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May
14
2018

Finish What You've Started -- by Dorothy Robey

For the past three days, I’ve inched away from my notebook and pencil after writing up my latest chapter a few days ago.  It seems I’ve fallen into that familiar rut where you sit there thinking about your story for which you’re a quarter or half way through it, wondering if it’s really any good.  You look over the chapters and the storyline and wonder if it really is interesting enough to readers.  Would they even read up to chapter eight or nine or ten?  Where has this story gone?  And you find your fingers and ideas bound up in an invisible chain of nothingness filled with your inner critic telling you it’s going nowhere and what’s the point?  You can’t get your fingers to write what you’ve thought about writing the past week, the last month, as you’d been creating this story that started off so easily and with such grandeur and pizazz in hopes of something fabulous taking root and blossoming into an incredible, earth-shattering novel.

In my case, I’ve jotted down plenty of notes on where I want my work in progress (WIP) to go, but I’m feeling a bit like an old game system on its last flicker of electrical usefulness, or a pinball machine that’s tilted into a quiet repose.

In author, John Dufresne’s book, Lies That Tell a Truth, for which I’ve mentioned has been one of our reading materials for my current course in fiction writing, he talks about this sputtering along midway through your story, just before you end up running on vapors and quit.  He describes what we writers, I’m sure, have all done once or twice in our histories of writing novels/novellas, etc.  He says, “Perhaps you discover that you’re afraid to fail.  After all, you’ve failed at this before.  Your desk drawer is crammed with half-written stories, isn’t it?”  We writers can probably relate well to his comment.  I’ve had a few upstarts that crashed and burned and were forgotten in old, dusty notebooks sitting in stacks somewhere in the little bookcase in my bedroom.

Dufresne says our real problem is wanting to write our first draft very well, or even, dare we admit, perfectly.  He says, “Every work of art is a failure.  No story is ever what it could or should have been.  You aren’t perfect, never will be.  Neither is your writing.  Get over it.” OUCH.  Ah, but you can read the truth in his words, can’t you?  And then the key to this mess comes out in his next words.  “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.  It’s Mom or Dad or your professor or your critical self telling you you’re not good enough.  And the only way to silence this discouraging voice is to write.”  And that doesn’t mean writing it very well the first time.  Just writing it!  Dufresne says, “A good first draft is a poor first draft.”  Allow me to quote that again:  “A good first draft is a poor first draft.”  Oh, I think it may some time soon sink all the way into my gray matter.  Yes, let’s hope before my next feeble attempt at writing another chapter.

John Dufresne says another encouraging line:  “You’ve simply transcribed thoughts on paper.  This is taking dictation, not creation.  Expecting too much from an early draft is the most common mistake beginning writers make, and it leads to frustration and disappointment.”  But I thought I wasn’t a beginning writer, didn’t you?  I mean, I’ve been back at this since the fall of 2014.

And here’s the sharp sting of truth to the heart for me (maybe for you, too?):  “Or maybe you’ve lost faith in your material or confidence in yourself” (Dufresne).  Well, yeah.  I can relate to that….I mean, that’s me sporadically in creating my stories.

But Dufresne tells us, “You will experience that same uncertainty and uneasiness in the writing of every story.  This is how writing happens.  You bring that anxiety to the blank page.”  So, we are to relax and let whatever sprouts from ours head reach our fingers and move pen on the paper, or fingers on the keyboard.

So, this blog post is about encouraging us writers to realize the first draft is crap and it doesn’t matter how it’s organized or written.  JUST WRITE.  And with this, I will sit down with pencil and notebook and scribble across the pages mediocre words that may give birth to a few stellar ones, creating a scene in which the characters are doing something that may or may not be more exciting than counting the brown blades of winter grass in my backyard.

 

*(This blog was written February 21, 2018)

 

 

Posted by Dorothy Robey 14 May at 03:14
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Responses to this blog

Geoff 15 May at 06:51  
But maybe we should first ask, A first draft of what? Hopefully not a 200,000 word novel, for which most writers need a year. what a feeling that must be, slaving away for a year only to wake up with the realization you've written substandard mediocrity when all along you assumed your work was going to win you literary acclaim from New York to New Zealand.

