Yesterday I finished my first read-through of Valiant, a werewolf PI novella I started writing in February 2015 and finished a month or so later. For those who have been following the blog for a while, you might notice this represents the three-month period immediately prior to me realising there was something awfully, awfully wrong with my sleep.
The process of drafting Valiant is what made the problem clear. It’s a project where I fell asleep at the keyboard constantly, frequently dozing off a half-dozen times every hour. I can see it in the manuscript, during the read-through. The front half is full of sections where I make odd typos or launch into sentences where my attention has obviously wandered.
The back half is full of…well, disjointed and faintly psychotic thought processes. Half-finished paragraphs, prolonged exchanges of dialogue where I’ve repeated the same things two or three times in a row. Character names changing three or four times every page. Points where you can basically see my brain shut down and cease working altogether.
I knew this book was bad when I wrote it. Not this is a first draft bad, but I cannot function as a working writer bad. It’s the thing that finally scared me enough to start me badgering my doctor until we had an honest-to-god solution.
It’s taken me ten months to actually face up to the task of redrafting the story. It would be nice to say that the manuscript wasn’t as bad as I remembered it being, but that would be an outright lie. It’s exactly as bad as I remembered. There are many parts that are considerably worse.
And, surprisingly, this makes me quite happy.
A BETTER CLASS OF PROBLEMS
The experience of developing your craft as a writer is one of trading up to a better class of problems. I first heard this from Lee Battersby when I was at Clarion South back in 2007, and it’s a remarkably useful way of phrasing what tends to happen. You start out struggling with the craft of sentence and story, happy with the idea of merely finishing a story.
As you achieve a certain level of competence and learn to tell a decent story, your problems start to revolve around submission and getting published. Once your work gets published regularly, you trade up to issues of contracts and rights and dealing with editors.
It never goes away. Writing always has challenges, no matter what stage of your career.
But it also leads to significant blind-spots with your work. Writers will often be working in a state where their ambition reaches further than their abilities, which is why you can gather a group of published writers together and someone, somewhere along the line, will complain about the godawful problems that plagued one of their recently published works.
“I’ve forgotten how to write,” is a frequent refrain.
And it’s not that this is true. It’s simply that the work in question either involved working at a level below their expected level of competence, or sat exactly at their expected level of competence and didn’t stretch them in any way.
THE GREATEST VIRTUE OF A FIRST DRAFT IS ITS COMPLETION
The first draft of this post involved a good deal of…well, lets saying whining…about the quality of the Valiant manuscript. It’s greatest virtue, as a first draft, is that it’s done and it was done in some pretty adverse conditions. Looking back on it with loathing now largely means forgetting the context in which it was first written, in which completed is actually a fairly significant achievement.
And while I started off using this as a purgative, it’s really not. As my friend Angela is fond of saying: I can edit shit, but I cannot edit nothing. Putting a readable version of Valiant together may involve assembling the scraps of narrative like a jigsaw puzzle, but it also affords the opportunity to really look at the things that bug me about the manuscript and the story structure. Questioning the underlying assumptions of the novella, and transforming it into something considerably more interesting.
This wouldn’t have been possible, twelve months ago. I would have looked at the manuscript and wept at its levels of dysfunctional writing, thrown it into the depths of the hard drive and pretended it didn’t exist.
It was barely possible six months ago, when we’d just started to find the CPAP settings that actually worked for me and allowed me to sleep like a relatively regular person.
Today, I can actually starting finding the edges of the much better story that’s hiding in the heart of all that narrative mess. I can see the ways in which a story that was much less ambitious than I’d hoped, filled with annoying errors, can be turned into something better.
For someone who is not traditionally excited by the rewriting process, it’s a damned strange feeling.