Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Column: Turn Off That Editor! by Karen Albright Lin

I’ve got to get through it, that first attempt at getting my story down, living as my characters live, moving toward an inevitable yet unpredictable end. Those shitty first drafts, as Anne Lamott calls them in her brilliant book, Bird by Bird. All the workshops, all the books, all the talented and successful writers I know tell me to cage up the editor and whip through the sentences, to puke out the chapters, clean up the mess later. My brain, however, thinks more like an editor. I spit out a sentence, stop, fix that sentence, spit out more, notice that I didn’t backload a paragraph with the most powerful sentence, then the grammar checker is indicating I need to look at a word back where I wrote that clever reversal. Then there’s that pesky run-on sentence…

I’m not talking about scrolling back a few pages to edit and refresh my memory, then moving forward into my next chapter. I’m talking about scrolling back each paragraph and, on a particularly critical day, scrolling back each sentence. Yes, I’m an obsessive editor. I’ve always written that way. In fourth grade I did it. Back then I wrote mostly poetry, a very tight and disciplined form. That didn’t help. Next I graduated to a twelve-year-old version of erotica--wish I’d kept some of those scenes to compare to my adult notes. But I digress. Doesn’t it go figure, I’ve reinforced the early analyzing habit by becoming a professional editor.

Some tell me not to worry over it. I’m still prolific, having written almost a dozen screenplays, three novels, a literary cookbook, newspaper and magazine articles, and short stories (some of them erotica--hopefully different than my grade-school imaginings). I wrote all that while raising two boys. Sure, pat myself on the back, but get on with the writing, and slap that hand that continues to go back, go back, go back. As if I just can’t do my book justice without making every sentence perfect as I go. What's up with that?!

To make matters worse, I write my shitty first drafts long hand, scrawling my additions and corrections all over the yellow pad – yellow to boost creativity. Unfortunately, yellow also nourishes my editing fixation. To make matters doubly frustrating, I have the worst handwriting known to the literate world. So my crazy first drafts are often indecipherable. Even to me. I have only my sisters to turn to when I’m puzzled to the point of pop-eyed madness, for they know me so well that they often step in to save my shitty first draft by interpreting my Gs that look like Ss and my Rs that look like Is and my ups and downs and arrows and my bubbles with sentences that are absolutely necessary to the line above or below or up the side and let’s not forget the middle phrase in the run-on sentence near the bottom of the page. This is no exaggeration. It’s a joke between us.

But when I’m working away solo at a restaurant over lunch, it’s not a joke. Sometimes I wish I could ask my waitress just what it was I wrote half a page up. Ten minutes ago. But then they’d think I wouldn’t be able to read the menu and so would bring me the picture menu. If they had one. OK, now my train of thought has drifted from editing to first drafts to penmanship. I think I need to go back and consider giving this blog entry a work out. Yes, the above photo is of a typical shitty rough draft page of mine, taken by my sister Storm Petrel. Is there a 12-step program for this obnoxious inclination?

It’s no use for me to seek advice on what I can do to improve my penmanship; teachers have been trying to help me there since my early erotica days. But I do ask, dear blog visitor, if you have any hints about how I can turn off my editor.

(Originally posted at the Sisters of the Quill blog on February 17, 2011)

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at www.karenalbrightlin.com.