Once More, with Feeling

I never shut up about how important revision is, which is something you probably already know if you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time. This is partly because that’s a hill I’m willing to die on and partly because it’s a part of the process I don’t often see other writers talk about, which I think contributes to the myth that the first draft is 90% of the work–which has been, in my experience, pretty much the opposite of the reality.

In my last post here I talked about the daunting prospect of the first round of revision, and about how you have to find a way to live in that strange liminal place between the disaster your first draft is and the terrific thing it has the potential to become. So let’s say you’ve gotten through that second draft. How do you approach the third?

This is where I am right now. Over the last three weeks I’ve worked through my shitty first draft, working about three hours a night with the exception of my “spring break,” which I spent locked in an AirBnB in a very small town in Pennsylvania where there wasn’t much to distract me from the work. And despite all that time spent and work done, if someone besides me were to look at the two drafts I have now, they might have a hard time spotting the differences. The most obvious one is probably that the second draft is about 25,000 words shorter, but besides that it looks more or less the same. So what the hell was I doing for those 100-odd hours I spent turning Draft 1 into Draft 2?

Reading through the ugly first draft of any manuscript is the first chance you have to meet the story as a whole, to see the shape it takes when all the pieces are finally in place. It’s a bit of a mixed bag emotionally; there’s certainly a thrill at seeing the whole thing come together, but that enthusiasm is necessarily dampened by the realization of how much work still remains to be done–a realization it’s really not possible to arrive at until you have a complete draft of, well, something. Calling it a “book” might be generous at this juncture. Whatever you want to call it, it can be hard to know where to start. Figuring that out is what I was doing between Draft 1 and Draft 2.

I’ve you’ve been following me anywhere long enough to know how much I love revision, you’ve also probably heard me harp on about how much I love outlining. So it will probably come as no surprise to you that I love nothing more than smashing those two things together. Yes, I’m that much of a creative control freak: I outline revision. This is actually a habit I picked up during a writing workshop at Iowa about five years ago. Our workshop leader, responding to a question about his own revision process, explained that in each draft he only focuses on one thing. One draft to fix plot and pacing. One draft to look only at character development. Another to look only at dialogue. And so on and so forth.

Revision, precisely because it is so important and so unwieldy and because most first drafts are a holy mess, can be really intimidating. So sometime in the intervening years I figured out my own way to make it manageable. While I don’t follow the same one-thing-per-draft approach described by that workshop leader, I do like to approach each draft with a finite list of tasks to keep it from feeling overwhelming. That, largely, is the task of Draft 2: to suss out what needs to be done in Draft 3. After the last three weeks of work, I’ve got a list with ten or twelve items on it, which range in intensity from “Write those two scenes you never actually put in there” to “Cut every word you don’t absolutely need.” (For me, cutting down on the clutter is always a high priority, but since this MS clocked in at 210,000 words I’m going to have to Marie Kondo the crap out of it.) Once I have a list, I tend to favor a top-down approach and do the heavy lifting first: fixing plot holes and character development and anything else that’s a macrocosmic problem. Then I move on to the smaller stuff that only affects one scene or one page or one paragraph. Once I get to the bottom of that list, I’ll call it a draft, then start the process over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

No doubt about it, this is a lot of work. But what I like about working this way is that you can really see the progress from draft to draft and know exactly what you did to get there. And by the time you’re on draft ten or twelve the items on your list have shrunk from mountains to molehills and it’s starting to look like a book. The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s a bit like finding the statue inside a block of marble. You have to chip away at it, slowly and carefully, bit by bit, until you find the last graceful shape of the thing. Will it ever be perfect? Of course not. That’s art. Even Michelangelo’s David has some proportional irregularities. But if you can carve something like that from a dull mass of stone, you’ve accomplished something worth being proud of–and most people won’t even notice if his head’s just a little too big.

