Thursday, July 19, 2007

Writing Ugly

This brilliant turn of phrase comes from Charles over on Razored Zen. It’s about turning off the inner critic that all too often squelches our creative drive, and just “letting it all hang out” as they used to say back in the Sixties. Other writers have talked about the “shitty first draft,” but I never felt it was helpful to call someone’s creative output “shitty,” even if it is a first draft. “Writing ugly” has the advantage of referring to the process, not the writer or the product. A subtle difference? Yes. A silly one? I don’t think so.

The problem is, no matter how we phrase it, it’s still so hard to do, especially for certain personality types. To quote Charles again, “You don’t blame yourself for your morning face and morning hair, and you should treat your writing the same way.” Well, maybe it’s one of those X vs. Y chromosome things, but I actually DO blame myself for my morning face and morning hair! I have a very, very hard time accepting anything less than perfection, whether it’s in my house, my garden, my diet, my exercise program, my appearance, my writing, my mothering—you get the idea. And since no one—least of all yours truly—is ever perfect, that means I’m always beating myself up for a thousand real or imagined shortcomings.

So how do we do it? How do we get ourselves into a first-draft mind-set that allows us to just tell a story without worrying about how it looks? After all, no one else need ever see that first, rough draft. As Steve Malley in his great continuation of this thread put it, They call it a rough draft for a reason, folks.

Is it enough to simply tell ourselves to relax and let go? I guess it depends on how well you listen to yourself. Time constraints can sometimes help. I certainly write uglier now that I have two book contracts than when I was “only” doing one book a year. Romance Writers of America periodically runs what they call “Book in a Week” marathons, where groups of writers pour out as many pages as they can in one week. Yet other people are paralyzed by time constraints.

Then there’s the old computer vs. longhand angle. Computers are wonderful tools when it comes time to rework subsequent drafts, but they can be a curse at first draft stage. I suspect I write faster up at the lake in longhand partially because there reaches a point where you simply cannot rework the written page and must move on (although I confess there’ve been many times when I’ve actually copied out a page—I can only tolerate so much mess).

Perhaps part of the secret to writing ugly is having confidence in your ability to come back later and smooth out the wrinkles. I frequently leave blanks when I’m writing—sometimes for a word, sometimes for an entire sentence or two. When what I want to say just won’t come, I’ll stick a “plain words” rendition in parentheses and just keep going. Often, I fill in those blanks easily on the second or third pass. Although I have to admit that sometimes the entire manuscript will be reworked and polished and I’ll still have half a dozen blanks that I simply can’t fill. Then I admit defeat and rework the scene.

Yet I don’t believe we should ever turn off our inner critic entirely. I’ve found over the years that when a scene “just isn’t working” it’s usually for a very good reason. Either I’m in the wrong POV or I’m trying to force characters to do something that moves my plot where I want it to go but is completely wrong for the characters. Or maybe I haven’t spent enough time exploring their motivation, or I haven’t given them enough motivation. In other words, I’m writing ugly because I’m writing wrong, and I need my inner critic to tell me that so that I don’t waste too much time going off in a wrong direction that’ll require a lot of backpedaling.

As Steve Malley says, it’s all a question of balance.


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Steve Malley said...

Loved your take on this subject. Charles sure knows how to start a thought-provoking discussion!

My comments turned into a wee essay, then blogger ate them. I'll just post them over at my place...

Charles Gramlich said...

If I blamed myself for my morning face I'd never get out of bed. Too scary. I enjoyed the riff on this. Good stuff.

Kate S said...

Oh, Candice, I feel your pain! I'm one of those personality types that can't turn off the critic and just write. I live in fear that one day I'll die in the middle of a first draft and people will see it. :)

It would be the literary equivalent of going to the emergency room in raggedy underwear. :)

cs harris said...

Kate, you made me laugh out loud.