know what the book is about until then, and with a little luck and a lot of humility, you see what you have to do to fix it.

As writer Anne Lamott says, you can't fix it until you've written something to fix. If you expect to dash off a first draft, send it off to a publisher and have them fall all over themselves to make you rich, well that's a nice fantasy. But it doesn't work that way. The first draft, Lamott says in her outstanding book, Bird by Bird, is "the down draft." You get it written down. The second is "the up draft." That's when you fix it up. And the third is "the dental draft." That's when you check it, tooth by tooth, to make sure everything is healthy, that it all works.

But even knowing that, you still worry all the way through the first draft. "Have I lost it?" "Am I completely wrong about this story?" "Is it too late to find a career as a paralegal?"

I do have a secret weapon that has proven enormously helpful in combatting the worries. Not, it's not rum, although that can be very nice too. But it still doesn't change the facts – the first draft will not be good enough. It will be shitty. I don't care who you are or what you're writing. Romance. History. Mystery. Adventure. A kids book. (Those are actually much harder. There are so few words, every single one has to count. But that's a different rant for a different day.)

I do have characters and a general story I like, so at this stage I'm actually way ahead of the game! But I will worry about it until I finish the third (or more) draft and realize, "Hey! The Bones In the Closet is damn good! This has a chance!"

And then 'll start another one, and I'll worry all over again.

But at least I'll still have my secret weapon. Which I'll write about next time.

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