M

Sh*tty First Drafts

To borrow a famous phrase from Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird, I’ve just finished a shitty first draft. As her later use of the phrase implies, that is something to be proud of and excited about. I’ve been chipping away at this manuscript for almost a year, averaging about 600 words a day in that amount of time. That might not sound terribly impressive, but because it’s happened in tandem with full-time doctoral study, I’m honestly relieved it didn’t take me ten years instead of one. (This is, of course, excluding the process of research and outlining that went before the actual writing of this first draft, which started almost a year before.) Since posting an update on various social media platforms, I’ve gotten a number of questions which are all, in the end, variations of the same question: what now?

Every writer’s process is different. For me, the actual writing of the first draft of any given book is just the tip of the iceberg (if this metaphor sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve used it before). What goes on the page in the first draft is a tiny fraction of the work that actually goes into making a book, as is the final draft which a reader ultimately holds in their hands. So. What happens between one and the other?

Again, every writer’s process is different. But what’s true for every writer is that no first draft is ready for readers. Every first draft is a shitty first draft, and expecting it to be anything else is a great way to set yourself up for a big disappointment. As V. E. Schwab once put it, “A first draft is the farthest your story will ever be from the idea in your head. Revision is the process of closing the gap, but the two will never truly touch.” This couldn’t be more true, and one of the smartest things writers can do is disabuse themselves of the notion that a first draft is ever going to be anything other than an unholy mess. Case in point: that first draft I just finished? It is fully 210,000 words and there are entire scenes and paragraphs still missing throughout. To give you an idea how much of a trash fire that really is, most books aimed at an adult audience are somewhere between 90- and 110,00 words. Upshot is, I have a staggering amount of work ahead of me. I don’t mind admitting I have no freakin’ idea how I’m going to cut this manuscript literally in half. I’m already kicking myself for being (as usual) overly ambitious. I don’t know why I can’t fight the impulse to cram way too much into one story. All I know is I’m looking at this 400-page monstrosity and asking myself the same question everyone else has been asking me: what the hell do I do now?

The good news is that unlike a lot of writers, I actually love revision. I have no illusions about just how shitty my first drafts are and truly relish the process of improving them. This is not to say that revision is easy. On the contrary, revision is a whole lot harder (in my opinion) than the writing itself. Inconveniently, it’s also (a) the most important work you’ll do on any given MS and (b) the work would-be writers are most reluctant to do. It’s no mystery why; after finally writing that ending and feeling like you’ve just finished a thousand-mile obstacle course, who on earth wants to admit that the thing they’ve just made is a steaming pile of garbage which needs ten times more work than the work they already did? It’s a daunting prospect–especially if this ain’t your first rodeo and you’ve already learned exactly how much work revision really entails (and how indispensable it really is). I know I have many long nights ahead of me, many hours to be spent struggling to wrestle difficult passages into submission, and not a few bouts of despair over how on earth I can cut this frankly obscene wordcount down.

But, bitching and moaning aside: how on earth do you actually approach something this unwieldy? How do you bridge that gap between a shitty first draft and the unattainable ideal that exists only in your (overly ambitious) imagination? To frame it in the abstract, I think the answer is to embrace the fact that every good writer is their own biggest fan and their own worst critic at the very same time. A good writer can look at their work and see just how much improvement it needs and be willing to put that effort in because they can also see its worth, its potential. You have to love it as much as you hate it. You have to believe it can be something wonderful just as firmly as you know that right now, it’s a pile of shit.

There’s a strange sort of freedom in accepting that any first attempt to tell a story will be a disaster. You can give yourself permission to fail, and fail spectacularly, with one caveat: you have to accept that you will also have to clean up the mess you’ve made. It’s a bit like flipping a house. In order to rebuild it and make it beautiful, first you have to pick up that sledgehammer and knock the whole thing down. Unlike remodeling a house, however, you can’t hire anybody to do the work for you. You can’t bribe your friends with beer and pizza to come over and help with the heavy lifting. (If you’re lucky enough to have an agent or an editor you can get some professional input when the time comes, but if all you have is a shitty first draft… that’s not the time.) You have to take your hideous house and give it a makeover so extreme the execs at ABC would weep to see it.

So. Where do you start?

