Friday, June 6, 2014

The Life Cycle of a Book

When writers get together, sometimes we talk about which we like better: first drafts or revisions. It seems that most of us like revising more, and there are many good reasons for this. I personally have a "grass is always greener" response: I like whichever one I'm not doing.

Currently, I'm in the midst of a revision on one YA novel and the first draft of another. While it feels and sounds somewhat schizophrenic, it kind of works for me.

I really love first drafts. Maybe everyone does. I mean, it's usually a fairly new idea, which means exciting, intriguing, fresh, not yet muddied with many critiques and different ideas about where it should go. You can experiment with voice and format, structure and characters. It's play time. No one can take their first draft seriously. And that's why I like it so much. I allow myself to be completely free to write crap, to not make sense, to not censor my ideas, and to just let it all be so very messy. How much fun is that? I can leave large gaps in narrative with just a note to myself that I need to add a scene here that is interesting. I don't actually have to write the interesting scene. I am getting to know my characters and their back stories. I get to create the world they will inhabit.

The hard thing about first drafts for me is that you have to create something out of nothing. While I find this creatively fulfilling and stimulating, it's also extremely hard. It's like being pregnant. You have to create one cell at a time until the whole being is there. It's exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Sometimes the creative spirit is there and the writing seems to fill the page almost magically. Oftentimes, the writing feels like concentrating on each single breath you take in  a day, as if you have to make yourself breathe instead of it being an involuntary act your body does automatically.

But when all is said and done, you have a mess of a first draft. Ugh. Now you have to make it into something that other people might want to read. This is really hard work. It's so natural to look at this beautiful baby we've created and think it is just perfect and needs no additional work. But we all know that's not true at all.

However, revisions can be a playful time as well. I love to get critiques from my writing group, from editors at workshops, from my daughters who are also writers. There are so many wonderful ideas and possibilities. I get to look at them all and decide which ones fit the story I'm trying to tell. It's a collaborative time for me. A social time.

The comforting aspect of revisions for me is that at least I have something already there to work with. However, much of it will be cut by the time I finish revising. I always save those sections, just in case I decide to use a certain turn of phrase or save the scene for some other book. So I never really delete things--just save them  for another day. For example, one of the characters in my current revision project came to me more than 25 years ago, and waited around patiently until her turn came. Sometimes I cut several chapters completely. Less experienced authors sometimes gasp when I tell them this, but I never regret having written those scenes--or having to cut them. They were a piece I needed to write in order to know something important about my characters or my story. It just doesn't work in the storytelling.

Usually, for me, the first draft is fast and dirty. I just want to get the whole thing out so it's all there on the page. I rush too much and don't include enough detail. Structure and meaning often fall by the wayside. And I skip a lot of internal and emotional plot in order to get the bare bones set up.

So revision is my change to go back and add the rest of the parts to that skeleton, the sinew and the connective tissue. The guts and the muscle. It's often a layering process. I usually end of up a layer of skin first to keep it all held together, and then I add the internal organs to keep the life force flowing. Bit by bit, until I get the teeny nerve endings in there in the final revision, the ones that help it all make sense and transfer imagery and meaning. This part is more like raising the child you gave birth to--it takes a long time and a lot of work (hopefully not 18 years, though). Eventually, you launch it into the world.

My favorite part of all is the having done it. Being done, knowing I put my best into it. It's such a satisfying feeling to see what I have made. Just like the baby I raised into an adult--it is so amazing, beyond my imagination actually, what came from my efforts.

What happens after that is out of my hands.


by Neysa CM Jensen
(in Boise, Idaho)

1 comment:

Bruce Luck said...

Someone on this blog a while back said writing the first draft is you telling yourself the story. A lot of it may not make the final cut, but at least you get to intimately know your characters. Even though you may not share all of that with readers, at least you understand them well enough to authentically tell their tale.