Tuesday, July 03, 2007

More about "the ugly"

I'm always glad to see from comments that other writers like reading my thoughts about writing -- because I like writing about writing! Thanks -- and Disco Mermaids, I'm really looking forward to meeting you, too!

I thought I'd write a little more about the world I am immersed in right now: as I unkindly dubbed it in my last post, "the ugly stage." I should also say, that all bound up in the pain of writing something so immensely imperfect, there is this kind of thrill -- like, I don't know, doing something you never thought you would do, something "positively wild" (said in a prim proper voice). I am extremely proud to be getting to the end of a first draft, and as much as I might wish it were prettier, I kind of love that I managed to keep my insane perfectionism in a box long enough to do this great mess of a thing. I mean, WOW! There's a sign-off for some TV show or other, you know, the producer's little signature at the end, in which a piping child's voice says proudly, "I made this!" Well, that's how I feel.

I keep notebooks for each book I write or plan to write -- I'm on volume 2 for Silksinger -- and amid story notes and research, there are little messages in there to myself, like these:

"Ooh! This is really good!"

"Write the damn book." - Jane Yolen

"Write to learn what the story is about. WRITE TO FIND THE STORY." - Verity (a blogger I've since lost track of)

and recently, this:
"The goal is to have a great slovenly heap of manuscript to print out and go at with highlighters and a red pen."

Ah, a great slovenly heap! How beautiful! A heap! When I wrote that I was trying to get myself to leave off the premature "persnicking" and plunge into the terrors of a wild ugly draft. I was craving that slovenly heap of manuscript. Like, I wanted to trade the dainty little china tea set of my persnickity biddy side for a flask of some dangerous potion that would make my throat burn and, I don't know, my, er, hair turn pink! I've written about my perfectionism before, how it has kept me from finishing things for so long, how I am always having to outwit it with new unintimidating names for various drafts, and by sheer ruthless whip-cracking, and I can't honestly say I feel my nature changing or anything. I'm still the same freak of a perfectionist. It's still really really hard to make myself write messily forward. Sometimes I find it impossible. I guess the only thing that has changed is that now, in the battle of me vs me, I usually win in the end. (You know what I mean. I think.) I know I can beat my persnickity perfectionist. I can wear her out. I will write the book. This ugly draft is a kind of triumph only some people can really understand.

There are those people out there who just sit down and . . . write books. They don't even have to trick themselves. They would not understand me at all. [Honk if you understand me!] I am still haunted by reading the outrageous fib story of how William Styron wrote Sophie's Choice as if it were funneled into his brain complete, how he didn't outline, it just came out, on the first try, in all its greatness, and was published just like that. I'm not calling him a liar. Er, I'm not. Really. I just can't believe it! But if it's true, so be it. It will never ever ever happen to me. It's not even on my list of wild wishes. My wild wish, as a writer, is to be able to get to through the first ugly draft of a given book faster and with less hair-pulling.

You have to work with the brain you have. Like, it's an unruly pet, say. We adore our dog Leroy. He's the sweetest dog that ever lived. Just don't bring another dog into the room or he turns into a savage**. No amount of training ever managed to change that. So we just work with it. So too with our complicated brains. Don't try to treat your brain like it's somebody else's well-behaved dog. Know it. Love it for its own quirks and even its savagery. Because let's face it, other people's well-behaved dogs are some kind of freakish robots, aren't they?

So, my glorious heap will soon be ready to attack with highlighters and red pens. And I can't wait. It will be a mess. My mess. My glorious, glorious mess. When you're staring at your screen, paralyzed by the ungodly imperfection of whatever is sure to come out if you dare to start typing, think of that. Think of yourself as a wild bohemian sprawled on a moth-eaten velvet divan surrounded by the glorious mess of pages that your own unique brain managed to produce. And all you have to do next is make it better! AND: nobody has to see it but you.

When I heard Jane Yolen speak in January she talked about how some writers blaze intrepidly through the first draft, and others kind of waltz back and forth, tidying up after themselves as they go, revising along the way. She admitted to being the latter type, and I felt that silly kind of vindication that comes of finding out a successful writer kind of has your same process. And, that really is my way, to revise as I go. And I have been doing that for months on this book, but I've changed my mind so many times about so many things that I really had to just stop the revising and do this terrifying first draft thing. And you know what? It makes me want to do this on the next book. Maybe this is a better way for me. I don't know. We'll see!

And to answer your question, Gerry, why do people do word counts? Well, I didn't when I was writing my first book, but now it's kind of a daily check-in. Like, if you're a runner and you kind of want to know how far you're running. Because sometimes I might feel like I've been writing all day and really, all I was doing was rearranging stuff I already wrote. For me, at this stage, if I'm conscious of word count I know to keep myself moving forward with the story. I give myself a goal for the day and try to meet it. That's all. Just another tactic in the war of me vs me!

Now, yesterday Jone threw a lovely book party for me at her home and invited her friends and book club, many of whom are teachers and school librarians, and I had a delightful time talking about the writing process with them, and about my book.

Thank you, Jone! So glad to have met you through blogging. And, your dachsunds are so cute!

**Behold the savage Leroy:


liz elayne lamoreux said...

oh that leroy, he sure is a cutie!

i so enjoy it when you write about your process...how you share the honesty here. thanks for that my friend.

(also had to smile at this line "just another tactic in the war of me vs me." - yes! how i know that war. love the way you put it.)

Anonymous said...

I'm a lurker leaving a comment. Actually, I'm honking. I understand exactly what you're going through. You express is wonderfully! Congratulations on your accomplishments thus far, and may you continue to love (and laugh at) the process. :-)

Annie Jeffries said...

Oh how I wish that I had been at Jone's. I see her shoulder in the picture and it looks like she is wearing the same top she wore when we met a couple of Mondays ago at Powell's.

I went to Border's today looking for an antedote for "A Long Way Gone". What a hard book that has been to read. I knew after reading this morning that I would need something lovely and fanciful and exciting after Beah's terrible tale of his youth. No sooner thought than decided and I went to Border's at lunch and picked up YOUR book.

Anonymous said...

So much goodness is these two posts. I love the image of the marathon runner and the bullhorn weilding supporter. That's going in my pocket for days when I'm giving my marathon runner too much time in the driving seat and the cheerleader needs a bit more time.

I also love this "we have to work with the brains we have" - human rights work may be a world away from writing amazing, critically lauded novels but there is no doubt that in both you've got to work with the brain you've got. No point trying to be that other kind of wrtier/human rights lawyer - you've got to be the kind you are. Then you can be a pretty damn good one, right?


Kim G. said...

Laini - so much of what you have written and the things you shared Monday night have been rolling around in my head for the past few days. I so appreciated your gentle but firm question, "Have you been writing?" I felt a bit like a kid being caught not doing homework, but in a good way. Knowing that like you said, the longer I go between stretches of writing, the harder it is to get going again. And yet, just like your quote, "You have to work with the brain you're given" I also have to find a way to write in the life I'm in right now. With two busy kids and a husband working two jobs, I've got to realize that I need to find a way to write in the life I have now. Unless I move out of my house, there will not be a day any time soon where I can write 5,000 words, but for sure, I could manage 500 or so every now and then.

Thanks again for inviting me to Jone's Monday. It was so great to hear you and Jim talk about working together on the book and to hear about the upcoming projects you are working on. (Crossing my fingers for the girly band-aids!)

Anonymous said...

This was so lovely to read, because it puts a very human aspect on the writing process. It can seem other-worldly if you are not a writer. Clearly, you have great love and passion for both the process and the product (or beautiful heap of papers..love that)and isn't that ultimately what it is all about?

I am sure that your longing to have it perfect helps to make it stunning.

Though you put so much time and work into this process, you make it sound both fun and fulfilling.

Happy 4th!