Tuesday, June 24, 2008

An Odd Little Theory

Sharon Wildwind

Three Rings for the Elven-kings . . .
Seven for the Dwarf-lords . . .
Nine for Mortal Men . . .
One Ring to rule them all . . .
(J.R.R. Tolkien)

Ever wonder why cats have 9 lives? Or bad things come in 3s? Or why The Coasters sung about Charlie Brown on his knees, “yellin’ 7 come 11 down in the boys’ gym?”

In almost every culture odd numbers, particularly those between 1 and 13, are thought to have magical powers.

A couple of decades ago, when I began seriously studying creative writing, my advisor said, “Never stop with an even-numbered draft. Your second draft will be crap, and your fourth draft will have the life polished out of it. It you get as far as draft six, either you don’t have a good handle on your story or you’re telling the wrong story.”

At the time, I thought he was crazy. Why wouldn’t draft 2 be just as strong as 1? Or 4 just as enticing as 3? It was my story, and if I wanted to work it not just 6 times, but 8 or 14 or 22, what was the harm in that? But he was my advisor, and I did want to graduate, so I nodded, wrote what he said in my notebook, and got on with life.

Some twenty-eight years later, I’ll be doggoned if he wasn’t right.

For me, a “draft” is a completed story, from, “It was hot in Los Angeles. I was working the day watch out of robbery. The boss is Captain Gannon . . .” to “On September 15, a trial was held in Superior Court in the State of California . . .” Writers have a multitude of ways of getting through the first draft. Some breeze straight ahead, building a skeleton from which they will hang the story in subsequent drafts. Some dog-paddle in circles through the chapters, returning to revise earlier material as they get a better grip on the tale by working through it. But there comes a day when that first daft is finished.

Why the second draft is crap:

The second draft is where I have to get over myself as a writer. Oh, my gosh, I’ve written an entire book! I hear Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality running through my head. This is going to be my break-out book, the Great Canadian Novel, the book where the world realizes my true worth as one of the literary giants of the age.

Eventually, common sense sets in and a book becomes just a book again. That’s called draft three. If draft 1 runs on pure creative energy, draft 3 gets it’s power from a kind of rhythm I hear in my head, a feeling akin to “being in the zone.” It’s where the music of the story flows.

Why the fourth draft is lifeless:

The fourth draft is when I am bone weary of this stupid story. I’ve been working on it far too long. The characters are cardboard. The dialog is flat. The story makes no sense. It’s all been done before by writers far, far more talented than I will ever be. This is where my husband looks at his watch and says, “Yep, the melt down is happening right on time.”

Most times, for me, the fifth draft is the magical one. I’ve achieved as good a balance as I can between all the disparate elements. The characters are moving, talking, and acting like real people. The plot may actually hold one or two clever bits, and the story, as a whole, hangs together. I control the language, have sorted out the grammar and may have figured out where those pesky commas belong, though some commas are always a toss-up. Sigh.

If I’m not there by draft 5, there is something radically wrong with the story. Usually, what’s wrong is that I’m not risking enough. The stakes need to be higher, and the characters need to risk more. It’s time to seriously look at if this is a story I should be telling, and if it is, to cycle it back to draft #1 of a greatly revised story.

It's almost enough to make me believe in the power of numbers.

Writing quote for the week:

Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectural one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.
~Walter Benjamin, critic and philosopher (1982-1940)

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