I’m all about the writing process at the moment and am working my way through the wonderful Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
Part memoir, part users-guide, it covers a lot of things including the shitty first draft and how to actually do it. With the internet these days, and articles linked all over the place, on the subject of writing, there’s endlessly more and more about how to do it, and when, and why and for who etc. But not many people really spell out, in prose form, sometimes in a rambling way, how they get it done. Which means completed, and redrafted, polished, edited, smoothed, changed, revised, improved. Because talking about writing and reading about writing are not the same as getting it done.
This dovetails very nicely with a blog post I came across this morning from Susan Jackson Rogers (via Virginia Lloyd) which lays out her process of getting it done. How it can be overwhelming and how it doesn’t seem like real writing, this sitting down and doing a few lines. But lines turn into paras, and they can develop into scenes and it’s scenes that are the building blocks. Susan talks too about a ‘vertical drop’ that can happen in a draft that deepens the story (never heard it put this way, I usually think of this as ‘layering’ but I like vertical drop. Like a well to all sorts of deep goodness.) She also talks about a kind of circular, or back and forwards, or expanding out method of drafting of how she fills in the gaps in her draft. Susan uses using notes to either fill in sections or extend her draft, and crosses off the little bits of whatever once they’ve been used. I do this too, incorporating notes that fit, and sometimes something sparks off something new and good.
I think a lot of people get overwhelmed when they sit down to write a novel and I think that’s why for a lot of us when we do manage to drag it out of our guts (I’m wanting to quote Helen Garner here, and her ropey masses of seaweed) it isn’t really a draft at all. It is a purge of stuff that doesn’t hang together properly, doesn’t build story, doesn’t move along. My second ms first draft was like this and now as I revise, I am very mindful of these things.
Over the last twelve months, I’ve really started to get it, that it’s a matter of either creating then fitting jigsaw puzzle pieces together, building a story with bricks (where the bricks are scenes/sequences of scenes) — whatever the imagery, it helps psychologically to think of breaking the thing down. Hard to sit down and write 80 – 90K, yes? Easier to write a scene or two, yes? And if you have the whole story kind of in your head, then you can move around, even if your grasp of it is quite sketchy. A lot of people just write as it comes and don’t do much planning or outlining, there’s no right or wrong, but I suspect that either way, whatever your approach, you can use this bit by bit approach. And that’s where the bird by bird comes in. The title is from a small Lamott family crisis when Anne’s brother was in despair about a school assignment he had to get done, something to do with a cataloging of birds. His father put his arm around his close-to-tears son and said:
Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.