Greetings from Comma Land!
Actually, I’m just back from Comma Land, otherwise known as the line edit of my book where I’ve spent the last couple weeks answering important questions, like: Do you need to “glance over” when you can just “glance?” What else do you shrug if not “shoulders?” Just why did I use the word “just” 30 times/chapter? And guess what! I have pet phrases, like “and so.” If I don’t take care of them swiftly and completely, readers might throw my book into a wood chipper. And those adverbs in my previous sentence? They also need to go because adverbs are the cockroaches of manuscripts.
Aren’t you glad I haven’t blogged for a bit, given what’s on my mind? My book is in its sixth draft, and it’s a comma game. A word extermination game. It now reads 8,000 words leaner than a month ago, and I’m still one copy edit away from publishing.
But it didn’t start that way. I wrote my book in three phases: 7 years ago (7 chapters), Fall 2015 (5 chapters), and January-May 2016 (27 chapters). Notice the leap in output in that last period? Let’s talk about it.
I have two strengths as a writer: my ad libs and my editing. I’m probably a better editor than writer – or least I’m more comfortable with it. Puzzling sentences has been my longest standing profession. I’ve become proficient, but in my first two iterations of book writing, this second strength elbowed out the first because I couldn’t worry about correct sentence structure and quite.get.those.sentences.out.
Enter divergence. It’s not just a brainstorming game to get things started; it’s a technique to get things moving. Editing doesn’t let words happen; it judges and erases the bulk of them somewhere between the mind and the page. This results in a lot of empty page, which is very, very scary for a writer. Very scary. To fill up the page, I had to let myself write. Just write. Which seems like a duh, but it took me awhile to figure this out (as you can see from the snail pace of my first two book writing iterations), but once I did, my writing weeks looked something like this:
- Saturdays: Diverge and write a shitty first draft, so aptly put by Anne Lamott. She tells it true. My first drafts are absolute shit. They need to be because the goal of Saturday writing is quantity, and in an afternoon, I’d crank out around 10 pages. If there’s anything in the book that makes you laugh or takes you by surprise, I can bet you it happened in a Saturday writing session because all that writing freedom made room for the ad libs to get on down.
- Mondays-Fridays: Edit and decide which words stay and which chapter they belong in. On these days, I’d turn the fragments into sentences, put some quotes around the dialogue, clarify who said what, flesh out those descriptions (I hate writing descriptions), and correct details (is my main character 28 or 29? I couldn’t remember on Saturday, and couldn’t break to find out). If there’s anything in the book that resonates with you – that still has you thinking after you’ve closed it – I can bet you it happened in these mid-week editing sessions because of all that revising sharpens those ad libs so they land as I intend.
We have a vision for these things we do – of the form we want them to take and the impact we want them to have. So it’s hard for us to let ourselves start messy. Honestly, sometimes when I’d look over my Saturday writing on a Monday morning, I’d wonder which of the illiterate Troy boys had taken over Mommy’s Word file. Those first drafts read that badly. But not all 10 pages. Somewhere in the midst of the incomplete thoughts, writing errors, notes to future self, and words-just-for-the-heck-of-it, I’d see a thread of … something. Something worth picking away at. And what started as a mess would eventually emerge as a legitimate chapter and another and another.
That’s all. That’s the secret. Writing before editing, which I’m pretty sure they taught in English class if I’d ever stopped chatting long enough with my friends to pay attention. Writing before editing. Messy before neat. And writing steroids.