Well, what did I do that for?I suppose it’s normal. You read something by a really great writer and it’s either inspiring (i.e, “I’m gonna do that!”) or demoralizing (i.e. “How am I ever gonna do that!?”) Or both, which was my reaction after finishing Kindred by Octavia Butler. I’d never read any of her work, so I picked this one to start with, and ended up having the same reaction I have to reading works by other writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker (two faves of mine): How in the hell did she do that?
Of course I’m reading the finished product, and I have to remind myself that even great writers probably produce shitty first drafts, to borrow a phrase from Anne Lamott. At least I have to believe that as I sit here with my first draft, in which there is much to be fixed, added, and cut. (And if any of the do write perfect first drafts, I’m sure I don’t want to know about it.) I especially need to believe it after spending that last week sketching out characters and scenes that need to be added and figuring out where they need to go. (Note: I haven’t even started cutting yet.)
Writing the draft in 30 days meant having to gloss over a lot of stuff, and not much pausing to give any thought to backstory. By the time I was done, I had a beginning, middle, and end but some pretty big holes in between them. For starters, I’d managed to write something without an antagonist, or at least a strong one, and a conflict so subtle that it might be easily missed.
Oh, and I didn’t really give my antagonist much of a life, or even a job. He has one now, in the revision, which brings an element to the story that I’d wanted to work into the first draft. However, I now have to research that job to see if the story needs editing to fit the realities of the job. (Hint: I need to spend some time on Capitol Hill or talk to someone who has.) I’ve given him a love interest too, and a backstory that weaves into one of the sub-plots. Mind you, I still have to get to know that character.
But I have to remind myself that I’ve done this before. Phil’s mention of his own fiction writing reminded me that I’ve had at least one story published myself. Back when I was in college, and writing more fiction than I have in 10 years (which is none), I had one short story published in my universty’s literary journal, along with two poems. That was the same year the English dept. invited me to give a reading. (The best review I got of the story was from my parents. It was set back in the days when they were growing up, and put together based on stories and descriptions I’d heard from them and other family members. They praised its realism and said I’d captured that time really well.) I also had some poems published in local literary journals where I went to school, and in one national journal (the Allegheny Review, but I don’t think that issue is available online).
And I’m not totally discouraged. While I was reading Kindred there were moments where I exclaimed to myself “I see how she did that!,” when I recognized how Butler used plot, characterization, and suspense to draw me in to the point where I didn’t want to stop reading or the story to have to end. So maybe if I read a bit more, I’ll see a bit more and learn a bit more that I can use later. On that note, next up is Clifford’s Blues by John A. Williams. It’s been on my to-read list for a while now, after my interest was piqued by the synopsis: a black, gay jazz musician imprisoned in Dachau during WWII. So, I’ll see what story Williams has to tell, and also what he has to teach as I continue to work on my own novel. ]]>