Prior to last weekend, I spent the past month (or two) quietly—or not so quietly, depending on whom you ask—freaking out over Necessary Evil, the third and final Milkweed novel. I knew, for years before I started writing it, everything that had to transpire in this book. And, for the most part, how all those events had to unfold.
And yet, it has also been the hardest of the three Milkweed books to write. And that took me by surprise. I knew for a long time that this book would be a little different. But it wasn’t until I started writing Necessary Evil that I truly understood something that other novelists have told me time and again: writing a novel teaches you how to write (or not write) that novel. It doesn’t necessarily teach you how to write the next one. It gives you the benefit of experience and hones your skills along the way, but it’s quiet on the details.
Bitter Seeds was difficult because it required so much setup (exacerbated by the fact that the story relies on two weird things and is set in a well-known historical period). Coldest War was a little easier, and probably for me the most fun of the three. Necessary Evil has been a thicket from beginning to end.
So I felt a tremendous weight leave my shoulders this weekend, when on Sunday evening I finally found myself writing the second to last scene of the trilogy.
With both Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War, I finished the first draft two months prior to my deadline. This gave me time to put it aside for a full month, then to come back to the manuscript and spend an entire month reading the manuscript from end-to-end with a red pen in hand. As I’ve said so many times, I enjoy rewriting. It’s rewarding. And I think I’m a better rewriter than writer. Rewriting is the difference between a sentence that isn’t bad and a sentence that sings.
Anne Lamott, in her wonderful book Bird by Bird, has a chapter entitled, “Shitty First Drafts.” I think all writers will know immediately what this means. Other writers talk about giving oneself permission to suck. There’s tell of the famous poet who smeared herself with India ink before sitting down to compose. However one does it, one must learn how to disengage the internal critic. It’s a crucial part of the creative process.
When I’m writing a book, and I know that the revisions are many months away, I take solace in this mantra: Don’t worry, kid, we’ll fix it in post.
That’s “post” as in, “post-production.”
That’s right. I lie to myself like a sleazy C-list director lies to his naive cast, hopped up on goofballs and feeding them a line about how their hard work on this non-union production of Bloodsharks of the Stripper Zombie Coast has the potential to become the next Jaws. I mean, they had problems on the set of Jaws, right? That stupid robot wouldn’t work most of the time. And look how that turned out! You know how Spielberg turned that sucker around? He fixed it in post, baby. Robot shark doesn’t work? Use footage from another angle. The zombie’s zipper is showing? Don’t worry, kid. We’ll just CGI that out when we do the editing. Piece of cake, man. Our romantic lead looks like he just spent the night puking his guts out in a Guatemalan prison (because he did)? No worries! We’ll be color-correcting the entire print anyway. We’ll just re-tint that green right out of his face while we’re at it.
Similarly, I spend all that time on the first draft telling myself things like, “Okay, that transition doesn’t make any sense. How in the world can I…. No, no, don’t worry. I’ll fix it in post.” And at other times I might say to myself, “Hmmm, this conversation is totally illogical. Wouldn’t a sensible person… No, I’ll fix that in post.”
Which of course means that having time to do a proper rewrite is, you know, important to me. The rewriting phase is also where I incorporate the patient feedback from my writing group and first readers, who have patiently slogged through the shitty first draft of this novel for almost a year. Their feedback is invaluable.
If I can’t turn in a great manuscript, I at least want to turn in the best work I’m capable of producing. That’s how I approached Milkweed 1 and 2. Necessary Evil is due on my editor’s desk in September. I have over 6 weeks to do an end-to-end rewrite/second draft. And I am feeling practically giddy about it.
The book isn’t done yet. One scene remains to be written. (The final scene of the entire trilogy. I’ve known this scene for a long time. Since before I finished writing chapter 1 of Bitter Seeds!) And it’s possible that additional scenes may be required when I read/rewrite the book from start to finish.
But I have time for post-production. And I’m feeling good about it.
Also? Good to know I’m getting my life back sooner than later. I hate neglecting my friends, and I don’t enjoy it when the unanswered emails in my inbox scroll off the top of the screen.
7 thoughts on “The Joy of a Weight Lifted”
I have had endless trouble trying to teach myself to let myself do Shitty First Drafts.
Congratulations. Now hurry up and hop on that last chapter. I can’t wait to read the rest of your Shitty First Draft.
Great to hear things are progessing smoothly. Coldest War can’t come soon enough.
Now hurry up and hop on that last chapter. I can’t wait to read the rest of your Shitty First Draft.
You will soon regret your enthusiasm. And curse the day you ever heard of these books.
The trilogy ends in a church. Turns out Marsh was dead the whole time.
Thanks, Patrick! I’m eager to see Coldest War on the shelves, too. (Also, terrified about it.)
> The trilogy ends in a church. Turns out Marsh was dead the whole time.
OK, now, I would have to kill you for that.
But I’d probably have to stand in line.
I would most likely write nothing at all if I did give my first drafts permission to suck. The only point of a first draft is to write it. It’s only job is to get finished. Second drafts are much, much more fun. If only I could stop there. I’m working on the 3rd draft of my latest adaptation and didn’t get the last play right until draft 8. 8! Here is my problem with 3rd drafts. The improvement from 1 to 2 is exponential, thrilling and reassuring. It turns out, I CAN write. The improvement from 2 to 3 is minute and fussy. It’s all about second guessing and back seat driving from the rest of the company.
Many congratulations on nearing the end of the journey.
The improvement from 1 to 2 is exponential, thrilling and reassuring. It turns out, I CAN write. The improvement from 2 to 3 is minute and fussy.
Yeah. Pretty much. It’s that transition from draft 1 to draft 2 that I find thrilling. I get enjoyment out of 2->3 by taking pride in the effort, even if I’m making smaller adjustments, and even in draft 4, when I’m basically making changes that nobody, not even my editor, would notice. But I remind myself that I’m giving it my very best effort, which is all I can ask of myself.
And I’d gladly pony up $50 to bet on the non-suckiness of your first drafts.