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Second drafts are hard.

Well, back that up.

Getting to second drafts is hard.

I’m not sure if the stage I’m looking at now is the second draft, or maybe the first draft – I’ve heard a couple of writers refer to their utterly horrible first bits of writing as “zero drafts”, and that actually seems pretty fitting. I’ve got however many tens of thousands of words written about this place and these people and their plot, and absolutely none of it is useable – I mean, literally, none. I have a couple of scenes whose ideas might be reworkable, but I went into this idea half-cocked (NaNo may be great for putting words on pages, but it’s not particularly conducive to making sure you think everything through) and it turns out that my grand plan of “throw a couple of characters into a situation and see if they sink or swim” resulted in a lot of drowned characters.

Which is fine, I think.

There are probably as many ways to write a novel as there are aspiring novelists, maybe more – Neil Gaiman offered a lovely insight in the introduction of American Gods, in which he learned that rather than having figured out how to write a novel, he’d really only figured out how to write that novel. I’ve started a fair number of stories so far, some of which made it to the end of a draft, some of which never actually got words on pages, and I can safely say that I don’t yet know what’s the right way for me to go about it. In this case, I went with “take an idea, try to write it, discover in the writing of it that you were woefully underprepared, try to fix it before you write the next draft.”

Which is where I am now, where I’ve been for the last six months.

And it turns out that for me, this is a really scary place to be.

First drafts – zero drafts, what have you – are kind of like skiing for me. I’ve got this idea out in front of me, all pristine white snow and pretty little evergreens and a lake at the bottom, and I get to push off and all of a sudden there’s wind and excitement and no limits! Mistakes don’t matter: that’s what editing is for! Don’t know what to do? Hit someone in the head with a shovel! Kill someone! That doesn’t make sense with the original plotline? Whatever. Say it with me: that’s what editing is for.

Except that somewhere down the slope I start realizing that this isn’t so much a black diamond as an uncharted pocket of Mt Everest, and actually, I was never all that good at skiing anyway, and it turns out that that terrifying pixel yeti from that ski game back when I was a kid is looming over my shoulder and it doesn’t want to go away until editing. So I keep frantically writing, tying up threads everywhere I can, padding things out where they feel skimpy, until I finally make it gasping and half-dead in a heap against the tree at the bottom.

Stand up, dust off hands, go into the chalet for a nice hot chocolate, and get ready for that carrot I’ve been hanging in front of my nose for that entire terrifying glorious ride: editing.

The problem with editing is that there doesn’t seem to be one right way to do it, especially not for an aspiring first-timer. There’s probably a good reason for this – professional writers have agents and editors and publishers and people with jobs I’ve never even heard of, all working together to turn an idea into a printed volume, so the author isn’t working alone for the entire thing. Maybe most professionals have people they can turn to when they need to iron out kinks … maybe they don’t? The only way I’ll know is by getting there myself, and each experience is surely going to vary, and anyway, that’s not the point for me right now.

Right now, what matters is that while I can look to my role models to see how many hours a day they spend writing, or how many words they write per day, but I haven’t seen anything about what they do when they look at their first drafts and find something they’d be embarrassed to feed their dogs. As far as editing goes, as far as hail mary’s are concerned, I’ve been on my own.

I’ve done pretty well, I think – though I won’t really be able to tell until I start writing again and see what the slope looks like this time around. I’ve found plot holes and filled them, rounded out characters, fleshed out world elements and, above everything else, doubted.

It turns out that it’s a lot harder to feel like an author when you’re not writing. My family is incredibly supportive of my literary aspirations, but my mother hasn’t appeared to know what to do with a daughter who’s spent the last six months thinking furiously. My birthday wishes this year came with hopes for a lovely year – and a book, hint hint, and I can’t blame her, because I feel the same way. The urge to open up a new document and start writing has been almost more than I could handle, even though I’ve known that the story wasn’t ready. Every time someone’s asked me how the writing’s going, I’ve shrunk a little bit deeper into myself.

“I have no idea how the writing’s going, I’m not doing it anymore.”

Where I used to spend X hours a day writing Y words minimum, I’ve been spending the last six months staring fruitlessly at my computer screen trying to figure out someone’s motivation, or something’s power structure, only to have the latest piece fall into place while I’m in the shower, or in line at the grocery store, or trying to fall asleep. I get to my computer as soon as I can, write it down, look at the new plan, and stare at a wall some more.

I feel like I’ve done good work. I also feel like I haven’t been doing anything at all. The longer it went on, the more I’ve felt like I’m doing something wrong. Writers write, according to the inspirational background image I found however many years ago. If I’m not writing, am I not a writer? If the story I wanted to tell was a good one, was worth sharing, would I really have had to spend six months pounding it out of the horrible wreck I first wrote? My ideas are derivative. Nobody’s going to want to read a story I can’t even manage to think out properly.

I’m writing this down in part so that I have something I can look at when I next find myself here – because I’m pretty sure that this will happen again, though hopefully not quite the same way. I couldn’t find a rule book for this part of the process, so I’m setting my own mistakes and fears out so that next time, maybe I won’t feel quite so alone.

I think it’s normal to be scared – and I think that really, that’s what all of those doubts and voices really are. A bit of doubt is an important part of not being an arrogant ass, but doubt is also what fear looks like when it wants to be taken more seriously. Writing easy. It comes with an immediate payoff, a sense of gratification in the form of word counts that a planning phase simply can’t offer. But just writing isn’t enough, at least not for me.

The last six months have given me what I needed to turn something I could barely stand to look at into something I’m proud of again. When I turn the story over in my head, it holds up. I know there will be flaws, some of which I”ll catch in editing, some of which will probably make it through.

The point, though, at least for me, is that it was time well spent. The fear wasn’t a great use of my time, but the thinking and the planning and the questioning and the challenging were all important, because today I’m doing a runthrough of the outline with one of my first readers, and if that goes well, tomorrow I should be able to start writing.

Hopefully, the result of the next pass won’t tangle me up for as long as the first one did. With any luck, a lot of hard work, and a fair amount of skill, I’ll have something by the end of this that I’ll be able to share with people, that will help me get where I want to go.

Or maybe it won’t and I’ll have to do this a bunch more times before I get anywhere, and I’ll have a whole new set of theories and philosophies to spout by then.

Either way, I’m learning.