Writing a First Draft Part 6

Tip 6: For all the Excuses in the world, there is no way around writing every day.

Every writer I know has a list of well-refined Excuses. But if you are compelled to write your story, then you must write it. You must sit at your computer, or with your notebook and pen, and physically write out the words. It sounds obvious because it is obvious, but after teaching writing for over ten years I find this to be the part people have the most trouble with.

Many writers I know love to talk about writing. They love to get together with their writing buddies or critique groups and talk–about what they’re writing, what’s going well, what frustrations they’re facing. I have my own writing buddy, and she’s an intelligent, thoughtful sounding board, someone I can bounce ideas off of as I revise my various novels. And I know, having both taken and taught them, that writers love to take classes about writing. Writers also love to read books about writing. As I stated in the first post in this series, there have been a few books that have been Bible-like in the way they’ve helped me through every stage of the writing process. The writing buddies, critique groups, writing classes–these are necessary to the writer’s soul. Writing is such a solitary activity, and bonding with others of our kind is crucial, both for our success and our sanity. Reading about others who have experienced what we are experiencing is also important. But, after we’re home from our critique groups and our classes, after we’ve put down the writing books, we must sit ourselves down and write.

So how do you write every day? Like everything else, the solution is individual to each writer. Some writers I know create a schedule, a designated block of time each day when they get their writing done. Anne Lamott refers to it as training your brain to kick in creatively at a certain time each day. Some write whenever they get around to it. Others have busy lives and steal time when they can. Only you can decide when it’s time to write, but when it’s time, you must do it. As many Excuses as we have carefully cultivated, ultimately we must put them away. You have to make the decision: will you spend your time talking, reading, or dreaming about writing, or will you write?

As difficult as first drafts can be, at some point, around the time that “shitty first draft” is finished, it stops being work and becomes exciting. Fun. As if there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than sitting in front of the computer making this crazy world I see in my head come to life. Instead of forcing myself to sit for twenty minutes to punch out three pages, now I sit at the computer at one in the afternoon and before I know it it’s ten o’clock at night. I’m so immersed in my story I haven’t even noticed as the day slipped away. The first draft is crucial because once I have my blueprint, I can begin fleshing out the colors, the sounds, the tastes, the smells. I understand my characters better, their motivations, their cadences when they speak. Then, at some point, I realize that the story I have before me is what I meant to write all along. That is a glorious feeling when it happens. Despite the difficulty of the first draft, no matter how frustrated I have become at times, I managed to stick with it, and in the process I have created a world that only could have come from me. And that is why we write after all.

Writing a First Draft Part 5

Writing Down the BonesTip 5: Keep the creator and the editor separate.

This is an old writers’ adage heard by everyone who has ever taken Creative Writing 101. The funny thing about this adage: it’s true. If you try to edit as you write, or if you’re too critical as you write, you’re going to stifle yourself, and your creativity along with it. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg explains this far better than I ever could. Most of what I’m saying here I’m paraphrasing from her.

Don’t worry about anything when you’re writing your first draft except getting the words out of your head and onto paper. Place one word after another after another for however many days it takes to get that first draft done. When I’m teaching writing classes I call it a sloppy copy. If you know up front it’s going to be sloppy then you won’t waste time trying to make it right. If I have a question about what I’m writing, I type the question right into my draft (usually highlighted in bold to differentiate it from the text). If I’m not sure about the spelling of a word, or if I want a different word but can’t think of it without a thesaurus, I put the word in parentheses like (this) and keep going. Keep going, that’s the mantra of the first draft.

I’m saying “Keep going” to myself as much as anyone else. It’s so easy to put everything else in front of writing a first draft. Today I’m going through new submissions for Copperfield, and that takes time because I want to give each submission the attention it deserves. I’m pulling together the new interviews and reviews and formatting them for the web, which isn’t difficult as much as tedious. I also have to pull together paperwork for UNLV, where this fall I’ll be starting in the Ph.D. program in Curriculum and Instruction/Teacher Education. And I’m researching the historical period for my new story since my next book is right back to historical fiction. If I’m still researching, then there’s no reason to work on the first draft, right? Right?  I was, I admit, relieved, if not a little giddy, at the thought.

