For years (and years and years) I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my stories. I read over and over again how there is no such thing as a polished first draft, but when I’d finally tag THE END on a manuscript, I literally COULD NOT UNDERSTAND how to edit what I was left with. It seemed like every time I took something out, a plot hole opened up and swallowed the rest of the story. I was the exception to the rule, it turned out. My first drafts were complete, and I must be some sort of amazing outlier who just nails it right out the gate. Wasn’t I?
Of course not, or you’d have already read one of my hundred stories. Turns out I used to write two completely different brands of fiction: Thin and Sequential or Lush and Meandering. Neither, by the way, are strong enough to stand up against even the most gentle and loving of editors (my wife, for example.)
My wife, Jaime, is a writer herself. She has a grasp on story structure that I will continue to envy until my dying day. She just GETS IT. She has been my first reader and editor on everything I’ve ever written. She’s always been honest with me, even if it hurts to hear it. I’ll come to her, hat in hand, with 5000 words of magic and she’ll read it gladly, smiling sweetly. And I’ll watch her face, because I hate myself. I’ll see her sweet smile fade. I’ll see that little crease form between her brows. I’ll see her frown. She’s always quick to compliment what she likes, but that’s not what I prepare myself for. I hold out for the TRUTH.Jaime’s TRUTH has kept me from attempting to publish dozens and dozens of stories, because she’s ALWAYS RIGHT. She says things like, “It’s beautiful, but nothing happens.” Or, she’ll say, “I see where you’re going, but I don’t feel engaged.”
Lush and Meandering, or Thin and Sequential.
Lush and Meandering means that I’ve strung together pretty words and phrases, glorious metaphors and navel-gazing protagonists wandering, searching, hoping. Something might happen, but it’s easily solved, first try, and besides, that’s just getting in the way of the WORDS. When I read stories like this, I throw them across the room. When I WRITE THEM, though, I parade them around like trophies. I cradle them like babies. I rave and show them off and point to certain paragraphs and scream, “THIS! I MADE THIS WITH MY OWN BRAIN!”
My sweet wife reads through it, holds me, kisses my cheek and says, “But nothing happens.”
You know those little black scribble clouds over anger Peanuts characters? Yeah, me too.
More recently, I’ve written different stories altogether. After studying books on structure and plot and all those happy-crappy plug-and-play paint-by-numbers writing texts online, I’ve written stories where a CHARACTER, in a PLACE, has a PROBLEM. He tries to solve it, fucks it up a time or two, and then the story hits a CLIMAX and RESOLUTION. A to B to C. There ya go. I don’t parade these guys around, but I print them and stride over to my wife and drop them in her lap as if it’s a challenge. Go on, woman. Find the flaw! I dare you!
“It’s good, but …”
Peanuts stink cloud.
But … “… your characters don’t have personalities.” “… I can’t see the setting.” “… I don’t even know what’s at stake.” “… everyone feels hollow.” “… is this a period piece or something?” “… they’re all just arguing in an empty room?”
Thin and Sequential. A to B to C, sure, but without ever taking time to ground the story or the characters.
Texture. Concrete prose. Evocative settings and scenarios. All of those beautiful words and that crisp dialogue I’d worked on for YEARS was just thrown out the window and left to rot.
So, I had to learn again. To evolve. I reread a TON of short stories and was SHOCKED to see how my favorite writers managed to WRITE BEAUTIFULLY AND TELL A GOOD STORY at the SAME TIME!
But HOW? Jake 3.0., that’s how. A monster-mash of technique. I started seeing stories as engines, as a sum of their parts. Furthermore, I’ve started acknowledging that there are flaws and plot holes and extraneous bullshittery in all of my stories, and that’s okay.
See, that’s what second drafts are for. SECOND DRAFTS! WHERE YOU TAKE THAT STORY YOU’VE WORKED SO HARD ON AND FIND WHAT IT’S REALLY TRYING TO SAY AND THEN WRITE THAT STORY! You’ll probably need a third or fourth (or fifth or sixth) draft, too! And that’s okay! That’s how it SHOULD BE.
That’s how good stories get written.
I did nine drafts on a short story that has recently won a contest that I’m not sure I’m technically allowed to talk about right now, but whatevs. The editor of the anthology recently sent me edits on my story, and even though I’d been over that bastard tale nine times, I was delighted, because a NEW EDITOR means a NEW SET OF EYES.
There were a couple of things I could address with a line or two, or with a quick cut of a dozen words. There was a suggestion that I didn’t take, not because I was being a dick, but because I genuinely liked it in the story. He made it clear this was mine to do with what I wished, and I threw my ego out the window and took the advice I was given, for the most part.
Editing is much more than Stephen King’s formula of 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. It’s peeling the orange rind off of a story to get to the fruit. It’s poking the seeds out so you don’t have to futz with them when you’re chewing. It’s sectioning off the fruit so that all you’re left with is a perfect, marvelous bite. It’s not enough to just cut out a few lines and call it good. Sometimes you need to start on page one, find a new hook, or a new angle into the world of a story. And for god’s sake, put some EFFORT into it! If you can write beautifully, you’d fuckin’ better. But you also have to write CLEAN. (That’s one I learned from T.E. Grau).
Clean prose, as beautifully written as I can. I’m going for Readability, man, because I’m not Cormac McCarthy and I sure as hell don’t want to be. His stories are glorious, but they’re also intimidating. I don’t read his books for fun, I read them because they are HOMEWORK. Knowledge is power, but if I tried writing like that the best I could hope for would be pastiche. More likely, though, it would seem like a joke. “And, I like to use quotation marks!”
Having a new set of eyes on my story has enlightened me, because it wasn’t just a series of criticisms and pointed flaws. Quite a few of the comments just said, “Good!” When Jaime read the 9th draft of the story and said that I had nailed it, I really HAD. It won the contest! These new edits, though, just cleaned it up. A little polish on an already rad little story.
The new eyes gave Jaime a whole new set of things to look for, too, and it’s going to make her an even stronger editor. We’re polishing up a new one right now, and we’re both using all the lessons we’ve learned. Jaime finishes each new draft of this one (the latest version, by the way, is number 6) and she says it’s better than the last. Closer and closer, prettier, more evocative, more interesting, more CLEAN and readable. I want stories that can be devoured in one sitting, but they’re barbed and you can’t stop thinking about them later. Stories you’ll come back to, read again, get something more out of it. Because I’ve been writing for nearly 20 years, man, and if I’m FINALLY going to get published, I’d sure as shit better be writing something WORTH THE TIME OF THE READER.
Otherwise, what’s the point? I don’t do this as a hobby. I write because I NEED TO. It’s my therapy. It’s my happiness. It’s my OTHER true love. Stories and words have helped me through the blackest of depressions and pulled me through to the other side. They’re part of me.
And even though I KNOW that these blog posts — all of them! — can use another draft, I don’t ever want to start going down that road. Sure, I’m all over the place and shit gets lost in my stream of consciousness or whatever, but I kind of like it.
Blog. Raw and Uncut, man.
(Full disclosure, I did edit it, but ONLY just a little. It’s still all over the place and can really use another draft. Oh, well. I’ve got to get to my REAL writing.)