I Came Down From the Mountain: Reflecting on First Drafts
I have come down from the top of Prose Mountain, if briefly, for a few supplies, a little rest, and a quick report. It was a steep, treacherous climb. No amount of foreshadowing can prepare you for the sprawling, untrimmed metaphors that grow into thick tangles of nonsense. Up there you'll find characters who resemble people, but the hollowness in their eyes will give them away.
Be wary when these strangers approach you. You may think you know them, but don't judge them too soon. Do not hold them in your contempt, or love them too dearly. Listen intently. If you listen long enough they start to transform, sprouting entire personalities and desires. You'll notice old wounds (internal and external) that still ache when their foot lands a certain way. Study that ache and its origin until you wince at their every misstep. Before long you'll have to quicken your pace to keep up with them. If they want leave you, let them go. And if they demand more of your time, give it to them. Never force your own designs on these strangers -that will kill them.
When you get to the top (and you will) don't worry if you aren't granted a mystical vision or visited by God. The view is still something close to religious when the sun plunges beneath the ocean on the horizon, leaving a trail of pink and purple in its wake. Sit and enjoy the moment, and make note of what you'll need for your next climb.
I began this novel project, tentatively titled A Blaze, A Beacon in March. Part of the inspiration for starting this blog was to document the process of writing this novel. After five months, I have a five pound pile of paper and lot of revising left to do.
But now I know this mountain. I know what I should have brought the first time and what I can leave behind the second time around. I know what paths I can take and which to avoid. This time I'll have my editing machete in hand to clear away the excesses in language. This time I will listen better to everyone I meet along the way.
But before embarking on this journey again, I'd like to share a few thoughts that may guide you or at least illuminate what I do.
Writing is a solitary process. It can be incredibly isolating coming home from work every night, making a pot of coffee, and neglecting your relationships with friends, partners, and your family in order to utilize a few precious hours of focus. What’s worse is that often you don’t have much to show for it. It’s simply unwise to share too much too soon.
Whether you get through five or 5,000 words in an evening, sometimes the knowledge that you don’t have to show anyone your first draft is what gets you through it. If you can carve a perfectly beveled tablet of prose out of the mountainside with a few bolts of lightning, then you can probably skip ahead. You could probably ditch the mantle of flesh disguising your divinity, too.
Seriously, no one thinks your flat-brimmed halo is just your 'this old thing.'
For us mortals, I would exercise caution. Each time you share a fraction of your novel, you’re making it more difficult for future readers to experience your work without preconceived expectations, which compromises their ability to give useful feedback. And you're going to need all the feedback you can get.
Worse yet, you’re putting yourself at risk of losing your novel altogether.
Despite even the best intentions, early feedback can slow you down or stop a draft entirely from seeing the light of day. The danger is twofold.
First, you might enjoy the pleasure of sharing your novel in paraphrase form too much. So much so that you receive all the satisfaction you need from explaining it, rendering the actual writing of it trivial, if not completely unnecessary. The act of writing might mar your perfect idea by turning it into dirty, messy prose. I would warn you that writing for the acclaim and love of others is wrong, but that would be a disingenuous. Of course you want readers to enjoy your writing, or else why you bother trying to get it published? Don't lose sight of your own goals while you're worried about pleasing someone else, and don't please yourself too much by showing off your ideas before they are cemented in writing.
Secondly, you might hear an idea that spins your potential novel in a new direction before it's even started, or even worse you might have all your fears realized and one of your early confidants might say something, slightly critical or even dismissive (or maybe you just interpret their remarks as such), about your potential novel and you’ll realize that every idea you’ve ever had was simply a lesser and regurgitated form of another author’s work and that even attempting to improve yourself as a writer is dismal waste of time in an entirely bleak and meaningless existence.
Wait. That’s not helpful. Never listen to that voice. Never put yourself in a situation that might encourage that voice.
Here are a few rules for avoiding your own existential crisis, at least while writing.
Don’t show anyone your novel until:
1. the manuscript is finished
2. you’ve revised it
3. you are ready and willing (emotionally and otherwise) to face the necessary scrutiny that all drafts must face
Simple enough, right?
It’s a both daunting and comforting to know that you have a novel ahead of you. It’s sort of like that feeling when you move in with your partner, both your names are on the lease for better or worse you have a year to love, fight, laugh, and allow extravagant and self-tortuous paranoia keep you up a night (wait that’s just me).
Focus on the process, forget publishing. Forget fame. Don’t even think about querying an agent. None of those things are writing. That’s business. Learn to love the process and those things may or may not come, but it won’t matter at that point. You’ll soon find that writing is the reward in and of itself.
To revisit our beginning metaphor. Think about it like this, no one is going to pay you for climbing a mountain (prose or otherwise), at least not a first. It's just something you do for fun, it's something to achieve and take satisfaction in. And when you start out it will be tiring, maybe even impossible until you get into better shape. That's ok. Keep climbing. It won't necessarily get easier, you're climbing a mountain not a ladder after all, but you'll be more prepared. You'll have the right gear and the endurance to climb faster and faster until one day you become an expert at it. And you know what? Even then you might not find anyone interested paying you to climb mountains, but the passion and love that got you that far will remain, whether there's endorsements and contracts.
And the mountains aren't going anywhere.
What happened during those five months I was up there?
I remember reading a lot of Samuel R. Delany and thinking I would never thaw out from a brutal winter that had saved its worse for February.
Five months later I’m ready for fall. I found another stack of Delany books in a box that still hasn't been unpacked since moving into my apartment in May. And I have a manuscript. Winter will return. More books will arrive at my doorstep. And I’ll keep working at this novel.
Five months is enough to time to carve a small chunk of granite out of the mountainside of fiction, but it’s still a raw material, not yet that counter top you imagined. It’s closer, no doubt, but you’re not exactly in a rush to invite all your friends over to check out your roughly hewn slab of prose. You can see where you cut too deep or too shallow. You keep on chiseling. You climb again.