But then, when I’m being logical, I know there’s no reason I can’t continue punching out my three pages a day for the first draft. My first draft is my way of allowing my mind to wander unimpeded through the story, nudging it here, tweaking it there. As I work through my first draft, I’m gaining a clearer idea how and where I want to fit my research into the story. After that I can move into my favorite part of writing–revising and rewriting–because the hardest part–the first draft–will be over. At least that’s what I tell myself while I’m typing out my three pages every night. In other words, despite everything else I have to do, I haven’t allowed myself to slack off from writing the first draft. I’m busy, just like everyone is busy, but I have to write my three pages every day or else I’m not happy with myself.

What did I start out talking about again? That’s right–keep the editor and the creator separate. Don’t stifle your creativity in your first draft. Let yourself soar. Sometimes it’s the craziest ideas that end up being the ones worth keeping.

And keep going.

An Interview With Barbara Taylor Bradford

Cavendon HallAs the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, a journal of historical fiction, I’ve been able to interview such literary legends as John Jakes and Jean M. Auel. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview another legend, Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Barbara Taylor Bradford has written the notable New York Times Best Sellers A Woman of Substance, The Ravenscar Dynasty, and The Women in His Life, among many others. Her newest novel is Cavendon Hall, set to be released April 1, 2014. Cavendon Hall will be available from Amazon and other book retailers.

Meredith Allard: I admit, when I read the synopsis of your newest novel, Cavendon Hall, I jumped at the chance to read it because it reminded me of Downton Abbey, which is one of my all time favorite shows. Was Downton an inspiration for Cavendon Hall? Were there other inspirations for Cavendon Hall as well?

Barbara Taylor Bradford: No, Downton Abbey was not my inspiration for Cavendon Hall. In fact, the outline for this book and the sequel I’m now writing (The Cavendon Women), was created six years ago. I did not present it to my publisher at that time because they were looking for books set in the present from me. I wrote Cavendon Hall in 2013.

FYI, I have been writing family sagas since A Woman of Substance, including six sequels to AWOS, making it a seven book series, set at Pennistone Royal (the stately home in Yorkshire), and at Harte’s Emma’s department store in London.  A Woman of Substance was a six-hour mini-series for television, and was followed by two more series, Hold the Dream, and To Be the Best, made from my books. Stars in these shows were Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Mills, Liam Neeson, James Brolin, Nigel Havers, Deborah Kerr, Jenny Seagrove, Lindsey Wagner, Victoria Tennant, Fiona Fullerton, and many renowned actors.

Altogether, ten of my books have been made for television, nine by my husband, Robert Bradford, who is a movie and television producer, as well as the manager of my career.

I wrote another family saga, The Ravenscar Dynasty, about the Deravenel family, also set in Yorkshire, London and other parts of the world. The UK newspapers say I re-invented the family saga for this generation, and created the first department store dramas with the Emma Harte series, long before all those recent television shows. They call me the “undisputed queen of the family saga” in the UK newspapers and magazines.

The idea for Cavendon Hall and The Cavendon Women came to me when I was thinking about the long friendships I personally have had with my women friends, some over thirty years. I was suddenly taken with the idea of writing about two girls who grow up together and remain lifelong friends. . .Cecily Swann and Delacy Ingham, and I took it from there. It begins in 1913.

M.A.: Tell us about Cavendon Hall. How would you describe it to potential readers? How is it similar/different from what readers have come to love about your novels?

B.T.B.: Cavendon Hall is a family saga about two families, the aristocratic Inghams, and the Swanns, their retainers, who have stood by the family for 160 years. It is not actually an upstairs-downstairs novel, but an upstairs-in-the-middle novel, with the downstairs servants taking a smaller role in the story. As the First World War looms, a devastating event threatens the Inghams, one of which could bring the family down. Certainly it changes the future for them all. It is a blend of history and drama, romance, betrayal and loss. It ends in 1920. The sequel, The Cavendon Women, starts in 1926, and picks up the previous story of the Inghams and the Swanns.

M.A.: Do you enjoy writing historical fiction? What are the particular joys/challenges of writing historical fiction?

