Sunday, May 8, 2016

Too Many Drafts, Too Much Feedback

It is irrational the effect someone standing over your shoulder can have on your ability to be natural, much worse if you know the person is a judgmental ass. I can’t count the number of times someone has slapped her hands on the keyboard and glared at me until I’ve walked away.

Sometimes I think, wrongly so, that if I could stomach it, going out and getting massive amounts of criticism would be best, that if it wasn’t an issue of being demoralized, why not listen to the opinions of everyone who’s willing to offer a word?

Except that I’ve done that before—been bombarded with different ideas from every which way—and it’s not just the issue of negativity, or being overwhelmed. It can actually be counterproductive to take too much time tearing your work apart.

Case in point, as I near the final drafts of my manuscript, I realized I needed to change the beginning yet again. I’m writing a complete overhaul of setting and events. It’s already been through probably five renditions now: first, an illustrative pace but boring exploration of the “norm,” switching to another more electric but less world-building hook, adding a broader sense of history, clarifying the time jumps, cutting the time jumps, writing something gruesome, writing a better gruesome, writing a scene that would be moved to later in the book, and then finally cutting and tweaking into what I thought would be the final version. Then I added a scene. Then I tried to add in a character sooner. Then I hated that. Then I cut down on the word count to more than a third of what it once was.

At the end, I was pretty stoked about the atmosphere and had enhanced the world-building a bit by bit and really thought I was just about there.

As I continued to cut down the rest of it, satisfied with the beginning, I didn’t read through it in one straight shot again. For the best, really. I knew that people weren’t reacting as excited as I would have liked, but I didn’t know what else to do, and I was genuinely happy with it.

A few days ago, I read through at full speed with very little revision or halts or even typographical errors slowing me up. Now on its ninth draft, I was able to see it at the pace an actual reader would… and something didn’t sit right with me.

In all those drafts and cuts and rewrites and adds, the growth of events—which is one of my better skills—wasn’t there. I liked each scene individually, but together they were too fast. I knew that we didn’t get time to settle down and see what kind of world it was, but I couldn’t logically understand why that needed to happen. Someone once told me that he didn’t yet care about the relationship when the inciting incident occurred, and I—a person who already had a long lasting bond with these people—couldn’t quite grasp what he was saying. I didn’t disagree, but he was on a “page” I couldn’t get to, figuratively speaking.

After reading it, however, I got the same vibe. One of my few complaints about having the passive purge of word count (the original draft being around 180K words, the new one 110K) was that the protagonists’ love story faced only conflict and lost many of its more positive and cute moments, especially in the first half. Those scenes slowed the story down a great deal, so it’s not all bad, but it occurred to me that showing the norm of their world required showing the norm of their relationship.

I have always struggled with the story starting in the “exception” to the world, the first four chapters featuring a place unlike the general tone and setting the majority of the book would take place. The characters there thought so little about the life outside their safe zone that it was hard to make it come up in conversation. The main character’s backstory and how he arrived there in the first place was interesting and somewhat important—at least I knew the readers would want to know—hence my issue with time jumps and confusing flashbacks. When I finally reached a point that effectively discussed those things in a quick and informative manner, I lost the sense of place.

At the same time, I had another issue. I had worked the beginning so much that I was finally satisfied, excited even, with the prose of it. That was horrible. It was somewhat like when you are drawing two characters, and each come out beautifully, but realize the proportion is off. One is way bigger than the other. Now you have to erase everything you’ve done and you damn well know it will not be easy to repeat.

The other part of it, and this is where we get to the nub of it, was that even though I’d long learned not to be precious about a line or two, it was hard to shake off some of the compliments I’d gotten.

Many people had high, enthusiastic praise for the first line of my manuscript. I do too.

I’d recognized, as a teacher, how harmful compliments can be in that aspect. Once you’ve said someone has done a good job on something specific, they struggle with ever changing it. I’ve felt it happen to me before on several occasions.

