Drafts are Devious and Deceitful

January 27, 2013 at 10:57 am (Writing) (, , , )

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~

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Round 1 vs Round 2

December 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm (Writing) (, , , )

I mentioned a few times that my NaNo project was a rewrite, so I thought it might be interesting to do some first draft comparisons now that the numbers are all in.

I wrote the First Version in early 2008. It was my first time writing YA, and for a while it refused to settle into a voice. Somewhere in a folder I still have the paperclipped stash where the first two chapters were written in first person, then rewritten in third. Then I ignored both of them and started over in first. I don’t have the day by day breakdowns, partly because this was before I started doing that. Writing by hand meant that I didn’t really have a good grasp of word count, either per day or per chapter, and even though I typed up each chapter as I finished instead of waiting for the end, I didn’t really understand at that point how word count was supposed to translate.

(As proof, I offer you the word count of the novel I wrote for my college honors thesis: 215K+. I so wish I was joking)

But, I do have the chapter counts.

Prologue: 286 (yes, it had a prologue, and worse, it was one of those that drops you present tense into the middle of a high-octane moment, then takes you back however long for the beginning of the story)
Chapter 1: 7895 (waaaaay too long for a chapter, as I didn’t understand at that point)
Chapter 2: 7805
Chapter 3: 7758
Chapter 4: 7875
Chapter 5: 10665 (and no, I didn’t accidentally include an extra number in there, that’s really how long it was)
Chapter 6: 8161
Chapter 7: 5107
Chapter 8: 7173
Chapter 9: 6478
Chapter 10: 8161 (am I a nerd that it seriously amuses me how two chapters had the exact same word count?)
Chapter 11: 8076
Chapter 12: 5211
Chapter 13: 6840
Chapter 14: 4241
Epilogue: 296
Total word count: 102028

On its own, it’s not an egregious word count. A little overlong, but not terrible. I was in love with it, not so surprising, and given that I’ve never had much of a hand at self-editing, I started researching agents pretty much as soon as I went through looking for typos and inconsistencies. Still, I got a few bites off of it before I reluctantly retired it to query a stronger a project.

When I retired it, though, I had no intention of leavig it to die. I still believed, very passionately, in the story and the characters, and (strangely enough) in the setting. It just needed more of some things and less of others. It needed a tighter line, higher stakes, needed some sharper edges. I just wasn’t sure at that point how to achieve those things. So I set it aside, waiting for the pieces to come together.

It took a little over three years, but in mid-October or so, as I was neck deep in another project, suddenly something clicked. Or rather, about a dozen somethings. I couldn’t play with it until I was done with the other project, so that’s when I made the decision to do NaNo, even though I prefer to give three or four weeks between projects so my brain doesn’t fry.

Here are the counts for the Second Version (chapters are listed under the day they were finished, with total chapter word count)

1 November: 8429 words
Chapter 1: 5221
2 November: 2502
Chapter 2: 4527
3 November: 990
4 November: 7402
Chapter 3: 5465
Chapter 4: 5229
5 November: 2530
7 November: 3879
Chapter 5: 5486
8 November: 7610
Chapter 6: 5114
9 November: 1768
Chapter 7: 5189
10 November: 5066
Chapter 8: 5066 (yes, that was all I did that day)
11 November: 3292
15 November: 1839

Chapter 9: 4821
16 November: 2464
18 November: 6911

Chapter 10: 4321
Chapter 11: 5037
20 November: 9482
Chapter 12: 4707
Chapter 13: 5102
22 November: 7425
Chapter 14: 4751
29 November: 7498
Chapter 15: 5037
Chapter 16: 5154
6 December: 15279
Chapter 17: 5154
Chapter 18: 5180
Chapter 19: 4945
Total word count: 95571

No prologue, no epilogue, five more chapters, seven thousand fewer words.
Average chapter length Round 1: 7246 and spare letters, not counting prologue and epilogue
Average chapter length Round 2: 5030 and spare letters

Rewriting something is very, very different from writing something new. I had to decide what to keep, what to keep but change, and what to discard completely, and had to decide what that did to the story and to the characters. There are scenes that I miss SO BADLY because I loved them, some of them because they were sweet, some of them because they still have the ability to crack me up, but I had to evaluate everything on a simple question: does this do what I need it to do? For a lot of those scenes I loved, while they did wonderful things purely for character, the overall answer was no. They didn’t do enough for the story, so they had to go.