Again, I can only speak for me. But I try to start standing right in that chasm between what the manuscript is and what I want it to be. I read through the whole thing being my own worst critic and my own biggest fan, asking myself over and over again, “Why do I hate this, and what do I have to do to turn it into something I love again?” Questions and answers may vary in size and scope, all the way from the raison d’être of the whole darn thing down to the order of words in a sentence. Personally I like to start with the big stuff and work my way down to the minutiae (no sense agonizing over word choice when you might yet end up cutting that whole chapter), but throughout the process one thing never changes: if you want to see improvement, you gotta do the work, and you can’t half-ass it. You have to put not just as much effort into every subsequent draft as you put into the first, but probably more. You have to accept that the first draft was just the first step.

But in deference to the work-life balance I’m still trying to cultivate (and because temporal distance is important, too), I think I’ve earned a night off. My shitty first draft will be here in the morning.

M

Writing, Reviews, and the Emotional Labor of Social Media

Having any sort of public persona in the 21st century makes you a potential target for hate mail and internet harassment. This is news to no one, and accepted by most people as an occupational hazard–unpleasant, but unavoidable. Across my own social media platforms I usually accrue a handful of unpleasant messages and mentions each week. Nine times out of ten it’s a mundane variation of some criticism of my work or myself which I’ve already heard a thousand times and it’s easy to delete it and move on: the thank u, next mentality which every artist has to cultivate if they don’t want to go stark barking mad. But every now and then there’s a little more vitriol.

This week, I made the mistake of saying readers really shouldn’t tag or “@” authors’ usernames in negative reviews, ensuring that they see the post. (Hashtags–preceded by the ubiquitous #–are a different story, as the author can choose whether or not to track those and see those notifications. That’s not what I’m talking about here.) There are a lot of reasons for this which anybody with a normal sense of empathy can probably deduce without my help. But you might be surprised (I certainly was) how many people disagree and will vociferously defend their right to make sure an author sees every bad review they write. The most common justification is that authors should be interested in seeing constructive criticism of their work. This is a sound theory. Most authors I know are interested in constructive criticism of their work, and they should be. The problem is that this kind of feedback is a lot less constructive than people seem to think. The biggest hitch here is the fact that the work you’re critiquing has already been published; even if it’s an ARC or galley it’s already on its way to press and the author can’t make any changes to it, which relegates that feedback to the category of woulda-shoulda-coulda. Okay, the proverbial devil’s advocate argues, but couldn’t an author apply this feedback to future work? Sure. And they’re probably going to. But this is still a misguided approach, for three reasons: (1) reader feedback is wildly subjective and often contradictory, (2) they’ve already seen it a thousand times, and (3) there’s a big difference between knowingly approaching criticism of your work and being blindsided by it at any random hour of the day somebody feels like posting it.

To elaborate a little: all art is subjective. No book is going to make every reader happy. All authors know this and they fully expect to see some unfavorable reviews. You might see some criticisms you agree with (I see those all the time) and some you don’t (I see those, too), but more often than not you’re going to see one person complaining about something another person loved. There is no accounting for taste. This issue of contradictory feedback is nothing new to a writer who’s already made it far enough in the process to have random readers tagging them on social media. They’ve talked to agents and editors and writing teachers, many of whom have offered them conflicting advice for how to improve their work. For instance, in the last round of feedback on a manuscript my agent and I have been submitting, multiple professional editors–whose entire job is to improve a writer’s work–gave us completely contradictory opinions about what the book’s strengths and weaknesses were. Hard to know what to make of that or how to put it into practice. Now multiply it by several thousand amateur reviewers on the internet and you have some idea what navigating reader feedback is actually like and why it’s not nearly as helpful as it might sound. Moreover, by the time a book hits the shelves, the author has already seen a dizzying array of reviews, from Kirkus to Goodreads. Chances are, you’re not telling them anything they haven’t already heard.

Let me be clear about something here: I’m not suggesting readers shouldn’t bother writing reviews or should only write nice reviews in order to spare an author’s feelings. That’s antithetical to how publishing works; people use reviews and recommendations to decide what they might like to read, and your average man-on-the-street opinion is often more valuable than whatever the professional reviewer at the NYT had to say, because most readers aren’t thinking about who deserves a literary prize or a six-figure advance on their next book. They’re just looking for something they’ll enjoy, and community reviews are often how they find it. If you didn’t like a book, that’s fine. You can and should express that opinion. But making sure the author sees it by tagging their username or handle is unnecessary. Actually, it’s kind of cruel.

