Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Shitty First Draft and other ponderings.

I think it was Anne Lamott, in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird , who coined the term 'shitty first draft', whereby a writer switches off the inner critics (Lamott imagines them as mice which she then locks in a jar) to just 'get it down' for an entire draft. They can then go back and use that raw material to start to shape and mold, to see what's there (or, as EM Forster once said, "How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?").

In principle, I have always used this method for my non-fiction - reviews, articles, essays and whatnot - and sometimes for my short stories. That way, the 'shitty first draft' may only take an hour or so to write, depending on the length of the piece and the level of inspiration that day.

But as for writing novels, I have not applied it - at least, not for a whole draft (for the record, I have written two novels and started another two, not counting atrocious first efforts in my 20s), but certainly for one chapter at a time. This is partly due to the fact that I need to establish a 'voice' for the novel before I can go on. For The Sound of Butterflies, this meant that the first chapter probably went through twenty drafts by publication, whereas the last quarter of the book may have only had five - by then the voices were well established and I was off like a rocket.

So this method has always worked for me, and a shitty first draft of a whole novel was just not an option. Until now.

I have just abandoned a novel that I have been trying to work on for two years. Not steadily, I'll admit - in that two years I had a book published with all the distraction that brings, got pregnant (a sense of fog and wonder prevailed) and given birth (cue sleepless nights, no time and so on). The current novel was no longer the last thing I thought about when I went to sleep and the first thing I thought about when I woke up.

After struggling with an empty page and the realisation that I had a small truckload of research to do before I could write each scene or description (with TSOB I dived into that with glee, but things have changed!) I finally gave up and realised that not only did I need a new idea to get me inspired again, I needed a new method of working to fit my new life.

The new idea came to me as all my ideas do - out of the blue, this time triggered by an article in a community newspaper. I could finally relieve myself of the burden of that other novel. I am a different person than the person who started that novel. A new project allows me to acknowledge that and embrace it.

So I started writing it, and even though I knew vaguely where I was going with it, I was dissatisfied with the voice of the narrator as it was appearing on the page in front of me. But I kept going anyway. Then I read this, from a link posted by Emma Darwin on her wonderfully (and scarily) erudite blog about writing, This Itch of Writing. And I realised that this new Rachael could do things differently. I need to do things differently now that I can't selfishly devote all my headspace to the creative monster. I only get three days a week to write and the rest to devote to my other little creation. At least I have my nocturnally wandering mind back, now that he sleeps through the night, but mornings definitely have a different focus.

And so I am embracing the shitty first draft. And it seems to be working. I am switching off that pesky inner critic and just writing. I have a vague idea of where it is going - I am in that wonderful stage where aspects of the story and characters pop into my head at all times of the day, night or week - but I'll have to see what I say to know what I mean with this one.


Anonymous said...

I think that adaptability or flexibility, the willingness to let go of old ideas and beliefs and make room for the new in our constantly changing lives and world, may prove to be the single most important skill. Not the most important characteristic (I'd still be shuffling between compassion and kindess on that count) but quite possibly the single most important skill. Letting go, as I've learned the hard way this past year is so incredibly important, but it is only the first part of the process, embracing the new is the second part (despite the fear, the doubts and the mouse critics...).

love your new blog.

Anonymous said...

"The shitty first draft"

What a brilliant (and honest) way to put it. And also very liberating, as it always is to allow yourself to fail. It's like when you finally admit to each other that the holiday's being a disaster, and instead of going on pretending (miserably) it's wonderful, you laugh, and agree to salvage what you can from the wreckage.

I agree that you need to find the voice first, which is why I can't start my real first draft till I have it in my ears, but once I've found something that will carry me beyond the first couple of pages, that I try to push on regardless. But it takes a lot of faith in yourself and the book to push on over the lumps and bumps for the long haul of a novel, believing that you WILL be able to get it right at the next (or fourth or fifth) pass, if not this one.

Best of luck with the new one, and respect for having the courage to ditch its predecessor. Many don't.


Rachael King said...

Not so much ditched as giving it a much needed vacation. :-)

Anonymous said...

Dear Rachael, Wholehearted thanks for recommending Anne Lamott's book: 'Bird by Bird. Some instructions on writing and life'. Unity ordered in it for me and I am totally smitten with her voice, her advice, the practical no-nonsense innately moral/human/instinctive/fun approach she has to writing and literature(and to life). I have engraved on my forehead 'perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor', I have set to on some of the small projects she advises (a scene at a dance here, another one with a naked woman and a digger there), I am trying to leave my characters 'where the Lord flang' them, I am letting the broccoli talk to me, I am relaxing about the thought of a 'shitty first draft' and have at last -- just this weekend -- set up an office upstairs in the spare room FOR ME ALONE which I approach without fear every morning. Note Rachael, it does not have an internet connection. I am now right back into my second novel thanks to Anne and you.

Rachael King said...

Glad to be of help Mary - your new office sounds just great. And no internet! Very sensible.