Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Permission to be Awful - Elen Caldecott

Those of you with long memories might remember that the 1st February this year was officially the start of my new book (though one commenter did suggest starting a day early in order to creep up on it and take it by surprise, which I thought was fabulous).

So, I am now about six weeks in to a new project. And whenever anyone asks ‘how’s the new book going?’, I am forced to answer truthfully: it’s awful.
Then I get sympathetic grins, and I’m-sure-it’s-not-as-bad-as-you-thinks.
‘Oh no,’ I say with a smile. ‘It’s really bad. Worst thing ever. Like a microwaved dog’s dinner with hundreds and thousands on top. Like a compost heap tipped onto your dinner table libated with vegetarian gravy. Like school dinners rolled in mouldy parmesan and deep fried in snail slime.’
It’s awful.

But that’s actually OK.

This will be my sixth novel when it's finished (though two of these live under the bed, never to be seen again). And I have come to learn that the point of a first draft, for me, is to give myself permission to be awful. I might start with a plan; I might have all the best intentions. I will scribble a list of scenes and possible chapters. But by page 30 the plan will be in ruins. The first draft is just me slinging random ideas onto a page until I hit a fairly arbitrary word count.
Then, I will stop and take stock.

It is draft two where the story takes a proper shape. Which does mean that the word count in my ‘deleted scenes’ file tends to be longer than the final novel. I was talking to a documentary film maker recently and he told me that he will film hours and hours of footage ‘just to see what he gets’. Most of this will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor; the story is only decided once he sees what material he has. My first drafts provide me with those hours of footage.

Drafts three, four and five are where the refinement comes in. That’s when I worry about whether the jokes are funny, whether the metaphors work and whether I’ve spelled the characters’ names the same the whole way through.

But draft one? That’s a ramshackle, teetering, uncoordinated mess. And I've learned that I can't do it any other way.
Elen's Facebook Page


Leslie Wilson said...

I do resonate with this, Elen! I just whack the first draft into the computer and then I read it to find out what I've written! That is really hard work, the rest is the enjoyable bit. And I'm so encouraged to find out that I'm not alone.

Rosalind Adam said...

Thanks for sharing your first draft experiences. I think that some of us less experienced writers get frustrated too quickly at the early writing stage of a novel and it's good to be told that it's ok to write down a muddle of story. It doesn't mean we're rubbish and have to abandon the idea.

I'm usually in favour of writing critique groups but reading your blog has highlighted an obvious drawback with them. You can't take this sort of first draft to a crit. group. It's very much a lonesome task and, as you say, a thrashing out of ideas within your own head. It's an exciting time though, when all the story lines start to form so good luck with the rest of your first draft work.

Elen Caldecott said...

Actually, I do take some of this to a crit group! But I ask them not to do a line edit - I'm more interested in their response to the characters, or the setting, or even - if they can spot it in the muddle - the theme. Actually, I mostly go to my crit group for tea, cake and a gossip. But they are very helpful with later drafts!

Bill Kirton said...

Yes, a familiar experience, Elen - get the stuff down on the page/screen then start turning it into a novel. For the one I'm just starting, I'm trying a different approach. I've actually recorded on my blog the first moves I've made and the things I want to bring together - which is scary because it commits meto writing it, and more or less in the way I claim I'm going to.

Blogging about the process from idea through intention to execution is interesting, though. I don't really remember the gestation of any of my previous novels, but this time I'll have a record of how it all came together (or not). But the main thing is that it's fascinating way to spend one's time. Good luck with it all.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I'm doing awful at the moment, and it always feels like a big leap in the dark. But like you, I've done this a few times before and I do believe in my book, so its just a question of doing it and doing it and knowing that I've got the time to go right back thru the awful first draft and get it right. Thanks for a great post.