Before I dive too deeply into this blog post, I’m going to have to ask you to do something for me, first. Please prepare yourself to suspend judgment. At RTC, we’ve coined the phrase “Vulnerability is sexy” and I’m still growing into that belief. Because what I’m about to share with you doesn’t feel sexy, it feels hairy, scary, and mortifying. So, if you’ll just agree to tuck your judgment away for a few minutes, I’d really appreciate it. And, if it makes you feel better, I’m radiating enough self-judgment for the both of us!
When I write, I get lost in the story. My own fiction writing is usually done in the “pantsing it” style. If you’re unfamiliar with this method, it refers to “flying by the seat of your pants”—or writing without an outline. This style of writing helps me get ideas down quickly. I started “pantsing it” during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) a few years ago. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000-word novel by writing 1,667 words every day in November. So, because I have to write a lot in a short amount of time, I let the story go where it will.
I’ve had very good results with letting my stories take on minds of their own. I feel more creative with this style of writing. Rather than feeling bound by an outline, I can listen to my deeper consciousness and write the story that wants to be written, rather than one I’d planned to write. Characters and plot lines do unexpected things and I’m often surprised when I reach pivotal moments. Who knew that was going to happen?
But, if I’m being totally honest, writing on a wing and a prayer can also lead to some pretty convoluted stories. Usually my first drafts have multiple dropped plot lines, weird foreshadowing that never gets followed through with, and characters that at best change names and at worst disappear completely. Through this process of writing what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” I learn a lot about the story and the characters. In subsequent drafts I can organize what needs to stay and get rid of what needs to go. The editing of these drafts is actually quite an emotional rollercoaster—there are some real gems hidden among the multitude of unnecessary sentences and I feel vindicated, like my time wasn’t completely wasted. And then there’s everything else.
I was writing a YA novel a while ago that included some references to the occult and the line “And when things got supernatural, life got weird.” I’m grimacing as I’m typing this, by the way. At the time, I thought that line was so clever. I even wrote about it on my now-defunct personal blog. First of all, the line doesn’t even say anything. I thought I was being suspenseful and foreshadow-y. But upon stepping away from that manuscript and coming back to it much later I felt a little mortified by its inclusion in an otherwise salvageable story. Here are a few other doozies I’ve discovered from going back into various pieces to edit first drafts:
“I knew Raqui would die when she saw the gingham, A-line skirt and boots I’d picked out for her.” (Seriously, a gingham, A-line skirt?) This one was from a short story I wrote about a girl throwing a surprise bridal shower for a friend. I was trying to give specific details, but clearly didn’t think through the character’s lack of fashion sense. Overall, the details just felt forced.
“‘And some inhuman ways, too,’ I laughed and inhaled the spring morning.” (Inhaled the spring morning? Sounds like someone was hungry or an author was trying to force-feed you setting details.) Not surprisingly, this is from the same short story as the example above. And it suffers from the same forced details. Maybe I was going through a “show—don’t tell” phase?
“I nodded and closed my laptop. I let it slide off my lap and onto the pink pillow I’d won at the state fair years ago.” (Neither the pillow nor the state fair were ever developed or mentioned again, though I think I had the best intentions to do so at one point.) This one came from a different YA novel. The character was a young writer and I felt compelled to hit that point home by describing her writing environment with extraneous details. ‘
This was a poem one of my characters wrote (I feel a little nauseous sharing this. Apparently this character was a Marxist.)
Equality is a joke—
A game that they play.
Same rights for all
They shout and they say.
There’s a group in power
and they refuse to share.
Yet they claim we’re all good
like they actually care.
Control the money
and you’ll rule the masses.
Wipe out peoples’ dreams
and maintain the classes.
I vividly remember writing this scene, because I was teaching poetry to my fifth-grade class at the time. Sadly, the poetry of 10-year-olds outshone my pitiful attempts at trying to write a punk rock character.
So see, this where the self-judgment/vulnerability/intense feelings of public humiliation come in. And while I am feeling really uncomfortable about sharing all these examples, what mollifies my embarrassment is the fact that these excerpts are things that have changed from one draft to another. And that’s the beautiful thing about writing. You can step away from it, grow as a person, develop as a writer, and when you come back you get to see your work in a whole way.
I feel very strongly about distancing myself from my writing for a good amount of time. When working on a piece, I get intensely attached to it, obsessed even. I can’t look at it objectively—love it unconditionally. When you are so close to something, there’s no room to think critically about it. It’s not until you give it time and space that you begin to see it for what it really is. It’s like a new relationship. You’re completely enamored with a person and spend all of your time together. When the lust finally wears off and you spend the night apart for the first time in months, you think, “I miss him/her.” And then life happens and you spend less time together and you realize your lover isn’t the picture of perfection you’d built up in your mind. That’s not to say he or she isn’t fantastic, it just means you start seeing the relationship with a more realistic heart.
Once I get some distance from my writing, I can see it for what it is. I can appreciate the great ideas and bemoan the mortifying dialogue. I can be a more objective reader of my own writing. I’ve also found that once I’ve rewritten a piece it can be really helpful to work with a writing group or a friend with storytelling in their blood, like the editors here at RTC. An objective reader, one who reads like a writer, can work magic on a piece of writing. I feel like there’s no shame in asking for help to make my work better. I’ve already made it through the gut-wrenching, soul-baring, and sometimes heart-breaking process of writing the story. What do I have to lose?