The power of shitty first drafts

I think Anne Lammott gets the credit for establishing the power of “shitty first drafts.”  She says as long as you sit down and write something, anything, you have the chance at editing something terrible, into something good, into something terrific.  But if you have nothing in front of you, you have nothing to cultivate, and that’s not a good feeling. Until the beginning of this summer, I was lost in that uncultivated place.  I had been told so many times, both blatantly and insidiously, that was I stupid, that my values were misplaced, and that my project was unimportant, that I couldn’t hear the voices telling me I was good at my work. As a consequence, I developed a bit of rust.  Not engineless-tractor-in-the-cow-shed kind of rust, but a layer just deep enough to make each attempt to restart my project a slog.  Given my depleted confidence, I interpreted that slog as incompetence. But eventually, with enough distance from

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Huzzah, it’s my birthday! The perfect occasion on which to get all introspective.  Or at least more so than other days. I must say, I’m excited to turn 32.  I much prefer even-numbered years, for reasons I can’t quite explain, and since 8 is my lucky number, this year should be especially great, since 32 is divisible by 8 four times. Oh snap. I’m also excited to turn 32 for more “real” reasons, though. Reason 1: My dissertation is in a good place I don’t want to say much more than that.  One of the things I’ve learned about myself over the years, is that if I expend too much energy talking about the intricacies of what engages me, or the excitement of it, I lose the magic.  Sort of like if I let an actual cat out of an actual bag, and the cat turned around and was like, fuck you, man, you put me in a bag!? and

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Dissertation voice: curricula

I’ve mentioned in another post that I tend to write in a question-driven manner.  I like to explore issues, controversies, and weirdnesses, and figure out what makes them tick and how they move. But, of course, that raises the problem of shape.  What does a cohesive project look like if it’s not moving from point A to B?   I went back to my method books to look for the answer, and I found it in John Law’s Aircraft Stories. Aircraft Stories is a collection of tightly related stories/essays about a miltary project that was cancelled back in the 60s.  It covers decision-making procedures, the aesthetics of science, the culture of construction, and the way by which a single object, like an aircraft, takes on multiple meanings.  So, it’s a lot of stories grown “alongside one another” as Law says, as though he tacked them all up on a wall, stood back, and wrote about the coolest stuff he saw. In

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Central research questions

When most people think of history, they think of a story.  They think of time passing, people acting, events happening, and the record of such things. Certainly, that is part of what history is–the narrative.  And certainly you can write this sort of history, filling in gaps in the timeline, discussing new archival materials, and broadening scope. But, to be perfectly honest, I usually find this kind of history rather boring.  Unless I’m already keenly interested in a time period or a person, reading a basic narrative doesn’t hold my attention.  And it definitely won’t win my attention if the subject is new to me. For that, I have to see that the author is answering a unique question, trying a new method of analysis, or issuing a challenge.  Whether or not it’s narrative doesn’t really matter to me–I like a collection of stories or unexpected asides as much as I can dig on a strong central story. And so,

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Fiction editing: lessons from the dialogue read-aloud

I expected to have additional lessons from the back half of the first edit to share with you, but it turns out that by the time you’re that far into your piece, it’s really about applying everything you’ve already learned and picking up speed. Instead, new lessons come this time from my first forays into the dialogue read-aloud. Yet again, the learning curve has been a bit of a shock.  Yet again, I figured I would be quick about it, soaring through this new form of editing like a trumpeter swan.  After all, I’ve already edited the entire book once for major plot and character overhaul.  How hard could it be to read the thing out loud and fix a little grammar? Hard.  Real Hard.  Like, I-am-less-a-swan-and-more-a-barnyard-chicken hard. So, in the spirit of transparency and education…some further lessons. Lesson thirteen: Fill out character sheets I know.  I know I said in the last set of lessons that you would know

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Fiction editing: lessons from the first half

Halfway done! Halfway done.  …..halfway done…*collapses* And the lessons this time are about trust–of self, of other authors, of characters, of ability. Lesson eight: The iceberg metaphor I think the majority of us have probably heard the iceberg metaphor: maybe because we were emo teens with “complex” emotional lives that vibrated below the surface; maybe because our teachers had a poster up on the wall, desperately trying to drive home how much actual work goes into a project. But if not, it goes like this. For every 5% of material that makes it to the page, there is another 95% of material supporting it silently, unseen, from behind the scenes. In other words, if you don’t know the world you built inside and out, if you don’t where your story is going at all times, or if you don’t know why your characters say the things they do, based on backstory and motivation, your shit is going to get wrecked.

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Fiction editing: lessons from chapter one

I’ve been editing my academic work for years.  I’ve edited approximately a million papers, a masters thesis, dissertation pieces, and countless student submissions.  I’m good at it. I figured I would be good at fiction editing, too. LOLS Well, to be self-compassionate, I wouldn’t say I’m straight up bad at fiction editing.  But I would definitely say that I was being coy with myself when I set my expectations, and that chapter one has provided the rudest of awakenings. Awakenings provide lessons, though.  So, in the spirit of education, here’s what I’ve learned so far about editing… Lesson One: Your characters will be strangers If this is your first big piece of fiction (and maybe even if it’s your third or fourth) you’re going to look back at your first chapter and wonder what the hell is even going on with these characters you thought you knew so well. A reminder: You do.  You do know them.  But you didn’t

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