Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's Okay If It Stinks

Recently I had the opportunity to be part of a ten-person critique group with Tobias Wolff, who is well-known in the literary fiction world for his short stories, and probably best known to the young adult world for his memoir This Boy's Life, which I think I was encouraged to read about a thousand times when I was in high school. He's also the author of the novel Old School, a Catcher in the Rye-esque novel about a boy at an elite boarding school. I've still never read This Boy's Life but Old School was v. good, so I was pretty excited to have my work critiqued by him. (Not my YA novel, but one of my adult lit-fic short stories.)

I plan on sharing my thoughts about the actual workshop and critique process in a post on my personal blog, but I wanted to share here one piece of advice Wolff gave that I particularly took to heart. Another member of the group asked if he rewrote, or if he was generally happy with his first drafts. Wolff replied no--and even went as far as to explain that all of his first drafts were crap, awful writing. That it wasn't until he'd rewritten and rewritten and restarted and reworked about fifty times that he was left with anything he liked and that he thought seemed okay.

This was a heartening thing for me to hear, and imagine for many writers, as I have been trapped in the first chapter vortex for some months now. As soon as I think I'm on the brink of getting it right, it either all fall apart or I begin to hate it--and then it's time to start over. I thought I was just being wasteful and neurotic, but it turns out I'm not alone.

I think this constant rewriting process is hard for me because I used to be a one-and-done kind of person. I HATED rewriting. I never rewrote any of my academic papers (including my big, 30 and 40 page ones) in college or grad school. On the occasion that I DID rewrite something, it was generally a very quick process, in which I attended to the specific points that had been told to me by my professor, but left the overall concept and outline of the paper (or story) the same. In fact, when I rewrote a paper for a grad school professor, he gave it back to me and his comment was, "You haven't so much rewritten this as tinkered with it..." He nailed me--up until that point, I'd always be a tinkerer. A few sentences here, a reordering of paragraphs there, but never anything major.

So now here I am, having taking my main character from being 13 to 15 to on the brink of 17, from living on a farm to living in the city above her parent's shop to living in a boarding house. From having a dead grandfather to a dead brother to a dead father. Not to mention about a million other detail changes. It's hard, but I think it's good for me.

But what about you all? Are you tinkerers or full-on architects?


  1. Hehehe, I was almost begining to wonder if I had blacked out and written the second half of this post-it sounds so much like me. Well I think Im becoming rather infamous for being a major architect specializing in chapter 1 and lets see I went from a 13 yr living in a small town to a 15 yr old in a small town to a 16 yr in NYC moving to a small town. I've written a chapter 1 opening, a prologue, a preface, an opening at night, an opening in morning, an opening in 3rd person and 1st person....Whooo! Definitely not a tinkerer.

  2. I think I'm willing to rewrite, but with MC I feel like I've been primarily a tinkerer. In the beginning it was more rewriting... chapters 1 through 3 got like twice as long and went through multiple drafts each, and I was totally stuck on chapter four and wrote about three different beginnings that were awful. But I feel like I'm pretty well in my groove now that I'm further maybe the beginning is just the most difficult to nail down!


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