Tuesday, August 07, 2007

White-Hot First Draft?

There are two very basic schools of thought when it comes to drafting a novel.

Plan A: The White-Hot First Draft Method of Writing a Novel
As I recall, which means I could be wrong, this method was first made popular by John Braine in his book How to Write a Novel.

The writer should dash through the first draft of their novel at white-hot speed, ignoring mistakes and bad writing, just concentrating on totting up the page count and finishing the damned thing. Only once it's finished is the writer allowed to return to his or her mss with a cooler head and rewrite, tidying up erratic spellings or punctuation, and smoothing out bumps in the story detail, plot or character arcs.

Clearly, this approach requires the ability to 'switch' between writing brains: the creative brain, working at full tilt, and the editor's brain, moving critically and methodically through the finished mss.

Unfortunately, I'm not terribly good at switching off my inner critic. This means the white-hot draft option, though appealing, is never going to be the easy one for me.

Mistakes leap off the screen at me and demand instant revision. Characters insist on changing their dialogue as soon as it's spoken. And the plot ... well, the plot either has to follow a smooth and unvarying schedule or be kept under constant supervision, with each new plotpoint demanding a quick fix or rewrite in the previous chapter(s).

So I'm the sort of writer who prefers ...

Plan B: The Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back Method of Writing a Novel
This is the way I write novels, mostly. I do plan some within an inch of their lives, prior to starting work, but still can't quite bring myself to ignore what I've just written.

The writer constantly scrutinises their work for possible errors: these can range from spelling mistakes or unhappily placed colons (see ten words back) to major problems like poor character development, jumping tension within scenes, and implausible or disastrous plot points.

There are advantages to stopping every few pages to keep your writing under control. It means you have far less editing and polishing work to do, theoretically, when you finish the book. It also means you shouldn't have to scrap the novel in the closing pages and start again at the beginning because Daisy turns out to be a man in drag on page 347 which means the man she married on page 12 is either into men in drag or has never shared a bed with her. Either of which needed to be made clear to the reader before the last chapter of the book ...

So here I am at the start - or restart, due to structural and other changes suggested on my recent Arvon course - of my teen fantasy novel. Do I write a white-hot first draft, as advocated by both Lee Weatherly and Malorie Blackman, our tutors, and also by Melvin Burgess, our mid-week reader, or do I continue with my plodding knit-one, purl-three approach to novel making?

I'm rather inclined, in my present mood, to rush into a white-hot draft. Onward and upward! But can I sustain such a punishing pace or will I start backsliding in a few days by making secret corrections while my other brain's sleeping?

And if I type too fast, will my dreaded RSI problems resurface?


Rob said...

I've tried both methods. The slow method drove me demented and I was sick of my novel by the time I finished it - luckily it was my first novel, so wasn't worth pursuing anyway. But it did give me a reasonably coherent plot.

The white-hot method took me 6 weeks. I kept having to change characters, previous plotlines etc and by the end, a lot of what I'd written in the first half of the book no longer applied to the 'new plot in my head,' without which the end wouldn't make sense. But this method was more fun and the novel seemed more dynamic.

But I prefer writing poetry any day.

Maybe try the white-hot way for a couple of weeks, and then start again in slow mode if it doesn't work for you?

Emma said...

I'm more of the white heat kind of gal, mainly because my brain can't handle the strain of trying to create new material and edit what I've put down at the same time.

I'll often gallop through a scene, putting in things like "He said xxxxx" and "then xxxxxxxxxx happened", because I want to get down the overall theme/feel/direction of a scene, rather than get bogged down in thinking up precise words, examples, whatever. I go back later and fill in the gaps when I'm more in the mood for contemplating le mot juste.

PS. Sent you an email but it just bounced back. Not sure if I have the right address. Emma

Jane Holland said...

Dunno why that happened, Emma. Try me again on janeholland @ poetrycornwall.demon.co.uk - I've actually switched now to a new email address but the old one is still working. Should be, anyway. I'm still getting emails through on that address every day (now that I've worked out how to access them remotely, as I can no longer get them straight to my computer now that ISP has changed).


Emma said...

Tried again. Doesn't seem to have bounced back this time. Fingers crossed. I think it could be my server playing up. Or my brain.

Anyway, off to London overnight for some R&R, a decent film and a Japanese meal. Kids are off giving my father a hard time, he he.

Keep up the good work. E x

Ms Baroque said...

Go white-hot, baby. And remember: the RSI can just as easily kick in from your wrists hovering over the keys while you try to think of what to put...

Edmond Clay said...

I would like to offer my opinion however humble on the issue of whether to write while 'white-hot' or in a methodical predetermined manner. The technique that has presented itself by example to me is one that involves both methods. To quote Dewey "...and art product results when emotional turmoil and an external episode are fused in a new object which is expressive of neither of them separately nor yet of a mechanical junction of the two but of just the meaning the artist is after." Page 105, "The Technique of the Novel" by Thomas Uzzell. My own experience here is that of an emotional experience, a powerful feeling that comes over me and finds itself expressed as a singular depiction (episode) that best expresses (has meaning) or summarizes the turmoil. For example, in "Eros and Psyche: The Dialogue" my lover and I were having a bit of an argument over an issue that had arisen between us. It was just before Valentine's day and the rest is history. The "white-hot" carried the writing because there were both a profound implication and an abiding integrity within me. By integrity I mean an uncompromising adherence to principles and wholeness. Again, to paraphrase Dewey, there was "emotional turmoil" and "external episode...with just the meaning (I was)...after." I began by adapting the argument (we emailed a lot) to the natural conflict between Eros and Psyche, their differences, and then pleasantly discovered that the subject had been covered in antiquity, and since, each in a differing manner by different artists. As I soared along I began weaving congruencies into the plot, sharing the truths in the previous expressions, and eventually was actually able to quote an entire passage from the original treatise as part and parcel to my own creation, even then stylizing a passage in the same manner to follow. That's integrity of artistic expression. I would never have thought in a rational manner that this could be done by myself, but the muse did and will prevail for you as well. Simply put: first feel something powerful, gestate and be patient. Your unconscious will assemble and organize, then produce an episode that will present itself as an event that has meaning for you. Then take that inspiration and go write.

Nice to meet you Ms. Holland!

Jane Holland said...

I don't believe in the muse for prose, I'm afraid, Edmond. There's something to be said for her influence when writing poetry. But prose is a different kettle of mackerel altogether. And although I agree entirely with the 'let it gestate, then come forth in its own idiom' method, again, it doesn't work that well when writing prose on a schedule. If poetry is art, prose is more like mathematics.

Besides, I've spent a lifetime writing prose, and although only a small amount of it has been published, the facility gained from long exposure means I can get up at 8am and write straight away, if necessary. Which is useful when writing something over a number of months which will be more than 70,000 words in length ...