It’s a part of the whole, “kill your darlings” ideology, at least if you interpret it as a willingness to kill your darlings. On the whole, I don’t think it’s necessary to get rid of something that you’re particularly fond of. Some would disagree, with a bit of validity, because a “darling” can often be “showing off” more than it is actually good. There are those who think that if you are precious about something, it’s a sign that it’s not as great as you think it is. And I’ve seen that happen too, many times. But overall, I consider that a separate issue, and when it comes to the things that I like, I find the bigger issue isn’t the fact that I like them, but the lengths I have gone to to avoid removing them. Like now.

Of course, sometimes going out of my way to save something inane has ended magically for me—I’m at my most creative in problem-solving mode. Other times, though, it’s a big waste of energy.

So, combining these three things—people’s compliments of my first line, my desire to keep the backstory I’d added and painstakingly groomed after various responses, and my hope to demonstrate the characters’ relationship prior to the upheaval—the obvious solution popped into my head.

I quit editing and opened a new document, saved as “Alt Beginning May 5,” having lost track of the number of the numerous alternative beginnings already in existence. Cutting and pasting lines from the original, I turned the description into a dialogue.

And yet as I did so, another thought popped into my head.

A friend of mine, a talented author, randomly once made the complaint about starting a scene with dialogue, laughing about it. This meant little to me at the time. I assumed it was a reaction to what I had heard—the ardent insistence to start a scene with a quote. However, when I said so, he gave me a puzzled look and replied, “Someone actually suggested it?”

Like my prologue, this kind of commentary didn’t affect me when I heard it. I had my own opinions, stored it away for future consideration, and went on with my life. That is, until I got to this stage of writing.

Now that I’m close to actually submitting it somewhere, all of my high ideals of “do what works until it doesn’t,” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” went straight out the window. Suddenly I panicked over each and every adjective, “was,” amount of dialogue, possible purple prose, and pretty much everything a writer is told not to do.

Do I try and retain the first line as dialogue? Kill your darlings, someone said. Don’t start with a conversation, someone else said. Have a hook. Don’t start with the weather. No info dumps.

In my life, there’s been “don’ts” that later needed to be done, like more background information in the early pages. There were “don’ts” dictated by people who couldn’t write a well worded scene after sixteen drafts. There were “don’ts” that screwed over an entire passage. There were “don’ts” that I wasted so much time bracing against and would’ve found myself improving quicker if I had just listened. “Don’ts” have always been a problem because “don’ts” don’t mean “never” but don’t say “when.”

My own advice to someone in this predicament is always that rules are better as tools to solve an issue. An issue is when a reader has a reaction they didn’t think they were supposed to have. So, if there is no undesirable reaction, there is no reason to apply a rule.

So what is it? Did starting with my dialogue make it so they couldn’t envision the scene? If I started by giving a visual, I’d be starting with a description. Also a don’t.

Plus, why restrict myself from doing something that I didn’t have a problem with?

As I wrote the scene out, I knew my narrator’s voice did not match up with my main character’s, and so wording would need to be changed. It also seemed a little juvenile to me—though optimism always does—and what I considered to be the successful excitement and atmosphere of the original did not carry over to the conversation.

Though I did get to keep the lines I’d been perfecting for so long.

When I contemplated, late at night, what to do about this, I realized that the dialogue wasn’t enough, the location of it wasn’t as interesting, and they needed to be doing something relevant at the same time. So, I changed the scene yet again, and soon the entire question of whether or not it was “okay” to start the first line of a book with dialogue became completely moot.

Good thing I agonized over that.

Normally, I’m a fairly chill and organic writer, never to be confused for a perfectionist when externally perceived quality isn’t on my mind. Now that I’m reading it from the perspective of a hypothetical agent, wondering what decisions will cause them to shut down before they even start, every single thing anyone has ever said to me comes rushing back in one huge, uncontrollable flood.

I first realized I might be obsessing when my drafts started to look more like sequels.

There is such a thing as too many drafts, too much criticism. You can develop a hyperawareness to every little thing, unable to gauge what fits or let go of the inevitable judgment. I started Stories of the Wyrd because of this growing tendency to wonder, “BUT WHAT WILL THE AGENTS THINK!?” every time I wrote. It’s not healthy. It’s not useful. But it’s there, and I need to figure out what to do about it.

Maybe write “CHILL OUT,” on my computer screen.

In any case, fair warning to all writers out there. I suspect being crazy is a pretty normal part of the process.

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