how to write a terrible first draft

Yesterday I finished writing the first draft of my novel. It is a really terrible first draft. I’m not being modest. I’m not showing off, either. It sucks. The characters are weak and do things for no reason. They can’t even hold onto their names for the length of the story. The plot is unjustifiably baroque. There is much boring dialogue in which the characters say things like, ‘how are you?’ and ‘I’m fine, thanks.’ (I feel I ought to make them do a fish dance or die in pain as punishment for being so disgustingly dull.) Yes, it is that bad.

But you know what? I couldn’t care less. I have been trying to write this novel for years – this novel, any novel really. Since I was a child, I have been trying to write a novel, thinking that I should write a novel (how bizarre, really), and wondering if I ever could write a novel. And sometimes it feels like my whole life has been the process of failing to write, and learning to write, and failing again. In recent years, my novel-writing attempts have taken the form of a series of exciting false starts, which ended after 50 words, 1000 words, even 20,000 words and more, because I felt too lost to continue. I’ve tried detailed outlining (buzzkill) and total pantsering  (scary). I even tried telling myself that it would be ok to stop being a writer and become a normal person instead, because I thought I just couldn’t DO IT. And then I did it.

And by doing it,  I learned how to do it. Which is precisely the sort of annoying and unhelpful ‘writing tip’ I’d been getting from other writers all along.

Things that helped me:

– allowing myself to write a really shitty first draft. (Also see here.)  I found this so difficult because I like to think I am a good writer… a published author…  blah de blah… I forgot about how when I wrote my first short stories they were deeply, deeply shit. A first draft of a novel is not a novel. Writing is rewriting.

– trusting that the story would reveal itself if I just kept writing.  It did. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Trust the process.

– forcing myself to write a lot, every day. I mean a lot. Rarely less than 2000 words. My highest word count for one day was nearly 10,000. Getting the story onto the page fast was very motivating.

– never looking back. I didn’t allow myself to revise and edit as I went along – hence the terrible dialogue and name changes and so on. I felt that if I went back, I would get stuck trying to make things perfect (or just, you know, not terrible).

– letting people know what I was doing. I posted my word counts on twitter and facebook. I got encouragement (thanks!) and it made me accountable.

Now, I hope I’ll be able to re-write this shitty first draft into something better. Something that I wouldn’t be ashamed for others to read. Already I am filling  my notebook with ideas and thoughts for the second draft. I have a feeling this might be where the real writing of this novel will begin. In the meantime, here’s to me, getting closer to achieving an ambition I’ve nursed since I was a kid.

the illustrated dreams of the editor

Got my contributor’s copy of Dark Tales XV in the post this morning, thank you very much.

My story is blurbed on the back – go me! It’s called ‘The Illustrated Dreams of the Ancestors’ and it’s a ghost story set in a small town in Okinawa. I lived in this small town for a year and a bit, and when I read the story I remember what it felt like to be there. Kind of weird.

I subbed this story to Dark Tales way back in 2009, which makes this a long wait for publication by anyone’s standards. At the time, I was particularly proud of the story, thinking it to be emotional and strange. I still think it is those things but OH. MY. GOD. GIVE ME A RED PEN. There are so many quirks and run on sentences, so many unecessary adjectives and repetitions.  And there are a couple of awkward moments in the narrative, where I remember struggling to express my meaning – and which I can now see clearly how I would rewrite.

I’m not exactly embarrassed, because it’s still a strong story and I’m glad it’s finally in print. It’s encouraging to look at earlier stories and realise that my writing is improving. But how I wish I’d had the chance to edit this before it went to print.

Dark Tales is a decent magazine, but honestly, I can’t see how they can sustain any kind of readership unless they publish more often. It’s frustrating to have something published that you wrote three years ago, without getting the chance to revise and edit first.

five writers with teeth and claws

A few years ago, I became scared that I was losing my lifelong passion for reading. So many mediocre books! So many bad ones…  I threw ‘Atonement’ across the room in disgust. ‘After Dark’ was a yawn fest. ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ made me sick with disappointment. It was a dark time in my reading life. I felt that I was falling out of love with the world.

But then I came across these incredible writers, who reached out their claws and ripped out my heart. Monsters. I love them.

1. Kelly Link

If you don’t read Kelly Link, you are missing out on something wonderful. She writes the best short stories in the world.  I discovered Kelly Link at a very strange time in my life. I was trying to write a story called ‘Magic for Beginners’ – a terrible story that had nothing going for it except that great title. One afternoon I wandered into Waterstones where there was a display table full of a book called ‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link. I felt the swift punch of fate to my solar plexus. Then I opened the book and started reading a story about a witch who gives birth to a house, and my life changed forever. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kelly Link taught me what a story could be – that it could be so much bigger and stranger than I had ever dared.

2. Rikki Ducornet

Before I read ‘The Butcher’s Tales’, I had no idea that anyone wrote the strange, very short, macabre vignettes that I had been trying to write myself for the past few years. Hers are brilliant little slices of flesh, still bloody, on a white plate. I went on to read her novels, of which ‘Netsuke’ and ‘Gazelle’ are particularly wonderful. Her writing is a knife to the heart. She sees everything. Be very afraid.

3. Kaaron Warren

Dark, dark, dark – they all go into the dark. Not quite sure how Kaaron Warren creates such spectacularly creepy stories that are still utterly involving and engaging. Her novels are diverse in subject matter and setting, but all share the disturbing ability to draw you in, and take you to places you never really wanted to go, but can’t bear to walk away from. Her novel ‘Slights’ has one of the most disturbed/disturbing main characters I’ve ever come across, and yet it is one of the most compelling stories I’ve read. I fear Kaaron Warren may have sold her soul to the devil to pay for her incredible storytelling ability.

4. Rachel Pollack

Many writers attempt to create new fairytales and myths. None, in my opinion, are as successful as Rachel Pollack. Her work as a Tarot reader informs her writing in many strange and unexpected ways. ‘The Tarot of Perfection’ is a collection of beautiful short stories that take the reader deep below the surface of things to explore the secret mysteries of the subconscious. Unmissable.

5. Greer Gilman

No one writes like Greer Gilman. No one else dares. ‘Cloud and Ashes’ is an extraordinary, beautiful book that has drawn comparisons with Shakespeare and James Joyce, amongst others. Read it. That is all.

 

terrible news for terrible people

Thanks to my extraordinarily talented brother, Matt Bruce, I now have this spanking new website with which to inflict myself, my writing, and (worst of all) my opinions upon the world.

This can only spell disaster.

Watch this space.

My fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including Black Static, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, Shimmer, Salt’s Best British Fantasy, Great British Horror, Best British Horror, and others, and has been short-/long-listed for various prizes including the Bridport Prize and Mslexia short story competition. In 2017 my story WHITE RABBIT won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction. THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS, my debut collection,  is available to order from the publisher or through Amazon UK, US or Barnes and Noble.

Contact me by email: littleeggcups [at] yahoo.co.uk or on twitter @monster_soup