Terrible First Efforts

09 February 2015


We all remember our terrible first efforts: those manuscripts we knew for sure would land us on New York Times bestseller lists, but in reality sat in various stages of completion and collected metaphorical dust on our hardrives. Over a month ago, Braden shared a vlog on The Storymonger in which he read some excerpts of his early writing. I thought the idea was a brilliant one and had planned to film a vlog of my own, but time got away from me (when does it not?), and I decided to go with a written post instead. The following are excerpts from varied sources, primarily The Story of Elena, my 2011 NaNo novel. Elements of Elena made their way into early drafts of Rifles in the South Field, but for the most part, the idea was set aside for reasons that will soon be made quite clear.

read & snicker

Oh Elena, don’t be so dramatic . . .”
“That’s Lady Elena, peasant,” I returned bitingly. 
elena

The cottage was an open-doored, open-windowed affair, and rarely a day went by when it did not ring with the charming notes of a Celtic air. Though the girl was not much of a singer, her mother and father did not mind the regular warbling, for the former was half deaf in one ear, and the latter was so consumed with his books that he could not have told the difference between his daughter’s high notes and a screeching dog.
a bit of irish whimsy

It seems like such a silly thing over which to have a war. The holy city of Jerusalem. . . . Will it bring them great wealth and prestige just to say they control it? Certainly not. Besides, if it did, I would have found some way to gain it by now.
elena

Aunt Bridget brought a rather large basket to the table at that moment, practically overflowing with vegetables, bread, cheese, and a host of other provisions.”
“Aunt!” I exclaimed in alarm. “How am I to get anywhere carryin' that?!”
“Pish posh,” she responded without concern. “Ye'll be glad of the food when ye're hungry on the battlefield.”
“I don't think I'll be thinkin' about that when I'm fightin' against men who seek to end my life!” I exclaimed again.
“Well, whether ye like it or not, ye're bringin' it, and that's final. I won't have me own nephew starvin' to death.” She eyed me firmly.
Seeing she wasn't to be swayed, I relented. Food might come in handy during the journey, after all.
elena
[Food might come in handy?]

Richard Kingsley and I are here to enlist in the army, sir,” I said, looking the man in the eye with a steady gaze.
“Oh, that is good news—we need all the soldiers we can get,” the man said, looking relieved. “Do you have any experience?”
“Little, sir,” Richard said.
“Very well, then you shall start at the bottom. There will be plenty of time to work your way up.” The burly man pointed to a small tent. “Go in there; the man will tell you everything you need to do.”
elena
["Welcome to Crusades 101."]

Just look around you, and then look over the horizon at the Arab camps. We look like a small crumb on a platter piled high with food.”
elena
[Does anyone actually say that? Let's make it a new expression.]

But how are we to know if the woman of whom we are speaking and your wife are one and the same?” I asked, entering back into the conversation. “There could be hundreds of Mistress Bakers in England.”
“Did she offer you a place to stay?” our new friend asked inquisitively. 
“Yes, she did—why?” Richard asked. 
“Then she’s my wife,” he replied with certainty. “Never will you meet a kinder or more generous woman.”
elena
[What does this say about the other English women?]

Forgive me, but it seems to have slipped my mind that the world will end with your family’s reputation.”
elena
do you dare to share your own juvenilia?

The Write Solution (When Your Stories Run Dry)

02 February 2015

"I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge. . . . And there was a moment during my junior year in high school when I began to believe that I could do what other writers were doing. I came to believe that I might be able to put a pencil in my hand and make something magical happen. Then I wrote some terrible, terrible stories." 
bird by bird | anne lamott

I used to shun books about writing. "Just sit down and write," I'd groan. "Reading about the process won't give any polish to your rough draft. Write and learn as you go." And for a while, I lived on that advice. Violets Are Blue, Rifles in the South Field, Anath's Song, and bits of other novels were all scribbled by the so-called seat of my pants. I had outlines. I had various marked up notes. I did bits of harem-scarem research here and there, sometimes specific (but more often broad). It worked — for a time. But when I realized I was rusty on the basics — when my dialogue failed to carry the story; when my characters fell flat; when the whole business frustrated me with its half-baked approach — I knew I needed to go back to the most basic elements of all.

I'm still not a proponent of self-help books. I still live by the same writing advice I first swore by years ago: read good books and keep at your own writing until you can produce good books. But if you're like me and you're realizing there are aspects of your craft that could really do to be sharpened, well, there are masters aplenty at your fingertips.

Any athlete who tries to run before he can walk will fail. He'll fall to the sidelines and cough in the dust churned by his superiors' pounding feet. That's exactly how I've felt for the past three years: determined to write full novels, but with little on which to go. My plots were in shambles, grown dusty after months of neglect. I once wrote fluidly, but as my essays have improved, my fiction has fallen to the side. My best writing comes in the bursts of spontaneous dialogue and impromptu flash fiction that I scribble down from time to time and occasionally post.

The day came when I decided to put the madness on hold. I'd talked with my dad about my frustration over my seeming inability to produce any decent story material (sound familiar?). He recommended I change my approach to fit reality. Each morning, I've been waking up an hour earlier than usual to read fiction. Currently it's Flannery's Complete Stories; next I'm hoping to begin Anna Karenina. I know if I wait until the day starts, it won't happen, but if I make a point of rising early enough, an hour of leisure reading sounds quite appealing. At night, I read a chapter or two from a book about the art of writing. I recently finished Dorothy Sayers' Mind of the Maker (highly recommended) and have started in with the ever-hilarious Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I'm imbibing quality fiction, as well as refreshing myself on the elements of good stories.

In short, I've given myself permission not to write a novel right now. Rifles in the South Field sounds too forced when I try to pound out a few thousand words; perhaps, like a good wine, it still needs to mature. After this semester ends and I've gone through my shelf of books and essays on writing, I'll be ready to attack that list of research books: not half-heartedly as I once did, fitting in a chapter a month in the midst of school reading, but patiently and methodically. It's true that we make time for what we want to do, but we do our work with excellence when we're not stretched too thin.

I'm glad to know that the learning process can still be an exciting one. For once, I don't feel anxious over the fact that I'm not currently working on a novel. I look forward to reading Flannery in the morning and Lamott at night, and I've learned much from each. I've pulled away from my own fiction, and as a result, I'm able to see the flaws. It's both humbling and fulfilling to accept the fact that I am still the student, to stop speaking and instead draw up a chair and listen. Youth used to seem an anxious space of time in which I needed to fill files with complete pieces of literature, but the rush to finish high school with so many documents heavy with words means nothing if they're not good words.

So, reader, don't discredit the writing books. More importantly, don't discredit the books. I struggled alone for too long with little to no results. If you've noticed your own words coming stale and flat, know that you're not the only one. The cracks in your prose may have to do with a decline in the words going in. Is your fiction intake healthy? Are you well-versed in the art of the written word? There are good, credible authors at your disposal, and these time-worn gems won't empty your pocket like the newest how-to-write-a-book-fast manual. Newton spoke truthfully when he called these wordsmiths giants, and you'll see so much farther if you step on their shoulders.
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