If that seems over-dramatic, allow me to contextualize. Once I’ve explained how this kind of constructive criticism really isn’t all that constructive, the follow-up is usually the argument that if you’re making art for public consumption you should have a thick skin and not let this sort of thing bother you. Again, the logic is sound. Authors know their work isn’t perfect and not everyone likes it and they should be open to hearing negative feedback. However, that doesn’t mean they need to hear it every minute of the day. Most authors, especially midlist or indie authors who aren’t making six-figure book deals, have other jobs. They don’t have the luxury of just sitting around all day reading reviews and musing over how to improve their work. Even if they did, to expect anyone in any job to be prepared for a performance review at any given time–whether they’re on the clock or not–is, frankly, ridiculous. But social media has made this possible and, moreover, has led some readers to treat it as a kind of inviolable right. If your profile is public, you’d better be prepared to hear how much someone hated your book whenever they feel like telling you, whether you’re eating breakfast or watching TV or trying to get a workout in. What readers who are really adamant about this may not realize is that criticism is only constructive if you can approach it when you’re in the right frame of mind for it–and when you are, you can gird your loins and browse those hashtags or sort through the pile of two-star reviews on Goodreads. But trust me, no writer is in that frame of mind when they’re just eating breakfast or watching TV or working out or doing any of the other mundane things that normal humans do. Those all-hours call-outs aren’t helpful; they’re just demoralizing. Few things suck more than swiping a notification on your phone while you’re just going about your business, only to be reminded of all the worst things you’ve already heard about your book. And yet, if you suggest that readers reconsider tagging an author’s username in a bad review, you will get a lot–and I mean a lot–of pushback.

Inevitably, these arguments take a turn toward, “Well, if you can’t take it, you should just get off social media.” Here’s why that suggestion is also not as helpful as it might seem: unfortunately, most authors need social media to reach readers. Now more than ever publishers are depending on authors to do a lot of their own publicity, and this includes reminding people that your book is out there as often as you can without becoming annoying (a very difficult line to walk, by the way). Publishing is a never-ending battle to stay relevant and visible. So as simple as the solution might seem–Don’t like social media? Just delete it!–it’s not a feasible option for authors who don’t have a lot of marketing dollars behind their books, and the authors who do probably have a publicist to handle this sort of thing for them anyway. If you’re not that lucky, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: you need to be able to use social media to connect with your audience, but the trade-off is that you have to be prepared to see not-so-constructive criticism of your book literally whenever a dissatisfied reader feels like making sure you see it.

The real irony here is that for the most part, bad reviews don’t bother me. I was an actor for the most awkward years of my life; from fourteen to about 22 not only my artistic performance but my physical appearance were subject to pretty brutal criticism, sometimes about things over which I had absolutely no control. (When I was a junior in college a director told me I wasn’t a bad actor but I could never make a career of it unless I lost fifteen pounds, dyed my hair blonde, and–here’s the kicker–became two inches shorter.) People have been telling me I’m terrible at things which are really important to me for most of my life, and I do have a sense of humor about it. A backhanded compliment from the NYTBR was so funny to me I put it in my Twitter bio. My favorite review of my book is a two-word one-star insult on Amazon which my PhD cohort (who know me well enough to know how hilarious I’d find this) had printed on a coffee mug which now sits on my desk where I can show it to my students when they’re upset about a grade. What I take issue with is not a reader’s right to criticize. I take issue with the idea that readers have a right to force their bad reviews on an author anytime and anyplace. What bothers me even more is that the suggestion that we don’t do something just because it’s unkind and unnecessary seems, to some people, so outrageous.

