Last week, I tweeted this:

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I know a lot of writers love drafting – the excitement, the exploration, the sheer creativity of it. I don’t. I hate drafting. In fact, writing first drafts is something I do because I need something to revise and edit. It doesn’t even matter than I outlined this book before I began to draft (for better or worse, I’m a planner). I’m just not happy until I have a mess to clean up.

My comfort is in brevity – flash fiction, short stories, articles and essays. As a writer, I like tight arcs and tiny details. I like snapshots in time, and little human moments that betray universal truths. I’m not good at being thrilling or even entertaining. I have no confidence in my ability to hold a reader’s attention past 5,000 words, which makes longer form fiction territory I need to explore. I have five novels simmering on the back burner, all unrelated, some erotic, some not. Every one of them is a demon I need to address, because I’m tired of being cowed by a word count.

But let’s go back to that whole, I hate drafting thing. This novel that I’m working on, tentatively called The Briary, is the simplest of the bunch, or so I thought. It was meant to be a fun, erotic romp through a Victorian manor house, but it’s turned out to be something else. The problem is that I’m not sure what the something else is, and that uncertainty froze me up.

The wise thing to do would be to keep drafting and not worry about it. Explore. See what happens. But I’m a control freak and that’s easier said than done. Drafting is difficult for me, regardless of length – 500 or 50k, it doesn’t matter. I don’t like finding out how a story ends. I like knowing so I can  figure out how deep it goes.

Pygmalian and Galatea by Jean-Leon Gerome ca. 1890. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pygmalian and Galatea by Jean-Leon Gerome ca. 1890. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I was an undergraduate, I took a handful of courses in the classics, and read a lot of Aristotle along the way. In addition to the Poetics, which I think every writer should read if only to understand the foundations of narrative structure, the thing that has most affected my writing was his philosophy of causality and the example commonly used illustrate it – that of a sculptor working in bronze or marble.

Around that same time, I spent many afternoons at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, journaling in the sculpture garden, so this notion of the creative  process being a tangible series of causes and effects wove itself into my subconscious and became fundamental to the way I work. Here are the Four Causes applied to my writing process:

1. Material Cause: Out of what has a thing come?

What’s the germ of the idea? In the case of The Briary, I had originally thought it was just my love of Victorian literature and threesomes (because threesomes are great), but once I began digging into it, I realized that the foundation of this book is a relationship I once had, and my need to work through unfinished business.

2. Formal Cause: What is it?

Could I tell this story, this germ of an idea, as a short? A novella? Fuck me, no. It has to be a novel. Time to get over that fear of running the writing marathon then.

3. Efficient Cause: Who makes it? Who causes the change?

The writer. The artist. The sculptor. As applied to any art, it’s the creator who molds the idea into its proper form. Sculptors have a block of stone to start with, but writers have to create the material they are going to change. Which means drafting. A lot. Fuck me, again.

4. Final Cause: Why? To What purpose?

Why do you create what you create? For writers, this is authorial intent, which is usually a form of communication – the subconscious dialogue between you and whoever receives your work. Do you want to make people think? Feel? Do you want to turn them on? The answer is unique to the writer and the story, but for most writers (though there are exceptions) the writing is, at least in part, done in service to the affect she hopes her work will have.

The Final Cause is what I love most about writing. It’s what drives me happily through multiple edits, because that’s where I uncover what the story wants to say. Many writers are able to find this in drafting, but for some reason I’m not. For some reason, my process is to coax the story open later, once it’s no longer a figurative block of stone.

This is where the sculpting metaphor comes in handy. I can’t sculpt the story out of nothing, so I need an idea, a foundation and a ton of material – what I call narrative clay, for lack of a better word. Writing the initial draft is where the clay comes from. For me, it’s lumpy, messy, chaotic, and yes, full of promise, but also in desperate need of refinement. I get impatient to dig in – I want to find the form hidden inside the lump.

Once I have that great lump of clay, I slough off the mess and slowly uncover the story underneath. This is where I feel like a writer, (whatever that means). This is where I hit my dreamy, natural stride, chiseling away like an archeologist on 12 square inches of Roman wall. Once I can see the thing for what it is, I edit for style, which is totally satisfying in a different way. And when I’m finally done, I have the final cause  – a finished story that will hopefully connect with its reader.

