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 1

Bird by BirdEvery writer I’ve ever known, and every writer I’ve ever read about, says the same thing: the art of writing is in the rewriting. Writing the first draft is a chore, but we can’t proceed to our final draft without it.

Three books that have helped me through all stages of writing are Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and How to Write and Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier. I’ve read those books so many times that the information contained within has intertwined into my DNA (like hair coiling in Avatar).  Many of the tips I have shared with writers over the years come from these books. If you’re a writer, I recommend you read them.

Tip 1: Make sure you love what you’re writing. If you don’t, you probably won’t write it.

I often encounter people who’ve had this great idea for a book for years but they haven’t gotten around to writing it. I tell them that if the idea isn’t pressing them to the point of distraction, then it might not be right for them. I tell them that if they have a nice life, a nice job, a nice family, and don’t feel a burning desire to write that story then they probably won’t. Thinking you want to be a writer and writing are two different things. Writing is hard enough when you feel compelled by Fate to do it. It’s even harder, if not impossible, when you don’t have that burning desire. When is it time to write? When it’s more painful not to write something than it is to write it. If an idea is gnawing at you and won’t leave you alone to your nice life with your nice family, that’s when the writing process begins.

Writing Down the BonesFor all the projects I’ve completed, many more lay by the wayside. If I wasn’t compelled by what I was writing, then I dropped it. If I can’t convince myself that the project is worth writing, how can I convince a reader that it’s worth reading? When I began working on Her Dear & Loving Husband way back in the old-timey days of 2009, I was so compelled by James and Sarah’s story that I worked on it nearly every day for a bit more than one year—367 days to be exact. I may have taken a Sunday off here and there, but even on those days when I wasn’t at the computer it was always on my mind. In that case, I wrote the first draft in six weeks. It was, come to think of it, the easiest first draft I’ve ever written. Why? Because I had to write that story down. I had to get it out of my head and onto paper. I couldn’t live peacefully with myself if I didn’t.

Do you love what you’re writing? If the answer is yes, then you’re on the right track. If the answer is no, that’s okay. Not every idea is meant to be a long-term project. Keep searching until you find that idea that keeps you up at night, itching to get back to it.

Writing Historical Fiction Part 6

Part 6. Take notes, then more notes, then… 

After I’ve read as much about my subject as my brain can handle, I’ll begin to form ideas about how I can incorporate the history into the story I want to tell. Then I can begin looking for the specific information I need to help me connect the dots. That’s when I begin to take notes.

I still prefer to handwrite my notes into a spiral notebook. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg recommends getting notebooks with cartoon characters or crazy designs on the cover because it prevents you from taking yourself too seriously while you’re working. Writing out notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, can seem like a tedious process to some, but, like Goldberg, I believe there’s a hand-to-heart connection in writing things out longhand.  I absorb the information better that way, and then I can do a better job relating the information to others. When I try to take the short cut and print up the articles from the Internet or make photocopies at the library, I don’t read the information as closely as I do when I handwrite my notes. I skim, find only what I think I need, and ignore the rest. When I handwrite my notes I’m forced to slow down, read carefully, and decide what is important enough to write down. Because the process can be slow I have time to think while I’m working. Sometimes being forced to slow down and think can be a good thing, especially when crafting a story.

Some writers prefer to type their notes or write them out on index cards. One writer friend of mine posts his research notecards on a bulletin board by his desk. His board is divided into sections, one section for each chapter in his book, and he pins his notecards into the chapter where he thinks the information will go. Some writers like to highlight the information they need, using a different color for each category of information. That’s fine.

Part of becoming comfortable with the research process is figuring out what works best for you. The notes, in whatever form you write them, do come in handy after the library books have been returned and you need that certain date while you’re working.  And don’t forget to write down the bibliographical information for each source you use. You may want to go back to those sources again.

Writing Historical Fiction Part 5

5.  Make friends with a librarian and, while you’re at it, try a university library.

I’ve already professed my love for the instant gratification of finding a necessary piece of information online in a matter of moments. However, nothing replaces library research. The depth of information from library research cannot always be replicated on the Internet with its short articles and occasionally unclear sources. The weekend historian may be intimidated by the sheer amount of resources in the library, but never fear.

I’ve encountered many conscientious librarians who have gone beyond their job descriptions and assisted me by helping me track down an elusive book or an article about a little-known subject. If you’re not sure where to begin your quest for knowledge about your historical period, ask a librarian. Most are more than happy to help. And I’m not just saying that because Sarah Wentworth of the Loving Husband Trilogy is a librarian. I’ve always had a high opinion of librarians (as most book lovers do), and I’ve thought more than once that if I wasn’t a teacher I’d be a librarian.

The Los Angeles County Public Libraries, the Clark County Libraries, and probably library systems all over, have a wonderful program where, if a local branch doesn’t have a book you want but another branch does, the other branch will ship the book to your neck of the woods so you don’t have to go running all over town. Check with your local library to see if it has a similar program. In the Internet age there’s no more standing over card catalogues and pulling out musty cards that leave you grabbing for your asthma inhaler. Libraries have online catalogues these days so you can check at home to see if your local library, or any nearby library, has that book you need.

If your local library doesn’t have what you need, try visiting a college or university library. University libraries are created for research after all. In the old-timey days they had stacks of newspapers, journals, microfiche, and other hard-to-find materials. Some still have primary sources in their special collections. These days university libraries have online search engines that allow you access to information you might not otherwise be able to find, and yes, you can access them from your home computer if you’re a member of that library. Many college and university libraries are open to the public for a yearly fee—from $30 to $100—and it’s a worthwhile investment for historical novelists.

I know I’m stating the obvious when I mention using the library, but the teacher in me feels like I need to remind people that there are these buildings with wall-to-wall books you can borrow for free (that’s the books you can borrow for free, not the buildings). With so many using the Internet as their only source of research, I’m afraid they’re passing over other important ways to find information. And historical novelists need to use any avenue they can to find the facts that will make their stories come to life.

Writing Historical Fiction Part 4

4. Use the Internet

The Internet can be a great tool for research. You can check out the online catalogs of public and university libraries, and you can look up the online collections of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute, and other research-friendly places there in the comfort of your home in your jammies with your cat on your knee (maybe that’s just me).

The Internet is great for finding interesting snippets of information. As I’m beginning the research for my next historical novel set in Victorian England, I stumbled onto a site that explains the Victorian language of flowers. Even the way a Victorian woman held her fan could send a message to a nearby gentleman. Because of this new-found knowledge I’m able to flesh out the story in a way I wasn’t anticipating.

The Internet is truly wonderful, though, when you’re in the middle of writing a scene and realize you’re missing some important fact in your notes. Surf the web and in a matter of minutes you can find what you need. For example, when I was writing Her Dear & Loving Husband I had the unique task of writing scenes set on a college campus that at that point I had never been to. For you Loving Husband Trilogy fans, you know I’m referring to Salem State College (now University, thank you very much). I did finally visit the campus while writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse, but while writing Book One in the series I needed to know where one college building was in relation to another and how far someone might have to walk to get from one place to the other. In a matter of minutes I printed up a map of the campus, and I was able to write my scene in a realistic way. I was thrilled when I visited Salem and found everything where I expected it to be. While that part of the story isn’t particularly historical (it’s a present-day college in the present-day town of Salem), I believe my point still stands since I also used the Internet when I researched the Salem Witch Trials for the same novel.

When using the Internet, however, writers of historical fiction need to be aware that there will be gaps in the research. Internet articles are often on the short side and they may lack the thorough details you’d find in books and journals. And since anyone can put anything on the World Wide Web (hence the fact you’re subjected to reading this now), you need to be sure the information you’re using comes from a reliable source. Wiki is a cute name, but the mistakes in some of the information contained on some wiki sites aren’t so cute. I like to check and double check my information across several different sites. Hey, they can’t all have the same wrong information, can they? I’ve certainly found a lot of accurate information on the web, and there’s no reason to assume all sites are fraudulent. Just be aware of where the information is coming from.