Tag Archives: self-editing

Jack Kerouac and NaNoWriMo

8 Nov

Jack Kerouac claimed to have written On the Road in three weeks.  That’s only partly true.  My coauthor, Paul Maher Jr., and I tell the less marketable but more realistic story in Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Part of the way Kerouac wrote his novels was to sit down at a typewriter and write, write, write til the story was told.  There’s something to be said about this.  The intensity of writing a whole novel in a short time span drives the work.  It’s so easy as an author to get distracted, to start something and never complete it, to get so caught up in getting syntax correct that the story never moves forward.  The “backspace” button on the computer keyboard is all too familiar to most authors, struggling as self-editors.  We want to get it right.  Sometimes this happens at the expense of getting it done at all.

While many would disagree, some authors believe that the key to writing is to push out a first draft.  Once the backbone of the story is there on the page, the author can always go back and edit it.  Most times, the editing process is the longest and most arduous.  Whole sections are moved or deleted.  Characters are killed off if they’re not important.  Diction is tightened.

I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month — this year to gain a better sense of what Kerouac went through when he wrote his books.  Call it “method writing” to understand the subject of my book better.

Writing Wednesday: “I Just Give Myself Permission to Suck”

21 Mar

I don’t really I get writers’ block.  I always have an idea of what I want to put on the page, or else I just start writing and something new and unexpected finds its way onto the page.  The problem I have is in getting it out onto the page in the first place.  I know that sounds an awful lot like the same thing as writers’ block, but hear my out because I feel there’s a bit of a distinction.

I’m a self-editor.  I can’t get a sentence out without questioning its validity, its beauty, or its coherence.  I blame my career choice for that: I’m an editor by profession.  I obsess over syntax and punctuation, as if they’re more important than the story itself.

Once I’ve gotten a few paragraphs on the page, I begin to worry.  Was that a good place to start the story?  Should I open with dialogue?  Did I provide enough background information?  Too much background information?  Is this story even worth telling???

I move paragraphs around.  I delete sentences.  I go back and reread what I wrote and decide I hate it all.  I feel like giving up, and I haven’t even written the middle of the story yet.

While writing workshops are extremely beneficial to raising issues a writer may have never thought about in their own work, the flipside is it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the criticism that it negatively affects the writing process.  As I write, there’s a cacophony of “create scenes,” “give us more,” and “show, don’t tell” in my head.  These are important elements to keep in mind, no doubt, but the first draft doesn’t always have all those elements in perfect harmony.  The first draft sometimes comes out like a rambling outline of thoughts.  (Not unlike this blog.)

And that’s okay.

I’m a firm believer in Allen Ginsberg’s writing philosophy of “first thought best thought.”  I think the core of writing comes from the pacing and passion of spontaneity.  But that doesn’t mean it always works out that way.  Sometimes the first draft is like a car revving its engine.  Maybe you’re just spinning your wheels and not actually getting to your destination, but you’re gearing up for it.

I felt so encouraged when I read that John Green deletes “about 90%” of his first drafts:

Q. How do you deal with writers’ block?
A. I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90% of my first drafts (the only exception to this rule so far has been Will Grayson, Will Grayson) so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90% chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating.

I also like to remind myself of something my dad said to me once in re. writers’ block: “Coal miners don’t get coal miners’ block.”

If the name John Green sounds familiar that’s because he’s the guy who decided with his brother to stop corresponding to each other via textual communication and talk primarily through vlogs on youtube.  “The videos spawned a community of people called nerdfighters who fight for intellectualism and to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck,” as his website points out.


John Green’s also the enviable author whose manuscript reached the #1 position on Amazon this past summer even before it was published.  His new book is called The Fault in Our Stars; he previously wrote Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

Not being able to get words out onto the page and deleting 90% of them, it’s amazing writers ever publish anything at all!