Wednesday, May 2, 2012

2. Thurber’s Mud

For me, and for most writers I know, the hardest part of writing is the first step, getting something down on paper.

Throughout my writing life, I have found that the best way to get that first draft down is either to do as I did with Pandora’s Genes--to write as quickly as possible, not censoring or otherwise interfering with the flow--or, if nothing at all will come, to write a MINIMUM of one paragraph each night before going to bed. I’ve discovered that the one paragraph often turns to two, to four, to a page or more. Either method leaves me with a very sloppy draft, what James Thurber referred to as “mud.”

The 100 or so pages I had when I finished my paroxysm of creating Part I of Pandora’s Genes, was most definitely mud: full of incomplete sentences, repetition, inconsistencies, infelicities of language, abbreviations of things I would want to fix later. But the important parts were there: the basic story and two of the three main characters.

Learning how to turn a very rough draft into professional prose was for me a big part of the process of becoming a professional writer.  I will have more to say about this in a later post, but basically it has always been a matter of trial and error, trying first one thing and then another, seeing what fits, removing things that don’t fit or moving them to a better place.

Ah, I hear you asking, but how do you know if something fits or not? I believe that this knowledge can only come with experience, and that experience must include lots of reading of other people’s work--the classics, bodice rippers, The Wall Street Journal, children’s books, whatever you enjoy. It’s also necessary to read and re-read your own work. Is this sentence smooth? Hasn’t that word already been used sixteen times in the same chapter? Is this really the way someone would talk? Reading aloud, is the rhythm right, not only in the dialogue but in the exposition?

In a later post I’ll give an example of how I cleaned up the “mud” in one problematic passage of Pandora’s Genes. But tomorrow I will return to the book’s genesis, and show you how The Wall Street journal figured into it.


  1. Interesting. That's the first I've heard of "mud" in writing, but it makes sense.

  2. I guess you've been making mud pies all this time. Who knew?

  3. I hate the mud-making process. The fun part comes later, the fine-tuning and editing and re-editing and re-re-editing, even though it requires me to be a heartless bitch and cut lovely phrases and sentences that I labored over. Nowadays I don't work too hard to make something fit; I just unleash my heartless bitch. I figure if it takes that much effort to squeeze it in, it doesn't belong anyway.

  4. Kate--I too like the editing/re-editing, re-re-re, etc. I'm going to write later on about one very small scene in Pandora's Genes that required around fifteen revisions until I realized that the whole thing worked better if I just threw out the sentence I was trying to save. Heartless bitch indeed.

    1. I like this - eliminating the sentence you were trying to save. I find I need to cut extraneous words - ruthlessly. But I needed to have them in there in the first place, to be cut later.Those excess words gave direction.

    2. That's a great point, Pat. I may elaborate on it in a future post. Thanks.