B.T.B.: I love writing fiction. It is a great challenge, but also it’s like starting out on an adventure, especially historical fiction. Going back into the past is intriguing and full of possibilities.

M.A.: For me, researching historical fiction is always the most challenging part of writing historical fiction. What is your research process? Do you travel for research? How do you incorporate the facts of the era with your fictional story?

B.T.B.: I do most of my own research because I know exactly what I’m looking for. In this instance, I already knew a lot about the Edwardian era, partially because I researched it for The Ravenscar Dynasty series, and also because being English I am well-versed in the history of England. In fact, it was always my favorite subject at school. When I am researching I prefer to use books by well-known historians, which I trust the most. I sometimes go back to places in England, which I need to refresh myself about. For instance, I went back to Ravenscar in Yorkshire, before I started that entire series. I wanted to get a sense of that place. I hadn’t visited it since I was a teenager. I weave in the true facts of history, and very carefully, because I don’t want the research to jump out at the reader. It is always subtle but correct, and therefore, adds authenticity to the drama unfolding. Research shouldn’t be obvious.

M.A.: You’ve written some of the most beloved novels of all time. I certainly count A Woman of Substance as among my favorite novels. When did you begin writing, and what were your earliest inspirations? Why did you decide to start writing novels?

B.T.B.: I started writing when I was seven years old. My mother had taught me to read at four, and I was addicted to reading. Then I started to tell my own stories in school exercise books. When I was ten my mother sent a story of mine to a children’s magazine. They not only accepted it but paid me ten-shillings-and-sixpence for it. The day I saw my byline my destiny was sealed. I was going to be a writer. Actually I became a journalist. I started on the Yorkshire Evening Post as a reporter, became women’s page editor, and then went on to work in London on various newspapers and magazines. I consider myself to be journalist today and still write for British newspapers and magazines on a regular basis. However, I had always wanted to be a novelist, and I started but did not finish four novels before I had the idea for A Woman of Substance.

M.A.: Your first novel, A Woman of Substance, became a best seller, which is incredible. What was your journey to publication like?

B.T.B.: Having discarded four ideas for novels, at around 100 pages, I asked myself a lot of questions one day: What sort of book did I want to write, where did I want to set and what year would the story start. I came up with these answers: A traditional family saga, set at the turn of the 20th century, and in England, or rather, Yorkshire. I wanted to tell a story about an ordinary woman who becomes a tycoon, a great success…a woman of substance. This thought became the title. I wrote an outline, showed it to a friend in England who was an agent. He told an editor at Doubleday about my outline and gave her my phone number. After reading it overnight, she told me it was the best outline she had ever read, and that it if I wrote it I would have a big bestseller. She was correct. To date the book has sold 35 million copies worldwide, and is now a huge success as an e-book for the first time, published by Rosetta Books.

M.A.: How have you seen the publishing industry change since A Woman of Substance was published?

B.T.B.: Publishing has changed throughout the world. The changes have come about because of the internet and digital publishing. But I always welcome change and my books sell very well as e-books. I have noticed there are “trends” that last for a while, such as the Dracula books, and other. But trends do seem to come and go. One trend that has lasted is the crime novel. It goes on forever.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

B.T.B.: I was always influenced by the classics, which I grew up with. My favorite writers have always been Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, in particular; Thomas Hardy, and Colette, the French writer. I also have drawn inspiration from their work, and learned a lot about life and writing about life’s experiences.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write and publish fiction?

B.T.B.: My advice to those who want to write is to actually sit down and do it. However, I think they come to that chair well prepared. I always think out a story to the very end, and I believe that is the only way to go. Once I have thought out the characters and the plot, I write an outline for myself. It’s my blueprint. Once I’m satisfied I have covered everything, I start telling the story. I always do it very systematically, from page one until the end. I don’t jump around, writing bits and pieces and then fitting them. I divide my books into different parts: Part One, Part Two, and so on. I have always done this, and I find it helped me to organize the characters and their lives.

M.A.: Is there anything else you would like readers to know?

B.T.B.: I plan to keep on writing for the rest of my life.

Writing a First Draft Part 4

One Inch Picture FrameTip 4: Give yourself a small task to complete every day.

