Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, the short story collections From Here and Close Encounters, and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings and the biannual Lit Show, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a "Best of Baltimore" in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD. She tweets at https://twitter.com/MichalskiJen.
The Second Draft, or what I hate about writing
I finally waded into the cold water of the second novel draft, summarizing each chapter's plot, desires, description, story arc, and character. It's about what I've expected; some areas of description and characterization are thin, but I am often struck by a beautifully rendered paragraph or description or sequence of words, and it's an affirmation to me that, hey, you're an okay writer!
I have also found a tangled, weedy mess of participial phrases. For some reason, I love to sling them onto the ends of sentences. I used to think there was a lyrical element at play, but, reading over them, I wonder now if they are just the result of my extended thought process while writing, ie, she thought of him, lying on the beach, the muscles of his stomach like browned muffins, warm and soft. It's as if I'm drifting away into the image, trying to describe it. At any rate, I've been doing a lot of sentence chopping, adding periods and verbs and action to try to eliminate the feeling that the reader is always wading through something. Only one person should be trapped in the murky depths of my mind, and that should be me.
Another challenge during these drafts is to decide when is too much, or too little. Do the characters feel too thin, defined only by the skeletons of their actions, or should I fatten them with description? Who needs to know if the character's eyebrows have a funny slant, or that her t-shirt was blue? Writing groups never seem to help in these situations. When you give the manuscripts to five people, three want to know the color of the shirt, and two ask you why you've included the color of the shirt. Likewise, are the character's motives always understood by their actions, or is a window into their thoughts needed? When I do offer this glimpse, am I "telling" too much instead of "showing?"
No one ever said writing was easy. However, I find revising the worst part of the process. The initial draft is full of freedom, of discovery, of spontaneity. Although a lot can be cleaned up, tuned up, organized, answered, at the revision stage, a lot of the subtlety and magic of the uninhibited first draft can be poisoned, destroyed, and there is so much of what feels like second-guessing at this stage. When does a pointalist decide that the last dot is enough, or the abstract painter the last streak of paint?
I guess writing can be a lot like building a chair. You have to make a sound structure with good materials, but then the rest of it--the carving, the varnishing, the painting, the decorative flourishes--are just so much a matter a taste. Not everyone will buy your chair, in the end, because some hate Chippendales or basket-woven seats or metal legs, but no one will buy your chair if it's liable to land their ass on the floor when they sit on it.
Is there any part of the writing process you hate mores than others?