Thursday, March 22, 2007

ON FIRST EFFORTS

"I remember a sentence I opened one story with, to show you how bad I was: 'Monsieur Boule inserted a delicate dagger in Mademoiselle's left side and departed with a poised immediacy.' I like to think I didn't take myself seriously then, but I did."
--Eudora Welty

* * *

HANK:
It was supposed to be so easy. After all, I'd been writing stories for television for, um, thirty years. Chasing criminals, confronting corrupt politicians, racing out to a fire or some other disaster, then racing back to the station, banging out a story, and putting it on the air. As an investigative reporter, the stories got more complicated, more researched, much longer.
As I began thinking about writing a mystery novel,I knew it would be different, of course, but I still figured it was all about story- telling. Words on video, words on a page. I love words. I could do it.
I clicked open a brand new Word file, and, with fingers poised with immediacy over the keyboard in anticipation of my certain-to-be-successful brand new career, typed the title of my first mystery.
TIME CODE. I burst out laughing. My first two words. Stunk.
Did you all keep what you first wrote?

RO:
If, as Hemingway supposedly said, "everyone's first draft is sh*t, I am certainly no exception. There is nothing in my past to compare with "poised immediacy" though. I think Eudora gets top honors for that.
No, my writing doesn't generally lean towards purple prose - I'm more likely to write something fabulously exciting like "I saw the body, then called the cops." Lean, to the point of emaciation. With only one book under my belt, I'm still learning to find my place between Elmore Leonard's economical style and Wilkie Collins' heavily descriptive style. Pretty nervy, huh? I defy any of you ladies to drop as many names as I did.

JAN:
Like you Ro, overwriting isn't generally my problem. The bad writing was generally not in the prose but in my early attempts at storytelling. Especially short stories. I wrote about a dozen of them, and they all start out with potential: strong characters and a unique situation. It's just that not much happens after that. The revelations are all minor or trite. The conclusions appear to be missing.
For example, I wrote a short story about two women in a health club trying to lose weight. One of them is young and really gung ho to change her life, the other one is older, forced there by her husband and really just trying to sell the other woman a ton of overpriced makeup. The interesting thing about the story is it shifts perspectives and you see the underlying agendas and conflicts. The silly thing about the story is that it ends with one of the women writing the other a bad check. A BAD CHECK??? Was that supposed to be metaphorical? Or just kind of mean.
Not sure. But there's an unmistakable sense of "is that all there is?"

HALLIE:
Ah, the 'is that all there is' question - my sister Delia, a many times published author, read my early-early essays written when I was just getting up on my pins as a writer. I grew to dread that question, only her version of it was, "So, what's the point?" If someone asks that after reading something you've written, you know you've written it wrong.
My earliest attempts were essays, most of them about why I'd been so reluctant to start writing, most of them boring. But it was stuff I need to put down (and get rid of)--issues around coming from a family of writers and being overwhelmed by the sheer talent everyone else possessed. It wasn't until I was well past 40 that I started writing fiction. By then I'd decided that it was okay to try and fail; it was not okay to fail to try.
My first attempt at writing a crime novel was true crime - the story of the murder of the brother of a dear friend and the impact of his loss on the family. I finished the manuscript and put it in a drawer. I would have felt like a carrion crow, sending it out. I learned that true crime is too hard; for every murder victim there are many surviving "victims." That's why I admire Kate Flora's wonderful book, FINDING AMY, that was just nominated for an Edgar. She managed to pull it off with the support of the murder victim's family.
I've been writing fiction ever since. The psychological suspense novel I'm finishing is inhabited purely by my own nightmares.

RO:
I agree. The sister of a friend of mine was murdered, and for the briefest of moments I wondered if I might use something from her story, but I couldn’t. Strangers are different. I'm constantly tearing articles out of the paper.
Since I now have access to this wealth of information (meaning my fellow bloggers) I have a question. I handed in the final version of my manuscript 2 weeks ago and I've been up nights thinking "Oh, I could have done this or that better. " Once you've finished, do you generally think you can go back and make something better?

HANK:
I think second-guessing yourself--third and fourth and fifth guessing--means your brain is working. I had a reporter pal once, nice guy but mediocre on TV. He was watching a reel of his TV reports, trying to put together a resume tape of his best work. I stopped and looked over his shoulder, and said: "Doesn't it drive you crazy to see your old stuff? Don't you wish you could change a million things in every story?"
And he looked at me, utterly baffled. "Not at all," he said. "In fact, I was just thinking about how good I was." He wasn't.
Me? I can ALWAYS go back. Always. But don't they just say at some point--it's done? Let it go?

