Writing every day by no means eliminates the struggles I occasionally face as a writer. In some instances, it magnifies them. And since I happen to be struggling with my novel draft at the moment, I thought I’d discuss some of them here, lay them bare for all to see, and perhaps someone else out there will see that most writers struggle from time-to-time. It’s part of the game.
Last year, between March and September, I wrote the first draft of my first novel. It didn’t start out as a novel, but it grew into one. I took several months off when I finished in order to write short fiction. During that “time off” the novel, I wrote four stories. I returned to being the second draft of the novel back in April. It is that second draft that I have been struggling with ever since.
I’ve written about my process before. I generally don’t plan my stories out. I used to this years ago, but came to find I wrote better stories when I allowed them to grow organically. Usually, I have an idea and have an ending in mind. That’s all. I start writing. My first draft is entirely for me. No one (not even Kelly) sees these drafts. It is my telling myself the story. These drafts go without too much struggle because I don’t worry about stuff that doesn’t work. I’ll fix it later, or cut it.
Second drafts are usually the most fun for me. I now know the whole story, having written it in the first draft, and in the second draft, I can tell the story to readers. This can be a lot of fun, and this process works well for me with short fiction. But I’m struggling with my second draft on the novel.
I started the second draft exactly one month ago, on April 28. Since then (and excluding today, since I haven’t gotten in my fiction-writing yet), I’ve written a total of 36,000 words. And yet, I have little actual manuscript to show for it. That’s because I keep rewriting, or trying a different angle, or switching the viewpoint, or pushing the story in a completely different direction. So while I’ve averaged nearly 1,200 words/day since starting on the second draft, I don’t have much to show for it. At least, not in terms of copy.
A professional writer
In the past, I would have given up on the story for a while, set it aside and worked on something else. Instead, I’ve deliberately decided to take a different approach. I think of myself as a professional writer. I get paid for the stories I write, and I approach them with a level of commitment that I see other professionals use in their work. So I’m not giving up.
I’ll fall back on my baseball analogies. A batter in a slump is desperate for every at-bat opportunity available. Each at-bat is an opportunity to break the slump. You don’t avoid going to the plate. You don’t sit out of the games if you can help it. You take every at-bat, and you take extra batting practice and you work through the struggles. You watch video of your performance. You tweak your batting stance. You adjust your timing. You try to bunt, or make productive outs.
This is what I am doing by coming to the keyboard every day. I’m trying new things. I’m trying old things in different ways. I’m varying my style, trying to find the right way to tell this particular story.
I’ve often said that I’m a brute force writer, and this second draft of the novel is bearing that out.
I realized early on that the story starts out way too slowly in the first draft. So I’ve been trying to start more quickly, to jump right into the action, so-to-speak. I find myself in a kind of tug-of-war. I want to start later in the story because that is where the real story begins. And yet, there is a lot of backstory and I feel like some of it is important. Flashbacks are possible, but they can be awkward.
Then, too, the story is fairly complex. I find that I am doling out way too much information at the start, so I rewrite, to better pace out the information. Back and forth, back and forth it goes.
Finally, I’m struggling with the voice. I’ve been telling the story in the first person, because I think that is the best choice for the story. I tell myself I’m doing this in part because the main character shouldn’t know things that the reader doesn’t know. And yet, the way I’m telling the story is through a kind of narrative gimmick where all of the events have already happened, and the main character is recalling them, so in that sense, she really does know what happens, and the reader doesn’t.
I tried getting some distance from the main character, but writing the story from a different point of view, but quickly realized that would mess up one of the key parts of the story toward the end.
And so it goes.
I’ve gotten as far as 10,000 words, before starting over from a different angle. Most restarts have been shorter. I’m on version 2.91 as of today. I number my drafts kind of like software. The number before the dot is the draft (2, or second draft). The number after the dot is the revision, it represents how many times I’ve restarted the second draft.
One thing I’ve been making sure to do is sit down every day and write. Even if I am frustrated by what’s coming out, I’m not shying away from the plate. Having my consecutive day writing streak helps. At 310 days (as of yesterday), the thought of breaking that streak overcomes my frustration with the story.
I’ve also tried a few other things to help out. I’ve listed out novels that I’ve really enjoyed, and then pasted the first 3 paragraphs of each into the list. I’ve given a lot of thought to why they work, mechanically, at least in my opinion. I’ve tried to find stories structurally similar to the one I’m trying to write and see if there is anything I can identify that might help.
I’ve broken down the events in the first draft into clearly delineated parts. This kind of decomposition (which I think is more common in screenwriting, although I can’t say this from experience, never having written a screenplay) has made it clear to me what events are important, and what events are not. But I’m still perplexed when it comes to the right way to getting things started.
These struggles are not unique to me, or so I suspect. Indeed, they are not unique to writing. I run into similar problems, from time-to-time, on software development projects. A particularly thorny coding problem will hamstring me. And then, one day, I’ll come into the office, sit in my chair, and tell myself that I’m not leaving until I have the problem solved. It works almost every time.
I suspect that is what will happen here, too. Eventually, I’ll hit on the right opening and voice, and once I do, everything else will follow naturally. Until then, I just suck up the frustration and soldier on.
And really, when it comes down to it, writing is what I love to do. When I write, my stress level falls, even factoring in the current literary frustrations. I’m very lucky to be able to do this, and so I try not to gripe about the struggles. But I think its just as important to talk about them, from time-to-time, as it is to talk about the highlights. Because I suspect most profession writers face these struggles from time-to-time, and it’s nice to know you are not the only one.
So this evening, I’ll be at the plate (or, keyboard) once again, ready to take my at-bat, and hoping to make contact, not with the baseball, but with the story. It’s there. I can see it. And I know the slump will end eventually. They always do.
- One really nice side-effect of having all of this versioning automated through my Google Writing Scripts is that I can jump into Evernote and see what I’ve changed or written on any given day. This has been an invaluable tool for learning. It is the equivalent of a hitter going into the clubhouse and watching tape of his at-bats. ↩