Thursday, October 04, 2007

Lead with your strengths

I don't really learn from my mistakes. Or more accurately, I don't really learn anything new from them. That's because I usually have a sense when things are going to fail; even as I take my first tentative steps, a gonging voice in my head says, “No, go back.” I usually ignore said gonging voice, because it can be difficult to distinguish it from my fear. And it IS fear just often enough to keep me moving in the wrong direction. Alas, this means I don't have a healthy respect for my intuition, either. I am working on that.

But lately, I have been learning from my failed first draft (sadly, still uncompleted) of my novel. It's been interesting analyzing all of the steps that went wrong. Losing the thread of my story in a fear that it wasn't novelistic enough. Giving all of the juicy conflicts to secondary/main characters instead of my poor, ignored main character. Being too vague about my main character's deepest desires.

There is another lesson here, though, and one that surprised me. I didn't lead with my strengths. See, I tend to underwrite, which is why the mini-story blog format works so well for me. I'm not sure if its because I am pressed for time, or because I am rushing to follow the scent of the inspiration, but my writings to be a bit spare. Every now and then, someone will comment on one of my little tales and say that they “can see the characters in a novel.” I squint at my story, words grown strange, to see if perhaps there is something there that I missed. Inevitably, no. I recorded all of my invention. I wish it were different. My stories are the records of spent inspirations.

Somewhere along the way, I read that writers should always overwrite their first drafts. The idea being that if you write and write, you will discover new patterns, ideas, etc that might not have seem apparent upon first vision. It's a good idea, in theory. But for me, theory is where it should have remained.

I tried to overwrite this failed draft, and got hopelessly bogged down in my own excessive verbiage. Instead of seeing things more clearly, I felt myself growing confused as I piled on more and more ideas, details, plot points, backstory. My computer started to make the distinct whir of a tire trapped in rapidly hardening cement. My main character grew more reticent and a little passive, made lazy by the idea that it would take her five, six pages just to cross the room to pick up a nursing bra.

Proust, I am not.

So, now that I am about to begin again, I plan to write my natural way, at least for the first draft. Lean. Perhaps it will give me less to cut, and I might miss out on some interesting digressions, but at least I'll have a story to shape into a second, richer draft.

Do you all do this, in your writing or in your life—try to follow some advice that feels about as right for you as wearing your shoes on your hands in the middle of a blizzard, and then wonder why something that was working, albeit in fits and starts, now sits leaden and immobile?



Blogger Amber said...

I like your lean style. It is clean, and not condescending to the reader. We see what we need to see, and are able to see a lot of what we want to see as well. I think that is a gift.

But I also think I write a little sparse, and I am finding I have the same fears abotu it "not being enough", as I write. As a reader, i like it. As a writer, it makes me wonder about myself.

Thanks again for being open about your process, because it might save me from myself. lol


5:16 PM, October 04, 2007  
Blogger Rach said...

I love the fact that you are a novelist, hate that you question your own ability and prowess to write. I have always thought your words were articulate, from the heart and with a twist that keeps me coming back for more.
As far as my writing goes:
I just close my eyes, clear my mind and start.........let the dice fall where they may. But then I don't have your critical publishing audience. never doubt yourself honey, there are already too many people out there who can, and will, do that for you!

5:20 PM, October 04, 2007  
Anonymous Frida said...

Um, yeah, I always take bad advice in love, because I am so very unsure of myself when it comes the male of the species, being raised in a house of women.

Your return to your own style sure feels right to me.

10:25 PM, October 04, 2007  
Blogger Lisa said...

I so completely empathize with you. Fears are insidious and I think we have to learn to conquer them. I read a lot -- probably too much on blogs in books on writing -- and sometimes I let it overwhelm me. I wonder about my failed efforts and the doubts I have about what I'm doing now and I think that the only way to attack this problem is to read, learn, absorb and then turn away and tackle the work. The things I've learned that have helped me the most? I've learned that almost every single published novelist I know of wrote an average of 2-4 manuscripts before she got to the one that worked. I've learned that this can't be forced and that every author I've spoken with who has written a book I admire tells me that it took years to write it. I hear four years a lot. I've learned to stop beating myself up and to recognize that I have the one thing that's absolutely necessary to succeed, and that's determination and commitment. I have a lot of questions and insecurities, but every time I identify one of them, I try to figure out a way to work on it and figure it out. You are a very talented writer. You need to tell yourself that you can do this and believe it. You are a writer. If what you're doing isn't working, figure out why and try it again, as many times and in as many ways as you need to. Hugs.

10:36 PM, October 04, 2007  
Blogger bee said...

as someone who is SLIGHTLY in the small-pond writing world in montreal (i really don't go to many - if any - of the 'reading nights you're supposed to go to to make a name for yourself') i REALLY vehemently fight against the idea that there is a RIGHT way of doing things.

as it comes out that i am in the creative writing program, la la la la, more people have been coming to me and telling me that they write, and then asking for help. i just want to tell them, good for you, and i have probably even less idea than you how to fix whatever.

the in-fighting and popularity contests are not cool, in this world. i refuse to play. for instance, a prof. of mine was supposed to give me a referral for a job - he never did - i found out later that it was because of professional jealousy. WHATEVER.

all of this to say, that it is the 'professional world' that puts cut-throat ideas into burgeoning writers heads. "you MUST do this." "proust did it THIS way."
screw proust. (sorry, marcel).

if you write lean, mardou, celebrate that. write lean. write 97% fat free prose. you are a fantastatically gorgeous writer, and although i almost never find the words to compliment you on the stories you publish here, my heart is always full of them for days afterwards. that says, to me, that you are going in the right direction...

the one piece of advice that i give people, who come to me looking for help, is to shut up the internal editor inside you. write how you know is right for you, but keep writing until he shuts up. then keep writing more.

you are doing it. and it's good that you are looking at your first draft and noticing mistakes, sure, but don't look too long.

i hope this makes sense, and is as supportive of YOU and what You are trying to create as it was meant to be.


7:19 AM, October 07, 2007  
Blogger Mama Zen said...

I tend to write pretty lean. I truly admire those writers that can describe, describe, describe, but I'll never be one of them. When I try to put on their style, I just feel stupid.

4:50 PM, October 07, 2007  
Blogger Maddie said...

hmmmmmm -

I have a feeling - you don't
underwrite at all -
your words capture the essence
straight from the original gust
of intention - and you are one
of the rare lucky ones -
who won't need a second draft -
it can go straight to the publisher.

:) I am sure of it:)

9:47 PM, October 07, 2007  
Blogger apostata said...

Don't worry about writing like Proust - too many unpublished writers use other vastly famous (and published) writers as comparisons. It's dangerous.

Write like you, rather than Proust. But keep writing.

2:01 PM, November 02, 2007  

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