Tuesday, November 24, 2009

WIP: Work in Progress? Or, WIP: What is Perfection?

The Chicks have designated the last week of each month for an update on the writer’s life as it applies to our own situation. My title reflects my tendency to want to keep polishing my story, endlessly changing words to make the manuscript better. Yet how will I ever get to a final (perfect) draft when I have trouble getting the first rough draft written? Here is a progress report on what I have been doing this month.

Like Jana, I have two different stories in progress. Since the beginning of November I have been working exclusively on a novel set in the nineteen-fifties. I decided to use the NaNoWriMo challenge to give me a jump start. The idea for this novel, which I have titled Until, was first used in a short story version which was not at all satisfactory. So it is now a novel about two young women, who travel abroad to study at an English university in 1957, their adventures and relationships over one life-changing year.

I used an early draft for a workshop on novel writing in August. The instructor encouraged me with suggestions which simmered in my subconscious for several months. She wanted me to begin the novel at an earlier point in the action. She was actually telling me that I had too many flashbacks and that the back story should be brought forward to give the reader a better chance to see the characters develop before plunging them into scenes that would be the central focus of the story. For a long time, I couldn’t find the right starting point, but one night my muse kept me awake by bringing the story into my conscious mind. By morning, I had a scene all ready to go. This was before I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo.

I have discovered by participating in Book-in-a-Week (the annual SRW activity in January that helps us all to kick start our writing in the new year) that I respond to objectives and deadlines better than a nebulous “I am writing a novel and I get to it when I can” approach. So when I heard that a couple of other Chicks were going to do NaNo, I thought it was exactly what I needed. I started a totally new draft. What the heck, I already have several versions, but I have not looked at any of them since the first of November. I wanted to take a fresh approach, which gives me an interesting assignment for the next stage when I begin to edit and perhaps incorporate scenes, dialogue, descriptions, from those earlier versions.

Whether I meet the word count quota doesn’t matter as much as the progress that I will have made on this novel by the end of the month. I’m behind at this point, but still hopeful I may make a come from behind effort in this last week. And believe me, perfection is not anywhere in the objective!

One thing that I have set aside is research, while ideas pour out without heed to sequence of scenes, length of sentences, proper paragraphing, style be damned, and so on. I have not stopped to look up anything, but as I write I am making a list of items or topics (now numbering 30) that I need to pursue further. After all, although I am very familiar with the decade, I have to confirm that I’ve got it right, that my memory isn’t playing tricks on me. Since it’s fiction, I also need to look up information about things that I never did know or experience myself, in order to write a convincing story. There are books I need to read, maps and newspaper accounts that I want to consult, to fully construct the atmosphere of the time.

Because the draft I am working on is so rough, you won’t be getting a snippet of any sort today. Hopefully, the next time I write about my WIP it will be closer to perfection, and I will be able to share something from it with you. However, I will leave you with a couple of possible taglines: 1. How far will friendship stretch? Across the ocean and back, no matter what? 2. The decade of the Fifties was a time of innocence. Or was it?

The other story is one I have been working on for a long time. (It keeps getting shoved aside by other projects – and is currently shelved in favour of Until.) I call it my "Laura and Fiona story" for want of a title, and I posted some excerpts from it three weeks ago in response to Janet’s exercise which required a character to make an important decision. It is a contemporary novel about a mother and daughter, their relationship with one another, and how their individual romances become entangled with complications. I began with the idea that by writing it I would learn how to write a novel. I heard Diana Gabaldon say the same thing about her first (wildly successful) novel, Outlander. Not that I am expecting the same result. I wouldn’t be surprised if Laura and Fiona end up in a bottom drawer.


Janet said...

Love the acronym - so very true! I, too, struggle with the 'getting it right' syndrome, Helena. I'll pour my heart out onto the page, accumulating 35,000 to 40,000 words with the excitement of a new idea and new characters. Then, I come to a screeching halt as EE starts to whisper in my ear: "That won't work. How do you plan on tying that subplot up at the end of the story? Do you know that American government agents have no jurisdiction in Canada without the consent and cooperation of the Mounties?" Yeah, he's a real know-it-all.

But, it makes me second guess myself and my typing comes to a complete stop. And with all the editing/revising I did for Lady Bells - which was written before EE moved in - I fear the overwhelming and exhaustive workload before I even get there.