This novel, The Briary, got off to a difficult start. I began it last year, but put it aside several times because of deadlines, work and other obligations. In that time, it became a bogeyman, the symbol of a marathon I didn’t feel I could run. But I am running it now, very slowly, chapter by chapter (because I’m a sprinter so I have to trick myself 5k at a time).

I’m about a third of the way in now and beginning to hit my stride. I still don’t know what this book is going to be, but I need to learn to suck that up like I do with shorter works. I’ll uncover it revisions. Right now, I have to focus on making the clay.


  1. I’m not a writer but I have loved reading this. Your deep levels of reflection, understanding and commitment are amazing. I suspect that your need to plan and control makes you an unforgiving task master to yourself at times. I hope that you do continue to form your clay into it’s shape so that you can then delight in the next stages.


    • Thank you, that is very lovely of you to say. As for your not being a writer, every blog post you write proves that you are. I have a feeling that if you ever chose to turn your attentions to a novel, it would be wonderful. There’s a warmth in your voice that you just can’t learn. xxx

  2. The problem with anything novel-length, I find, is the lack of — or rather, the ever expanding — definite time horizon. I need short, concrete (even if just self-imposed) deadlines. They’re like the proverbial hangman’s noose…concentrating the mind!

  3. I feel your pain! Short pieces are my comfort zone too. I have a couple of longer stories that I’m trying to finish (finish has now become the F-word that I hate with a passion!!) Good luck with The Briary.

    • Thanks, Rebecca! I know exactly how you feel about that particular F-word. I wonder if there are some writers who are naturally novelists, and others who are naturally short story writers, which isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t write both.. It’s more that I’m curious if most writers have one as a comfort zone.

      • I think many writers fall into one camp or the other. I’m definitely in the novelist camp – I wrote my first when I was 13 and didn’t bother with short stories until a writing class in college forced me to write some.

        I think you can see the difference in many short stories once you look inside them; a lot of writers who prefer shorts write these intense one-act narratives and writers who are novelists set up complicated arcs and multiple scenes that could easily be spun into an entire book.

        • I think you’re absolutely right about writers falling naturally into one or the other of the two camps, though I hadn’t thought to look inside the short stories written by each for that pattern. But now that you’ve mentioned it, it rings true. It’s exciting, in a way, to push beyond your comfort zone regarding form. One of the things I appreciate about writing, or any art really, is that it’s possible to expand beyond your tendencies or training. Classically trained ballet dancers can dance modern, Shakespearean actors can do Mamet, and short stories writers can write novels, though, in most cases, adjustments need to be made, and skill sets need to be expanded. The challenge, for me, is hard to resist.

  4. I love shorter pieces because I get more immediate gratification, they come easily to me and I think I may just be lazy lol! I’m so close to F-wording the 1st draft of one of my longer pieces, I can almost taste it. I will finish the bloody thing just to prove to myself I can do it! Whether it’s any good or not is another question.

    • The instant gratification thing drives me too, and it so doesn’t happen with the longer pieces! I’m excited for you though, being so close to F-wording (ha! I’m using this from now on) the first draft! That’s fantastic. As for whether or not it’s good, I don’t know, but I’ve read some of your work. My bet is on *very* good 🙂

  5. I adore the character building that goes into long works, and it’s my very favourite thing about writing, but I like the conciseness of short stories and the way they allow me to focus on the whole thing at once. And also the way that they allow me to actually complete the projects I start. I usually compromise by writing short pieces that have novel-worthy development behind them. Or, more recently, writing a longer work that is sectioned off into separate but connected stories.

    The metaphor of clay is very interesting to me and potentially helpful as I get myself to create those first drafts. I am guilty of losing faith when the clay I’m creating doesn’t immediately resemble the finished sculpture. Perhaps seeing it as the raw material will give me perspective.

