February 20th, 2008

Comma King

It Is Perfectly Okay to Write Garbage—as Long as You Edit Brilliantly

Have you read "Killed the Cat" yet? I hear it's pretty good. Would you like to know more about how it came to be, my first story in five years? Of course you would!

It all started in December when amberlynne pimped the picfor1000 Challenge #6. For the longest time, I had been wanting to start writing again, but it turns out I can't make myself write for writing's sake: I need a reason. Like an LJ challenge where they give you a picture and you have to write a thousand-word story. I figured, hey, it's short! Baby steps!

The new year rolled around, and my picture was...handcuffs. Living fuck. That almost seemed too tangible and restricting! The obvious connotation of kinky sex wasn't going to fly with me, so how else could I interpret it? Maybe someone was handcuffed to something, like in Saw. But...they already did that in Saw. I started to take a tack of "freedom," of feeling free, since that was an emotional place I was interested in in January. I thought of getting all meta with it, a character becoming free of her story (I knew I was probably going to write a female character because that's what I tend to do and I also figured the audience would be mostly female).

This went on for weeks with nothing sticking until I also realized that handcuffs also signified a criminal, so my main character could be a criminal! Having just committed a crime! Now we were getting somewhere. And what crime could it be? Well, for the last few years, half my story ideas have involved someone being randomly killed, so it made perfect sense to take this opportunity to tell the story of someone who kills randomly. She's just killed a man, and now she's hiding out somewhere. This was a concrete idea I could develop.

The story didn't truly take flight, however, until "Consider This" by Filter came up on Pipsqueak on February 2, and I realized it sounded like what the mood of the story was supposed to be. Give it a listen. Using the song as inspiration, I finally began work on a first draft (working title: "Consider This").

This was when hobviously informed me that Albert Camus's The Stranger was about a man who kills someone just to see what it's like. MOTHERFUCK. I don't have an original thought in my head.

The first draft was slow going, and I kept checking the word count since I didn't really have a sense of how much a thousand words would let me say. I needed a name, and "Karen" came to me, maybe because she was Karen the Killer. I tried to let myself go a little and just write what struck me and rearrange the paragraphs afterward rather than attempt to write it all in order. I put myself in Karen's position and described what she was feeling and why. As usual, my writing came in spurts, a hundred words spewing out followed by nothing for an extended period of time.

It's funny the way it works. I generally just let my subconscious talk, and I assume that's the character speaking. Whatever first comes to mind, that must be the truth. So when working on the shooting scene, I decided it was ludicrous for her to be tasting gunpowder; she wasn't firing a goddamn musket. I needed something for her to be tasting. And so I thought of spearmint gum, and for some reason, I felt like I knew Karen a whole lot better after that. Even though I was the one who gave her the gum out of necessity. Who was really in control of the story, of the character?

Finally, after five days, I cranked out close to a thousand words. I looked at my first draft. It was SO AMAZINGLY BAD. It was as if I'd forgotten how to write well. Just like my LiveJournal posts, it had sounded so much better in my head. I hesitantly sent it off to my two betas, cadhla and hobviously, and told them to please not send it back until at least the next night because I needed some time away from it.

In my time away, however, I started appreciating some of the elements of my shitty first draft. I thought maybe it wasn't that awful, that maybe I wouldn't have to do a big overhaul for the second draft like I expected. And when cadhla's comments came back a few days later, they reflected that! It was more solid than I thought; it just needed some tweaking.

Then I got hobviously's take, and there was red everywhere! This was bad! That was repetitive! This was lame! That was dumb! The whole thing was MEDIOCRE. (There were some parts that were good, though.) It kind of hurt, as I hadn't received criticism on my writing since my last creative writing class five years ago, but she was right. She skillfully identified the problems I knew were there but didn't want to address, hoping they would go away on their own somehow. She had seen through my not-so-clever ruse of just throwing a bunch of crap on the page and seeing what sticked. So then she engaged me in a dialogue, asking me questions that forced me to dig deeper into Karen's motivations, and, just as had happened on my first day of writing, in trying to explain it all to her, things became much clearer. I had shied away from getting too specific on why Karen had done what she did, focusing more on the act itself and the aftermath, but I saw that without the why, Karen doesn't get to be a real character, and the reader can't connect with her. hobviously asked me some tough questions, and it helped me see what sort of answers I needed to hint at or place directly in the story; one of the phrases I used in answering her even made its way into the story because I liked it so much. I don't know whether any of you writers have your very own hobviously, but you should get one! They're very useful!

The second draft was not as difficult as the first draft, thankfully. It took only three days. I cut out most everything hobviously had identified as subpar, which freed up hundreds of words for new material. This also allowed me to move the Max-naming paragraph later and turn it into a reveal of sorts. By the time I had gotten my word count up, I was honestly surprised and confused as to how I'd gotten so much new stuff in. I didn't even remember what I'd cut out. I didn't miss it.

The night before I finished the second draft, however, I was nostalgically clicking around my Prose folder, reading some of my old stories and marveling at how awful I'd been. I opened up the Fisherman Story, which I remembered having trouble with. I hadn't thought about in years; I didn't even remember what it was about. I skimmed. And as I got to the end, I started shaking. Almost crying.

It was about a man. Who randomly kills someone. Just to feel alive.

My mouth practically agape, I sorted the directory by Date Modified. For years, I had thought the last story I worked on was the Death Story, a story I initially thought was utter crap but was convinced had a lot of potential by my creative writing class. I had thought it was stopping me from starting something new because I wanted to revise that first. But the timestamp for the Fisherman Story was April 2003. That was the last story I had worked on.


I couldn't believe it. All this time, I kept telling myself that the only way I could get back into writing was if I put my past work away and focused on something original. And it turned out I had just picked up where I left off.

My second draft was definitely an improvement, and hobviously heartily agreed, to my delight. New beta amy37 was also positive. I took a long walk and came up with an ending that had more of a punch (and, unlike the ending in the first draft, an earned one). I worked with hobviously to improve a few trouble spots in the third and final draft. Then, even when I was done...I changed a couple pronouns back to what they were originally because even though I could see what amy37 was getting at, they just weren't working for me. It's hard to know when to listen to suggestions and when to just say, "Fuck it, I know what I'm doing!" You have to have a good balance of both.

By the end, I was far more satisfied with it than I expected to be after my SO AMAZINGLY BAD first draft. Hell, I don't think I've been as satisfied with a story since the award-winning "Shopping." Then again, I haven't actually taken a story to a final draft since "Shopping." I guess it's a good sign that I ended up producing something I can be proud of rather than something that makes me cringe.

I don't really have any idea what I'll write next. It's kind of exciting.