Seriously. Never trust your draft.
In a sense, I know this goes counter to a lot of advice that’s out there. You have to trust your story, your characters, your writing, and that’s still all true. You have to trust the greater concept.
But you still can’t trust your draft.
Drafting, the process of creating the story, (of giving birth to it, if you will) is an emotioal and at times painful process. Oftentimes with drafting, we become so thoroughly wrapped up in the characters and the story and the world that we lose touch with small bits of reality. Not all of it, or at least not usually all of it, but the things that filter through our experiences, the things that put everything else in proper context, those are usually the first to go.
This month, outside of a flurry of real life issues, has been devoted to editing my October and November projects, and it’s led me to realize some interesting things about drafts.
Emotions, when it comes to how you’re reading your first draft, are largely unreliable.
Not entirely, and not always, but largely, because we haven’t applied that filter in the process of writing, and so we’re often unable to apply it in that first re-read.
After finishing the rough drafts on both projects, I didn’t touch them again until this month. The first book sat for two and a half months, the second sat for a month and a half, with absolutely no contact or conscious reminder of the contents. I needed some distance before I could even hope to do a satisfactory job of improving things, because when I write, I lose myself in the pages. I know the characters SO WELL that it’s hard to separate myself from their lives sometimes, especially because I know so much more of what’s going on than the pages will ever (should ever) tell. I know what’s supposed to happen so well that if I don’t get a little distance from it, my brain somehow skips over the fact that it doesn’t always actually happen.
And with my October project, I learned that I really can’t trust the emotions that come up even on a re-read, even with that distance.
Real life directly influences our writing.
Not always in the way non-writers assume (not in the sense that we deliberately translate people we know into the story at every opportunity), but in the sense that what we’re going through, the emotions we experience even when we’re not at the computer or notebook writing, resonate in our work.
October was a very stressful, strange month. I was out of work more than I was there because I had to use all of my paid time within a couple of weeks, so there was a lot of running around immediately beforehand to get everything appropriately arranged there. I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands and not much idea what to do with it other than writing- I haven’t had that kind of free time since I started working nine years ago. (The summer of unemployment doesn’t count, as I was frantically putting out applications and hoping for interviews) I was tackling a story that scared me. My October project had a great deal to do with mothers and daughters, with fathers and daughters, with twisted friendships and relationships, with fear and murder and a kindlier death. It was a story that relied almost entirely on emotions in all their terrifying range. And in the end of September, there was a death in my family. In October, there was a funeral. In January, we’re still adjusting.
What we write finds ways to resonate. Through the month of October, as I wrote of death and family, I more than once found myself literally sobbing in front of my computer, hardly able to breathe for the emotions lodged tightly in my throat, tears blurring my eyes until I could barely see the words on the scree, and I couldn’t be sure if that was because of the high-charge of my characters’ emotions or it was because of my own. Or both. Even two and a half months later, going back through with a critical eye to edit it, I find myself choking up at the same sections.
And this is why you can’t trust your drafts: because you, as the writer, are too invested to know if your reaction is from the process of writing, or from what’s written.
Even distance, even time, aren’t enough to force a separation if emotional recall is woven through every word.
Catharsis may be what some readers seek, is what more readers achieve (books like The Fault in Our Stars and The Statistical Probablity of Love at First Sight are amazing examples of books that left me feeling drained and filled at the same time), but it’s not the writer’s catharsis that anyone is interested in. This phrase comes up all the time when we’re talking about reviews, but it was a broader application: books are for the reader. When we make the decision to publish- by whatever means we choose to publish- we are deliberately putting our book out of our hands. We can’t control how it’s received, how it’s regarded or reviewed, and we can’t control the reactions people have. A book, the act of reading a book, is an intensely personal thing, and everyone will respond in a different way. Different things resonate, reverberate, different notes and chords are struck based on each individual history and experience and emotional state.
When you’re reviewing your draft, you might be bawling at a certain scene- but it might not be the immense impact on readers you think it might be.
It might be a reflection of your mental state at the time of writing.
It might be a reflection of some horrible thing you know will happen to the character later, and right now it just hurts like hell to read how happy they are (I get that during Avatar: The Last Airbender frequently through season two, pretty much any time Zuko is actually happy, because you know, you just KNOW, he doesn’t get to stay that way yet).
It might be a reflection of your mental state NOW, as you’re going back through and finding resonances that weren’t in place when you wrote it.
This is why other readers, even if they’re not critical readers or true critique partners, are so essential. SOMEONE else needs to read it, preferably more than person, so you have a way to measure your own response. There’s an assumption out there that writers must think everything they write is either brilliant or trash-worthy, and the truth is, it’s both at any given moment. The emotional ups and downs of a dedicated writer are…dizzying, at the least.
If we’re lucky, when we’ve given a project time and distance, we come back to it more impressed than when we left it. We come back to it awed and humbled by funny lines we don’t remember, by touching scenes that tug our heartstrings, but remember, DON’T TRUST IT.
Because drafts are devious and deceitful.
Until next time~