As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month this year. I last attempted it about three years ago, the year now known as "that in which I crashed and burned very early on." A couple years before that, though, I actually finished the full 50,000. And I haven't even looked at the finished product since because I know, in my heart of hearts, it's something that's going to need a whole hell of a lot of re-writing before it becomes anything. I should probably do that one of these days, when I get around to it. But I'm lazy that way.
This year I took time to prepare in the days before: writing a rough outline, ideas for character names, etc. Will it help out in the long run? Probably. But will I finish all 50,000 words? No idea.
It feels a little disconcerting coming at fiction from the other side. It's like waking up one day, realizing your kids are your parents, having to follow the rules you laid out instead of vice versa. I'm paid to analyze someone else's work and I read with a hyperactive eye. As soon as a writer takes me out of a story, for any of a billion reasons I can't always quantify – but know when I see them – he's lost me. When I pop out of my head and into reality I've hit a bump in the road. That's not counting external factors, like the cat jumping on my head or one of my kids producing a reverberating belch I have to stop what I'm doing and praise. It's more like cutting a diamond. When you hit a flaw the blade jumps. Sometimes you can keep cutting through, getting past the unusable bits and salvaging at least something. Other times the whole thing shatters.
It sure ain't easy. But I knew that going into it. I've written fiction before, never for publication in anything aside from an anthology written with other writers I knew, edited by writers I knew. Oh, and there was that one summer, when my kids were tiny. I wrote like a short story demon all summer, submitting and re-submitting. One story would make its way back to me and I'd already have the envelope ready for the next submission. When all four or five stories had come back to me four or five times I hung it up, defeated. And that was my first huge mistake. Don't do that.
Whatever comes of NaNoWriMo I won't know until it's finished, edited and re-edited, passed under another set of eyes, then edited again. It may distill down to a short story, not even making it to a full novel. It may make novella. Or, expanded, you just never know. Maybe what germinates this month will ultimately flesh out into a real novel.
It's cliche even saying it but I'll go ahead anyway since that almost never stops me. In order to be a writer you must develop a very thick skin. You can't be afraid to cut and splice, even if it means paragraphs, even whole pages, hit the cutting room floor. I could show you some drafts of my published book reviews. If I'd kept the revisions, that is, because I don't. Many times what makes publication bears no resemblance to what I first submitted. That's because an editor's trained eye looked over it and said, "Nope. I hate this, this and this. Re-write and re-submit." And you know what? My editors are always right. I'm blessed that way.
I'm inured to cutting my own writing. I've learned not to be married to any one sentence. A general idea, yes, but never the prose I first set down. I don't think about how sophisticated it sounds; it's all about the flow. You can't interrupt the flow or you jar the reader and if it's a reader like me, you lose her altogether. And sure, a lot of that's based on taste, or personal preference. Most reviewers I know are voracious readers who know what's good writing and what isn't, because they know what they've enjoyed and what they haven't. Some of us have degrees, others loads of experience reviewing. I have degrees and experience, plus a real lack of tolerance for the mediocre. Still, I don't always agree with myself, looking back at a book I read earlier. Sometimes I completely change my mind, wondering what pills I'd been popping or how much sleep I'd been averaging when I wrote what I wrote.
Lesson: it's all subjective. And yes, that can drive a writer crazy, which is why establishing a relationship with an editor who gets you is so crucial.
I expect my editor(s) to treat me no differently than I treat the writing of others. I want Ming the Merciless to edit what I write. I want to cut, rearrange and replace. That's the only way a writer gets better. I could hand my finished manuscript to my family and they'd say, "Wow! This is great!" But do you know why it's so great to them? First, YOU wrote it. Second, it's presumably coherent and they didn't realize you could think this stuff up. So to them it's like magic. But trust me. In nine out of ten times first drafts are more garbage than magic.
That's why you can't be a good judge of your own stuff and why people who know you well aren't capable of being unbiased. You need a blade that's unafraid to slice. In most cases those who know and care for you aren't going to open you up. But you need to be opened up or what's in there that's diseased won't be removed. Then your work dies, shrivelling up, becoming that file in the computer you're afraid to click on lest it remind you it's still there, in a coma. It's waiting for Prince Charming to come along and give it a kiss, when what you really need is Dr. Charming. With a scalpel.
NaNoWriMo 2011 is going okay so far. I'm at 3,666ish words of regurgitation. I'm puking up that first draft, getting as much of it out as I can. On December 1st I'll start cleaning it up. The overall gist is you have to pour it out, the good and the bad. The bad will, if nothing else, help you see how good the good is. And vice versa. Empty it all. Every last bit. Don't go back and edit; that's the kiss of death. That's when you freeze, realizing holy crap,is this bad. Only go forward, unless you need to remind yourself who's speaking or what scene you're on. Even then, leave it ragged. Don't try to connect the dots. Write as though no one's reading, because ideally no one is. Not even you. Don't be afraid of cliches, clunky sentences, unrealistic dialogue or clangy character names. Much of what's wrong will be taken out in the first re-write. More in the second, after more additions and subtractions, and probably the remainder in the third or forth, unless you're one of those disgusting people able to perfect in less than the three or four re-write average.
One thousand six hundred and sixty-six words per day, every day in November. Some days I'll do more, some less. It's not a magic formula, just an arbitrary way to control, to compartmentalize, the scary, out of control feeling writing has if you let it. If there's a cap to what you expect of yourself you can feel satisfied, at the end of the day, you've accomplished what you set out to do. And if you think a Muse is going to plop down in front of you, forget about it. Ding, dong the Muse is dead. Get over it.
I'll check in again next week to tell you how it's going.