Thursday, October 21, 2010

Quantities

I watched a poet last month. An amateur poet. The poet stood up and said, “This poem probably isn’t very good. I wrote it in five minutes.”

Well, way to engage my interest. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear this poem in the first place. Now that you’ve told me you put no effort into it, and you don’t know whether it’s good or not, I’m sat here praying for deafness.

(As a matter of fact, it turned out the poem wasn’t particularly good but I’m sure that detail was merely incidental).

It’s not the first time I’ve seen an amateur poet piss on their own work in this fashion. What is said in a spirit of self-deprecation comes out as the epitome of ‘can’t be bothered.’

“This is only a short poem…”

It’s another line that slices through the jugular vein of enthusiasm. I think it’s the word ‘only’ lurking in the centre of the sentence. The phrase is said as though short poems are inferior to longer poems.

Seriously: are any of us that worried about the size of a poem? Did anyone ever turn to Shakespeare and say, “Bill – can you pad out these sonnets so that they’ve got more than 14 lines? They’re a bit short at the moment and we all know that short poems, regardless of content, are all a bit shit.”

I mention this because those participants of NaNoWriMo I’ve spoken with in the past have often surprised me with this same fashion of understated self-deprecatory achievement. Whenever I’ve spoken with someone who has participated, my first instinct is to congratulate them on completing a full first draft.

Invariably, they come back to me with the words, “But it’s only a first draft.”

Not much of a sales pitch, is it?

As someone who has written one or two novels, I know how difficult the first draft can be. I also know the first draft is essential for any successful title. It’s the starting point from which a second draft can be forged. And from there, it’s a simple matter of editing, revising and redrafting to produce a completed novel.

To all of those participating in NaNoWriMo – good luck. I hope November goes well for you and I wish you every success. And, more importantly, whatever lessons you learn from this month’s writing, I sincerely hope they’re ones that you can savour and cherish.

14 comments:

  1. “This is only a short poem…”

    It's not the size, it's how you use it.

    You're absolutely right about self deprecation. I've been guilty of saying "it's only a first draft."

    A first draft is a great accomplishment, and I hope many NaNoWriMowers (is that the proper term?) can celebrate the joy of accomplishment at the end of November.

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  2. Craig,

    Hopefully a lot of the writers who participate will be able to congratulate themselves on their accomplishment.

    Best,

    Ash

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  3. Hey, Ash,

    One problem with NaNoWriMo is that it appears to favor quantity over quality. In some sense, a monkey could satisfy the requirements. I think the trick must be to balance the need to produce with the quest for quality -- and to keep the nagging voices of doubt at bay.

    Best,
    Lisabet

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  4. Lisabet,

    I can understand the idea behind NaNoWriMo: produce the quantity and then edit/revise to work on the quality.

    A monkey might be able to manage the first part, but it's the second part that separates champs from the chimps.

    Ash

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  5. Ash - Why am I thinking "But it's just a thin mint, Sir?"

    I love short poems. They're over sooner ;) (Truthfully, I thought shorter poems are considered much harder, thus the acme of the craft. I had no idea poets were size queens.)

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  6. Kathleen,

    Thin mints aside, I too enjoy the style and simplicity of shorter poems. It takes more skill to say something in two words where most people would use two hundred.

    Ash

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  7. i really enjoyed reading this..wise words.. think it's important not to downplay our own writing (or whatever)

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  8. Hi Claudia,

    Thank you. Yes. I don't like to hear anyone talking themselves down or downplaying their achievements - whether they're related to writing or otherwise.

    Best,

    Ash

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  9. Why do folks feel the need to tell you about the story/poem rather than just read the damn thing? Surely the quality or quantity will speak for themselves once its heard/read? If someone prefaces their reading with a description of what the thing is about or that they think its a bit crap then it obviously isn't worth bothering with. A little humility is a good think, but slagging yourself off is un necessary. There are enough critics in the world to do that for you. The whole point of fiction is to be bigger and better than you are. If you don't believ in yourself and your work you shouldn't be putting it out there until you do coz baby it just ain't ready.

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  10. Tracey,

    I can't argue with what you're saying. The quality of work does speak for itself - and it should be allowed to speak for itself.

    Best,

    Ash

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  11. Peering round the corner.

    Ahem! As a non-poet, and one who doesn't appreciate most poetry, I'm going to dive in anyway. Oh, I do adore a good flasher if that helps!

    I'm afraid I've been guilty of saying things like, 'but it's just a short story.' or 'Anyone could have done ....' Sigh. I'm terrible at promotions too.

    Anyone up for the job?

    But, I do agree with you. Writing short and tight is much more difficult, generally, than long.

    This NaNoWriMo does go for quantity over quality, but like you, I hope most of those who participate will go on to either finish the work they began or polish what they've done. The first draft is always a huge part of writing any book. Doing it in a month is pretty damn good if you ask me.

    Going back to my cave now.

    Hugs

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  12. Hi Jude,

    I've got nothing against quantity over quality - I can be as much of a size queen as anyone else. I just don't like to see people downplaying their work.

    Have fun in the cave :-)

    Ash

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  13. Hi Ashley!

    When I'm writing something I always tell myself "The book is the boss." which means the story will be as long as it wants to be to say what it should say. I get the thing about first drafts though, because my first drafts are often unreadable.

    All you can do is wri' mo'.

    Garce

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  14. Thanks Garce,

    I knew you'd understand what I was saying.

    Ash

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