No reason to panic. No, the old saw that says first drafts are always shitty…that’s a sure bet.
But then there’s something truly humbling about the stumbling of a first draft. There’s a kind of freedom to stagger this way and that, almost like a drunk exploring the Holy City of the Story. The author doesn’t usually know the structure of the narrative, what goes first, second, and so on. It’s very hard to know so much simultaneous meanings in an aesthetically contoured “shapely” manner.
In fact the experience of first drafting can be a way to relieve your unconscious of the overload of extraordinary implications. All those tortured mazeways gone bad. All those dialogs that fall on dumb ears. Yes, it’s a freak show sometimes but until we travel through the haunted house with all its wavery mirror glass, well, and even then we only get a few glimpses of where all these implications are lining up…if in fact they should “line up.”
So, here’s a toast of your favorite inspirational magic to the great free spirit of the first draft. Here’s where the free ranging chicken may well grow into a plumed serpent of mythic proportions. Here’s the joy of freedom and the nightmare of too many choices. Yes, decisions must be made. But unlike painting, us scribes have the joyous freedom to rewrite and bring to high lustre great insights we never knew were secure in our feeble fingers’ keyboard journeys into inky nights and clarifying days.
To First Drafts…the best is yet to come…
I’ve thought now and then as a novelist I’ve always wanted to write something that might be accessible to high schoolers and adults. And indeed there has to be something not too cranky and complex, let’s say, about the language to start. You’ll lose the young person if you’re doing riverrun past eve&adams kind of modernist Joycean riffs. You tend to think too that you can emulate an earlier period of speaking if too arcane or argot or slang filled, say like street kids in an Irish neighborhood of New York, say 1840s.
Yet historical fiction requires immersion in research; tread lightly if not ready for the research. Then again, you can’t be quite sure until you know that historical language as a writer. Of course if it really matters to you as a writer, you’ll write it anyway and let the chips fly. Truth is, the old saw, write about what you know best, however seemingly mundane…may be the best source for such seamlessly expressive works of fiction that bridge youth and adulthood for it’s the moral spirit in the work that carries the day. It may be easier to write contemporary stories or novels that capture the moral zeitgeist. Imagine trying to invent now something equivalent to Catcher in the Rye. The connection to the inner essence of the story, its proper plotting or narration, its language of description, of dialog, of introspection all need to arise from a coherent source and flow out to fill the work, its setting, characters, theme and spirit. Not easy to write, but certainly a pleasure to read generally. I personally came at literary fiction slowly and enjoyed in my early adolescence detective fiction and Jules Verne science adventures. Taking those type masterplots and adding a bit more depth and seriousness, even complexity of plot and execution, you might carry the youth/adult audience. The Red Badge of Courage comes to mind, with Crane’s wonderful cinematic eye and plot rhythms…and it has a moral to ponder. Wuthering Heights was a high school enforced read; it put me to sleep, literally. How I got through the exams I don’t know. Only later could I read it again with some interest about the Bronte sisters. Overall, I’d say girls in high school have a finer appreciation for love stories and more generally relationship novels. Meanwhile guys are reading “Murder in the Rue Morgue” or “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “The Pit and the Pendulum”…I loved Treasure Island and most anything later on that I found that Stevenson wrote. My first serious embracing of a literary classic was Crime and Punishment…and feverish Raskolnikov literally gave me a day long headache. A novel of relative seeming simplicity and French impressionistic beauty for me is Snow Country by Yasanuri Kawabata, the Japanese novelist. This is a love story of a married Tokyo businessman (a dilettante student of Western opera who’s never seen an opera) who visits the hot spring baths in the north snow country each year and has a recurrent love affair getaway with a springs geisha. The visual rendering of the landscapes of snow and village, the cold, the odd on and off again love affair, all are readable but there’s something lost in translation I think for most adults much less a young person. Despite the fact the sexual relation is treated without explicit descriptive brushstrokes…the issue of adultery with a geisha even in a culturally relative situation would no doubt envelope any literary high school teacher in controversy. But my main point is this is readable as a young person as a beautifully painted descriptive text but I doubt the subtlety of the relationship and the difficulty to love between the main characters comes through given the complex customs and idiosyncratic psychologies of the individuals. Briefly, here’s another classic youth/adult novel, one of my anthropological favorites that speaks to the aesthetic-spiritual fulfillment of these extraodinary lasting novels: Laughing Boy, “Capturing the essence of the Southwest in 1915, Oliver La Farge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel is an enduring American classic. At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive “American”-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences.” Check it out if you don’t know it. Amazing.
IT might be intriguing to define those rite de passages of the young adult market, e.g., first love in the romance genre, or first combat in the world of young men (Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front perhaps) for coming of age adventure, etc. I think the challenge of seriously lasting fiction is getting fully inside a story and finding the moral-aesthetic energy to fill out the arc and flow of the plot, energize the characters and achieve the kind of seamless genuiness we expect. The seamless profluence of the text from the opening is a kind of dreamlike envelope the reader treats as “real” in the sense suspending disbelief. Believing in a fiction is a central question in a reader’s response. The various genres in a sense have their range of “realities” common to the reading experience. Magical realism swept the literary fiction world in English after the breakthrough of A Hundred Years of Solitude in the 60s.
Regarding Bestseller Speculation:
A droll story from publishing was the answer Bennet Cerf, Founder & Editor In Chief of Random House, gave to the interview question…(paraphrasing):
“Sir, can you give us a book title that would guarantee best seller status?”
Cerf reflected briefly…Well, it would have to be something about the Civil War, by far the most popular time period in American publishing history; but with so many titles, it would probably be a title like LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG!
You know he’s probably right: Civil War iconic President, his doctor and medical issues and wagging a shaggy dog sentimental tale/(tail).
I’ll leave that tip for someone more ambitious…frankly, I’d prefer a cat…but they’re maybe not as lovable in the annals of popular fiction. Cerf no doubt knew best.