Thursday, January 12, 2006

Pity the poor comics writer

One of my writing ambitions is to write stuff in one draft. I don't just mean write the first draft and then send it off whatever state it's in, but to write something in one draft and know it's right. I'm not a big reviser anyway. My usual way of things is to write the first draft, changing stuff as I go along. Then phase two is to address the list of things to change that I just couldn't face during the first draft stage. Then (phase three) I print the thing off and read it through, changing it as I go along. Then I type the changes in and print again for another read through, perfecting it.

So that's a minimum of four stages before it's even seen an editor. That sounds like a lot of work, but I know a lot of folks who do many more passes through the MS than that. Still, it's a long way from achieving my ambition. And do you know what? I know I'll never achieve it. Stuff just doesn't come out that way for me. It comes out in dribs and drabs. I go down one path and see a side road and go "Hmm, what's down there?" Half the time I don't even know I'm doing it. The hard (but not impossible, oh no) bit is being able to stand back and make sure you're on a path to something and not just reeling around the fountain. And I'm aware that this is the reason people do outlines before setting out on the first draft - so they have a map.

But I ain't doing outlines.

I just ain't doing them.

You might disagree, but to me outlines are a killer of ideas. I take a year to pump out a novel (including "recovery time"), and during that year a lot of stuff comes into my head. If you write an outline and stick to it, you're only using the stuff that occurs to you at the outline stage. Me, I like to roll the stone down the hill and see what kind of moss it picks up. This does not preclude structure and plotting. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I consider that all my novels are well structured and plotted (and mossed). But I do it as I go along. You can't build a house this way, but you can build a novel.

Anyway, I started thinking about this stuff last night after I read this bit from an interview with the great Alan Moore. Makes me shudder:

"Everything you've ever read of mine is first-draft. This is one of the peculiarities of the comics field. By the time you're working on chapter three of your masterwork, chapter one is already in print. You can't go back and suddenly decide to make this character a woman, or have this one fall out of a window. It's got to be pretty much right the first time. So to me, rewriting is a harrowing process. I just don't do it."


Ray said...

I agree re: outlines. Tried it a couple of times when I couldn't get my head round what was happening in whatever dross I was writing. Didn't work, made the writing part of it feel like homework I had to complete. And it took attention away from the fact that the reason the original dross wasn't working was because, well, it was dross. Just another long line of things you can do to distract yourself.

As it stands, I think you've got a successful working method - a book a year is really all that's expected, isn't it? And when the "book a year" is as good as you've been churning out, then there's no problem.

Jenny D said...

what ray said!

i am an insane draft-writer; i always will sacrifice goodness for quantity in the first-draft stage, to keep myself sane, but it means many, many passes through later on.

but i totally agree with you about the outline thing. that came really clear to me on the novel i'm working on now. i had some stuff worked out in advance, of course, and knew roughly where i was going, but REALLY the best stuff by far in the whole book was what i had absolutely no idea about when i started writing...

Charlie Williams said...

You are both extremely clever and insightful people. You also agree with me. These two things are completely unrelated, of course.

Jenny - I'm not worried about keeping myself sane. A spoonful of insanity help the medicine go down.