Real Writing

Writing-DraftsSo I wrote a book. More about that later. The point is, I did it:  the thing I've been planning on doing since my eight-year-old self first proclaimed that when she grew up, she was going to be "an author." Eight-year-old me couldn't have guessed that finishing a book would look a lot like taking out the garbage; for every polished page of my 323-page manuscript, I probably tossed ten pages of prose. I'm not talking about the revision process, either. I didn't start with a 1000-page manuscript that got carefully pruned until every noun, verb, and preposition was le mot juste. That kind of editing was certainly part of the process. But I'm talking about all the writing I did before what I came to think of as the Real Writing.

This being my first book, I naturally had no idea how I would write a book. Asked to predict what my writing process might look like, I would have guessed something like:  write a complete rough draft; read it and start editing and rethinking what I've written; rewrite; repeat steps 1 - 3 until I have something that feels final.

Four years after I sat down at my computer and wrote a line that would turn out to be in the wrong voice, from the wrong point of view, at the wrong point of the wrong character's story, here's what my process turned out to be:

1. Write. A lot.

2. Trash whatever I wrote.

3. Write. Try a different point of view this time, or maybe try starting from a different point in the story.

4. Trash that.

5. Repeat steps 1 - 4 until one day I feel a sort of settling in, like I've discovered a sweet spot under a tree in a field where I can curl up and watch what's going on around me and really think about it and see what develops.

6. Keep writing.

7. Probably trash a lot of what I just wrote, but not quite as much as I'd trashed up to this point.

8. Write some more.

There's even more to it. Once I found the "sweet spot," I knew I'd gotten something right. I'd found my voice, I'd discovered the heart of my story, I'd started telling the truth -- pick your cliché. I was Really Writing. But I still had a long way to go. I stayed in the sweet spot until I hit a bump in the road (I am aware this metaphor is getting away from me), and then I kept circling around and getting tripped up by the same bump, until I finally found the vehicle that would get me over it. All of that involved more rewriting and revising and rethinking.

But as I start my second novel, what interests me are those first eight steps, before the sweet spot. That's a lot of writing before I ever managed to get to the Real Writing. I've got a folder on my Mac's desktop that says THE KILLING DRINK, and inside that folder there are five full drafts of my book. But there's a subfolder, too, labeled "early writing," and it holds four additional subfolders, all full of drafts and scraps and scenes and pre-Real Writing stuff. Stuff that in no concrete way made it into the final draft of the book. Old stuff. Wrongheaded stuff. Cringe-worthy stuff. Not-half-bad-but-not-half-good stuff.

But not worthless stuff.

I'm writing a lot of stuff right now. And I know I'm probably going to trash all of it. This, I find, is the most frustrating part of writing for me: the early days, the period during which I stumble around in the dark with my hands waving around in front of me as I try to grab hold of something. I hope that something is a thread or a rope that I can follow blindly through the trees until I find my way to the story I'm trying to tell. More often, this early on, it's a useless strand of yarn, a scrap of cloth, a broken twig. So I have to toss it aside and keep stumbling.

What I learned from writing my first book was that even though I probably look pretty silly flapping my hands around and tripping through the forest -- and even though doing so can feel like a colossal waste of time -- it's necessary. Because although I claim to have trashed all that early writing, the fact is, I didn't. In all that garbage, there were things worth keeping. There were little details, the beginnings of ideas, and good impulses. To find those things, though, I had to keep sifting through the trash.

I was looking at Writer Unboxed today and wound up reading this post, in which two writers, Michele Young-Stone and Heidi Durrow, discuss how they wrote their second novels. At one point, Durrow says:

"Who is it that says we write to figure out what we actually think and feel? That’s what all those drafts are for—to figure it out. The hard part is knowing that you’re most likely getting it wrong in the draft you’re writing, and the exciting part is knowing that having gone through that bad draft you have a better chance of getting it right...But I have to remember as you said that the first drafts are for you—the writer."

We write to figure out what we actually think and feel. That's the part I have to remember as I grope my way around these early attempts at a second book. I will be getting it wrong; I won't even be writing something that can be thought of as a draft. I'll be writing to get to know the characters I've only just met. I'll be writing to understand where it is they live and what it is they want. This is the part where I slow down, stop trying to find my way through the woods, and try to glean what I can from my surroundings. The part where I dig through the trash to find the scraps that will mean something when I finally start doing the Real Writing. This might actually be the Real Writing -- the stuff that makes the writing I'll do later possible.