27 comments:

Jessica Andersen said...

Hello, ladies, and a big wave out to Hank. Congrats on the new blog!

I was talking to my critique partner today about writing quality, and she reminded me of something a mutual friend said, namely that our job is to "write the best book you possibly can, given where you are in your life and your career."

I guess what that means to me is that we give ourselves permission to write ghastly stuff when we're just starting out, whether it be the first book of a career or the first draft of anything (frex, the time I had a character look out the poophole to see who was at the door. er, that'd be PEEPhole, folks!).

In addition, we shouldn't hate on it when we look back. We should be proud that we wrote that early stuff, as it helped make us the writers we are today, and the stuff we write today is (hopefully) making us better for tomorrow.

And now I'm feeling all preachy and like it's time for a group hug or something- ew! I'm going back to my WIP now, so I can kill someone. . .

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey Jess--And congratulations on your fantastic new book deal--hope to have you join us as a guest blogger soon!
And you hit exactly on one of the things we hoped for this blog--that readers and writers will be able to share (uh oh, group hug thing happening here, too, sorry) some of the experiences that made us who we are. And are continuing to make us who we are.

Good luck on killing someone, Jess!

kitty said...

I'm fascinated with how writers write. This could be some sort of urban legend, but I remember hearing that Danielle Steele wrote her first book longhand in composition books in the living room as the family watched TV. They never knew what she was doing.

However, I did see Anne Rice on TV say how she would edit and edit and edit and edit her ms. Then she'd edit some more. She said she was never quite satisfied.

John Dunning uses a typewriter.

So, if any of you are willing ...

Longhand or computer? Or maybe a typewriter?

Do you edit as you go along, or do you write first then edit later?

Do you write in the morning, noon, night, or all of the above?

Do you let others read it before you're finished?

Are you ever truly satisfied with what you've written?

The Writers' Group said...

Love the blog, ladies. What a fantastic resource for writers. Long, long overdue!

Amy

Becky said...

NO HUGGING!!!

Hey, Hank, this blog looks great. My own early writing is under my bed. It was the only place I could fit all the adverbs.

Does anyone remember the old Dan Ackroyd skit about "Bad Theater" and "Bad Poetry" and the like? "Oh yes, that was really bad." "One of the worst by far." That used to crack me up.

Congrats to all of you,
becky

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi Kitty--and welcome!
If I tried to write in longhand, I'd look at it five minutes later and have no idea what was written. After years as a reporter,taking notes in news conferennces, my personal shorthand has devolved into a scrawl that even I can't read. I look at it and I'm like: "Freeps"? why would I write "freeps"?
Sometimes I try to copy the words, write it again and see if I can prod my brain to figure out what I meant. Oh, "freeways."
Anway, so answer to your questions: I'm on the computer, sometimes struggling to keep my fingers up with my brain..sometimes fingers just ....resting.
Am I ever truly satisfied? Honest answer? Sometimes, yes.
You others?
And Kitty...we're still having fun figuring this blog out, adding new links all the time, so come back and visit!

xo Hank

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Writer's Group! So glad you're here! Your thoughtful and erudite blog, I see, is always in the top ten....and an amazing insight into the writer's--and reader's--journey.
And the wonderfully hilarious Becky Motew of COUPON GIRL fame, which you must all go read. And one of the funniest blogs ever.
We're hardly told anyone we're up yet, so it's so much fun to have you all visit.
Wow. The readers/writers communications system is pretty amazing...gotta love it.
See you soon..

xo Hank

Rosemary Harris said...

Hello Kitty, (had to write that...)
I'm fairly sure I'm alone on this, but I wrote my first book, longhand and in pencil. And it had to be a Faber-Castell 5B, furiously resharpened every 5 minutes. I'd write one chapter, then put on computer. Neurotic? It's been suggested.
Rosemary

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

Oh please, tell me that the title of the blog refers to that wonderful old black-and-white movie "The Women".

Thank you for the blog (And the time you take to post). My mother, gracious woman, resurrected m first novel fromt he bowls of her ancient Mac and sent it to me a few years ago. I could have died of embarrassment. It is simply saturated with melodrama.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Beautiful schoolmarm:
You got it. Yes, indeed, it does. We love the movie, too...
Thanks for your kind words--and we'd love to read your novel. Sounds very intriguing...

Hank

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Hey, Hank, thanks for stopping by and inviting me over for a visit--love the conversation (I'll link from mine if that's okay with you).

