Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Disloyalty: A Writer's Virtue

"I am happiest when I write what I do not expect. I seek surprise, contradiction, doubt, challenge. Many drafts are failures, but instructive failures. We have to fail in order to write... Each first draft is a new step into the unknown. It is by drafting (failing) that we uncover our true meaning."
~ Tom Romano (from Adolescent Literacy)



Most of us feel a strong sense of loyalty to our first drafts or our current WIP's. Romano says that he is never loyal to his first drafts - that is when the story tells us what it has to say. Through a great deal of editing and revision, our drafts become "natural, graceful, fluid," and express what we want them to say. Graham Greene said, "Isn't disloyalty as much the writer's virtue as loyalty is the soldier's?" If we cling too tightly to our stories - to favorite lines, paragraphs, scenes - we cling to mediocrity.

I wrote a picture book. I queried that picture book. BIG MISTAKE.

When I found a critique group and allowed others to provide valid and constructive feedback, I discovered it was never meant to be a picture book at all. It has become a full-fledged chapter book. I had to let go of the "picture book" mentality and some of my favorite chunks of text. That hurt a little. But you know what? I love what my story has become. And it's a stronger story.

Tom Romano was right. I'm happier with the story I didn't expect.

Today, have an open mind to the potential that may be hiding in your story somewhere - be excited about feedback that frustrates you. Seek "surprise, contradiction, doubt and challenge" within your writing and be happy when you find it.

Have you ever ended up with a story you didn't expect?

40 comments:

Nisa said...

Oh I needed that quote today. Thanks for posting it. We ARE happier with the story we didn't expect. I've been clinging to an old version. The story I've told myself for the past ten years. Now that I'm writing it out, it has become new and better, but sometimes somethings are hard to let go. Better to just get it over with and move on! :D

Aubrie said...

I love how he says we uncover the true meaning! Sometimes I really have to scrap to get at it. *phew*

I'm glad your picture book turned into a chapter book! That's really neat and it means there was so much really there that you needed to uncover more of the story.

Great post!

JustineDell said...

Not, yet - but I'm working on it. My finished book has went through 5 rewrites and is now on the verge of another on - gah! - it's almost a different story. If I didn't hadn't editing so much, I might actually like what it turned into, but now it just makes my eyes bleed. ;-)

~JD

L. T. Host said...

Yes, but in a more direct way-- when I got the idea for my last book, I thought, oh, that's a great idea, I really wish someone else would write it because it's not something I'd write.

But it wouldn't leave me alone, and I wrote it, and I'm pretty happy with how it came out.

Bethany Mattingly said...

Yeah definitely, I never had in mind in the earliest draft what is going on paper today. Now, my favorite parts are the new parts. :)

KLM said...

EVERY SINGLE TIME I WRITE. Gosh, this makes me feel better. I used to write these ridiculous outlines and then never look at them again. I figured I was too chaotic, and I must be doing something wrong. Then I began to enjoy discovering the way stories unfolded on their own. "Embrace the chaos" is my motto with writing (and parenting). Now I liken my writing process to building a suspension bridge over a deep chasm, one plank at a time. Thrilling and dangerous are synonyms, right? :)

Great post! And thanks for visiting my blog, too.

Tere Kirkland said...

Clinging to mediocrity sounds about right.

But with each revision, you become a better writer. Yeah, there are times when I don't want to change things in my first draft, but then I come back with a fresh eye and think critically, and decide that change is usually for the best.

Carolyn V. said...

Shannon, I did the same thing with my 1st piece of work! I sent it out and found out... nope... not that great. My critique group helped me out and boy, my writing is getting better. I can't wait to hear what happens with your chapter book! =)

Charity Bradford said...

Yes, my current wip was completely different for about 6 years. That entire time, I could not figure out how to get to the ending I envisioned. I finally let go of what I expected and something magical happened. A few small changes and the story became something I could really fall in love with.

I think it is when we let our muses lead the way that our best work comes out.

Solvang Sherrie said...

I was talking about this very thing with a critique partner yesterday! Talk about great minds thinking alike :)

Jamie D. said...

Yes. "Loyalty" is the perfect word to describe what I felt to my first draft when I first started thinking that I needed to make some major changes in revisions. And I had crit partners reminding me not to change it *too* much, because they liked the original story. That was really kind of hard, because I knew these big, sweeping changes would make it so much better, but at the same time, I'd have to let go of the first draft and rip it apart. I kind of felt like I was "betraying" the original story by wanting so much of a change...

It's definitely better, though, and flowing easily, so I know I'm doing the right thing. But goodness, it's hard to let that first draft go...

Shannon said...

Great topic! It's good to see that I am not alone.

After completing my first draft, I had a nagging feeling that it wasn't right.

"But that's the story the characters told me to write," I justified.

I made some line edits and then sent it out to query. BIG mistake.

After a few rejections, I stumbled across a quote by William Faulkner: Kill all your darlings.

He believed that writers must get rid of the elements that we love so much, but don't add anything to the story as a whole - or, likely, weaken it. (Typical "darlings" are clever phrases and anecdotes that don't really relate to the story).

Once I chainsawed my darlings, I was free to really look at the ms. I abandoned my loyalty to the first draft was able to form a much stronger story.

