Friday, 18 May 2012

Remember who you're writing for

A first draft means different things to different authors. The author who works on eight drafts per novel may consider a first draft to be a sketchy outline or structure of the story, whilst the “pantser” (that word is really starting to irritate me) may consider it to be the first attempt at a full manuscript, before they attack it with a red pen.

Me? I'm somewhere in between. I have my (very detailed) structure outlined on Scrivener, and lots of scenes (or scene descriptions) written out. I consider this my first draft.

My second draft, which I'm currently working on, entails writing my scenes and chapters in a more polished fashion; with more panache.

So eager to write well, I've studied endless fiction writing critiques. I thought this would stop me from being exposed as the blatant amateur that I am. I've been reading other writing blogs and forums, whereby people offer critiques of a first chapter or scenes.

I witnessed other writers' work being torn to shreds. Whether rightly or wrongly is irrelevant. The result of absorbing all the “feedback” left me somewhat paralysed with inadequacy. Would my writing meet the same fate?

With this, I realised my proposed audience had changed in the process. I was no longer writing for the reader. I was writing for an unidentified, contemptuous critic, their red pen filled with my blood.

Feeling somewhat despondent, I consulted my trusty bookcase filled with books that passed the (seemingly endless) tests on their way to publication; books I've enjoyed reading. How did these authors write their scenes and chapters, eh? How did they find this holy grail?

Reading through the pages, the realisation hit me: most of these books (some bestselling) would definitely fall victim to a critic's red pen.

Shocked, I read my well-worn pages with fresh eyes. “Look at that repetition! Look at that excessive use of adverbs! What godawful writing... how in hell did this get published?”

I'm sure there are plenty of you who have felt the same. You might even reassure yourself with it, telling yourself, "if they got published, this should be a canter for me." 

But I'll tell you what I told myself. In the words of Bob Marley: “before you start pointing fingers, make sure your hands are clean”.

Herein lies my epiphany. Those books are nestled in my bookcase for a reason. I enjoyed them immensely, once upon a time.

Books are written for readers, not writers or critics, even if they are stumbling blocks on the way. It may seem plainly obvious to others, but I'm not ashamed to admit I lost sight of this fact.

If you're thinking of becoming a writer because you love reading, you might want to re-evaluate that notion. Here's what I wrote back in 2011, in the honeymoon period of my writing endeavour:

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read a book the same way again. I’ve been picking up on all sorts of things: how other writers switch scenes (some do it in the same chapter, some use a chapter per POV), how other writers deal with certain situations without making it look too contrived, and how well they manage to build tension, to entice me as a reader.  It's a writing skill I'm very interested in honing!
I've always immensely enjoyed reading, but it's different now.

Let me update this sentiment by adding that the pendulum swings both ways. You'll read some books that make you despair at the world of publishing. You'll think to yourself, “these authors must be friendly with someone in the industry. There's no way they've written 8 bestselling novels based on that guff!”

You might look at your own lovingly crafted manuscript and wail, “what's the point in continuing? My manuscript is crafted to perfection, but they won't want it, even though it's of a much higher standard than the work of those crappy writers.”

But what if these "crappy" writers just happen to be aware of the fact that readers don't care about adverbs? That they don't care about POV? What if they happen to know that the reader does care, first and foremost, about a fantastic storyline? That they do care if the love interest has perfect teeth and a dimple on the side of their face?

My mum loves to read. I love asking her about what she's read, finding out what she likes/dislikes about a book. Do you think she says, "I really loved the balance between dialogue and description," or, "I especially enjoyed the sensory description and inner conflict."?

Naw. She talks about how much she loves/hates the characters. She retells the story to me in her own words, using only the exciting bits that made her turn the page. 

So, the next time I balk at the type of writing I've involuntarily conditioned myself to despise, I shall remind myself of this: If writing for a reader instead of a critic makes someone a crappy writer, then I hereby declare myself a crappy (but happy) writer.

Let me end this post, by sharing the best music you'll listen to all weekend. Big Mama Thornton's Hound Dog (later covered by Elvis). Happy Friday, people! x



Anonymous said...

the inadequate part is something even Hunter S felt...

"I spent the next few days reading The Nigger Of The Narcissus and making notes on the rise and fall San Juan Daily News. I was feeling smart but reading Conrad's preface frightened me so much that I abandoned all hope of ever being anything but a failure."

About JollyJilly said...

What ideas! I've never really tried writing other than my blog , ummm maybe I will . Thanks for sharing. Hey you write the book I'll bring the chocolate cake (no calorie kind) lol

Donna K. Weaver said...

