May 14, 2008

neil gaiman on second drafts.

I haven't written recently because, over the past 10 days, I've done little else but tried to finish the first draft of this digital video chapter.  I can see the end now, and some main ideas have finally formed in my head.  I might note some of them down here when I'm done.

Here's some second-draft advice from Neil Gaiman. I think there are many similarities between fiction writing and academic writing.  And if there are not many similarities, I think that there should be more, for the sake of making academia more comprehensible:

The second draft is where the fun is. In a first draft, you get to explode. The objective (at least for me) is to get it down on paper, somehow. Battle through the laziness and the not-enough-time and the this-is-rubbish and everything else, and just get it written. Whatever it takes. The second draft is where you go and gather together the fragments of the explosion and figure out what it is you did, and make it look like that was what you always meant to do.

So you write it. Then you put it aside. Not for months, but perhaps for a week or so. Even a few days. Do other things. Then set aside some uninterrupted time to read, and pull it out, and pretend you have never read it before -- clear it out of your head, and sit and read it. (I'd suggest you do this on a print-out, so you can scribble on it as you go. )

When you get to the end you should have a much better idea of what it was about than you did when you started. (I knew The Graveyard Book would be about a boy who lived in a graveyard when I started it. I didn't know that it would be about how we make our families, though: that's a theme that made itself apparent while the book was being written.)

And then, on the second and subsequent drafts, you do four things. 1) You fix the things that didn't work as best you can (if you don't like the climactic Rock City scene in American Gods, trust me, the first draft was so much worse). 2) You reinforce the themes, whether they were there from the beginning or whether they grew like Topsy on the way. You take out the stuff that undercuts those themes. 3) You worry about the title. 4) At some point in the revision process you will probably need to remind yourself that you could keep polishing it infinitely, that perfection is not an attribute of humankind, and really, shouldn't you get on with the next thing now?

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  1. Sue

    I can relate quite well to the way you try to achieve your aims. I like the way it’s so structured, the methodicalness of it. At times I think I’m too methodical in my approach to do the things I need to do, for instance, at work sometimes I will say to myself when I’ve finished doing this I will make myself a cup of coffee and sometimes that means not having elevenses until two o’clock but I’ve always liked setting myself goals and sticking to them and I find it works for me. The other thing that interested me about what you said is the bit about perfectionism. When I read it the first time it coincided with a TV programme I’d just watched called “Child of Our Times.” A group of seven year old children were being studied to see what their reactions were to different situations and life in general (it’s been an ongoing study since they were born). They were all asked to paint sunflowers and then when they had almost finished a child came round and put red splodges of paint on all the pictures. This was obviously very upsetting for most of them apart from a couple of the girls who were quite philosophical about it, especially one who said “I like the painting more now because the splodge looks like a red flower and it looks nice with the sunflowers.” She was someone who had always been a perfectionist in the past and from this comment the programme makers concluded that she had moved on. For some reason it really struck a chord with me and I can’t help thinking that she won’t go far wrong with that sort of outlook on life.

    There was another little girl who was very sweet too and it was rather tragic because her mother had cancer and she wasn’t expected to live very long. She was so mature for her age and very aware of other people and how they were feeling and she expressed her own feelings very eloquently. Tragically her mother died not long after the programme was made

    Then there was a little boy called Reuben who lived with his mother and three brothers, all four boys had different fathers, I wondered how anybody could be so lacking in judgement but all the fathers visited the house regularly which was nice but she said it made it a very chaotic household, she was a good caring mother but very stressed as you can imagine. For some reason she said that Reuben and her didn’t get on very well together which I didn’t really understand because he seemed like a lovely little boy and she obviously loved him dearly. Anyway, he was a very talented singer and he was given a place at Westminster College which meant that he would have to board and his mother thought this would be good for him as he would have time to himself away from his brothers. He was obviously finding things a bit too hectic in the house because when he was asked what his favourite thing to do was he said “To go and sit at the kitchen table by myself and eat an apple.”

    15 May 2008, 23:54

  2. Sue

    It’s strange as I’ve come here from writing Emails I thought I could click on the bit above and add something to it, but all I got was non-logged in user, it makes me sound like some sort of junkie. I just wanted to add that the little girl whose mother died had some lovely supportive people all round her. The ones we saw were, firstly, her teacher at school who found time to have a quiet time every day when the children could talk about things that were on their mind. The little girl (her name was Eve) said that she got upset because her Mum was tired all the time and she didn’t see much of her and the teacher acknowledged how difficult this must be for her and said “We’re all like the little silver fish in the sea and when a big wave comes, we have to say to ourselves – keep swimming little fish, keep swimming.” which I thought was so touching. When her Dad heard about it, he thought he might like to have the “quiet time” too. He was a very kind man and said he knew that they would get through it because the family unit was very strong and something else I found very touching “there’s a long haul committment mentality in the house.”

    18 May 2008, 23:15

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