And yes, I always think I can make it better--tidy it up here, polish a bit there. Do any of you ever catch yourselves thinking of how you could have written a line better during a reading? From the actual book? In front of people who took the time to buy your book and come out to see you? Oh well. Maybe that's just me.

kitty said...

Thank you both, Hank and Rosemary, for your answers. I'd love to hear more.

I remember John Grisham saying that he could write if he only had 5 minutes, and that he realized not everyone could do that. It takes me 5 minutes just to get started!

Jennifer McMahon said...

Hi ladies. What a wonderful blog! I feel like I just sat down for a cup of coffee and a chat with you all.

I too write incredibly bad first drafts. Very lean, more like outlines, really.

And I wrote my first (unpublished) novel out longhand -- many, many notebooks.

I look forward to another cup of coffee and chat soon!

Nancy Martin said...

Great blog, ladies! Count me in the first-book-written-longhand camp. And I killed 2 Smith Corona portables doing the re-write. The force of will it takes to polish a first draft into the dynamite reading experience a writer imagines in his/her head is always compromised by . . . the deadline. For me, it was the impending birth of my 2nd child. I knew I had to finish that book before she was born. But I picked up the book again after reading your post here, and I am pleasantly surprised to discover the book isn't bad. (I can never say a book I've written is perfect. So sue me.)

Thanks for the post. I'll be back!

Jessica Andersen said...

Hank- Thanks for the congrats! I'm still on cloud nine from selling the new books, and would love to guest blog at some point. And yes, I did kill someone in the WIP with satisfactory gruesomeness, so no longer feel the need for a group hug :)

Kitty- I guess I started longhand, if a rather scattered and unfinished sci-fi novel written in the POV of a humpback whale counts (I was in my late teens).

If not, I'm a computer gal all the way. I can't read my own writing, and type faster than I can scribble.

I wrote my first 'real' novel on a dying Macintosh that randomly substituted squares for the letter 's' if I didn't perform the appropriate rituals (sacrificing ball point pens, chanting, baying at the moon, etc.) before booting it up.

Jan Brogan said...

Hey Kitty,

Sometimes I tell myself it would be so much easier to be a writer, if I could just actually write. That's how bad the first draft is. For me, rewriting is the joy. So I slug through the first draft to the real fun. Every scene gets rewritten at least three times as I go along and then I have an elaborate revision process between the drafts.

My satisfaction with my writing mirrors this same process. I hate it along the way, but am fairly content when it's complete.

I was a full time journalist for years before I wrote a novel, so I've been working on a computer so long that I feel like I can't write anything -- even checks - longhand anymore. If you ever saw my handwriting, you'd understand why!

all best,
jan

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi Nancy--

We're so honored to see you here! I'm not sure why some names click over into websites and some don't--anyone know this?

But I'm sure people will want to get the latest on your newest Blackbird Sisters adventure. So (for those who don't have it already bookmarked) I'll put in your website..

http://www.nancymartinmysteries.com/

Say hi to everyone at the not-to-be-missed Lipstick Chronicles..and hope to hear from you again soon.

xox Hank

Sherryl said...

Great new blog - I love blogs about the writing process, especially crime. Looking forward to more posts. Would like to hear about things such as research, info dumps and beginnings! Don't want much, do I?!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey Jennifer: Thank you so much! That's exactly what we hoped would happen...we actually talked about wanting readers to feel as if they'd come across the four of us sitting around having coffee, overheard our conversation, and decided to join us. So wow. Thanks for your post, and we hope you return.

And Sherryl--all the way from Autralia! Great ideas for topics, and I'm sure we'll hit them all.
I'm thinking about my third book now (!) and first lines run through my head all he time...

talk to you soon
Hank

Anonymous said...

This looks like the start of a good blog. I hope you all keep it up. My first completed novel being a suspense, it is nice to see something like this.

As for editing over and over again...I just can't. I really hate editing. Not that my writing doesn't need editing because it does, but I do make a conscious effort to make sure what I write initially is damn close to what I want. I am not one of those writers who can freeform their way through the first draft and then mercilessly hack it down to size. I think it's mostly because once the story is 'out there' on the page, I have a hard time going back through it over and over again. My energy is far on the creative side of things, and it takes a different mind set and energy to edit. At least I think it does. It's hard, hard, hard!

Anyway, putting this blog on my little fave's list, so hope to see more interesting/entertaining posts. Glad you've started it.

JDuncan

Jan Brogan said...

Judy,
Yes, I've done that. Read aloud my own line and thought, geez that's a bit long-winded. Or more often, I really should have cut that line. Something about reading aloud a sentence really exposes it for all its worth. Suppose I should do more of that before I turn in the manuscript.....

