What’s wrong in all my first drafts

The stuff I’m editing right now is totally inscrutable to me. Even though I wrote it. I mean, I wrote it a while ago, and it’s quite weird, and it’s on that edge where I can’t tell if it’s good or bad. So I’m trying to do more reflection as I edit, hone the lens, and maybe someday I’ll be able to tell if this is an interesting story or if my past self was doing serious drugs. But, you know, drugs that caused her to write a first-person voice who can’t stop going on about weird math.

I notice that there’s some second-draft changes I’ve been making a lot across stories lately. Some of them are good? Some of them are just kind of weird?

The first thing I do–I almost always have to chop at least one entire scene. Usually it’s because it was taking too long to do something that should have been done in two lines. Then I nail those two lines onto the end of the dialogue in the previous scene or the next scene.

I know what scene is getting cut before I even finish the story. But I can’t just not write that scene, because it always seems like the next logical step when I write it. I probably couldn’t even write the scene after it, the one I want to keep, if I didn’t write that middle scene. Thanks, weird middle scene, and goodbye.

The other most important structural change I always make is shoring up the ending. When I finish writing, I’m usually so relieved to be ending the damn story that I just want to be done, and the last 500 words is a vaguely related collection of deep-sounding reflections. Honestly, not sure I have managed to upgrade many of these endings from “vaguely related collection of deep-sound reflections”, but maybe they’ll get there someday. And practicing endings is one of the specific reasons I wanted to write more short stories, so in the long term, this is a positive.

Assorted prose changes I’m always making:

  • I cut the preposition half of a bunch of phrasal verbs (like cutting “up” from “looked up”.)
  • People are always looking at each other in my first drafts, so I have to get them to do other things.
  • Dialogue usually needs more pep in the second draft.
  • Every time I see “There was” or “It was” I’m like, could this literally be turned into one adjective in the next sentence? (“There was a red table, where Lee sat.” should be “Lee sat at the red table.”)
  • I think more about the unreeling of time in every sentence. When I’m writing a first draft I just want to get an action down, so I use a lot of “Lee kissed his teeth after Alex gave him a real mean look” or whatever. But I’m trying to be more strict about communicating the actual passage of time with sentence construction? Thinking about ways to do this a lot. Reflecting on the section about time in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

The booby prize: I find that I liked much longer sentences in July than I do right now. And this is almost definitely just because I’m reading The Shipping News. Here’s the start of the chapter I just read (p. 219 in my edition, which is the one with Kevin Spacey on the cover):

Quoyle jumped down the steps. He would drive. But walked first down to the dock to look at the water. The boat charged against the tire bumpers. The waves pouring onshore had a thick look to them, a kind of moody rage. Looked at his watch. If he stepped on it there was enough time for a cup of tea and a plate of toast at the Bawk’s Nest. Clean up the oil piece then down to Misky Bay to the marine archives. Check boats in the harbor. Supposed to be a schooner there from the West Coast.

After a couple hundred pages of this you look at the subjects of your own sentences like “What are you even doing here? I don’t need you, bud!” It’s contagious. Someday, when I’m reading another book, I’ll probably look back on these sentence subjects with fondness and miss them terribly.