Both novels and houses need good bones to last.
by Elizabeth Solar
Do you know how many times I wrote the first chapter of my novel? Neither do I. I lost count after the twenty-second draft. I exaggerate. But not much. The thing is, I wrote the initial draft in a fever dream, and it was pretty good. The comments I received: strong voice, haunting imagery, intriguing protagonist. So far, so good, right? Seems there was a little issue of structure, some gaps in logic. The feedback loop is a powerful force, intended for good. Despite that, feedback can also send us to re-invent the wheel – and this time, you’ve made it square. You rewrite swaths of perfectly usable prose, and perhaps insights, losing much of what made it dynamic and engaging. I, like many in my writing tribe, spent untold hours, weeks, perhaps months massaging the initial chapters of my book, often jettisoning some of riches parts of the story, the most impactful scenes, in the service of ‘making a few small repairs.’
Before you say, of course you have to edit, revise and rework your story. After all, isn’t the essence of writing, rewriting? You are so wise, my friend. But we’re not talking a revision of your completed first draft. We’re talking full-fledged fiddling around in medias res. Or the beginning of res. So, you can imagine – and I hope you can’t – the frustration that occurs when you internalize the feedback loop. Now, you’re not even making preemptive revisions. You have now slid down the rabbit hole of editing your story as you write it. And that ain’t right. (Yeah, I went there. Send in the grammar police.)
First of all, by listening to your inner critic as you write a secondary reality, you are self-editing, judging, censoring and hiding. Don’t we do enough of that in our primary reality? You cannot do two things at once. You cannot write the great American – or wherever your book’s provenance – novel while those nasty gremlins wreak havoc inside your head. So, if you are doing that, stop right now. Okay, better. Let’s continue.
Ernest Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” At least the quote has been attributed to him; but after an informal poll, it could be the mantra of any number of scribes. And before you get all up in there with accusations that I encourage wanton day drinking in service to your novel, rest assured, dear reader. What I’m saying is your mind has to live in the wild, flexible territory where thoughts and ideas can be free-wheelin’. Where you can play fast and loose with reality. Let your freak flag fly. Unleash the hounds of your imagination. Allow your wacky little id to dance around with abandon. Have some fun. Isn’t this why we stayed away from calculus and trigonometry: To escape the drudgery of the physical world, and enter the realm of one more magical?
Indulge me in one more quote from Thomas Mann. “A writer is someone for who writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” If we start with that level of pain, why add to it?
Perhaps it’s the proliferation of books on how to write, writing retreats, workshops, classes and conferences that stifles many writers with charts, outlines and no-fail protocol to write a novel. The pressure to create a social media persona, build a following and – gulp develop a brand. A rising wave that calls out authors for writing about a group to which they do not belong, and virtue signaling bordering on shame-mongering. How I long for the days when adverbs were banished from any self-respecting writer’s playbook.
We are alchemists. We take a blank page, or screen and turn it into a world populated with living, breathing, and vital characters, sprawling landscapes, scenes of wonder, beauty, heartbreak, tragedy and transcendence. We take what we know so we can share it, or what we don’t know, and try to discover, understand and empathize. In the best of worlds, we make a human connection.
If we are trapped in the mindset that we need to scrutinize every sentence and paragraph to make it perfect, conform to trends or stay within the lines, then what’s the point? Sit down in your writing space, raise that cup o’ joe, and become inebriated with your own creativity.
Whether you are in the middle of a work in progress, or ready to start something new, writing prompts can be the cure for writer’s block.