One of my big "Ah ha" moments in my never-ending quest of "learning to write," was reading Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird. I know I have invoked Bird by Bird many times in this blog, but I can't help it. When I am discouraged, bogged-down, or, as I mentioned in my last post, just plain "done" (as opposed to "finished") I call on Anne to get me out of whatever funk I am in. Whatever it is, she's been there and done that a zillion times. Anne is a right-to-the-point kind of writer who isn't afraid to use four letter words and a little political rhetoric to get her ideas across. I know this bothers some people, so I mention it in recommending her book. If you skip past those occasional references, Anne is my right-hand-in-print-writing-guru.
Anne was the one who gave me "permission" to write lousy first drafts (Anne uses a somewhat different word than lousy.) First drafts are for getting down the story, getting to know your characters and setting. When I sit down to a first draft, I don't agonize over word choices, character names or other details that don't come to mind immediately. Whatever doesn't come to mind immediately, I leave out by typing in XXXX. When I am revising, it alerts me that I know something is missing here, and hopefully, I now know what it is. If I still don't know, I leave it in until I do know. If that XXX is still around in the final draft it's usually a sign that I didn't need whatever it was in the first place.
Unlike Jo Ann, I hate writing first drafts. Sometimes I feel like Moses wandering in the wilderness. Very often there are huge holes in my plot (like Jeanne Marie, plotting is my weakness). Right now I am going to break Esther's very sensible rule about not talking about what you are writing (the more time you spend time talking about it, the less energy you have to write it.) However, I am pushing my fiction envelope and writing a verse novel. For the record, I am not writing a verse novel because I am a poet ( I most definitely am not) or because verse novels are hot stuff right now. I just think it is the best and possibly the only way I can write this particular story, which is in three voices and so intense and occasionally gruesome, that it is too heavy to write as straight prose.
The best thing about writing this first draft is that the verse format works really well with my particular way of writing. I don't write in sequence. I don't start with chapter one and then proceed to chapters two, three, etc. When I sit down to write, I write whatever is clearest in my mind that day. When I go back to write again, maybe I will continue with that scene, character, episode (pick one) or it sparks a chapter that I know will come before or after what I have already written. I don't worry where it will come. I just write. Backward, forwards, occasionally upside down (kidding). The only consistent thing is that whatever I think is going to be the last chapter, never is.
When I go back for revision (the part of writing I love) I put my work into a preliminary order, sometimes shuffling chapter positions, but always discovering where there is a hole, or where I need a transition. Sometimes I find characters hanging around the edges of the story, not pulling their load. (They are fired.)
This might not work for anyone but me. (I am ADD, and not the most organized person...at least not by organized person standards.) The point is to do what it takes to get out that first draft. This morning I've been writing a poem that I have no idea where it is going to fit in the book's trajectory. Maybe it will get the old heave ho in the final draft. But for right now, I feel pretty good about it. (I actually got the idea sitting in the skating rink parking lot last week, and wrote the notes for it on the deposit slips of my checkbook..I didn't have any paper.) I have also written on McDonald's napkins, air-sickness bags (empty ones) and of course, the writer's notebook I sometimes remember to carry with me. Right now I have two full notebooks, plus napkins, church bulletins, playbills and Wal-Mart receipts that I am transcribing into a first draft.
I hate gathering all this stuff together (this is the first book I've ever written by hand first), but unless I want to lose some deathless piece of genius written on the back of a hockey schedule, I have to (excuse me Nike) just do it.
One more thing. Don't think too hard this first time around. Thinking turns into premature self-criticism which results in no drafts, first, second or final.
Today I will remember to take my notebook to the skating rink.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman