Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Writing like an early 90s rock song

I have friends that can rough draft a novel in a a couple of weeks. Friends whose daily word goal is 3K. Lots and lots of friends who participate in NaNoWriMo every year and many of them "win" by getting to the 50K word mark/finishing a novel in a month.

I kind of hate you guys.

Not really of course. I'm just jealous. I want to do #1K1hr writing sprints on Twitter. I want to "win" NaNo. But I've tried many, many times and I can't. Maybe one day there will be a novel that just pours out of me and I can feel comfortable writing the first draft fast and dirty, but so far it hasn't happened. Especially not with my current WIP.

I know that the key to fast-drafting is embracing the Shitty First Draft. And I do. But I find it really fucking painful. Since the beginning of this year (and November of last year when I took my first real crack at this version of this book), I've been hating every word I write. Scenes, especially those with a lot of dialogue are the worst. There's too much he says and I say and I can't seem to remember how to finesse it. There aren't enough gestures and facial expressions and emotional reactions, but at the same time there are too many and they just sound awkward. Description and back story comes more easily, but as usual there is way, way, WAY too much of it. (I will definitely have to do a whole blog on back story at some point.) My sentences are clunky and long-winded. I can never find the right word or metaphor to describe something, so I just ramble on and on until I do--or more often than not until I mentally scream at myself "Shitty First Draft! Just leave it and move on."

But I can't do this fast. I'll spend an entire day anguishing over a paragraph or a page (or what I think is a page in Scrivener... I can't really tell, which is good in some ways, bad in others). A chapter generally takes at least a week. This frustrates me terribly, but when I try to write fast--and I did in November--I would feel awesome about for like a week because those big word counts are like instant gratification, but then I'd realize that I wasn't seeing my scenes at all or my characters and I didn't know them or their voices or their feelings. Then I'd reach a point where I didn't know what was supposed to happen next and since I didn't have a good grasp on my characters or the tone of the story, I couldn't push forward. Of course, I also have a lingering fear of writing too fast because I did so with The Bartender Book and it resulted in me veering way, way, way off course, getting stuck for a few months, and having to rip out an entire story line.

So yes, I'm definitely jealous of people who can dive into a new idea and plow right through a draft without getting majorly stuck, losing their way, or feeling completely disconnected from the story. Maybe what they are basically doing is a big, rough outline of the plot points knowing they will fill in the details and probably a bunch of missing scenes later. I've always assumed this was the case, especially with those NaNoWriMo novels since the 50K goal is short even for a YA and only half to two-thirds the length of an average adult book. And since I always write way too long at first, that's why it's counter-intuitive to me. Or maybe it's because my stories are more character-driven than plot-driven, so I can't really write a skeleton draft that hits the major plot points without spending the time to develop my characters. I don't know. Those of you who fast-draft PLEASE TELL ME YOUR SECRETS! Because maybe one day....

But for now I'm a slow writer and I have to make peace with that. Actually I don't know if I'm that slow (that might be overachiever Stephanie measuring herself unfairly against others) and I'm certainly better than I used to be seeing as my first book took over three years to write. But I definitely have my own distinct writing rhythm and I think it's kind of like this:

Yep, that's right. I can relate anything to a Nirvana song. I'm not talking about the lyrics of this song, but the rhythm. That classic early 90s structure of slow-fast-slow-fast/verse-chorus-verse-chorus, probably a bridge in there somewhere. This is how I seem to write. I start out slow, may spend an entire day or two anguishing over the opening paragraph or a transition between chapters or scenes (I hate those!). Then I get to the meat of the scene and I begin to speed through it. I allow myself to be rough and messy because I'm just excited to power through it. Then I slow down, sometimes looping back to fix things or sometimes getting stuck in another anguishing-over-every-word-even-though-they-are-still-rough phases.

This is how I work at the beginning of a book especially. I think it comes from the pattern I developed in college. At Columbia College Chicago, we had workshops where we wrote every time we were in class. We played these word games that got our seeing going (that slow build of the first verse), then we were coached to get down as much as we could on the page in a 10 to 20 minute period (the chorus), then we were assigned to push the piece as far as we could for the next class, which resulted in more verse-chorus-verse at home for me.

