Writing is full of magical moments. I’m in the middle of several of them right now: the glamour of first draft, the rewards of beta-reading, and the lessons of prolific production.
There’s the night before creation, when the story starts taking shape out of the fog. I’m on vacation for two and a half weeks, and the first week of that was spent in reading for my Summer NaNo project, tentatively titled Leonie Hallward and the Secession of Greenwich Village. After alternating between Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (and looking up its many film and stage adaptations) and Ross Wetzsteon’s Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: the American Bohemia, 1910-1960, the story started to take shape. In the course of a long walk, I got the picture of a black-haired, grey-eyed woman standing on the deck of a steamship headed to New York, and she started to tell me her story.
She’s Leonie Hallward, daughter of an English art dealer and a Franco-American watercolorist, and (more to the point of this story) the niece of Basil Hallward, whose infamous portrait of Dorian Gray, along with a number of other paintings, she is accompanying to New York to its new home in the Fifth Avenue mansion of an American millionaire. I don’t know her story yet, except that she will be included in the party memorialized in John Sloan’s etching Arch Conspirators, who declared the secession of Greenwich Village from the USA one winter night in the teens of the twentieth century.
Leonie’s version of the picture will literally change history.
Meanwhile, I’m beta-reading my friends’ novels as they move from first to second draft, and watching them take the opening-chapter data-dump, chop it into elegant morsels of back-story, and distribute it throughout the story. In particular, I’m having the pleasure of watching Devin Harnois create a supernatural-metaphysical romp through world pantheons in Not My Apocalypse (excerpt from the first draft here) and Saint of Sinners (excerpt here), with foul-mouthed but goodhearted reluctant teenaged antichrist.
I’m also finishing detailed comments on an elegant time-travel romance by Angela Quarles. Must Love Breeches resonates with my inner history-lover, while teaching me valuable lessons about genre conventions and how far they can be stretched. Answer: Thus far, but much further than you’d think, in the hands of a true fan and master.
I’m also looking for the common threads in my own beta-readers’ responses. In the last year and a half, I’ve written and submitted to my first readers a rather extensive body of work: two novellas (30,000 words each), two long short stories (10,000 words each), and a full-length novel (98,000 words). The common theme: my raw-draft openings are pure chaos, space and time and characters rushing out with the speed (and confusion) of Niagara, but once I get hold of the thread of plot, things move along at a nice clip.
It doesn’t seem avoidable; it’s just the way my stories write themselves in raw draft. Watching my friends revise, I’ve learned that editing works wonders. The “wrong bits” might just be in the wrong place, and anything that doesn’t work after that can be cut. Raw draft is raw material, and raw material (as any sculptor will tell you) is there to be carved. Research is the mountain, raw draft the block, and final draft the statue.
So I’m wiser, and happier, and ready to edit last year’s raw drafts while creating something new in all its glorious chaos.