For me, doing this rewrite was a lot harder than putting down something wholly new. I knew the characters so well from three previous books that sometimes I forgot that my audience wouldn’t know them the way I did (something that will doubtless prove to be a trial when I go back to edit it in a few weeks). I wanted to stay true to the characters I’d fallen in love with, but more importantly, I wanted the characters to be true. Which actually made me fall in love with some of them even more.

And made me realize that I am merciless when it comes to putting my favorite characters through horrible things.

What doing this also taught me is that I have a process. It’s a weird process, based on writing only a couple of days a week but writing ALL DAY, but it’s mine. That process works for me, lets me get a LOT done, and going outside of that process, while a valuable experiment, is something I need to not do in the future if I want to spare myself fruitless frustration.

After I saved the completed file, I closed it out and haven’t looked at it. Starting this evening (maybe), I’ll be starting on edits for my October project, the file for which I haven’t opened since I finished it. I need time away from a draft before I can go back to it constructively, need the time to back away, to gain some distance so I can see more clearly what needs to be repaired, replaced, or removed. After I do the edits on that one, and take some time to mentally recover, then I’ll come back to my NaNo project with a wiser eye.

Until next time~

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A Chance to Look Sideways

June 10, 2012 at 8:09 pm (Writing) (, )

As writers, we invest a lot in our manuscripts.

We’re only a little bit kidding when we call them our babies. We invest a lot of time, imagination, and work into finding the right words- and even more challenging, stringing the words into the right order. We fret over the characters like they really are our children, worrying every step of their progress, putting them through unimaginable pains and torments in the name of story. We weave the setting out of whole cloth and we dance our children through their journey like marionettes. We throw ourselves completely into this alternate reality, losing ourselves for hours at a time, and even when we withdraw back into the mundane world, our constructs linger within our minds, almost obsessively at points.

This can be a wonderful thing, but it also presents problems- well, not problems, let’s call them difficulties- down the road, mainly when it comes time for edits.

Edits are this amazing opportunity to take a sideways look at things, to discover the ‘why’ behind all the glorious accidents that happen during drafting. The thing is, writers very rarely have the ability to step back from their manuscripts enough to do the thorough editing that needs to be done.

I know I can’t.

We’re too invested in what we’ve created, so the idea of cutting or changing things would be like putting one of our children into plastic surgery. All of the flaws and problems and inconsistencies get glossed over as adorable and charming. We read through the manuscript and our brains just skip over all the things that we would notice in someone else’s.

If we’re lucky, and if we’re a little thick-skinned and pragmatic, we find someone who does have the necessary distance, someone who can go through it with a critical eye and- best of all- a passion to make your manuscript the best it can possibly be.

Would now be a good time to say that I have an amazing editor?

Going through all the notes, the comments, the questions forces me to look at every line- seriously, every line– and evaluate exactly what it does. I can’t gloss over something or pretend it doesn’t exist- every note needs to be thought about, addressed. And I love it. I may be one of the only people in the world who loves doing edits because of that sideways look at things.

It goes back to high school English classes. Teachers would tell us to analyze “what the author meant to do” and I hated it HATED IT because I pretty much figured English teachers on the whole were buying into a load of bull. (No offense, English teachers). The author meant to- no, no, the author just wrote the frickin sentence. The fact that it makes a vague allusion to something completely unconnected to the story that may or may not actually reinforce any of the themes is probably just an accident. As a reader I might have been willing to give into the theory, but as a writer? I didn’t believe it for a minute.

And working through my manuscript line by line, I’m still not sure I believe it.

What it did do was make me recognize all the accidents layered through the pages. Accidents I love, yes, but accidents nonetheless. Allusions I hadn’t realized I’d included, words that made unexpected parallels and resonances through the chapters.

Most of that is due to Andrew’s attention to detail. He notices things that I’ve become so used to reading that it doesn’t even occur to me. He questions even the small things, but addressing them makes such a better book. I’m getting to see entirely new sides of my characters, getting to know so much more about them, and it’s not because of anything I’m doing. It’s because of the questions Andrew asks, the challenges he makes.

It can be terrifying to give your story to someone else, to put it out there in the cold, hard world for someone to pick apart, but don’t be afraid.

Take a deep breath.

And prepare yourself for that sideways look, where your manuscript comes alive in totally new ways.

Until next time~

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