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Writing a first draft–a “discovery draft,” as I like to call it–has to end somewhere. This is a blessed relief, because drafting is scary and hard. You do it blind. You have no idea whether what you’re writing is “going anywhere” or whether it’ll be any good (in fact, it’s not good, it’s terrible, that’s why they call it a ROUGH draft).
When do you know you’re finished with a first draft? For me it’s when there are no more gaps in the basic story. Figuring this out involves laying receipt tape on the dining table and monkeying with the order of the scenes I’ve written, each of which is represented by a sticky note. What you see here is my entire draft mapped out on a single tape, plus my notebook containing the scenes or part-scenes I still have to write.
What I haven’t done yet is make tapes for individual subplots, character development/relationships, significant objects or any of the many other aspects of the book that will eventually require mapping out. I thought I might do this today too–thus the extra (blank) tapes–but I realized that it’s too early. That’ll be second-draft work, the equally-but-differently scary and hard work of revision.
PS: Instead of sticky notes, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black uses index cards–check out his amazingly organized process.
These days I’m in “discovery draft” mode: banging out new material without letting myself think too much about plot arc, character coherence or development, structure, or style. I’m grasping at every trick I know for not stopping, not slowing down, not censoring. For getting Big Brain out of the way so that Little Brain can play.
Little Brain likes lists. She appreciates not having to remember what’s supposed to happen next in the scene or trying to reconstruct the brilliant train of thought she had on the bike ride to the cafe. She also likes check marks and is very fond of pink highlighter.
Oh, and math! Little Brain loves adding up how many words are already on the screen and how many more she needs to produce before she gets to have a croissant, or check Twitter, or doodle some more in the margins.
Horace Walpole, man. Now there was a gent who knew how to have fun. In 1746 he moved to the village of Twickenham, bought a villa called Strawberry Hill and decided to turn it into a Gothic castle-slash-themepark. Using drawings of medieval cathedrals as his guide, he knocked together turrets and gargoyles out of plaster and papier mache. He filled the mansion with his vast collection of historical curios (including Henry VIII’s jeweled dagger and an Elizabethan necromancy mirror made of black obsidian) and threw open its doors to daytrippers from London.
Then he wrote a little novel called The Castle of Otranto, claiming to have translated it from a crusades-era Italian text. When it sold well and he finally fessed up to the authorship, he told a friend that the story had come to him in a dream.
“I am writing; I am building. . .My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole said in 1761, “and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead. If they had not the substantial use of amusing me while I live, they would be worth little indeed.”
I love the fact that Walpole’s prediction was 240 years off. The Strawberry Hill Trust has just finished restoring his house, and his book reappears yearly on Gothic course syllabi worldwide.
There’s a lesson here for us dabblers and dilettantes, hoarders and hobbyists. Even if you make stuff purely to amuse yourself, even if your stuff is insubstantial or fake, even if your stuff doesn’t make you rich and famous–your stuff still counts.
Two and a half centuries from now, it might even be revered.
At the Dirt Exhibit in London I got to see John Snow’s “ghost map” graphing cholera cases during the 1854 outbreak:
This map helped prove that cholera spread not through “miasma” in the air but tainted water (the deaths marked on the map cluster around the Broad Street pump). It’s commonly credited with contributing to the birth of epidemiology.
Here’s another map, this time pertaining not to disease but to literature:
This version was drawn by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer via Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
The hero’s journey (Campbell calls it the “monomyth”) may not have saved as many lives as Snow’s map. But it arguably led to the birth of literary criticism.
At ChiZine Publications’ Chiaroscuro Reading Series last night I encountered something rare and wonderful: a writer who voices her own work when she reads. Lesley Livingston may write her fantasy/romance novels specifically for young adults, but thanks to her voicing, her reading managed to win over the event’s older, primarily sci-fi/horror-fan crowd.
