Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: writing first draft

Short Stories vs. Novels

The question came up over the weekend about writing short stories versus writing novels. Lots of beginning writers try to dive into a novel first time out, and get discouraged because of the scope of the project. For some of them, it might be easier to work on short stories. You get the positive reinforcement of finishing a project quickly, and restricting the scope of your writing makes it seem more manageable.

But the drawback of short stories is that they are short. If you are interested in long character arcs, societal change, or other big ideas, you may not be able to work in anything less than novel form (though to be honest, most writers end up doing both at one time or another–one of the English language’s most famous novelists, Charles Dickens, is perhaps best known for his short story/novella, “A Christmas Carol”). In that case, you should be looking at breaking up your novel into manageable pieces. Write an outline. Write a chapter. Set milestones that are nearer than “finish the novel.”

Another thing I think is more important with novels than with short stories is to write a first draft without letting your inner editor get in the way. Because you have so much more to write, it’s important to get it all down. With a short story, the process of editing is smaller and more contained, and you can let your editor interfere a little as you’re doing your writing. With your novel, you’re going to throw out whole sections anyway. Don’t bother correcting your grammar or word use when drafting. Don’t let yourself get hung up on research. If you know there’s a thing you want to include, but you don’t know the name, just write [later] in your text. I use square brackets for in-manuscript notes because I never use them for punctuation in a manuscript. Then I can just go back and search on “[” and “]” and find all the notes I meant to fill in later. The important thing, again, is to get the draft down.

Then you can worry about getting motivated for the editing. :)

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Writing Serial

I’ve been writing more of my anthropologist journal and giving it in monthly installments to the writing workshop. My writing partner-pal Rikoshi has been doing the same with his novel, and last night we were discussing some aspects of writing serially that are good, and some that are bad.

To the good: the big one is that it forces you to get something done. So far we have both been pretty good about meeting our deadlines, six chapters into our respective books. Considering that’s five chapters more than I’d produced in the previous year, that’s terrific. Another good thing is that it breaks down the story into smaller parts, and you feel like at the end of each part, you have to make it interesting enough for the reader to pick up the next part. That’s a great way to avoid getting lost in meandering long descriptions and loose plot threads. When people aren’t engaged in the most recent chapter, they’ll let you know. There’s also the ability to take feedback from earlier chapters and incorporate it into later ones without having to wait to go back and edit it. That’s tremendously helpful and will save time when you go back to edit the whole thing, because you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what needs to be fixed.

The bad: pretty much what you would expect. You’re showing people first drafts, fairly raw ones. It’s hard for the readers to develop a flow because they’re just reading one chapter a month (still, Dickens used to do all right with that). You can’t go back and fix things in earlier chapters to make what you just wrote in this recent one make more sense.

Overall, though, we both agreed that the good outweighs the bad, and that we’re learning a lot from this experience. It’s definitely something that works for us, and if you have a workshop group and a novel you’re stuck with, it’s worth giving it a try.

The first draft

I’m taking another screenwriting course in the evenings, and this is a good one. One of the things the professor said is, “Your goal should be a shitty first draft.”

Now, I’ve always resisted the prevalent wisdom surrounding first drafts–namely, that you should just let the words pour out without editing them and worry about the editing in your second draft. Perhaps because I also edit for Sofawolf, I cannot completely shut off my internal editor, and so my first drafts end up being revised while I’m in the process of writing them. Occasionally, something will be in my head so fully formed that I can churn out a few pages, but by and large my first drafts run slow. It’s worth noting that in my Beginning Fiction workshop, the book we used by Koch said that there are other writers who work using that method.

The problem lately has been that I’m not sure where the story is going, and so I foodle endlessly with one paragraph or another, or I take a five minute break to play Scrabble, or I cook dinner. But recently, hearing our professor say that reminded me that that is a valid philosophy, and so I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to just let go. Even if I’m typing something and I think, ‘This is stupid,’ where previously I would have stopped, now I’m trying to say, ‘Okay, maybe it is, but let’s see where it’s going.’ I know some of it will get cut, but maybe by laying down more foundation for the story, I will have a better one left over when I’m done the editing.

If nothing else, it’s helped me get some writing under my belt, which has given me renewed confidence, which has been good all around. So the lesson here is that sometimes it helps to try out a different style, and see what results. You don’t have to go all the way, but mix it up a bit.