Monday, September 18, 2017

On First Drafts, Editing, and the Real Work of Writing


“The first draft of anything is shit.”
--- Ernest Hemingway

A lecturer at St. Andrews has this quote hanging on her office door, as if challenging all the complacent undergraduates waiting in the hallway. I always found it vaguely encouraging, as much as anything by Hemingway could be encouraging. Maybe the chapter draft I just sent to my supervisor wasn’t all that great, but that’s fine. It’s a draft. It’ll get better.

I’ve never minded the idea of writing a bad first draft. I love things like NaNo, where you just write without worrying if it’s any good. I’m not a perfectionist, and the process of actually getting words down on paper has always been relatively easy for me.

But I’ve never been good at actually doing anything with those words. I’ve written five novels, and none of them have ever made it past a first draft. I’ve never actually polished anything until it was as good as I could make it.

With four of these novels, I know I made the right choice to move on. The first one was essentially a Tolkien fan-fic. The second was a mystery with plot holes as wide as the Northumberland Strait. The third was an international thriller with even larger plot holes and a rather dubious treatment of terrorism. The fourth was a YA dystopian, written just before Divergent was published and unfortunately left unfinished before the dystopian bubble burst. I learned so much from writing each of these novels, but none of them were worth polishing.

And then, after a six-year hiatus, NaNo 2016 produced my fifth novel, a futuristic retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I wrote 119,053 words in 68 days, and then returned to real life (or, y’know, writing a PhD.)

The difficulty with this novel is that, nearly a year later, I still think it’s good. I still love the characters. I love the story. I even love the writing (some of the time…). For the first time, there are no major flaws.

But that’s the problem. For the first time, I have no choice but to actual return to my novel and edit it. I can’t just stick it in a drawer and write a new novel. I’ve got to actually edit this one.

That’s certainly not going to be easy. As much as I love it, I know the story has significant issues. The world needs to be more developed. The themes need to be more subtle. The emotional arc needs to be polished. Relationships between characters need to be clarified. Certain scenes should be added, others cut.

I’ve written five novels. I know how to hammer out a story in a few weeks. But I have no clue how to polish it. On a practical level, I literally don’t know how to begin.

But also, on an emotional level, I’m scared to start editing. Because once I start to polish my novel, then I’ll really know if it’s any good. Then I’ll know if I’m actually any good.

If Hemingway was right, if the first draft of anything is shit, then that means that the real work of writing isn’t in getting words down on paper. It’s not writing 119,053 words in 68 days. If Hemingway was right, then the real work of writing comes in taking those rubbish words and making them shine. And that’s something I’ve never done.

There’s a strange sort of comfort in not trying. The world is full of people who think they could write a novel, and they’ll keep saying that until they try and fail. I think I can edit a book, and get an agent, and a publisher… and I’ll be able to keep thinking that until I try and fail.

I don’t really think I’ll fail, not ultimately. I believe that with enough hard work, I’ll eventually produce something good enough to be published. But I can’t say that I’m not scared of all the rejection that’s undoubtedly going to come. The books I’ll try to edit only to find they’re really not good enough. The agents who’ll send form rejection emails. The publishers who pass. The readers who write bad reviews.

Right now I can call myself a writer and not have to face any of that failure. Except, to keep calling myself a writer, I need to keep moving forward. I need to move beyond what I’m comfortable with and start doing what scares me.

I need to start turning my gargantuan first draft into something worth reading.

Let’s see how this goes. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Day 600: Almost Home


Boarding passes for the flight home after my year abroad. 

Day 600


If my calculations are correct, today is my 600th day in the UK. Well, since I've travelled a bit, I should say my 600th day in Europe (though perhaps not for long... *insert mandatory Brexit joke here*)

At any rate, it's the 600th day since I left Canada. 600 days since I stood in the Halifax airport, surrounded by my bags, and said goodbye to my country. 

It's actually quite a fitting time for this milestone to occur. Firstly, two days ago was the two-year anniversary of the day I discovered I was coming to St. Andrews for the PhD. And, more immediately, I'm now just two days away from heading back to Canada. 

Back with my family for my 22nd birthday

For a variety of reasons, I haven't been back to Canada since starting the PhD. But this summer I'm going back twice-- first to Ontario, where I did my undergrad and masters, and then (in August) to PEI, where my family grew up.

I'm really excited to go back. There are a lot of people I can't wait to see, and I've started to get invited to facebook events at my old Uni that I can actually go to, and, of course, I'm very ready to get my hands on a Tim Hortons ice cap. 

But there are also a few things I'm apprehensive about. I've never been to Canada as a visitor before. I've never been there not as a resident. I have no idea what it'll feel like to just be passing through, now that I don't live there anymore.

I'm worried about it feeling foreign. I pulled out my Canadian money from my stash of random currencies, sorting it out amidst piles of euros, American dollars, and Polish zloty and Romanian lei, and the Canadian money felt just that strange. After the weight of British pound coins, the 'loonie' just felt thin. 

St. Andrews friends at Starlight Ball

I'm worried about saying the wrong things. About accidentally asking where the toilet is, not the bathroom. About complementing someone on their jumper, not their sweater. I'm worried about sounding pretentious because I say 'trousers' and put the stress on the wrong syllable of Renaissance. 

But there's a positive side to the fact that, for a month, I'll be a tourist in my own country. For the first time in my life, I'll be able to see and appreciate what's uniquely Canadian. Having spent 602 days in the UK, I'll be able to enjoy Canadian culture that much more, since I won't be taking it for granted.

I've come back to Canada after a long absence before, of course. Almost three years ago, now, I flew back to Canada after a full year abroad. I remember how weird it felt to stand in the airport, surrounded by people speaking in Canadian accents. I remember trying to walk to my university the next morning, only to take two hours because everything in Canada is so ridiculously spread out.

Cast photo for Utopia Limited, this year's Gilbert and Sullivan show.


I remember hating these things. Reverse culture shock is hard. I missed Scotland. I missed British accents and narrow Scottish alleys and proper Yorkshire tea and decent public transit and having my friends all within walking distance. There were so many things I missed, it was hard to appreciate anything about Canada. 

This time, since I'm only there for a month, I'm ready to love Canada. I'm ready to enjoy how everyone has the same accent. I'm ready to revel in the vast space.

I'm so ready for this chance to realize just how great a country Canada is. I'm ready to see my country with new eyes.