anthony dobranski online


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Love your pile of words (first drafts)

I love my current first draft.

This is a shocking and unfashionable thing to say. Everyone laments their first draft. It is the shoals of mediocrity on which our dreams founder, or at least so tells every clickbait online writing workshop. Complaining about the horror of that first draft is required. Even really successful and also good writers do it, and always have.

I love mine. I banged it out for NaNoWriMo 2015, in fewer than my allotted thirty days. Yes, I know that’s a long time ago (I sold a book in the meantime!), but that length of time is supposed to make clear how awful the first draft is, as the scales of hope fall from my more jaundiced and persnickety eyes.

Alas, I love it, blazingly. I have reread it more than once, with comments from my writing dojo NoveltyDC, and each time I am in a better mood.

It’s got half-finished ideas that I now can’t remember, areas that need major restructuring, a lot of plodding exposition. Some of my best supporting characters – like the smuggler with a tail – are on far too briefly. Late ideas may turn out to be organizing principles. No doubt I will rewrite almost every sentence in it, reorganize it, wrestle it. I may occasionally kick it. It will take a lot of work. Even then it will be niche, strange, uncommercial and standalone.

It’s going to be great.

What is wrong with me? How did I get to this place? How did I find joy and wonder in my work while others gnash teeth and tear hair? It isn’t my success to date, which is tiny; nor is it my upbeat disposition, which is pure fakery. So what is it?

Here’s a thought – I love it because it’s a draft. It may be made of words, but it’s not a novel yet. It’s been work of course, the work of felling trees and forging nails, but this is the lumber and hardware and cleared ground, not the finished house. It’s a pile of words and ideas, and for that, it’s just fine. Well, maybe I will need a few more words.

The draft is the start, the lumber and blueprints. It will not house or warm you, not without a lot of work to come. It’s just a stage.

Get excited. And get to work.


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Merge and purge (writing and language)

My first draft was 220,000 words of symbol-laden passages and over-described locales. Over years I steadily replaced sets of words with smaller stronger ones, refining the language to heighten the story and the emotional viewpoint. The never-quite-articulated goal was for the words to hold more weight relative to their size thanks to their structure.

In four passes I got down to 120,000 words. I cut few complete scenes. Mostly I just kept redoing the language, finding slenderer shorter beams for each bit of structure, abandoning ideas that were less essential. It was like starting with an Art Deco skyscraper and renovating it into a geodesic dome, bit by bit.

Now I hope to write less in the first place but I am not sure it is turning out that way. At least I outline more, or more frequently, nothing grand but enough to guide me. Still, once it’s prose, my process scales to it. Less is an asymptote. Even a small post like this, I write and rewrite, in layers, questioning the questioning.

Yesterday going through the magazine pile for something to read with my soup, I stumbled upon an article discussing linguist Noam Chomsky’s controversial recent ideas about the beginning of language. Chomsky theorizes early humans created the foundations of language by developing a new ability Chomsky calls Merge, the ability to group mental objects and work with them as a unit.

I’m no judge of linguistics theory but as an idea Merge resonates with me. Something in my process also looks to merge, or at least more densely encode, meanings – and wants a lot of meaning to encode. Just as we care about both increasing bandwidth and compressing data, maybe the drive to merge is tied in with communication in multiple ways, a circle of acquiring and optimizing we have yet to map out.

I also confess a happy feeling about my own fiction’s truth. One of the angels to appear late in my novel is of_clumping, which I felt was a driving force in our universe, from stars to black holes. How nice to think this is an angel of meaning as well.