Wow, sorry, this ended up being a blog post instead of a comment. I love that you're forging ahead with Until. I love the concept and the excitement in your 'voice' when you speak about this project. And I can't wait to read a snippet -when you're ready, of course.

Question - if you see Laura and Fiona's story as a drawer liner, will you have the motivation to finish it? Do you see that as a necessary task in your development as a writer or would you consider shelving it now?

Helena said...

Hi, Janet. You've picked up on a certain malaise that I am currently feeling about Laura and Fiona's story. I haven't lost my intention to finish it, but I've temporarily lost my momentum.

I think you heard me say I might make some significant changes --moving it back in time to my favourite decade will require writing-out all contemporary references, but is one way to go. Or if it stays a contemporary, there is some weakness in my premise which would necessitate some changes to details in the plot. In other words, I'm not sure if I will finish the first draft until I decide which way to go.

The reference to the bottom drawer might have been extreme, but it's probably not unusual for the first attempt at a novel to serve as a useful training document, and then end up a liner for the birdcage. (I know -- another extreme.)

Trivia question of the day (except I don't have the answer, someone has to remind me who I was reading about recently): an award-winning (or nominated) novelist who scrapped/destroyed his/her first, and then went on to write two successful novels. Who is it?

Incidentally, don't apologise for post-like comments (I do it all the time!). You have identified a constant tension, esp. in the early going, between the free flow of ideas and the obstacles placed by the editing eye too early in the process. Think of Anne Lamotte when that happens to you!

Thanks for being here this morning.

Helena said...

Janet, me again. Did you notice that I have given you another name for EE?

('editing eye' sounds so much more rational, don't you think? Or do you like the gut-wrenching quality of Evil Editor?)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I used to think I had to get it perfect in the first draft but now I know that is impossible for me. I will always need to revise, often more then once.

So I've given myself permission to write lousy first drafts. It actually takes a weight off my shoulders! I don't have to be perfect the first time up. I can always go back and fix it.

Of course then you have to deal with editing, lots of it. But better that making yourself crazy trying to live up to some impossible ideal of perfection.

Off my soapbox now. Just my two cents :)


Janet said...

Thanks, Helena, for reminding me of Anne Lamott. And for your attempt at renaming EE - but I love the 'gut wrenching' Evil Editor :)

Who's the novelist? You better find out, 'cause I wanna know.

Heather said...

I hit the 'next blog' button and ended up here. I should be finishing up my NaNoWriMo novel but I need a break and what do I find, another novel in the works. This is my first attempt and I am having a blast. I have done tons of reasearch as I found that I couldn't just wing it, in my case I don't know much about 1905-1926.

\keep going, you have days till the end of the month. Keep having fun. i posted another excerpt from my novel on my blog today if you are interested.

Helena said...

Hi, Heather! So glad you stumbled onto our prairie.

NaNoWriMo has been a great experience, also my first attempt. I haven't given up on the word count because some of my best days have been enough that if I could string them together I'd go over the top.

I agree that the research would be necessary if you're heading into a time period you don't have a lot of prior knowledge about, so I can sympathise with you on the first quarter of the 20th century. I would not be able to wing it either.

Thanks for the encouraging words, and good luck to you the rest of the way.

Helena said...

Hi, Jana. I'm in favour of lots of editing, and I rather like it, so it's okay for me. I guess if someone really hates the editing part there would be more desire to get it right as it's being written. For me, I'd never get the first draft done if I let that happen.

So it's good to see you give yourself permission to write a not so perfect first draft. Don't you feel freer that way, anyway? You can put down whatever comes to mind -- no matter whether it really belongs, is said the way you want it to sound in the end, or takes the story off on a tangent. Gives you more options, which of course you will have to make decisions about, tidy up, delete, etc. all those good things as you do your subsequent draft(s).

BTW,did yesterday help to get some angst out of your system? I hope the discussion helped.

Karyn Good said...

Hi Helena from another NaNo prairie chick. Like you I'm putting research aside for the sake of completing this first draft but I make use the comment section to record where research is needed.

Until sounds like a very interesting story. BTW, great taglines!

Good luck with the rest of NaNo!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Helena, I love your enthusiasm for Nano and your wip although you may be going through rough spots.

And I know what Janet means when she said '...come to a screeching halt as EE starts to whisper in my ear: "That won't work..."'
I say that because that's what's happened to me this week and also like Janet, I don't want to turn this into a blogpost so I won't say anything else about until my turn on Thurs.

Meanwhile, keep it up, Helena. You're a winner regardless.