Whenever I turn in a draft of a new book, I always feel a little at loose ends. Like I don’t know what to do with myself…except write another book! 🙂 Which, of course, is on the agenda. But before I jump into something new, I like to keep tabs on what I learned during the process of writing a draft of the previous book.
Every book is different. I don’t know how to explain it, but even within the same series, with the same characters, every book has different sticking points, things I struggle with. And starting a new series with new characters, that’s even trickier, I think.
My mentor and friend, the awesome Linnea Sinclair, once compared it to skiing. You know how to ski. But that doesn’t mean you know *this* mountain. Every story is its own mountain, a challenge to your skills and experience in a new way.
I think this is probably a good thing in the end–keeps us challenged and learning.
But when you’re stuck and wiping out on the mountain–over and over again, cursing it for being different than all the other mountains you’ve skied–it doesn’t feel like it.
So, in an effort to help myself in those future moments when I’m convinced I’m going to be permanently stuck on the side of one of those story mountains, I always try to write down what I’ve learned (or re-learned) during the writing of a draft.
I’m still going to make mistakes. I’m still going to get stuck. But maybe I won’t make the SAME mistakes. And maybe what I’ve learned in the past will help get me out of some future jam.
I usually jot these notes down in my writing notebook, but I’ve been getting more and more emails asking about writing advice, so I thought I’d post it here this time. 🙂
(Note: as with anything with writing, these items may work for you, or they may not. There is no one right way to write a book. Also, as you’ll see in a moment, I’m WAY more of a “pantser” than a plotter. Again, you should do whatever works for you.)
1) Write a crappy first draft.
This is not a new lesson for me. Nor is it original to me. I first read about it in Anne Lamott’s brilliant book on writing: Bird by Bird.
She talks about how the need to be perfect right out of the gate can have a paralyzing effect on your writing. Or, I think, on anything. After years of doing this, I can tell you that it is impossible for a mere mortal to get book exactly right on the first attempt. At the very least, there will be spelling mistakes! 🙂 But more than that, most likely.
Story-telling, I think, is about layering. In the end, the reader responds to the depth of the story, the layers of story, character, description, emotion, etc. But I’m not sure if it’s possible to get all those layers in with one draft. In fact, I think sometimes it’s impossible to know what’s important, what layers need to be added, until after you have a working draft.
So you write a crappy draft. And you have fun with it. You don’t worry about making a mess or how it’s going to turn out. You just write it. Some of it will be salvageable. Some of it won’t be. Some of it will be good writing. Some of it will make you cringe. But the idea is that you couldn’t have gotten to the good writing without allowing yourself the opportunity to be free and make mistakes. My mantra during this part of the process is always, “I can fix it later. Keep going.”
2) Write all the way to the end.
This one I learned on my own, the hard way. But through several conversations with the amazing and prolific Ann Aguirre, I realized I’d stumbled onto something important. (Ann confirmed it, having discovered this idea long before me.)
When you’re writing your crappy first draft, your judgment is…well, impaired is the nicest way to put it. In truth, you will not be able to tell, at times, good from the bad. I’ve found chapters that I HATED writing–ones I could only convince myself to write by telling myself it was just a crappy first draft–ended up being some of my favorites.
Because of this impaired judgment, I would often work on my crappy first draft until I reached a point where I couldn’t stand the sheer crappiness of it any longer and then I would quit and begin revising.
So. Very. Dumb.
Because here’s the thing, yeah, some parts of that draft were pretty awful. But the first draft is the exploratory draft. Often you don’t know where you’re going until the end. If you cut yourself off before the end, then you’re missing out on an important part of the development process. It’s like turning around and going home before you reach your destination. Yep, there’s probably a more efficient route, but you can’t find it if you’re always turning around before you get to the end.
And if you start revising too soon, you might end up changing things that don’t need to be changed.
Usually, the parts that made me cringe ended up not being as bad as I thought (or even pretty good) once I figured out where the book needed to go. And the parts that were bad…I just cut them with the confidence that I was making the book better.
