What I Will NOT Do in the Next Few Days

Here’s what I will not do over the next few days, or even weeks:

I will most emphatically and deliberately and stubbornly not read over the short story I wrote for a 9/30 postmarked deadline. No way. Because when I read it — which I will, but just not in the next few days or weeks — I will find typos and I will find horrendous prose and awkward transitions and plot flaws plus faulty character motivation ambiguous turns of phrase murky backstory…

The thing’s barely a second draft, but I submitted it anyhow. How’s that for silly?

Here’s how it went down:

Friday night, 9/26: Re-met various workshopping friends, one of whom recently acquired a small press. Said small press periodically publishes themed anthologies. The current theme: addiction.  I hear: Lisa, surely you have something sitting around that you can submit. Lisa, anything can be an addiction.

I dismiss the thought because I have nothing addiction-related sitting around.

Saturday, 9/27: Yet, I can’t help myself: I ponder…addiction, addiction. Perhaps retool that cool novel scene, the one between mom and daughter in a hair salon? You could say the daughter is addicted to her misery…nah, stupid idea.

That night, I feel a glimmer of something. A brand-spanking-new idea. Something a little twisted…

Sunday, 9/28: Glimmer is now a spark. Could be, could be. Sit at a picnic table with my trusty index cards and brainstorm until I have a semi-solid grasp of the story — at least I know the ending. That’s always a good sign. If I’m going to write this thing — feeling the pressure now because all of sudden I must make deadline — I must forgo further canoodling.

Write the first five pages that day. Don’t sleep well that night. The story needs at least another ten pages. Yikes!

Monday, 9/29: Hammer out the rest of the story in 11 pages. I’m a mad fiend at the computer. Don’t eat all day. Worrying that the story is over-the-top and unrealistic in a bad way because that’s what happens when the verbal does its vomiting. And what is it with my protagonist who turned into a Romanian immigrant? I let the worries go because, well, I’m just about out of time.

Stay up too late in bed with a printed copy and jot initial revisions.

Tuesday, 9/30: Deadline day! I must be nuts. I work through my revision notes which compel other revisions all the while eyeing the clock and ignoring the dog scooching her butt across the carpet. Don’t eat all day again. Doing my best here with cuts (not enough I’m sure) and rearrangements…And then I force myself to stop with that and read the story aloud because that’s what really helps. I leave time to read the story aloud a second time because that really helps. Feeling the stress now, the second read-through is too fast, know I’m missing things — and typos — yeesh, typos! — but I have to quit now.

Arrive at the post office with 30 minutes to spare (darn, did have time to slow down over the last scene after all) and want to melt I’m so relieved.

Aaaaaaah. Did it! And the challenge was good for me. Just what I needed, get the blood boiling, shake myself up…aaaaaaah.

Afterwards? Wine and bubble bath? Beer and friends? Wish I could say so. Instead, off to the vet to get the dog’s anal glands expressed. Ah well, perhaps a fitting end to a day in which I’d attempted to grow a story out of a “shitty first draft” (to quote Anne Lamott).

Growing Pains

After regrouping, analyzing, editing, and brainstorming my first 120 pages, I come to four possible conclusions:

1. My story sucks, and I don’t know what I’m doing.

2. I’ve mastered just enough fiction craft to be my own worst enemy.

3. I’m not trusting the process.

4. I’ve got it going on, no worries.

Even I know point one is too negative. At the other end of the spectrum, point four isn’t realistic either. That leaves points two and three, both of which have merit.

Point two: I’ve mastered just enough fiction craft and technique to be my own worst enemy.

I used to muscle my way through what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft” in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instuctions on Writing and Life. Here’s what she says on page 22:

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and you can shape it later.

Somewhere along the line, however, I grew out of this 100% organic writing method. As my writing group would gladly confirm, when I let the prose flow too well I end up with 500 pages and too many plotlines and a big mess.

These days, I’d rather end up with, say, a teenager’s draft — or, a semi-mature story. I’d like to avoid revising for years. To this end, these days, I have enough craft under my belt to consider many things at once while I’m writing — things such as subplots and set-up and pacing.

The downside is that all this awareness gets me thinking TOO much. (A nasty little habit of mine as my family would gladly confirm.) Let’s label point two in terms my ex-therapist would understand: analysis paralysis.

Point three: I’m not trusting the process.

I’ve heard many writers over the years advise us younger writers to “trust the process.” I’m a big fan of trusting the process. However, how do I trust that which I’m still trying to nail down? I’ve grown out of muscling through first drafts with only my right brain (the dreamy side versus the analytical side on the left). Unfortunately, I haven’t discovered my own best process yet. I’m still experimenting.

Some writers advocate outlining the whole novel up front, which is the opposite of Lamott’s strategy. But outlining isn’t for me either. I think you need to be a naturally organized person to write outlines. I’m somewhere in the murky middle place, and since I don’t have a tried-and-true process (yet) I’m currently having trust issues.


So, my final conclusion? In the world of fiction, I’m not yet a mature writer; I’m more like a teenager experiencing massive growing pains. Thankfully, I survived my actual adolescence somewhat intact; I’m sure I’ll survive this first draft, too.

Meanwhile, am I too old to throw a hissy-fit, slam the bedroom door, and turn my head-banger music up too loud?