Monday, April 27, 2009

Feeling a Draft

Current Reading: Marching as to War, by Pierre Burton

Inspirational Quote: "I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top." -- An unknown English professor, Ohio University

A month ago, I finished a decent draft of the Magnus Somnium. Yay me.
I was overjoyed, and bought myself lunch because I was hungry and I deserved it. I then sealed the draft in a charred oak cask to age and mellow. Like Orson Welles, I will rewrite no work before its time.

I've found that there is no faster way to mess up a good work than to finish a draft and immediately go back to the beginning to start another. I end up missing obvious tone, character and plot problems because I'm too familiar with the work, too close to it. Instead of reading and understanding the story as it exists on the page, I'm reading and admiring the story as it exists in my head. It's like trying to rewire your house while referring to a plumber's manual. It doesn't matter how good your work is, the result is going to be terrible.

So I set it aside for a few months, long enough to desaturate my brain. The best way to get rid of all thoughts about a work is to replace it with another, so instead of taking a break, I turned out a couple of short stories, then started a new book that I'd been thinking about for quite some time.

It's weird, but after all the time I've devoted to the Magnus, I'd forgotten what fun a first draft can be. I mean "fun" in both the ironic and the literal sense. A first draft is like exploring new country. You don't know what you're going to find on the page. You don't know the characters or the setting or even the plot, although you may already have written copious notes about them. It's only when you start writing about the characters and their actions in context that the story comes alive and you realize that you don't really know what's going to happen next until you've written it.

On the other hand, it's not easy to crank out new words every time you sit down at the keyboard, especially when you have the feeling that they're the wrong ones. I think I've spent too much time describing what it's like to take a long road journey under a cart. I also think my antagonist is so slow to react to the actions of the hero that he looks like an idiot. The hardest part of this is fighting my natural tendency to go back and rewrite things immediately before continuing on. If I give in to that tendency, I usually end up rewriting a small section over and over: spinning my wheels until I stall. So I force myself onward, repeating the mantra "I'll fix it in the next draft," which is, I think, really the only philosophy that allows anyone to get anywhere with writing.

I don't know if two months is going to be enough time to let the Magnus lie fallow. Most of my head is now filled with the new work, but a small percentage of my thoughts still turn to the Magnus, thinking about scenes and plot twists and toying with the idea of starting the next draft early. It's hard to resist the urge to tinker, but I promised myself I wouldn't. Two months, at least, exiled from the Magnus Somnium.

... and it's nice to explore some new country.


slcard said...

At the risk of overusing the exclamation mark... Ulysses! You finished the Magnus Somnium! Yay you, indeed!

I am terribly happy for you. Doesn't it feel good to put THE END on it?

I agree completely with putting some distance between the first and coming drafts (and not just because I've just finished arguing with you elsewhere).

Here are some balloons to help you celebrate.


Ulysses said...

Actually, I finished the first draft some considerable time ago. This was the second, during which I fixed some story issues. No matter. I reached the end, and that's worthy of some balloons.

And cake. Must have cake.

slcard said...

Now that you say that this was a second draft, I recall reading that at some point. Somehow, though, I had it in my head you were beating out the first. But you're right, both deserve cake and balloons. Now where is the cake button on my keyboard...?