I am so proud to say that I have my very first Shitty First Draft. (Well, maybe my second, but more about that in a sec.) But, I definitely have a Shitty First Draft. It’s a first draft, and it reeks of mildewed unwashed socks. SFD. I couldn’t be more pleased with myself.
For those of you who are wondering why I would be excited about such a thing, you should really do yourself a favor and read (or re-read) Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. It’s a very funny how-to book about writing and there is an entire chapter devoted to Shitty First Drafts. Like her first drafts of restaurant reviews… “The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I'd obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft.”
So, I am now the proud father to a loathsome draft of a mystery novel of my own.
However… it may not be my first. I also have a first draft of a novelette, but I’m not certain that counts as a SFD. First of all, it’s not a full-blown novel. (I guess my previous paragraph about the restaurant reviews blows a lovely little hole through this argument, doesn’t it?) Secondly, I don’t feel that it’s so terrible. I do want to go back and clean this novelette up a bit, but for the most part I think it came out as I intended. It was much easier to write the novelette. It’s a story about cats, about the interpersonal relationships between cats who live with each other. In my mind, most of them have a Southern accent, but that’s probably because I’ve watched Steel Magnolias too many times to count.
It’s always easier for me to write from experience than it is to make up a story. In the first one, you’re simply writing down what you saw, heard and smelled. With fiction, you have to remember to invent things to see, hear and smell, apart from inventing dialogue, characters and something that happens. (Also known as a plot.) You’d be amazed how easy it is to write ten thousand words without anybody so much as taking a sip of iced tea.
I suppose you might be wondering how it is that I actually experienced these cats’ conversations and interactions, thereby making it easier for me to write about them. If you aren’t wondering about that, then maybe you should rethink how much you drink at night and what kind of prescription medications you take with a swallow of your alcoholic beverage of choice. But, if you were wondering, I’ll tell you that it’s not that I physically heard my cats talking in English with each other. It’s just that after so many years of having so many cats, my mind has invented conversations and personal interactions based on the personalities that I do, in fact, witness in my cats. After all this time, it was just a matter of writing down the stories my imagination had been telling me for years.
When it came to the mystery novel, I wasn’t starting from the same place. I found myself at the end, and I wondered what I had been doing this whole time. It’s rather like one of the shirts that Barry wears, the ones that are so old that there are simply threads hanging together around a collection of holes in the shirt. That’s what my novel felt like. It’s flat, there is a distinct lack of plot and even the mystery seems to get overlooked. So, why did I feel I needed to write this?
Last Saturday evening I went to the local wine bar to listen to music. Our friends own the bar/home goods store and we know many other people who go there. I sat watching Molly talk with Margo, their facial expressions, their body language, the laughter, the impression I get of what each one is thinking and feeling, and then I remembered why I had started. I wanted to capture this. I want to paint a picture of life in a small town, specifically the people and how they interact. I want to write these personalities.
It’s either a very good thing or a very bad thing that I read The Silk Worm, by Robert Galbraith, while I was completing this first draft. This is the second book in an incredible series set in London. (The first is The Cuckoo’s Calling.) It’s possibly bad because I feel so very insecure and inadequate as a writer when I’m reading something this good. Possibly good because it inspires me, and shows me what I need to fix in my own writing. Galbraith has a way of making you WANT to read more. Characters are discussing people, and some of these people being discussed are so fascinating that you crave actually meeting them, and then you have to settle for a chapter that includes them. Because these people don’t actually exist in real life, even though you’re convinced that you read about them in the NY Times last week. That’s what I want my readers to feel when they read my mystery. And, they’ll never feel that unless I write the novel. And, there’s no other way around it, so I have to go through it; just press on and write the novel from beginning to end, and then go back and work on it some more.
It feels like a painting. You sketch in the entire canvas, and then go back and paint blocks of color, then go back and add details, and then shadows… the entire time you make sure that the whole thing is always brought to the same level of completion, that you don’t have one Very Detailed Gate in an otherwise roughly drawn garden.
So, that’s where I’m at. Now I decide whether to go back to the Cat Novelette or dive back into the mystery. I think I’ll work on the mystery some more for a while. That’s how I’m feeling tonight; we’ll see what happens tomorrow. Do you think I should rework the cat novelette first? The mystery? Are you wondering what kind of masochist would start two projects at the same time? Speak to me.