Tame' Kamita said...

Ladies, it's a joy to read your verve! I am an emerging writer just submitting my first query on my first book today, as a matter of fact. While the genres I lean toward are commercial mainstream, fantasy, and fiction for YA & Adults, the info you offer is fabulous!

I admit I'm someone who writes on the computer even though I had my first two novels & outlines consumed by a computer system that suddenly went out of date when Apple lost that lawsuit and refused to support the transition to Power PC, which they had initially pledged to do. I was a mother of young children then and found myself with Zip drives I was unable to have read by the new systems. (My desktop stopped working before I thought to print out a hard copy.)

Fast forward a bit. Kids are older, in fact one graduates from college this month! Skip the drama of a 4-yr Master's Degree, divorce, car crash (drunk driver), closing of the burgeoning practice La-La-La-La. Here I am launched back into my dream of writing - with only The Universe to support me!

Yes! The computer is sweetly the way to go. Just back it up, honey, back it up on other media. (My son puts some of his stuff on his email account in cyberspace. I've been considering . . .)

I,too, am someone who writes and edits as I go along. I always need to peruse some of what I've written in order to get into the mood of the characters and before you know it, "improvements" are suggesting themselves to me. Sometimes I would love to just hammer out these really great ideas I awake with, but then I feel a twinge of guilt? imperfection? the editor in me? nudging or bludgeoning me into doing something about that scene, those adjectives or adverbs. . . You know what I mean.

There are times when I reread my first draft or some of the earlier material I didn't lose and flush with amazement that I wrote it on the first go. Other times I am shocked that I wrote something that stunted even with the rewrites. I am now learning the whole thing is simply a process of growth and fun whenever I let myself slip into the stream and go with the flow.

Ladies, it was my writing coach, herself a published author for nearly 20 years, who encouraged me to submit my material to an agent so I could get an advance to finish my book. I am realizing this is an unconventional way to go as a first time novelist even though I am more than a 3rd done with the piece and have the ending in place. Any encouragement and support you sisters have to offer will be greatly appreciated.

By the way, Jess. Congrats on your new book deal! Here's a hug wishing all long, successful and joyful careers in our chosen profession of writing!

You guys may actually get me addicted to email, the internet & blogging - something I've resisted until essentially today!

Aloha for now!

Jack Bludis said...

When I saw the title, "On First Efforts," I thought it was about our VERY first efforts.

At the age of 18, I sent my first story to the New Yorker ... they didn't think I was a genius. It took ten or fifteen more stories and about a hundred rejections before it got through to me that I was just an ordinary person who wanted to write.

I suspect there are many others who have had a similar experience, but others who published their first and never looked back.

Rosemary? Hallie? Phillipi? Jan?

Or it just us guys who dive into it with ego and come out humble?

Jack Bludis

Susannah said...
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Susannah said...
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Susannah said...

[My apologies for previously-deleted posts. Blogger hiccup I couldn't earlier correct.]

On rewriting and the dangers of too much tweaking:

A friend of mine, while in high school, was once a part of some sort of entrepreneurship project in one of his business classes. Students were supposed to come up with a product or service to market to the student body. Mike's team decided to make personally-engraved wooden signs. Students could come up, purchase a sign, and specify what they wanted wood-burned in elegant calligraphy across its face. Cartoonist and calligrapher Mike would do the honors at point of purchase.

A couple walked up and wanted a sign that read "Linda & Buddy." Mike deliberated a long moment, carefully engraved the words -- and then decided they looked too small on the sign. The text was in an Old English font suitable for embellishment, and Mike was a freehand kind of guy, so he added little lilts and tails, and it looked better. But now it was uneven. Buddy was bigger than Linda. So he had to add to Linda, and when he was done, Linda was florid and Buddy diminished. So he touched up Buddy. And something still wasn't right. Mike retouched and embellished until in the end, the two words were completely undecipherable. He had to start over.

Mike's story has become something of a creed to those of us who know him -- all of us in creative fields -- a universal caution to step back: Don't Linda & Buddy it.

I had him write it on a little sign to go over my desk. To his credit, he only wrote it once.

Jan Brogan said...

Well Jack, I can safely say I was delusional at any even earlier age than you. In first grade, I wrote my first book, The Cat On the Moon, and dropped it on the street, knowing for certain a publisher would pick it up and make it a bestseller. In second grade, when I found a book on the reading shelf entitled The Cat on the Moon, I was certain I'd been plagiarized. I was too mad to actually read it, but it's a good thing I didn't have a budget for legal or I probably would have sued!
Scary, huh?