My first drafts of the novel that nearly wasn’t had the same slapdash sense of panic I felt while trying to get it on the page. The first complete draft took nearly 10 years to get on paper. That’s a lot of anxiety.
One of the common, basic, slap your forehead writing lessons is that every emotion you feel when writing the work will be magnified when a reader reads that work. That’s a LOT of anxiety.
At the same time I was working on turning a book shaped object into a novel, I got fed up with my pretentious self and – there’s no real and. I just got fed up with it. Instead of writing works I wanted to read, I thought I had to be more clever than clever, tricky and suave and intellectual. There’s a place for that kind of work, but when I re-read those drafts I could only feel the same work that went into them, pulling me downward into a slog.
All works are devoured differently.
If I sit down with Terry Pratchett’s anything, I’m not leaving until I hit the back cover. Same with Jim Butcher and Kage Baker. I love Italo Calvino, but I can put his works down in the middle of an essay and come back days or months later. I consumed the Three Body Problem in an evening. If I pick up anything Marie Liu, I make sure I have a seat, snacks, and a drink, because I’m not moving until that final sentence closes. Mo Haydr, for all the wonderful grotesque villains and not-quite-heroes, is very easy for me to put down at chapter two for months. Then I find the book again, open to the bookmark, and devour the rest of it. There are parts of Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow that I had to put down after each paragraph to collect myself. That’s fine.
Before I wrote Draft 24, the magic draft, the one that just came together, I asked myself what kind of experience I was trying to have. Not create, but to have in creating. Usually I was an anxious mess, clawing figures out of mud with my fingernails. I wanted to have the same fun writing that I had reading my favorite books.
So I peeled the pretentious out of my plot and characters. I analyzed past drafts for payoff moments, humor, fear, grief, anger. I didn’t find many. Most of the wordcount was burned on explaining things, which is great for a textbook, but not for a book I actually wanted to read.
When I wrote out the plot on sticky notes that last time, I included a space for the emotions of the characters, and a space for the emotions I wanted the reader to feel. This helped me get a bird’s eye view on pacing, as well as confronting whether my villains were villainous enough or my allies were too helpful, etc. It helped me space out my payoff scenes and information reveals so that I was no longer lecturing made up history to an uncaring audience of 1 (myself, annoyed and ready to go re-read an actual favorite story).
I took a week off work* and committed to going away from home so that I was trapped with only my story and ideally, a lack of wifi and people who cared if they talked to me. I used a Deskpass trial (highly recommend a co-working space if you need to get out of your head), packed a bag each day like I was going to work, left at 7:30 am and returned after 6 pm. I had two conversations, both with bus drivers. It was glorious.
Every day I sat down, opened my scrivener document, and wrote. The concentrated writing time meant my personal emotions didn’t have time to regenerate and drift away from my story. I careened from mystery to mystery, leaned into plot twists, and by the time I got to the big reveal, I was genuinely surprised as these characters I lovingly, determinedly created spoke to each other without my strict direction. They came alive as I came alive.
If I got to talk to the me who sat down to painstakingly type out draft 3, I would give me the kind of advice I did not have the life experience to appreciate at the time. Be sad. Be happy. Be angry, revel in unrighteousness, be sharply curious, be surprised, be scared, and only after you have earned it, take a deep breath and let it all out. Be at peace.
That’s basically the same writing lesson I got from every teacher, many how-to books, seminars, conferences, friends and mentors. What I didn’t understand all those times before (23 drafts and a few other book shaped objects prior) was that emotions are both complimentary and cumulative. The protagonist is scared, I am worried. The love interest is scared, I am angry. The bully is scared, I am evilly joyful. Those emotions don’t turn off when you hit the enter button for new paragraph or a new chapter. They don’t turn off for your reader, either. Every mystery should make you, the writer, more curious. But if your sense of justice and fairplay has already been elevated through an act of comeuppance, the next comeuppance won’t have the same impact.
Writing the kind of work I want to read was never the first goal, and that was why it took me so long to even finish a work. I was bored while I was writing. I was writing boring things. Or exciting things in a boring way. Even if, by the outline, it should have been an exciting story, I was too wrapped up in being new and special to appreciate the kinds of things I liked to read. And in turn, that meant my reader would feel that sense of boredom in a magnified manner.
Don’t be entertaining. Be entertained.
*Not everyone is lucky enough to have time off from work, but I found myself working for a company that offered three whole weeks vacation annually. Yes, I am in the USA, whataboutit.