B. Miller said...

My whole concept for the WIP was unexpected. It started out as a short story I just couldn't make work. I had over 30 pages of this story when I realized what was frustrating me was the lack of emotional connection between the readers and the characters. "I'll have to write a damn book to make that happen!" I said.

And look at me now, 80,000 words later. Ha!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I love the concept of letting go in order to grow. It's a lesson I need to learn over and over.
How great to hear your chapter book is thriving!

Patti Lacy said...

Great post as usual! Yes, I am quite often surprised. My brain gets grooves that make it hard to change direction. Sometimes a sledgehammer is needed!

Patti

Shelley Sly said...

Oh, absolutely. I'm currently giving my very first novel an extreme makeover. And then it'll be in the hands of my new beta reader, and I'm sure there will be a ton of changes (not just grammar-wise; I'm suspecting I'll have to remove entire scenes and chapters). I'm actually glad that we're not tied to our original ideas and drafts -- what we learn and apply to our writing makes the result so much better. Excellent post, Shannon!

Heather said...

This last manuscript I wrote really surprised me by turning out to be something totally unexpected, in a good way! I love it when that happens!

Simon C. Larter said...

Ah, but in flash fiction, there aren't that many words to be loyal to, are there? It's perfect for the uncommitted writer. And, er... me.

Every story seems to turn into one I didn't expect, though. That's the beauty of the writing process.

Great post, good lady.

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

My current WIP was so different before, it might only be recognizable in a vague sort of way. The characters are the same, the idea is basically the same, but I changed a lot along the way. It's really important to let yourself make changes.

Mary Aalgaard said...

Yes. And, thanks for sharing about your PB turned CB. While I was writing my drama, my character started talking about her mom dying of breast cancer. I stopped and asked her, "Where did that come from?" Then, I said, "keep it. It works!" Yes, I'm crazy.

Bane of Anubis said...

I'm never happy w/ my first draft, and usually don't have any close attachment to the finished product, which means I can usually move on easily -- this can be bad and good

Elana Johnson said...

Lots of times! Since I don't outline, every story I write is one I didn't expect. Especially the subplots. They creep up on you like crazy!

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

All the time. After my CPs get done with it, all kinds of stuff changes. But always for the better. :)

Katie Ganshert said...

This is great advice, Shannon. I especially like this line: "be excited about feedback that frustrates you". Often times, I get frustrated with feedback, because I want my story to be PERFECT right now! but after I give myself time to settle down, and figure out a way to fix what needs to be fixed, I always end up with a better story!

Lydia Kang said...

Absolutely! My current WIP used to be very different. New scenes and subplots have emerged and I'm not really sure where they heck they came from!

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

This happened all the time with my short stories, and now I see it happening with my novel. It's really interesting hearing the voice emerge as I get deeper into the first draft -- so different than I anticipate!

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Shannon, uh, yeah! :) This is a really great post -- such wisdom here. Now, if only we could all learn to discern when to let go and when to hold on tight. It can be really hard. I received some great advice this weekend that is going to help my future direction. I am so thankful for helpful writerly suggestions, including what you offer up here. Thanks. Oh, and I do hope to see you on my new writer blog, Peace Garden Writer. I launched it today and look forward to seeing your lovely face in the comments when you have a chance. Hugs from ND to MT. :)

Susan R. Mills said...

Happens to me all the time. My current WIP is nothing like the first draft. It's better, not what I intended, but better.

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

Ask me again in a year...

Why do novels take so long to revise?

Angie Paxton said...

Came over from Unedited. What a great post. It captures so well the journey that is writing.

elizabeth mueller said...

In order to grow, we need to be teachable. I so agree with you!

Bish Denham said...

I have many times had a story turn into something I didn't expect. Always a delightful surprise.

Cheree said...

Oh, that happens to me all the time. I try to plot my stories, but my characters end up not wanting to do that and take the story in a different direction.

Jen said...

Heck yes!! My first novel turned into exactly that something far better than I could have ever expected!!! You watch something grow and in return you grow attached!!!

Susan Fields said...

I love that quote. I totally agree that each book I've written has been an invaluable learning experience. Even if they never get published, I can't consider them failures when I've learned so much by writing them.

Anissa said...

I'm currently drowning in revisions of a story I didn't expect. I wrote this one once. Scrapped a whole sub plot and started from scratch. I still can't believe where the story went. Now I just need the perfect ending...

L.T. Elliot said...

I've ended up with lots of stories I didn't expect! I'm definitely one of those who fears letting go of the first draft. I'm just learning to embrace it as the mold for my true story and it's helping me a lot.

SonshineMusic i.e. Rebecca T. said...

I've just been contemplating this very thing. I've finally decided to let go of what I originally planned and let the story tell itself. Then I can go back and form it, but I can tell the unexpected is better than what I had originally planned. Thanks for the reminder/encouragement/confirmation :)

Sun Singer said...

One of the great things about writing is ending up with what we don't expect. Suddenly, we're just OUT THERE in a new world having adventures we never dreamt were possible.

Malcolm

Tory said...

Hi, Shannon! I am new to your blog and absolutely love it! I can't wait to tuck my little munchkins in the bed so I can return and read further. Given that I'm new to the writing industry, I am attempting to gobble up as much information as possible. As a former elementary school teacher, I feel we have a lot in common. Please stop by my blog and take a look. I love feedback! Have a great weekend, Tory

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