In How to Write and Sell Your First Novel, Oscar Collier suggests the quota of three pages a day. I like that quota and have used it myself for years. Three pages usually works out to about 1500 words, which is enough that I’m making progess every day but not so much that I feel overwhelmed because it will be too hard or take hours to finish.

At a certain point every day I realize I’ve exhausted my list of Excuses (I’ve made dinner and dusted and played Words With Friends and pinned on Pinterest and emptied the dishwasher and fed the cats and checked my e-mail and…). At that time I have to accept that there’s no earthly reason I can’t write, so I say to myself, “It’s only three pages.” I sit at my computer, open my file, count three pages from where I left off to see what page number I’ll end up on, and go. I don’t worry about anything at this point, not spelling, not word choice, not organization, not even if it makes sense. I will fix those things later. I write my three pages and call it a day.

On days when things are flowing well, I might write more than three pages. Most days I end up writing four or five pages. Some days I write 10 pages. On really good days I’ve written 20 pages or more, but days like that are rare in the first draft stage. When I’m feeling like I’d rather pop my own eyes out with spoons than keep writing, I remind myself, again, that it’s only three pages. Tonight, for example, I hit my three page quota, felt the mental strain from getting that far, and stopped. Still, I felt good about it. I met my quota. I moved my story forward, and that’s all I need to do right now.

In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott talks about short assignments and writing just as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame. When I heard Wanna Get Lucky? author Deborah Coonts speak at the Las Vegas Writers Group in June 2010, she said she gives herself a quota of 1500 words a day. Remember that quotas are a great tool that many writers use, but they only work if they’re reasonable. Don’t give yourself a high quota, like 15 pages, 5000 words, or a 10-inch picture frame because it’s a lot to write every day and it will be discouraging when you don’t get there. Writing is hard enough without self-sabotage. Give yourself a small goal you can actually reach and get it done every day.

Writing a First Draft Part 3

Tip 3: Accept that your first draft will need a crazy amount of rewriting. 

If you accept up front that your first draft is going to stink, it frees you up to write, as Natalie Goldberg calls it in Writing Down the Bones, “the worst junk in the world.” If you’ve read Bird by Bird you know that Anne Lamott calls them “shitty first drafts.” I love Anne Lamott for many reasons, but I really love her for making the phrase “shitty first drafts” part of my vernacular. If you recognize before you even start writing that your first draft is going to stink, then you won’t waste needless time staring at a blank computer screen wondering what to write or worried that it won’t be good enough. It won’t be good enough. You’ll need to do a crazy amount of rewriting. The sooner you embrace the concept of “shitty first drafts” the sooner you’ll get that dreaded first draft over with.

Over time, I’ve also come to accept the fact that I’ll end up trashing most of what I write in my first draft. Today I’m on page 156 of my current first draft. Sounds good, right? Wrong. Most of what I have will be deleted eventually, sent to that cyberspace void of misused words and half-baked ideas. Why? Because a lot of what I have written is redundant, with the same idea repeated, and repeated, and… It takes a few flying leaps for me to say exactly what I mean. I’m still feeling out the common thread, the theme, that will tie the story together. I still have to research the historical aspect because in this new work I’m back to historical fiction. I always get great ideas from the research, and those ideas will add depth and color to the flat black and white canvas I’m currently painting on. The chapters aren’t in order because quite frankly I haven’t decided on the order. I haven’t settled on a point of view. I could go on, but I won’t.

Did I mention I have a tendency to repeat myself?

The only writer I’ve ever known who said her first drafts came out perfectly was a creative writing instructor I had in grad school. She said, to a cynical and disbelieving class, that everything came out exactly right the first time she wrote it down. She said she went over her sentences in her head until she had them just right and then, and only then, would she commit her words to paper. Mozart did the same, she said. Some smart-ass in the back of the class (I swear it wasn’t me) pointed out that in fact she did write several drafts, only she did it in her head instead of on paper like the rest of us. She simply smiled at him. What that smile meant, I still don’t know. All I can say is that around 90 percent of us will need to write our first drafts out, as in words on paper, and rewrite many times before we can say we have a perfect, polished final draft.