11.08.2010

On Writing Crap

In response to Mr. Pond, Running and Writing

I walk. Running has never been my thing, unless you count the occasional wild, formless romp across open spaces that a combination of feeling unobserved and a good stiff wind inspires. That said, my sister-in-law Marie ran the Bellingham Bay marathon a few weeks ago, and watching her make that victory almost made me consider marathon training. Not quite—the family knee curse quickly overshadowed the idea—but almost.

Maybe I'm just the sort of person who is generally up for a little self-challenge. That personality attribute is the one and only reason I've rappelled off a cliff, intentionally swum a class III rapid, or gone down the speed slide at a water park. It is not the only reason I chose to do NaNoWriMo, but it certainly set me up to find the concept of writing a novel in a single month irresistible.

Mr. Pond takes philosophical issue with NaNoWriMo, though he does not discount that the program works for some of us. He has good reasons. To Mr. Pond, for whom the entire concept of writing revolves around beauty, the thought of writing "a crap draft" is unthinkable. The NaNoWriMo site says "Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing." "Writing a lot of crap is never a good thing," says Mr. Pond.

He and I have pretty strong agreements in the arenas of artistic philosophy. So why did he look at this free-for-all and say "I can't go along with that" when my immediate response was "I absolutely have to do this!"?

An important part of the debate process is defining your terms. The word crap is pretty arbitrary, and I think Mr. Pond and I took it to mean two different things.

What exactly is crap, in the figurative, NaNoWriMo sense? (Yes, I know you all know what it is literally.) Bad sentences? Plot holes? Inclusion of the Traveling Shovel of Death or other dares? Flat characters? Telling instead of showing? A sickly-sweet or garishly tragic ending? Clichés? All of the above?

My first NaNo novel had six of the eight possible problems listed above. And I knew those problems were coming into existence as I wrote. But something else happened around the failures: The outline I had carefully drawn, giving myself one bullet point for every day in November, slowly collapsed under the exploration of the original concept, leaving only the most basic framework on which I structured the concept itself. Characters revealed interesting things about themselves, things that didn't show up on their original dossiers. The unexpected crept in, the worlds proved to be worth exploring, and when I clocked in my final word count on November 29—57,500 words—I knew that I could take the heart of that story and revise it into something worth reading.

I've now written that book three and a half times, not at all to my surprise. It currently clocks in at 72,138 words. There are a few sentences that made it from the original draft all the way through, I believe; not many. There are a few scenes that are almost untouched except for a little polish on the wording. Those things carried over because they weren't crap. Oh, I wrote a lot of crap. But I wrote a lot. It wasn't nearly all bad.

Attempting to write fast freed me from caring too deeply about every sentence to progress. It gave me permission to mess up and just keep going, to not care that Chapter 5 wasn't polished before I went on to Chapter 6, to allow some plot points to remain ambiguous or to fall out of use entirely. More, it gave me a need to finish that was stronger than my need to overthink everything. I can't express how much I needed that. Maybe I really only needed to do it once, to open my mind to the process necessary for creating a complete first draft. I hadn't written one since I was nineteen.

After all, we all have to start somewhere. No one begins by writing beautifully, and first drafts of novels are almost never very readable. There's a lot of bad art made in the process of learning to create the good.

Ultimately, I don't think Mr. Pond and I disagree that much about the value of NaNoWriMo itself; his comments on his own post clarified his position for me. The one line in his piece that I can't confidently agree with is the statement that writing a lot of crap is never a good thing. I guess that depends on what he means by crap.

But as for this:
I write because I’ve thought long and hard about writing, about the pain and life-hating and sweat stains that accompany the determination to actually Be A Real Writer. I write because I value craft and language and clarity and style, for the beauty of words and the love of sound. I write because quality matters, beauty and wonder and joy matter, even in spite of an age that tells us there’s 3,456,789,462 hits on any given query, that success lies in numbers, and a majority can’t be wrong.
That I agree with, wholeheartedly.

6 comments:

  1. 'I like-a to say, "Holy Crap!"'

    This is what can happen when one writes a lot of crap. Scroll through the list and be appalled. And please note the all important distinction between crap and whatsit.

    Seriously, great piece, and I'm certainly going to offer a rejoinder tomorrow. I think I've scrabbled around the main philosophical complaint in my article, and will likely address it head on. Thanks for getting me thinking. Again.

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  2. I don't know; I come down more on Jenna's side of things. But I also think there's an unnecessary dichotomy going on. That it either has to be scintillating prose dripping from your pen after you've pondered five years exactly what you should say or a stream of consciousness flowing from your pen which you plan to straighten out later. Or to put it in the vernacular, a stream of crap.

    Anyway, I think NaNo may have made mistake in promulgating the idea that you'll be churning out a lot of crap during the contest. Certainly what is churned out won't be polished or complete. Some may be good, some may be bad. As someone said, there's no requirement one must write crap for NaNo. And not even the greatest writer, who is an accomplished wordsmith & who cherishes craft & beauty & style and what not, comes out with a perfect first draft. They still need to revise, sometimes numerous times.

    And some people obviously have different writing styles. Churning out 'crap' might be how one author prefers to generate material. With the expectation they will revise & polish later. And the odd nut from NaNo who thinks their first draft of crap is publisher worthy doesn't negate the efforts of those who write just for fun, never intending to show their work, & those who would like to take a stab at publishing their work. For a lot of people it just gives them the opportunity to try writing in a fun, non-threatening way, where you're only competing against your own expectations.

    Just my twenty-five cents worth. :)

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  3. Mr. Pond, LOL. Good old Strong Bad. And I'll be looking forward to your piece.

    George, your practicality is helpful. Also, I agree with you.

    Although--to both of you--I'm loathing the amount of truly awful that is making it into my current NaNoWriMo novel. I don't recall feeling that way last year. Hopefully it gets better. I'd be happy to come away with a structure that I can revise into something decent. If I really come out with nothing but crap, I'm not going to be happy.

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  4. If, as you say, George, the dichotomy is there, then you're quite right. It's not necessary. But, speaking as a working writer, I don't think it's a real distinction, in the sense that I don't think it exists in real life. So, to be brief, I agree with you. And I think I'll quote your comment in my webpartee.

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  5. Mr. Pond, feel free to use any of my comments as long as my residuals reach me on time. :)

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  6. Also, don't get me wrong, I don't totally disagree with Mr. Pond's position. I think people should be encouraged to strive for excellence in writing.

    I just know that, for myself at least, if I think too hard about my writing, I don't get much writing done. I tend to spend too much time trying to find the perfect word or expression & don't get a lot of production thereby. I also don't spend a lot of writing either so maybe that's part of the problem.

    And while I don't participate in NaNoWriMo, it probably would be a good exercise for me.

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