An issue independent of word count, is what makes an author gag at what they have produced. It could be because they have belatedly come to the realization they write poorly. If so, and they've never written anything before, then now is the time to sit back and analyze where the problems were and vow to be more critical the next time writers can only become good by being merciless critics of their own works. Other reasons a writer might feel abject disappointment at their first draft is seeing their theme was inane, or their characters were boring, or their plot didn't make sense. If they shrug this off with Oh, it was just a first draft, So and so said it's O.K to write crappy first drafts, then they are simply preparing the way for the next failure.

Everyone has to find their own balance between slob and perfectionist. Why not leave it at that?
Blandcorp 15 May at 07:01  
irt. Geoff:

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Cheers.
__________________
Geoff 15 May at 07:06  
My comment above originally contained the sentence

I begin with a mia culpa: I am a perfectionist of the worst sort and it follows axiomatically that I recoil at the notion that a first draft being 'crap' is acceptable,

which didn't survive pasting. Sorry for the mistake.
Random47 15 May at 09:05  
Geoff
Other reasons a writer might feel abject disappointment at their first draft is seeing their theme was inane, or their characters were boring, or their plot didn't make sense. If they shrug this off with Oh, it was just a first draft, So and so said it's O.K to write crappy first drafts, then they are simply preparing the way for the next failure.
You're assuming that Failure is a failure. If you believe that your 200,000 word first draft that took you a year to get down was a waste of time, then it will have been a waste of time. If you believe, however, that it wasn't a waste of time, that it was an exercise to help you get yourself better, then it won't have been a waste of time. You can see why the plot doesn't make sense, you can see the practical effects and causes of an inane plot, you can see how the characters were boring.

Geoff
Writers can only become good by being merciless critics of their own works
Exactly. And the only way you can criticize something you have written is to have written it first. If you criticize the inanity of your theme BEFORE you've ever written anything, then you won't be able to learn anything.

Geoff
Everyone has to find their own balance between slob and perfectionist. Why not leave it at that?
For the same reason you shouldn't criticize your writing before you've written anything. How will you know that balance until you have something to put on the scales?

__________________
"The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side." James Baldwin

Geoff 15 May at 10:10  
The logic of these statements eludes me: Hard as I try, I see only oxymorons and tautologies.
Blandcorp 15 May at 10:56  
Well, valid and sound logic is tautological, so that explains half of those

Cheers.
__________________
Geoff 15 May at 11:50  
A tautology is a logical statement the conclusion of which is equivalent to its premise. In symbols A => B and B => A. Bearing in mind that a synonym for tautological is 'redundant,' I would caution against calling a tautology a valid logical statement I would call it a parody of a logical statement. So thanks for agreeing with me: Half of the statements in the passage I referred were redundant, viz. meaningless.

Cheers
Jessiel 15 May at 12:22  
Random47

You're assuming that Failure is a failure. If you believe that your 200,000 word first draft that took you a year to get down was a waste of time, then it will have been a waste of time. If you believe, however, that it wasn't a waste of time, that it was an exercise to help you get yourself better, then it won't have been a waste of time. You can see why the plot doesn't make sense, you can see the practical effects and causes of an inane plot, you can see how the characters were boring.
i agree here. there is learning through failed attempts, and that learning may be more valuable in the end than the perfect manuscript.

I will say however that I think even if the person believes it is a failure, that belief can be erroneous rather than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if they can't see the value of the time used to create the 'failed draft', they have still grown whether they recognize it or not. Inability to see and continue to develop growth will stunt it to a degree but i don't think it negates it.
This is the most frustrating thing when I'm the person on the outside, able to see the growth and potential but the person I am looking at, only sees the flaws, feels the discouragement
Similarly when I'm the person on the inside, it can be difficult to see the roses for the thorns. Those moments when we can recognize our growth seem fleeting
One of the reasons I love this community. I feel like the people here are a great lens on my journey to help me see what is working, what isn't, where I'm growing, where I need to keep growing etc. And since we are all in it to one degree or another, it is easier to let go and not worry about being judged by a muck-up early draft
rattle on rattle on rattle-pate
Jess
Spaulding 16 May at 14:41  
I guess there is something to say for not being a perfectionists. My goals were generally easy. I wanted to go from yuck to meh to good enough. I'll work from there to good, and if I ever get to good, I guess I'll start looking at perfect. Fortunately, I'm mostly optimist with realism in there. I don't think I have enough life left in me to get up to good. (Good takes a good 30-50 years, right? )

