If I understand him correctly, Michael makes the quite reasonable point that it is beyond difficult — i.e. impossible — to judge the literary merit of your own work, particularly the first draft. He cites my comments in the most recent post (see the post immediately below) and suggests that there isn’t a great deal of point trying to make a literary judgement on a first draft. While I agree with the point in general, I don’t agree — as you can tell from my tone — that I was attempting to judge the literary merit of my work. Why? Because a comparison of any two works of fiction on a scale of literary merit is like comparing the proverbial apples and pears; I would go further to say that some delicious-looking apples are far superior to a squidgy pair, but it is not the job of the author to work out the literary merit of his work. It either succeeds or fails on its own terms.
In a nutshell, I’d say that the first draft of anything is ‘shit’ in the sense that it exists in a ‘failed state’. In important ways, the first draft does not the many jobs of good fiction: suspension of disbelief, maintenance of tone, all that. These failures are like leaks to a plumber, or the BSOD to an over-worked techie. And where those failures exist, you should, as a writer, be able to spot them, correct them, and move through them all. The aim of the game is finish with fiction that works.
I don’t make these points because I disagree strongly with Michael (my reactions to Flashback are an assessment of the craft needed to complete it as a book, though I was interested to see if the skeleton of the narrative worked too), but because it nudges a lesson I learned fairly late as a writer: revise, revise, revise. When I was a kid, I drew a lot, and I learned the lesson ‘don’t do too much or you’ll screw it up’. I mistakenly applied the same principle to my fiction. ‘Well,’ I’d think, ‘this scene is a bit boring, but I wrote it in a state of creative flow, and I should respect the decisions I made at that point, when I was closer to the material’. *Insert Family Fortunes computer ‘uh-uh’ here.* For each word in a story to be the best-fitting word at that point, you need to fire an arrow into your mind and hit a bull’s-eye. The next one needs a bull’s-eye too. And the next. But you can’t hit one after another; you’ll have near misses. Scene boring? Why? Perhaps the character isn’t doing much, isn’t challenged. Fix it: Challenge her. Exposition? Excise. Description of the weather? Destroy with extreme prejudice. Adverbs? Nuke ‘em.
You can have near-misses, too, at the higher levels. Is a character doing nothing? Then they shouldn’t be in the story. Confused as to why a character did something? That’s because their motivation isn’t clear. These leaks in the plumbing of a story are immediately obvious, and there’s no time like the present to crack on with fixing them…
Incidentally, Michael pointed me in the direction of this essay, the Nature of Fun — keepin’ it real in your writing, basically.