My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Odds and Evens

Three Rings for the Elven-kings . . .
Seven for the Dwarf-lords . . .
Nine for Mortal Men . . .
One Ring to rule them all . . .
(J.R.R. Tolkien)

Ever wonder why cats have 9 lives? Or bad things come in 3s? Or why The Coasters sung about Charlie Brown on his knees, “yellin’ 7 come 11 down in the boys’ gym?”

In almost every culture, odd numbers especially those between 1 and 13, are thought to have magical powers.

A few decades ago, when I began seriously studying creative writing, my first writing teacher said, “Never stop with an even-numbered draft. Your second draft will be crap, and your fourth draft will have the life polished out of it. It you get as far as draft six, either you don’t have a good handle on your story or you’re telling the wrong story.”

At the time, I thought he was crazy. Why wouldn’t draft 2 be just as strong as 1? Or 4 just as enticing as 3? It was my story, and if I wanted to work it not just 6 times, but 8 or 14 or 22, what was the harm in that? But he was not only my teacher but my student advisor as well, and I wanted to graduate. I nodded, wrote what he said in my notebook, and got on with life.

Thirty years later, I’ll be doggoned if he wasn’t right.

For me, a draft is a completed story, written all the way from, “It was hot in Los Angeles. I was working the day watch out of robbery. The boss is Captain Gannon . . .” to “On September 15, a trial was held in Superior Court in the State of California . . .”

Writers have a multitude of ways of getting through the first draft. Some breeze straight ahead, building a skeleton from which they will hang the story in subsequent drafts. Some dog-paddle in circles through the chapters, returning to revise earlier material as they get a better grip on the tale by working through it. But there comes a day when that first daft is finished.

Why draft 2 is crap
The second draft is where I have to get over myself as a writer. Oh, my gosh, I’ve written an entire book! I hear Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality running through my head. This is going to be my break-out book, the Great Canadian Novel, the book where the world realizes my true worth as one of the literary giants of the age.

It’s also the place where I insist on carving square pegs so they fit round holes. I wrote the climax chase through a multi-level shopping mall. It’s not working. I carve, shove, write additional pages to mitigate the problems, and then write more pages to mitigate the mitigation. Kicking and screaming all the way, I finally ditch the shopping mall and take the chase to a park. Works much better.

Eventually, common sense sets in and a book becomes just a book again. That’s called draft 3. If draft one runs on pure creative energy, draft 3 gets it’s power from a rhythm I hear in my head, the feeling of “being in the zone.” It’s where the music of the story flows.

Why draft 4 is lifeless
By the fourth draft I am bone weary of this stupid story. I’ve worked on it far too long. The characters are cardboard. The dialog is flat. The story makes no sense. It’s all been done before by writers far, far more talented than I will ever be. This is where my husband looks at his watch and says, “Yep, the meltdown is happening right on time.”

Most times, for me, the draft 5 is the magical one. I’ve achieved as good a balance as I can between all the disparate elements. The characters are moving, talking, and acting like real people. The plot may actually hold one or two clever bits, and the story, as a whole, hangs together. I control the language, have sorted out the grammar and may have figured out where those pesky commas belong, though some commas are always a toss-up. Sigh.

If I’m not there by draft 5, there is something radically wrong with the story, just like my teacher told me would happen. Usually, what’s wrong is that I’m not risking enough. The stakes need to be higher, and the characters need to lose more. It’s time to seriously look at if this is a story I should be telling, and if it is, to cycle it back to the new draft 1 of a greatly revised story.

It’s almost enough to make me believe in the power of numbers.

Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectural one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven. ~Walter Benjamin, critic and philosopher (1982-1940)

Next Tuesday, April 1, I hope to see you back for Write the Novel: The Inciting Incident. Why is today different from all other days?

No, it’s not because that will be April Fool’s Day. Think of us as your respite from silly jokes.