So. Write all the way to THE END. Even if you have to make ridiculous leaps of logic or cringe your way through chapters. Get all the way to the end. It’s important.
3) When stuck, use the “Twenty Things” list.
This one’s pretty simple, and also not original to me. I picked this up somewhere along the way from a writing book or seminar. But I don’t remember where! So, credit is due…to someone, somewhere. 🙂
When you’re stuck and you aren’t sure what happens next (or the options you can immediately think of are unappealing), sit down with your writing notebook or a legal pad and write down twenty things that could happen next.
Include the logical but unsatisfying options you’ve been considering, but don’t stop there. Go hog wild. Fill that list with crazy possibilities. Things you’ve not allowed yourself to think about previously. A character needs to get from point A to point B, but you’re not sure how.
–borrow a car
–get a ride from a friend
–call a cab
–steal a car from the elderly neighbor who never leaves the house anymore
Whatever. You get the idea. The point of the exercise is just to open your mind up to the possibilities. And between the boring options and the crazy ones, you usually find one that’s just right and oh-so-intriguing. Which is what you’re looking for.
4) A daily goal and a kitchen timer can save you.
Writing is hard. No matter how much you love it, there are days when it’s easy to become distracted. Or heck, just days you want to stay in bed and read.
Most writers I know use word goals, a certain number of words per day they feel comfortable with writing and will keep them on target for meeting their deadline.
I used to pride myself on stretching. Writing as many words as I could in a day. Sometimes 3,000 or more. But the trouble with that is, I was outpacing “the boys in the basement” as Stephen King refers to them in his book, On Writing.
Basically, it’s the part of your mind that processes on an unconscious level, the part that is always thinking about the story, the part of you that is connected to whatever inspirational source/well that drives this whole shebang. And if you outpace “the boys,” you don’t have material for the next writing session. Not good.
So, okay, fine, I could set a goal based on my daily word maximum. That would make sense, right? Set a goal of hitting my maximum every day. Yeah, no.
For one thing, some days are better than others. And it is amazingly easy to become discouraged. To fall behind and try to punish ourselves for it. “Well, I was supposed to do 2,000 words yesterday, but I only did 1,500. So, now I have to do 2,500 words today to make up for it.”
UGH. No, thank you. As I said, writing is hard enough. I don’t want to make it worse for myself.
I think I learned this technique in Todd Stone’s Novelist’s Boot Camp seminar a couple of years ago. (As you can see, I’m big on learning more and more about writing!)
It basically works like this: set your daily goal at something you know you can readily accomplish. Something reasonable. And yeah, you can probably do more. Some days, you might write more. Which means, yea! You surpassed your goal. But there will be other days where even this oh-so-reasonable number will laugh at your futile attempts to reach it.
It will end up balancing out.
And you’re not allowed to punish yourself by adding to your next day’s goal on days you miss it. It’s always X. 500 words or whatever.
For the days where distraction reigned supreme and I wanted to spend two minutes writing and four hours reading Twitter, I found a kitchen timer came in handy. I’d set it for fifteen minutes and make myself write–no peeking at email, Twitter or Facebook during that time. When the timer went off, I was then allowed a break to check email, Twitter, etc.
Then I’d set the timer again. Over and over, until I reached my goal. Most of the time, I found the days I really struggled with writing, it was mostly because I was struggling with my confidence in my ability to convey a certain scene or emotion. But the timer and the daily goal take away the option of wimping out. 🙂
5) Remember it’s a process.
This is something I have to *keep* learning. Remembering that this crappy first draft won’t always be crappy, but that I have to start somewhere. And once I’ve got a draft down, then it’s a process to begin fixing it up. Just like remodeling a house. You can’t tear out all the walls and work on the roof at the same time. The roof would fall down. So you, fix the walls, THEN the roof. Or whatever. You get the idea. It’s a process. Keep focused. One thing at a time until you’re done. 🙂
What about all of you writers out there? Are there tips and techniques you’ve found that help you get through a draft?