Monday, September 21, 2009

"Crummy" First Drafts and Moving That Story Along

For the past week or so, you, Our Faithful Followers, have sent us your favorite books on writing for children and young adults. Now it's our turn (the Teaching Authors) to join the conversation with OUR favorite books.

I'm going to cheat an eensy bit here, because my absolute favorite book on writing is not about teaching OR writing for children. It is more of inspirational book, and geared for all writers, not just those of us who write for the 18-and-under crowd. I also have a favorite teaching book, so you are really getting a two-for-one-deal here.

My all-time-favorite-don't-leave-home-without-it book is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Now I realize that Bird is not everyone's cup of tea. Anne Lamott is one highly opinionated writer, and her opinions in this book include hers on American politics, women's reproductive rights and religion, in addition to writing. If you pick past her mini-rants, you will find a lot of common sense on writing. Or, more specifically, in dealing with all the "garbage" your mind generates in the way of negative self-talk as you wrestle with your own prose. (Naturally, Lamott uses a shorter and less polite term for "garbage").

Negative self-talk is one of my big time problems that can stall me on a project for months at a time. "Who do you think you are? Karen Hesse?" (or my idol of the moment) "What makes you think you are a good enough writer to take on this story?" "So what if I've sold a book (or two or four or eight?) I got lucky. I'll never do it again." These are only some of the gems my mental radio station broadcasts to me in an "all-talk, all-negative, all the time" format. Lamott tells you how to pull the plug on this station, and other ways to kill your Inner Negative Writer.

Bird by Bird introduced me to the single most earth-shattering notion of my entire writing life; "permission" to write crummy first drafts. (Again, Lamott uses a far more colorful word than "crummy" to describe a first draft.) Perhaps this is just common sense to most of you, but the news that I did not have to hunt for just the right word or character name, or blitz through a transition scene, already knowing that it wouldn't work....just to get to the END of a first draft..why this was the best news ever! If given "permission," I will meander through a first draft, picking over my word choices like Forrest Gump with a box of chocolates. I will hunt through my "name books" for days, choosing and rejecting character names. All of which are good things to do...but not in a first draft. First drafts are for banging it out, getting it done, reaching the other side of the river.

My drawers are full of elegantly worded first chapters that have no second chapters, because I exhausted my original creative impulse by trying to make them "perfect" the first time. At some point, I became so frustrated with my imperfection, I gave up on them, or talked myself into thinking the whole idea was stupid.

Clearly, Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird had a lot to say to me.

But on to what I am supposed to be writing about...writing books to use with kids. My all-time recommendation is Marion Dane Bauer's What's Your Story? OK, I will admit up front that Marion Dane Bauer was one of my teachers in the Vermont College MFA program. However, I read this book long before I ever met her, and found it to be straightforward in explaining the writing process to a young writer. Without condescending, it starts with the basics of character, setting and plot, and shows the writer how to fashion a multi-dimensional character, make the setting another "character" in the story, and how to dovetail the plot events in so that each event builds on the previous. Bauer manages to convey all this for writers age ten and up, in less than 120 pages.

Plot is my weak point, and What's Your Story? reminds me not to include a single word that will not further the story. Bauer's mantra, "How does this move the story along?" is something I have to ask myself at the end of every page.

Marion Dane Bauer and Anne Lamott are my writing mentors, even though I personally know only one of them. It's sometimes crowded in my office, as the three of us plow on through my next "crummy" first draft, stifling the radio station in my head, and chanting HDTMTSA? (How does this move the story along?)

But it works.


Sarah Campbell said...

I loved, loved, loved Bird by Bird. I need to go back to it again. My other favorite writing book (not on kids writing) is Writing for Story by Jon Franklin.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks for sharing and recommending WHAT'S YOUR STORY?, Mary Ann. Had Marian Dane Bauer written this book earlier, my writer's journey to publication would have been (considerably)shorter.
The book tops my U. of Chicago Writer's Studio Novel Workshop Reading List and sits in the university bookstore beside Aristotle's ON POETRY AND STYLE.
Thanks, too, to all who shared favorite writing books in conjunction with my review of Ann Whitford Paul's WRITING PICTURE BOOKS.

Michelle Sussman said...

I saw Anne Lamott speak a few years ago and she's even more inspiring in person. Her books definitely capture her essence and I always recommend them to people too.