We also polished the pieces we worked on over the semester, so it's sort of ingrained in me to double back at a certain point and revise. I tend to do this at the beginning of a book especially. The first fifty pages are essential for me to get to know the characters and set the tone of the book. I spent a couple of semesters perfecting the first few chapters of I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE. Though of course at the time, I viewed that as a novel-in-stories, which is why many of the chapters in that book, especially at the beginning, could stand alone. Until The Bartender Book, this worked out well for me because I often edited the beginnings of my books so well that I wouldn't need to do much with them later. Even though I made a lot of changes to the beginning of The Bartender Book in revisions, I still can't shake that need to spend a lot of time with the opening chapters of my book. At that point my writing is probably more like an endlessly looping electronic song... which I don't have the best example of, but I guess I'll go with a Cure remix:

I do a lot of looping back and careful editing at the beginning of a book. I also tend to do it when I'm stuck. When I wrote I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE I was able to write non-linearly. It was encouraged in my workshops ("Go to the moment that's taking your attention," we were always coached) and it came naturally with the story because that book isn't exactly linear. But I haven't really been able to do that since then. I'm not sure why. What I do instead sometimes is charge really fast through a scene that I'm not seeing the particulars of (I fast-draft/have a chorus moment) to get to the next scene or chapter that I have a clearer idea about. I did that with chapter three of my WIP, though I must admit it's nagging at me. But I just keep telling myself that once I hit a sticky spot, I can go back, fix it and polish the other rough patches.

Truth be told part of me wishes that I could always write like this:

Slowly, carefully, anguishing over each word until it's right. But I'm way too impatient and critical of myself for taking too long, so I get almost just as frustrated with that as I do when writing too fast. Hence the happy medium of the early 90s rock song:

Sometimes the rhythm does not come naturally. I spend way too long writing slow and verse-like and I have to give myself that kick in the ass to speed up and get to the chorus. My favorite part of the writing (well, of first draft writing, I should say because my actual favorite part is revising) is when the early 90s rock song gives way to the punk song:

Then I'm writing hard, fast, and messy and I don't care because I'm so into the scene. It's not even intentional, it's natural.

I finally hit that stride last week, though I did back slide a bit on Monday and I'm a little uncertain about what will happen next, so I may end up pulling one of these today:

This pattern doesn't necessarily allow me to write as fast as I would like, but it's the way I work at least for now and I'm trying to come to terms with it, reminding myself that even though it goes slower than I would like, it has resulted in books in the past. The beautiful thing about writing is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. So what is your pattern like? What do you love about it, hate about it, and what tips would you share.

And here's a little chunk from when I was writing punk song hard-and-fast last week:

“Jesus, Dee, were you so drunk that you don’t even remember?”

I was so drunk that I went into the bathroom and puked. So drunk that I still couldn’t see straight when I stopped throwing up. I looked in the mirror and thought my eyes were all pupil. Black holes. Or like my head was just a skull.

Then He found me on my way out of the bathroom. His hand was warm against the small of my back through the thin sweater.

“Hey, Dancing Girl,” he said. “You’re Seph’s sister, right?”

And I nodded.

“You need another drink?”

Water was what I really needed, but I nodded again anyway.

And then… Black. Like I’d fallen into my own eyes in the mirror. Like Alice down the rabbit hole.

I blink trying to remember anything about the kitchen besides lots of spilled liquor on the sleek marble counter tops.


TeriBrownwrites said...

I have actually won nano and threw away 99 percent of the work... but I did get to know my characters bettter. Usually, I'm slow, but I can write fast if the need depends on it and I try to keep shitty first draft in mind as well...but sometimes I just HAVE TO agonize over a paragraph for an hour. So basically I have no advice for you, none at all. Commiseration, yes. A solution? Nah:)

TeriBrownwrites said...

I have actually won nano and threw away 99 percent of the work... but I did get to know my characters bettter. Usually, I'm slow, but I can write fast if the need depends on it and I try to keep shitty first draft in mind as well...but sometimes I just HAVE TO agonize over a paragraph for an hour. So basically I have no advice for you, none at all. Commiseration, yes. A solution? Nah:)

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

That's good to know about your experience with Nano, Teri, because I may try it again in the fall and I will think of it that way. I'm glad I'm not the only one who can be slow and agonize over a paragraph. I appreciate the commiseration!

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