To be fair to the reading community, this is something a lot of authors and publishing personnel and other book lovers are talking about, and many readers agree that tagging authors’ usernames/handles in bad reviews is bad form. Still, there are plenty of people who are quick to start hurling the “special snowflake” sort of insults at writers who have the audacity to say they really shouldn’t have to be notified of bad reviews all day. The false sense of distance and anonymity fostered by social media simply makes it easier than ever before to be mean. Fifty years ago if you wanted to make sure an author knew you hated their book you would have had to make a phone call or go up and knock on their door, which probably sound, to a modern reader, like insane things to do. You could also write a letter, but writing a letter and mailing it requires enough thought and effort and expenditure that you would have to stop and ask yourself, “Is this really worth it?” And maybe it is. Maybe a book was so offensive to you that you felt a deep need to bring your grievances to the author’s attention. Fine. Post the letter. But the ease of social media has made it unnecessary to ask that question: namely, what ensuring an author sees your bad review accomplishes besides making their day a little worse than it might have been otherwise.

Long story short: Readers don’t have to like every book, but they also don’t have to make sure the author knows it. It’s a small kindness, but it costs nothing.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

M

Tyranny of the Mind

I’ve always been a sucker for a melodramatic title. You’ll have to forgive me for this one, which jumped to the tip of my tongue this morning as I reviewed the work I did yesterday and considered my half-formed plan for today. I stuck it in the title bar of this post as a placeholder, but the more I thought about it the less I wanted to change it, because it’s a prime example of exactly what I wanted to talk about. Why was this phrase bouncing around my brain in the first place? Because I’ve spent a lot of time with mid-century reflections on the failings of the democratic system lately, because that’s what the characters in my current WIP are doing. “Tyranny of the masses” is something they’ve talked about in the context of political protest and opposition to the Vietnam War. Certainly relevant to the current political climate, but the more mundane truth is it’s on my mind because it’s on their minds, and writing a first draft is like the full immersion approach to a foreign language. If you want to be able to speak it, you’ve got to live in it.

This “full immersion” approach isn’t unique to writing (other artists and professionals can certainly attest to a similar sort of monomania) but rather characteristic of it–at least for me. It’s a bit like method acting. You have to climb inside a character’s head and crawl back out through their mouth and that’s about as intimate as you can get with another person, fictional or not, so it isn’t surprising that the writer rarely emerges unaltered. At the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I’ll admit that when I’m working on a manuscript (which is always) my entire life revolves around it in a way which might be undetectable–not to mention uninteresting–to friends and family, who probably interpret it as just another peculiarity of my personality. In a way, it is that, but the ubiquity of it is hard to explain. What book or even what chapter of it I’m working on dictates not only what I’m reading, but what music I listen to, what drink I make when five o’clock rolls around, even how I get dressed in the morning. As obsessions go it’s a bit embarrassing–kind of like the unpleasant recollection of that awful band you were in love with in your middle school emo phase–so I don’t talk about it much, but neither can I turn it off.

Two weeks ago I explained how and why I’m making it a priority in 2019 to find a better work-life balance. I have made some small progress in that regard; I have checked my own impulses to get back to work when I’ve been “idle” for longer than fifteen minutes and made a pact with myself that I won’t do academic work on Saturdays. But the fact remains that work is my default setting. Yesterday I obeyed the ban on academic work, but instead I sat down and wrote for ten hours. I got 4,000 words down on paper, re-configured the end of my outline, took a break to eat dinner, and finally turned my computer off in an attempt to mark the end of work for the day. Then I scribbled out four more pages by hand. When I went to bed it took me three hours to fall asleep because I was rolling over every ten minutes to jot down notes and ideas and phrases too good to forget. (In the morning some of it doesn’t even make sense–for instance, the note which simply says “blanket”–but in the moment it all felt terribly urgent.) Today is another snow day, and I would be lying if I said I won’t spend it doing more or less the same thing.

