Friday, April 15, 2011

Quarry

When I started writing Delux, I wrote a dreadful first chapter. My friend Heidi Stern's response was a kind inquiry: does San Francisco have any writing programs?

I found The Writing Salon, a program that offers classes taught by writers. I'd studied English in college, but not creative writing. Good at criticism, decent writing skills, no idea how to create a scene or a character. Or suspense. The Writing Salon helped me with that.

Karen Bjorneby taught the course that helped me complete the first draft. The class was like Weight Watchers for writers: you commit to writing 10-15 pages a week and after a year, voila!, you have a first draft. The class format was to trade pages with a writing partner every week and meet with all the students once a month. My writing partners and I exchanged encouragement and feedback each week, as well as new pages. At the monthly meetings, the class reviewed a section of 20-25 pages from a few of the students.

If you're a first time writer, I highly recommend finding a partner, either through a class or through your own networks, who will hold you accountable for new pages.

Karen told a story about first drafts that has always stuck in my head. The first draft is different from all the other drafts. You start with nothing other than an idea. Finishing the first draft, Karen said, is like coming home from the quarry with a hunk of marble. You have a vague shape and a knowledge of the material, but you have major addition and subtraction ahead to sculpt your hunk of marble into the finished piece.

In under a year, I came home with my quarry, the first draft of Delux. I'd started with nothing more than an idea that I wanted to write about the dynamics of art, religion, and business, and an inspiration that an acquaintance who'd left a commune in Vermont to start an art gallery in Los Angeles might be the kernel of a main character.

Working through the first draft, I found out I write linearly, one chapter after the next. Not everyone does. I also found out by the third chapter that I was lost, couldn't keep track of characters or plot points. I stopped. I looked at some classic story structures. Then, for each of the planned chapters, I wrote a few sentences describing what had to happen, but not how. For a couple chapters, all I wrote was, "And then things get even worse." That was enough to keep my bearings. On I wrote to the end.

The first draft had problems, lots of problems, but I printed out a copy to redline anyway. I knew much more about the main character and his journey. I'd also met characters I'd never expected. A lunatic Dutch designer, a hunky Hollywood screenwriter, a lovely Afro-American artist. Some gods. More about them another time.

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