when sails deflate

YOUR FIRST DRAFT—Keeping Confidence When Sails Deflate

E.L. Doctorow—

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Annie Dillard—

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight… it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’”

John Gardner—

“Writing a novel takes an immense amount of time, at least for most people, and can test the writer’s psyche beyond endurance.”

Life can’t be transcribed to the page. For a story to take on dimensions that fill the reader, life must be rendered. That’s quite a distinction. It’s even more of an undertaking. Know this up front: Uncertainty is not symptomatic of the would-be writer. “Bad books,” as Carlos Fuentes called it, “are about things the writer already knew before he wrote them.”  Certainty tends to produce dried up clots of words. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is integral to knitting together a provocative, precocious story anatomy. Joyce Carol Oats—

“The practicing writer, the writer-at-work, the writer immersed in his or her project, is not an entity at all, let alone a person, but a curious mélange of wildly varying states of mind, clustered toward what might be called the darker end of the spectrum: indecision, frustration, pain, dismay, despair, remorse, impatience, outright failure… The novel is the affliction for which only the novel is the cure.”

Jacques Barzun—

“Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper not eternal bronze: Let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes.”

Joshua Wolf Shenk—

“Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of “Lincoln’s Melancholy” I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

Will Self—

“Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in… The edit.”

At some point when writing a novel, usually short of mid-story, the instigating upsurge of energy begins to wane. You find yourself stock-still on a stagnant sea, too far invested to abandon your course and too far removed from the hint of land. Virginia Woolf—

“It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.”

Flotsam of half-realized plots hang in tatters from broken masts. Characters, once alive and intent, now languish, reduced to ghostly apparitions. Alone on the deck of your manuscript, you contemplate jumping ship. But others somehow managed.  How did those to go before you stay the course? Virginia Woolf—

“I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross: that it’s to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish. Now when I sit down to write an article, I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so. But a novel… to be good should seem, before one writes it, something unwriteable; but only visible; so that for nine months one lives in despair, and only when one has forgotten what one meant, does the book seem tolerable.”

Your predecessors knew where they were going. With plot outlines spread before them, the conviction that every effort, however uncertain, would move them closer to their destination preserved the dream. Though adrift on the Sargasso Sea, the writers of novels you esteem achieved their ends with nothing more magical than passion. The hunger for story, the need to write—unquenchable, unbeatable—held them to the deck. When the storms struck, and strike they did, they raised their voices above the din in Ahab-like madness—

‘Once upon a time…’

Take comfort. The best stories are conceived in doubt.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist