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.

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.

Writing a First Draft Part 2

That You Are Here CoverA quick note: That You Are Here is currently a Kindle Countdown Deal. Here’s the schedule and pricing:

March 7 and 8: 99 cents

March 9 and 10: $1.99

March 11: $2.99

March 12: Back to the regular price of $3.99

Writing a First Draft Tip 2: Organize your thoughts each day. 

It’s hard to begin writing anything with only a vague idea of what we want to write. Those empty moments when we’re not sure what we want to say are when self-doubts begin to rise, Excuses invade our minds, and we decide we don’t really need to write today after all. If we begin each day knowing where we want to start, we can begin with focus, avoiding the “monkey mind” Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones.

One trick I use is to write an outline before I start writing the first draft. For a novel, my outline is a blueprint of what I think will happen in each chapter. Notice I said what I think will happen. As most writers will tell you, once you’ve started writing often the story or the characters will take you in a different direction than you intended. Those first ideas are simply a tool to get you thinking through your story, a way to get you writing something. If the ideas aren’t coming for me one day, then I’ll do a free write. A free write is simply that–a brainstorming activity where I’ll write whatever comes to mind about a character, the setting, the theme, or the plot. Sometimes if I’m really stuck I’ll start freewriting about something that has nothing to do with my story just to get the words flowing. Don’t skimp on the prewriting. As a long time writing teacher, I know that a lot of students want to skip over the prewriting process. But I think you’ll find prewriting time well spent. There are writers who do all right without any prewriting, and that’s great. For me, the more I write, and the longer I teach writing, the more I find that the idea-gathering process makes for an easier first draft.

Where do I begin each day? Wherever I want. Most days I begin with my chapter blueprint and type out my ideas for the next scene the best I can. I say the best I can because my first drafts are little more than quick descriptions, bland character interactions, and a ton of banal dialogue.

“Hi! How are you?”

“I’m great! And you?”

“Oh, you know. I’ve got that leaky wart on my big toe…”

I’m not kidding, by the way. My first draft dialogue really is that bad.

For me, the first draft is only a fleshed out outline. As I’m writing a first draft I keep pushing forward, one word after another, until I’m finished with the story. I give myself few rules while writing first drafts. Writing a first draft is hard enough without following arbitrary rules I’ve set up for the sole purpose of making myself more miserable. As long as I’m producing words that push the story forward every day, it’s all good.

You don’t have to outline as your prewriting activity. That’s simply my preference. I know other writers who outline, and they do it to keep their thoughts organized, as I do. Others find outlining too stifling, like they’re trapped within the imaginary boundaries they’ve created. They prefer to take a creative leap each day and see where the story carries them. That’s why I love writing fiction. You don’t have to do anything. There’s no right way. Everything about the first draft is about toying with words, playing with ideas, exploring possibilities. Explore away.