“‘A movie should be there in rough cut,’ the film editor Paul Hirsch once told me. The same is true of books. I think it’s rare that incoherence or dull storytelling can be solved by something so minor as a second draft.”
-Stephen King, On Writing
This isn’t the easiest stone to swallow, but makes a lot of sense in light of how hard it can be to slug through a first draft. Because, as King’s observation makes me realize, the first draft is the essence of the thing. And as much as we want to give ourselves permission to ride roughshod over any rules of the craft as we put it down, somewhere we know that its quality does matter.
And that’s part of what trips us up: The closer we get to being finished, the closer we get to potentially realizing that the piece was never any good to begin with, that the whole thing was a waste of time.
So we claw through it, slower than better judgment tells us to. Because in some persistent part of our brains, we know the faith that the second draft will redeem the sins we commit in the first is only partly true.
Lest we ruin any chance the piece ever had to be good, we (ok, I… I’d love to hear to what extent this does or doesn’t apply to you) take that excruciating, distraction-prone extra time on the first draft.
Which, of course, is what King ends up warning us against doing.
“There is no there there.” -Gertrude Stein
In most writing, the where is at least as important as the what. In some of the best writing, the where is the what. Take this as my ham-handed way of acknowledging that sense of place can never be an afterthought.
So, whence the sense? How do you inject (infect?) your writing with it? I have no idea and with due respect to everyone, I’m guessing no one else does. Specific sensory details can help:
- The exact speed at which sunlight inches down the Yellowstone River over the course of the afternoon.
- The way July garbage pickup morning in NYC unites the leftovers of McDonald’s with the leftovers of Masa under the same umbrella of stench.
- The peculiar roughness of ten century-old sandstone in Angkor Wat.
But they don’t guarantee anything w/r/t the piece having undeniable sense of place. You can spit details upon details and end up with a tourist brochure. Some undercurrent, some gold thread, something not quite definable that is common to all the details has to come across.
And I’m not sure you can find it without actually being in the place at least once, probably more than once. Maybe you can, but it’s gotta be harder.
Is it better to know a little about a lot of different places, or to know one place really well? Is it possible to do both?
With this I begin life in a new city…