What does it mean to voice your reading? Most obviously, it’s about dialogue: choosing a different voice for each character who speaks, and maintaining this difference throughout. You don’t need to be a method actor to do this; even the slightest inflection or change in pitch does the trick. Lesley can do a decent British accent, but I know from other readings that a poor one, or a wholly invented one, will aid listeners’ suspension of disbelief just as well.
But voicing works in subtler ways, too. Lesley’s focalizer in Once Every Never is a disaffected teenage girl named Clare, and the story emerges from a blend between Clare’s observations and a slightly more “literary” and mature governing perspective. This means that Lesley’s narrative voice is different than her “real” voice, and you can hear this difference when she reads. To the words on the page she adds whatever’s called for in the scene she’s conjuring: expressive pauses, flabbergasted stuttering, ironic brow-lifting, upspeak, hand gestures and the occasional embarrassed giggle.
Bringing the actor’s skills to bear on a reading might sound like too tall an order to some writers. Some of us are introverts and quail before a crowd. But many more of us simply want to detach ourselves from our work when we present it, in case it’s not well received. Or we’re worried about sounding too smitten with our own words; we want the writing to speak for itself. This don’t-shoot-the-messenger impulse results in a reading voice that aims for neutral and dispassionate but very often comes off as mechanical and mumbly. Listeners have to concentrate intensely to follow and often end up with their eyes closed. It’s every public speaker’s worst nightmare to look out at a snoozing audience, but the only safeguard against it is to animate your voice!
It comes down to commitment. Can you take your own work seriously enough to risk bringing it to life? Can you throw yourself into it? Lesley Livingston sure can, and the rising success of her career proves that the effort is worth it!
In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, young Will Stanton is warned against revealing his true name, as it can be used to conjure against him by the enemy.
Sound familiar? The Eragon and Earthsea series get a lot of mileage from the discovery and use of true names. In the Harry Potter books they call Voldemort “You-Know-Who” to avoid inadvertently attracting his attention. Without any research we can trace this well-worn fantasy trope back at least as far as Rumpelstiltskin, wherein the gold-spinning troll will relinquish the Queen’s firstborn child only if she can guess his name.
Christenings and other infant naming ceremonies still radiate the aura of our old beliefs in the sacred power of names. Now that I’m realizing how important names are in my sons’ favorite books, I sort of wish we’d bestowed them with secret names, as well as their legal ones. Maybe carved a rune-tablet or medallion to present to each of them at puberty’s onset, some solemn avowal of their special destiny in the world.
I suppose we could always invent such things retrospectively. Solicit their creative input, or–oooh!–have them keep their true name even from their parents, and show only the symbols they choose to represent it. How romantic is that??
I smell another rainy-Saturday craft session in the works…
There are lists of famous monsters everywhere online these days. From Greek-myth bestiaries to the Appalachian wood-spirit legends, supernatural creatures and their genealogies are a hot pop-culture commodity. As far as English literary history goes, though, the list of monsters is smaller than you’d think. Almost universally they are humans gone wrong: Grendel, Caliban, Frankenstein’s creature (“Remember,” I tell my students, “Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster!”), Dracula, Mr. Hyde, the Nazgul.
Monsters are visual entities, of course, so many of the deepest impressions are left by movies. Who can forget the greatest mother-monster ever, the Alien?
Digital surround sound helps, too: Rattlesnake Jack in Rango would have been almost tame without that grating, metallic ratcheting noise whenever he moved.
Movie monsters aren’t always creepier than their book forebears, though. The Chamber of Secrets’ basilisk was much scarier in the book than the film. And despite all the made-up adjectives in Lewis Carroll’s poem, my nightmares about the Jabberwock were never vague. No matter how fast I ran, there it was with its eyes of flame, whiffling and burbling after me.
Perhaps my favorite monster of all time, though, is the Sarlacc in the Return of the Jedi. It seems passive, almost benign, when the barge first approaches. It’s a sand hole, that’s all.
Still, if the good guys can just avoid getting thrown in, if they can dangle, if they can hold on…
Then come the tentacles.