This sort of obsessive-compulsive service to a story can sometimes engender an uncanny feeling that your life is not entirely your own. It’s a strange limbo to live in, but I’m often hesitant to talk about it because of how melodramatic, how ironically self-important it sounds. (Indeed, how many of you have had that thought while reading this post? Probably more than a few. I know and I’m sorry.) In my defense, this hyperfixation on my own work has nothing to do with delusions of grandeur and skewed expectations of how important to the larger world it actually is. If anything it’s the opposite; I’m fully aware that nothing I’m writing will ever matter as much to anyone else as it does to me; I’ve spent entire years of my life (not to mention money) working on manuscripts that will never be published and never earn me a dime, so I have no illusions on that score. That’s precisely why it’s so hard to come to grips with this particular obsession. In the greater scheme of things, I know exactly how little it matters. The worst thing that happens if this book doesn’t get written is that the book doesn’t get written. Even if it does, it’s quite possible nothing will come of it and I will have nothing to show for it except a few more lost years and spent money and a weirdly encyclopedic knowledge of a cultural moment nobody else is particularly interested in. And yet, at the same time that it feels vaguely depressing and pointless, it also feels tyrannically important and impossible to refuse.

At the risk of sounding, once again, melodramatic, I truly don’t remember what I thought about in otherwise unoccupied moments before I started writing. That could be because I started writing rather young and the gray matter which stores my story ideas has simply sloughed off everything inessential from those awkward early years in a psychological self-defense maneuver. But the question remains: what the hell do people who aren’t living with one foot in a fictional world think about when they’re walking the dog, taking a shower, folding laundry, doing all those normal human things which require little enough attention that the mind is free to wander? This is what I mean by work being my default setting; it’s my brain’s automatic screen saver. When there’s nothing else to occupy it, that’s where it goes; it chews on plot problems and tricky bits of dialogue and wonders which darlings to murder to drive the wordcount down. Perhaps more alarming, without the several dozen novel projects which have obsessed me at different intervals over the last fifteen years, I have absolutely no idea who I would be.

Yesterday, besides chipping away at a first draft for the better part of ten hours, I also found some time to finish the book I was reading, Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. (Why that? Because it’s on that list of books the characters in my WIP would probably be reading. All roads lead to Rome.) Like the rest of Hesse’s books, it’s abstract and baffling and disquieting precisely because you never know quite what he’s getting at but you’re not sure you’d like it if you did. However, Hesse does have a helpful tendency to repeat the important ideas, and one of them struck particularly close to home: “We had talked about the creations of poetry being more vivid and real than the poets themselves” (123).* I flipped back to the earlier conversation this morning and felt a flutter of déjà vu, because the suspicion that “however animated and lovable the personalities of these artists were, yet without exception their imaginary characters were more animated, more beautiful, happier and certainly finer and more real than the poets and creators themselves” was uncomfortably familiar (32-3). It’s a strange experience to pick up a book and find an unflattering portrait of yourself inside.

So, what’s the point of this post? I don’t know. What do you do with the realization that your creative workaholism is the sum total of your personality?

You get back to work, I guess. But maybe that isn’t as depressing as it sounds (or maybe I just want it not to be, and what follows will be a transparent justification of my own neuroses). Maybe it’s simply proof of the human hunger for a better version of the world–something more exciting, more colorful, more important than what we encounter in our daily lives. That’s one of the reasons we read and it’s certainly one of the reasons I write. Believe me, I see the irony: in order to satisfy that craving for something exciting and profound I sat on my couch and typed for ten hours? Yes, laughably ironic. But I suppose one of the things I’ve never grown disillusioned about is the magic of what words can do, what a skilled writer who’s spent ten years at the desk can make them do, how they can cut you to the quick if you read them when the time is right. I don’t pretend to be one of those writers, but it’s not a bad ideal to chase.

I’m still working on the work-life balance thing. It’s hard to do when you’ve realized your life and your work are more or less interchangeable. But so long as writing remains a labor of love, I won’t worry too much. I don’t mind who writing has made me, even if it confuses the hell out of every MBTI test and Google algorithm trying to figure out how to categorize me. Joke’s on you. I contain multitudes.

M


* Herman Hesse, The Journey to the East, trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: Bantam, 1972).

Shakespeare’s Birth/Deathday

If you’re looking for the perfect gift to celebrate the Bard’s birth/deathday, here are a few ideas. All three of these are now on sale, and you can find them here!

Happy reading.