Writing seems to be an awful lot of re-learning things I should already know. I don’t know why I forget some of these basics, but I continually find myself saying, “Oh yeah… I knew that,” and wondering why yet again, I went down a road I should have known went nowhere.

My most recently forgotten guideline of writing is that first drafts don’t have to be perfect. This was the very first thing I ever learned about writing a novel, and I didn’t even realize I‘d been caught in that very counter-productive trap until last week. Initially, I was only aware that it seemed to be taking a lot longer than usual for me to get the story moving. It wasn’t till I asked myself what the holdup was that I acknowledged what was happening and began practicing something I already know: write first, edit later.

I’ve read the left-brain/right-brain theories which suggest that creative writing and technical revising require the use of opposite sides of the brain. Allegedly, to try to utilize both sides simultaneously results in a kind of cerebral squabble that ends up clogging the system and cancelling out both endeavors, like some kind of cognitive conflict of interest. Whether or not this is the truth, I don’t know. But I do know that for me, editing as I’m writing doesn’t work.

In order for me to get to the story written, I need to drop my “good writing” pretenses, ignore the sentences that suck along the way, just keep moving, and save the spit-shining for the edits. I know this… yet until a few days ago, I was spending hours on paragraphs where no more than a few minutes were needed, at least in this stage of the game anyway.

I’ve given it some thought and have narrowed down the culprits which have triggered this first draft amnesia. The main offender is the new standard I’ve reflexively set for myself; entirely my fault, no surprise there. I’m working on my third novel, and with the previous two under my belt, my expectations of myself have been raised. I reason that by now, I should have a pretty firm grip on what I’m doing and shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time searching for the right words, or ransacking the corners of my mind trying to remember some grammatical technicality or another. That with enough practice we will eventually get good enough to throw gold on paper with the first flick of our wrists, requiring no second, third, or fourth drafts, unfortunately, is a myth. At least, I don’t think that will ever happen for me. I’m almost as dim-witted now as I was two years ago, and perhaps, even more so. The ordinances of the English language and the guidelines of good storytelling are vast. When you’re constantly learning new things, the new information can bury the previous knowledge, leaving you completely dumbfounded when you should be on the ball. This is perfectly okay. That’s what re-writes are for.

The second contributor to this roadblock is having an audience. It’s not a secret anymore that I’m writing. My prior novels have passed through the hands of many friends, agents, and fellow writers, and I’m all too aware that this same fate awaits my current manuscript. I have to remind myself that this is a good thing. When people are eager to read your next project, it’s a good sign you’re doing something right. Still, the pressure is unnerving and I have to pretend, on some level, that no one will ever see it, and try to go back to the days of hobbyist writing.

The final villain in this particular drama is my mentor. Oh yeah, I said it. She and I meet twice a week to do critique, and though we’ve been doing this for almost two years, things are different now than they were in the early days. For one thing, I’m no longer new enough at this to play the bright-eyed, “God-Bless-Your-Ignorant-Heart” novice I was once able to pull off. I’ve spent two years under her tutorship and in that time, I’ve learned more than I ever thought there was to know about this craft. I don’t have the luxury of being uneducated anymore, and that kind of sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my mentor. And it isn’t her Master’s degree in English that intimidates me. Nor is it her years of teaching, or even her owned published books. The problem is that the book she’s currently writing is really damned good. From premise to execution, from characterization to climax, this story casts its golden shadow down hard and heavy on my own project, making it difficult for me to bring her my weekly progress with any kind of pride. But this is good, and here is why: it’s forcing me to get better. Not that I need to feel that I’m a “better writer” than this guy or that girl, but the stakes are higher now, and for the sake of not embarrassing myself, I need to bring some pretty powerful stuff to the table.

There are no doubt thousands of reasons why we slip into bad habits and backslide into unfavorable territory in writing, but if you look at it from different angles, you’ll see that for each new barricade there’s a proportionate opportunity to improve your craft. I think of these stumbling blocks as Fate’s way of upping the ante and lighting the necessary fire under your ass that will get you back in the game with your head on straight and your determination resuscitated and revitalized.

As for forgetting even the basest principles of writing (such as allowing yourself to write bad first drafts), I say forget these things as often as you can, because each time you come back to the basics, you’ll be able to experience the pleasure of seeing your progress in other ways. Back at the very beginning of things is where we see the headway we’ve made. Also, as you “fail” more and more, your armor gets thicker and your tools sharper, so…

Write on… and revise later. Oh, and remember…

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Comments
  1. Gabbu says:

    Jared, you always amaze me with everything you write. I would be interested to see what your “shit” first drafts look like. I know I could learn from even them.

  2. Gabrielle Streck says:

    I should spell my own name right though, at least ;-).

  3. Linda Bennett says:

    🙂 Great blog!

  4. Kim Justesen says:

    If you will recall – when I was working on The Afterward, I was nearly paralyzed with writer’s block because I was so intimitated by how excellent your writing in Beautiful Monster was. Even working on that book, I felt dwarfed and incompetent. We each have those stories that flow like honey, and those that feel like crawling through broken glass. Your first drafts are cleaner than most of the third or fourth drafts I’ve read in my years of teaching and critiquing. And I’m not saying that to butter you up. You know better than anyone that I don’t play that game. If somethings sucks, I’ll flat out tell you (his stomach all a-twirl??) so I have no reason to lie. You have always been a strong writer, but the growth I’ve seen in you this past year is phenomenal. If you forget a tactic, so what. That’s why I bought you the sweatshirt. We all forget – look at the editing you’re doing with me on The Deepest Blue – and I’ve already sold that one!

    So here’s to screwing up and going backwards so that we can move forwards – I say any movement is better than stagnation.

    Muah!

    • I am so excited for The Deepest Blue. It’s getting stonger by the minute! Good stuff. Thank you for all your help. When do we start the “Dog” sequel? and the “BP” project???

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