    • I like your notion of compromise in length and form – that of writing shorts with the potential for development, or connecting them into a longer work. That’s actually something I’m very interested in doing, as well. As for thinking of the first drafts as raw material, I’m glad it was helpful. I used to get very discouraged in the same way, but thinking of the first draft as simply something to work with helped take the pressure off. Funny how sometimes we have to trick ourselves into getting out of our own way…

  6. but the writer’s efforts are always in service to the affect she hopes her work will have.

    Not always. It depends on ideological position. Expressonists/Expressivists aren’t all that interested in readers, and certainly, their primary goal lies not with the reader, but with the self. Oh… that’s not a rabbit hole I need to revisit… 🙂

    • Fair enough! I suppose I was thinking of the dominant / popular manifestation of authorial purpose, which tends to lie with the reader. However, as you very rightly pointed out, it doesn’t always.. Authorial purpose can absolutely focus inward.. It’s a great rabbit hole – thanks for bringing it up! 🙂

  7. Victorian manor? I want to read this book!
    Thank you for this post, interesting insight into your writing process.

  8. As someone who likes to jump right into a story, to have the reader against the wall from the very first page, the short is my natural habitat. But, slowly (very slowly), I am learning how to work the intensity I crave into longer form pieces.

    Like you, I find first drafts very difficult and, even with a good outline, my progress tends to be patchy. I lurch between extremely productive sessions and ones in which I seem to achieve nothing at all. If I can’t ‘see’ the scene I’m writing in my head (and I nearly always can with a short), it’s a total slog. This week, for example, I have toiled over a single sex scene. Granted, it’s a lengthy one but, because it is part of longer project, I am constantly tweaking, trying to get that basic ‘clay’ on the page so it can form a legitimate and natural part of the larger textual sculpture. Of course, my tendency to edit as I go (old habits die hard) doesn’t do me any favours, either!

    (Remind me why we do this writing thing again?)


    • Oh Jane..you hit it right on the head. That’s exactly how my work on anything longer form goes. I too love the intensity of shorts and maintaining that energy in a longer piece is exhausting. Plus, the edit as you go impulse is a killer and such a hard habit to break, especially when editing is the comfort zone. The whole process can be such a little beast. As for why we write.. I’m chalking it up to some sort of hopefully brilliant, slightly masochistic compulsion 😀 xxx

  9. I just read this a 2nd time. What jumped out this time was your discomfort with uncertainty. That’s a writer’s best friend! Not to be all Robert Frost, but if I know the end, I know I’m going to write a snoozer of a story. I love plunging in and having the characters and plot mutiny against me and steer the ship to their own destination.

    Well, that’s how it works for me. You sound like one of those orderly, outline writers…. who I’ve always envied because I feel like you people flail less and conquer more. It’s so interesting how differently writers’ brains work. You do a great job on this blog, for instance, of writing posts that are very elegant in structure while still being profoundly moving. That’s a tough one to pull off.

    I like your description of the draft as a bogeyman, by the way. It sounds like a horror movie – an unfinished manuscript coming to life and chasing you, and you have to write it to make it vanish.

    • I want to thank you, especially for this comment because it made me realize something. It’s not so much that I’m uncomfortable with uncertainty, as that I’m impatient with that part of the process that reveals the plot / narrative arc – that’s generally what I’m finding as I draft. I’m much more interested in finding out what’s going on beneath the action – what motivates it, the little ripples in the water, the tiny causalities. I love *that* process of discovery – mining the material as it were – and I love the uncertainty that comes with it. The uncertainty I feel when I’m doing the initial draft is as much fueled by frustration and impatience because there is so much I can’t see yet. That’s what makes it feel chaotic to me. It’s sort of like a kid wanting to get to dessert but having to eat the mashed potatoes first.

      That said, it’s true – I’m a pretty orderly writer with longer pieces, though with short stories, I tend to just draft and see what happens.. then again, I don’t tend to draft until an idea’s percolated for a bit. But there are exceptions.. God, I don’t know. It’s all so dependent on the piece with shorts that I’m hesitant to say one way or the other. I’m in new territory with novels – having the map helps me relax, even when the characters steer me onto a new path 🙂 Oh, and thank you for your kind words about the posts on this blog – those I do just draft quickly and revise minimally. They get far less attention than the fiction, so I’m happy that they work 🙂

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