So, I keep plugging. And, much of that comes from laziness, honestly. I'm not going "to go through all this work for nothing!"
Jesschip38 17 May at 13:50  
Jessiel

This is the most frustrating thing when I'm the person on the outside, able to see the growth and potential but the person I am looking at, only sees the flaws, feels the discouragement
Similarly when I'm the person on the inside, it can be difficult to see the roses for the thorns. Those moments when we can recognize our growth seem fleeting
This is an elegant way to describe the difference I feel critting others versus my own work. When I crit others, strengths and weaknesses are (or at least, seem) apparent. However, when I look at my own stuff, I don't have the same eye. I mistake strengths for weaknesses and vice versa all the time. And that inefficient process of self-editing, whether it's actually on the page or in my mind, is what dropkicks my confidence in the gut. For me, having external perspective is paramount or I get stuck in a time-sucking downward spiral of insecurity.

I guess that's my roundabout way of saying that, as painful as it is sometimes, having people critique my work is what propels me forward. Because at a certain point, I trust them more than I trust myself.

Also...not saying anything new here, but this is why I strive to remember to point out strengths whenever I crit, whether it's on CC or elsewhere. There's nothing more demoralizing than listening to someone go on and on about your flaws without acknowledging a single thing you've done right. Writers don't hear enough about what they do right, IMO.

Spaulding
I guess there is something to say for not being a perfectionists. My goals were generally easy. I wanted to go from yuck to meh to good enough. I'll work from there to good, and if I ever get to good, I guess I'll start looking at perfect. Fortunately, I'm mostly optimist with realism in there. I don't think I have enough life left in me to get up to good. (Good takes a good 30-50 years, right? )

So, I keep plugging. And, much of that comes from laziness, honestly. I'm not going "to go through all this work for nothing!"
I wish I was like this. I can definitely relate to the last statement, but instead of feeling like an optimist with a dose of realism my experience is a bipolar pendulum:

MY WRITING SO GOOD BEST DAY EVER! ... my writing so bad everything sux ... Repeat ...

My happy medium exists only in passing.

Hopefully with time the swings will become less drastic, but I have my doubts.
__________________
In the game Civilization, I always choose Scientific Victory.

Dorothea 18 May at 10:25  
Jesschip38


This is an elegant way to describe the difference I feel critting others versus my own work. When I crit others, strengths and weaknesses are (or at least, seem) apparent. However, when I look at my own stuff, I don't have the same eye. I mistake strengths for weaknesses and vice versa all the time. And that inefficient process of self-editing, whether it's actually on the page or in my mind, is what dropkicks my confidence in the gut. For me, having external perspective is paramount or I get stuck in a time-sucking downward spiral of insecurity.

I guess that's my roundabout way of saying that, as painful as it is sometimes, having people critique my work is what propels me forward. Because at a certain point, I trust them more than I trust myself.

Also...not saying anything new here, but this is why I strive to remember to point out strengths whenever I crit, whether it's on CC or elsewhere. There's nothing more demoralizing than listening to someone go on and on about your flaws without acknowledging a single thing you've done right. Writers don't hear enough about what they do right, IMO.

I wish I was like this. I can definitely relate to the last statement, but instead of feeling like an optimist with a dose of realism my experience is a bipolar pendulum:

MY WRITING SO GOOD BEST DAY EVER! ... my writing so bad everything sux ... Repeat ...

My happy medium exists only in passing.

Hopefully with time the swings will become less drastic, but I have my doubts.
Totally agree with and can relate to nearly everything you said. It's good to get constructive criticism about where our writing is weak, but we also need a few comments where we're dong something right or that the critter appreciates or admires. Also, I go back and forth, too. Some days, I can see my writing isn't really that bad and that it's on par with other contemporary writers, and then on other days, I wonder why I bother. lol Even though I've always had a low self-esteem, I do think this is my gift, so I've just got to continue honing it and practicing.

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