January 14, 2010

How to Start Over?

So, in 2008/09, I wrote my first novel. It's a sprawling, rough-around-the-edges first novel, but it's there: thousands of words in what I hope is an interesting sequence. I've proven to myself that I can sit down and do it without driving myself, and my Manfriend, completely insane.

Now that the last of the celebratory brownies are gone and I've gotten over the "Look what I did!", let's-hang-it-on-the-fridge stage, I find my mind whirring with shiny new ideas. One has become particularly sharp. Over Christmas, three main characters materialized in my head, waking me up at weird hours, distracting me from conversations in which I should be participating (that job interview probably wasn't my best...). This is the exciting part, when ideas bloom freely, unimpeded by ability or the strictures of practicality, trembling with promise. I've got a pile of haphazard notes about my setting, plot, and main themes. I think I'm ready to start again.

I find myself staring at the beginnings of an outline and thinking... how did I do this again?

Every writer has a process for getting from idea to completed first draft. You'd think, after writing my first novel (titled Spellbound until further notice), I'd know all about what I need to do. And yet, I find myself wondering if the way I did it last time was actually the best way for me. It took me a year and a half to write Spellbound (in retrospect, about eight months too long). It was a jerky process of stop-and-start, stumbling forward with only a vague idea where the plot was headed. My main character, Jack, morphed from age 13 to 16, the point of view from third to first person. I patchwork-edited as I went, which means that the story sometimes feels like a inexpertly sewn quilt, lumpy and puckered. This is making the editing process much more difficult, which is something I want to avoid in future. But how?

Here's what I think Spellbound taught me about how to write a great first draft:

1. Write every day, preferably at the same time. This seems like a no-brainer, but an important one. One of the reasons SB feels so patchwork is because there were weeks in which I wrote intensely, and some in which I didn't write at all. I allowed my fear-of-suckiness to keep me from pushing through the parts that were hard. Stopping pulled me out of the story, making it that much harder to get back in.

2. Make a relatively coherent outline before starting to write. This also seems like a no-brainer, because who can tell a story without knowing its beginning, middle, and end? Apparently, I thought I could. Other writers do this, I thought. Good writers like to fly by the seats of their badly worn, I've-been-sitting-in-my-office-chair-for-two-weeks-straight pants. I've discovered that winging it IS an important part of my process. That's when characters come alive and start to do things I didn't tell them to (naughty minxes). I've discovered that while I don't need to know how it ends, I need to understand the heart of the story- what the story is REALLY about and what major events are going to drive it forward- in order to get anywhere. There need to be gaps in my outline- but not gaping holes.

3. Know thy characters. I vividly remember writing the first scene in which Jack and Lorna, my main characters in SB, meet for the first time. I knew exactly how Jack was feeling because I was stuck inside his head. His dialogue came out pretty easily, but when I tried to coax words from Lorna's mouth, they came out flat. It took me a week and countless re-writes to figure out where I was going wrong. Lorna was only an idea, not a person: I knew as much about her as Jack did, which was very little. I didn't know what her motivation was, or how she felt about Jack, so I couldn't know how she would react. I had to go back and get to know her (everything past, present, and future) to understand what she should say. I mean, if someone asked you "What would so-and-so say if you told her that?" -and you didn't happen to know this so-and-so- how would you respond? Probably by saying something like "Umm... dunno?". I have to know my characters very, very well before I can write about them with anything like authority.

4. I like pretty pictures. It took me a while to realize this, but I'm a very 'visual' person. Photographs and illustrations that capture the essence of what I'm writing make all the difference when it comes to inspiration. This is especially true when I live in a tropical locale that blurs and generally wilts my mind's picture of my New England setting. I've put up two massive cork boards on my wall and filled them with Novel #2-inspired cut-outs: snow-draped forests, foggy fields, topaz gems. These pictures provide an important creative push on those days when I'm just not feeling it.

5. It's OK to go back- just not too far! I've read a lot of writers who say that, when writing a first draft, you shouldn't look back. Just keep writing and save the editing for when the thing is finished. Even when properly caffeinated, I need a little recap of what I wrote the day before. Reading back just a few pages helps to pull me back into the story and keep me on track. It also reminds me, on those days when every word I type feels like drivel, that there are really good things hiding underneath the crap. Your writing is always better than you thought it was.

The other thing I've learned? You need to stop allowing yourself to procrastinate via Facebook and Gmail and... blogs.

And so, back to the drawing board!

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