Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
~Stephen King, On Writing, p.78
The above quote pretty much sums up my current work in progress, which is going into its sixth month since I started it. This is the longest I've ever worked on a first draft. It is also the most frustrating, the most emotionally draining, the most exciting, the most... everything, of anything I've ever written.
More often than not, I feel like I'm a shit shoveler, day in and day out. All I do is fling poo at the screen and hope some of it makes sense. Hope that at some point it will become a story....
No, actually, that's not exactly true. Because part of my frustration stems from the fact that I'm such a stickler for story structure (say that ten times fast). Part of the problem is that I have the ability to recognize what I'm writing is, indeed, just a form of crap in one way or another. It might be generic prose one day and an irrelevant subplot the next. And I'm NOT okay with that.
Somewhere in the last six months I became one of those writers who canNOT write a crappy first draft and be okay with it, even though I know that the real writing is in the REwriting.
When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.
~John Gould quoted by Stephen King, On Writing, p.57
I used to write like that. I would blow through a first draft in joyful bliss and then roll up my sleeves and do the hard work. Then along came this beautiful monster who refuses, in every possible way, absolutely refuses to be typical.
I started with nothing but a unique character and her lovely voice, and a small semblance of what the main plot would be. I had a clear inciting incident--so clear, in fact, that it's one of the few things that hasn't changed since day one. I've changed the storyline (mostly from midpoint to ending) so many times I lost count. At one point I deleted 150 pages of the 200 I'd written and started everything over from scratch at the catalyst and trudged forward again. This happened again when I reached the midpoint, although not as drastically. Then, nearing the "all is lost" moment for the third time, I had (yet another!) epic epiphany.
It was brilliant. I still think so. But it also required moving backward. Again. It required weaving in new scenes that would then require rewriting the old ones so everything moved along smoothly. Coherent.
In the meantime my brain is utterly confused. It believes that I shouldn't be in "first draft mode" anymore, and has automatically switched gears into "rewrite mode." For those of you who have yet to experience the joys of revising a novel (insert sarcastic tongue-y face here), these things require two very different approaches, as you can somewhat gather from the above quote.
So now, as I'm still working toward that ever-elusive goal of typing THE END for the first time with this project, I find myself constantly flopping back and forth between scenes, between beginning and end, between writing the new and fixing the old, aka, revising. When I darn well shouldn't even be thinking about it yet.
And when I revise, things in my head can get ugly. I'm not just tweaking structure and shifting scenes, but I'm also analyzing characters--even the minor ones--adding layers and subtlety, clarifying motivation, foreshadowing, and oh for the love of Pete I'm even rewriting sentences. Minutiae. Which is something I usually don't even care to consider until a final-final draft.
Something has gone seriously wrong here. My process has become too chaotic, and at the same time, too structured. Everything feels backwards and out of order. I'm so close to finishing this but it's still way out of reach.
Recently, I became so befuddled with it all that I turned to my main beta reader for a much-needed bitch session. About myself. I didn't even think my novel was YA anymore, that's how off-kilter my brain had gotten. The thing is, even for me as an adult, this story is intense... but that's part of why I refuse to give up on it. The thing just needs to be written, needs to be told, or I'll never forgive myself for not trying.
My beta reader, bless her heart, has read everything I've written since we first partnered, and also some of what I'd written before that, including my short fiction. And she has always been honest--telling me what still needs work, and why, and also what is perfect don't you dare change it. She's amazing like that, and if not for her, I can honestly say this novel I'm working on now wouldn't stand a chance.
For example, my latest epiphany required me to take a huge risk, both in story content and story structure, and knowing this nearly broke me. I nearly gave up on the whole thing, because I couldn't imagine it being any good without making this change, but making this change could very well, in the opinions of some critics, highly decrease my chances of getting it published.
My beta has kept it alive just by keeping me sane. When I feel like all I'm doing is "shoveling shit from a sitting position", she reminds me that it's actually "good work" and gives me specific examples of why she feels that way. She has brought me to tears on more than one occasion....
Which finally brings me to my point--every writer needs a cheerleader who is also a drill sergeant. No matter how long you've been doing this, no matter how smoothly your current project may be developing, you still need someone who you know is going to be completely honest with you at all times. Someone who will push you, while they are also holding you up.
Someone who will remind you of this, whenever necessary:
Stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.
~Stephen King, On Writing, p. 77