I love this post. Some books can be technically perfect yet not connect for me. It's like someone who's a wonderful singer--but sucks as a performer. Yet you'll have someone like Wayne Newton, who was a one-hit wonder, who made a career in Vegas. Why? Because he's an entertainer! I love, love, love Enya. But she's terrified of performing. She about died when her song made it to the Oscars for Fellowship of the Ring and she had to perform it.

Some people, even with their imperfect writing, are wonderful storytellers who make us love and become invested in their characters.

Catherine Noble said...

@Anonymous: It's refreshing to hear that even successful writers such as Hunter S. Thompson felt inadequate. I can't help but wonder if his excessive use of drugs made his feelings of inadequacy even worse though haha...

@About JollyJilly: Yaaaaaaaay you've got yourself a deal! :)

@Donna K. Weaver: Thank you! I never knew that about Enya, although I should have known such beautiful music could only come from an introvert :) You're sooo right about imperfect writers being wonderful storytellers. I consider Virginia Andrews to be one of my favourite authors (on the basis that I've enjoyed her books more than most books I've read), but her writing gets slated all the time! :(

Stacy S. Jensen said...

I'm glad you shared this. I love it when I can connect with a story. It seems I look at books more closely now as I study the craft more. I thought I did this with self-published books only, but reallized I do this even more with traditionally published books. Sigh. I do love to read a good story. I feel like I'm getting closer to trying Scrivener too.

Catherine Noble said...

@Stacy S. Jensen: Thank you :) I would definitely recommend Scrivener, if only for the outlining part. It's been an amazing help to me!

michelle said...

I love this post! It makes perfect sense!
And you know what? I'd rather be a "happy crappy" writer too...

Catherine Noble said...

@Michelle: I'm glad you like it! Happy Crappy writer is just far too catchy, isn't it? Haha :) I can see a "Happy Crappy" movement against evil critics everywhere :p

a.eye said...

Glad you have chosen happy writing (that I'm sure won't be crappy)!

Cassam said...

The more I read about how to write a book the more it puts me off even trying. I think if you concentrate too much on the hows and whys and all those so called rules it will stifle your creativity. Different people like different things.I can't read horror or science fiction but that doesn't mean the books are badly written. One of my favourite books was slated on Amazon,the content, the structure,the words she used and yet I loved it. I really think whether you're published or not is a hit and a miss you just have to come up with a great idea. If only we could.

Catherine Noble said...

@a.eye: Awww thank you, I hope it won't be crappy :)

@Cassam: You're so right. I know this in my heart, but I still find myself procrastinating with "how to" books and videos and blogs. I should ban myself until my final draft!

Maria said...

Excellent post!

So true what your mum says...readers don't care about the things that haunt us as writers.

Novel writing is such a rocky road, I feel like I'm wading through treacle all the time on this second draft.

Happy Monday ;-)

Damyanti said...

I'm writing my first novel, and I've done the index cards and the synopsis--now I'm just going to write down the beast and see where it takes me.

I know the final book (if it ever gets published like some of my short stories) will be for others, but my first draft is for myself. I'm writing for the agony and ecstasy of it. I'll craft it better in successive drafts, and then I'll start worrying about who my reader is.

I find closing the door while writing the first draft excellent advice, and it was given by none other than Stephen King. I'm assuming he knows a thing or two.

Misha Gericke said...

I know what you mean. Writing has definitely changed the way I write.

I used to be unable to put a book down, no matter how bad it was. Now I have no patience with it. The way I see it, I could spend the time I'm using to read drivel to write or edit instead.

But I still make myself read through some of the bad stories, because they're really educational to a writer.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Love your blog and regret it took so long to discover.

There was a time I read so much about "writing right" that I froze and didn't write a thing for ages.
It's still difficult to wrap my mind around the really bad writing. Most everyone I've asked told me if the characters and situations are believable they won't be perfect.
For example, we don't speak without adverbs why would we write that way?

Catherine Noble said...

@Maria: I like your comparison to treacle, it really does feel like that sometimes! I'm sure we'll both look back on the agony with fond nostalgia :)

@Damyanti: Good luck with your first book. You have the right attitude for getting it done :) I love Stephen King's writing advice. His words always resonate with me.

@Misha Gericke: I'm the same. In fact, I use to deliberately seek out the trashiest looking novels with the cheesiest plots, for a deliberate escape from reality. I don't know if I could even do that anymore! You're right though, the bad writing does help us learn. I just hope one day someone isn't learning from my bad writing haha!

@Mary@GigglesandGuns: Aww, thank you! I agree, there's definitely a difference between believable and realistic. If I were to write even a fraction of what goes on in my reality, it would be criticised for not being believable! P.S. I love that your name is Giggles and Guns.

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