Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldburg, Writing

Enough “But Firsts”

March 16, 2009

All y’all know what “but firsts” are, don’t you? It’s what you do when you know you have to do something but keep putting it off. Like, I know I have to clean the house, “but first” I have to re-read War and Peace .

I but firsted my way through reading two friends’ manuscripts, commenting on another friend’s play, writing a sketch/short story for a contest, and an essay for another contest. And now, I have to address what I really want to do. Talk about writing and what I’m working on.

This is the first of many, many posts on writing. How I go about it. Why I am compelled to write. How I get my ideas.

I have written five complete novels in recent years. (This does not count earlier output, all of which have been destroyed to protect the guilty. Me.) My first was erotica. Had to get it out of my system. The second one is actually a trilogy — Venn diagrams of women from high school, through college, career, marriage, and motherhood. And now, the first Mad Max book, Unintended Consequences, is complete and the second is in very rough draft.

Generally, I’m happiest when I have three books going simultaneously. That’s both for reading and writing. I continue to tweak Mad Max 1, although I think it is about as complete and polished as I can make it. I am now querying agents for MM 1. Thick skin required.

Next, following the example of Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, I have finished the bones of MM 2. It’s about 70,000 words already, needs whole chunks rewritten, other chunks moved around, secondary characters fleshed out. When I begin a story, I have the main characters in mind, a general story line, the main themes, and little else. Because I write character-driven stories, I let the characters take me where they will.

After finishing the draft, I let it sit for four to six weeks. Kinda took a break. Now, I’ve just reread it. The first thing I look for is inconsistencies in plot. I circle them, move on, fill the margins with copious notes, and mark things for deletion or moving. I love Post-It Notes, because I decorate page after page with them. And at this cut, I look for those wonderful freedoms of creation that Anne Lamott writes about in Bird by Bird. She allows herself to call characters names like Mr. Poopy Pants (if you’ll pardon what might be a paraphrase). I need to rename Honkin’ Fat Dodge Boy to Sheriff Lester Hardy. Thank God for search and replace.

I started the first revision this weekend. It was rainy and a perfect time to dig into 70,000 words. Now that the manuscript is covered in red ink, it’s time to start moving chunks around.

This step can take weeks or months, depending on how many “but firsts” I find along the way.

And what about MM 3? Doing the research, because I want to learn about gene-splicing and viruses. (Viri??)

So, tomorrow I start moving chunks. Stay tuned for updates.

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