First Draft Mindset

In a May/June 2017 interview, winner of The 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, Travis Madden, offers this piece of writing advice, “Just get that first draft completed, knowing it’s not going to be anywhere remotely near the quality of your finished work. And be OK with that!”

So how do you get to be OK with that when you’re constantly thinking about how to incorporate all the things you’ve learned about storytelling?writer-1421099_640

First, forget everything you’ve learned about storytelling. Honestly, you don’t need to know how to create compelling characters, how to raise the stakes, how to pace, plot, hook the reader, etc. to write a first draft. That’s what revision is for. Instead, you need to just write. Maybe you have an idea for a character or a vague sense of setting with no plot. Maybe you have a plot but your characters are flat and cliché. Who cares? You write first drafts to explore these things and figure out what story you’re trying to tell. With that being said, you shouldn’t formally outline before you start a first draft either. Let the words and the plot and the characters come and go as they please without trying to mold them. Save the outline, character sketches, plot summaries, setting descriptions, etc. for revision. I mean, how can you make those things better before they’re even written?

img_0278-1024x683Indeed, first drafts are a lot like corn mazes– you don’t know how to get yourself out of them ahead of time. That’s why they’re so much fun. Sometimes you can only see a few feet in front of you at a time and never know whether the next turn will bring a dead-end or another path to the next fork in the road. You’re excited at the adventure of it and a little anxious about getting lost (and possibly afraid of a Bible-thumping 9-year old named Isaac jumping out at you), but it doesn’t stop you from entering the maze and having fun.

Secondly, adopt the mindset that first drafts should be like creative, unstructured child’s play. I grew up in a time when we didn’t have computers or video games or even VCRs. My parents never sat my sister and me in front of the TV to keep us entertained. We played outside in all kinds of weather, building entire houses out of snow or pine needles. We created menus and played restaurant with my mother’s dishes. I played Wonder Woman, paper dolls, Barbie, bank, shoe store, house, and school. I turned my bike upside down and pretended it was an ice cream shop. 4aeb9200a5c8eccce526a2c407f5ef60

There are no rules in child’s play–at least not in creative, unstructured play. You can be a superhero one moment and a gun-toting stagecoach robber the next. (Yes, I did have a cap gun and no, I didn’t grow up to be a murderer.)

Often when kids make up games, they make up their own rules as they go along as situations call for it. They don’t sit down and plan for every scenario ahead of time the way some writers do. They are true pantsers. Free and unencumbered. They never feel the need to go back and “re-play” what they did earlier because they changed something.

Next, start your story where you need to not where you have to. If that includes beginning with decades of backstory or a dreaded prologue, then so be it. Seriously, how ridiculous is it to try to start your story in the middle of things if you don’t even know where the middle is because you haven’t gotten to the end yet?

As humans, we literally start every day anew when we wake up. So if you have to follow your main character from the moment he opens his eyes until the time something life-altering happens, so be it. That’s what the Delete button is for.young-man-wake-up-morning-rub-eyes-stretch-89053809

This is also why NaNoWriMo is so popular. It allows writers to throw down anything and everything and just write with reckless abandon. Who cares if you followed all the rules? Who cares if it doesn’t make sense in the end? Who cares if your story started out as fantasy and morphed into contemporary realism? You just wrote 50,000 words! Fifty-thousand words you didn’t have time to deliberate over. Fifty-thousand words with a better idea of what kind of story you want to tell and what to revise to get it there.

And finally, don’t ask for critiques or share your first drafts with other writers. It’s tempting to want feedback to see if you’re on the right track. Only you don’t know what the right track is yet. You don’t know how your baby is going to grow up, if it’s even going to make it. This thing you’re writing is like a newborn. parentIt can be infected with other people’s germs super easily and get really sick. It can also turn out to be something you never wanted, depending on who’s taking care of it. So protect it (and your self-confidence) in the process. Remember, no one likes being called a bad parent

To recap, here are four ways to change your mindset around first drafts:

  1. Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing and just write.
  2. Know there are no rules in creativity. (We never would have been able to send men in outer space unless someone dreamed it was possible. Only then did rules about physics and engineering apply.)
  3. Start your story where you need to, not where you’re supposed to.
  4. Protect that baby from backseat critiquers until it’s fully developed.

What’s your current mindset about first drafts? Do you get trapped in the never-ending cycle of editing? What other advice would you give someone about writing a first draft?

 

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Reinventing the Writer’s Notebook

At some point we’ve all been told we need to keep a writer’s notebook and been given vague instructions to record ideas and bits of overheard conversations in it. We may have even been forced to keep one for a creative writing class and been graded on it. (So guilty.) pen-994464_640

Let’s face it, whether or not we choose to keep a moleskin journal handy or a note app open on our phone, the best ideas usually happen when we’re running, taking a shower, or pooping in a public restroom–all times you don’t want to be lugging around a notebook.

Now, how many ideas come to you in a day, how many snarky comments does your barista really make, that need to be written down or recorded immediately? And how many of those ideas do you really go back and use? No one working at Starbucks is that interesting.635873577289442989-257407846_starbucks-barista

If you look at your writer’s notebook right now, I bet you’ll see a lot of empty, wasted pages just screaming to be filled.

There are better uses for it that will benefit your writing than just some random scrawlings.

1. Reflect on the Day’s Writing

As a teacher, one of the things I teach students is that writing can be used to figure out what you think. If you’ve ever written a first draft only to go back and make a major change, you know what I’m talking about.

Journaling works much the same way. How many times have you journaled about something, starting off with a specific viewpoint, then find out it’s changed by the time you’re done writing? It was through that process of uncensored writing you were able to try on different viewpoints, view ideas through different lenses, and come to different conclusions.female-865110_640

You can use this technique with your works-in-progress much the same way. At the end of your writing session, reflect on it in your notebook. What reservations do you have about what you wrote? What feels off? Where do you feel resistance and why do you think so? Conversely, what victories did you achieve? What went well in today’s session? Did you finally figure out who your killer is? How will this change the rest of your story? Elizabeth Peters once wrote in her notebook that someone needed to be murdered because the story was getting boring.

Reflecting on the day’s writing will allow you the space and freedom to explore new ideas without starting all over again or going down another dead end.

2. Write About What You’re Reading

When I was in grad school, I kept a catalogue of every YA novel I’d read. I included not only the title, author, and general plot summary, but also lessons I learned from either the author or the story. These lessons could be on things I thought had been done well, like how characters were described, how the story was structured, or how mood was achieved. They could also be about things I hated and never wanted to do in my own story. I explored these lessons through writing about them to better understand how they could be applied specifically to what I was working on at the time.  narrative-794978_640

By writing about how you can utilize other authors’ techniques in your own work, you come to understand what it is you actually want to achieve.

3. Keep Track of Your Revisions

First drafts are meant to be shitty. They are a place for your mind to figure out what it thinks, where it wants to go, which ideas it wants to keep. First drafts are also meant to be written quickly without regard to grammar, punctuation, word choice, etc. Those are all things that can be fixed in revisions. You may also find you need to make more substantial revisions because you story has progressed to a place you hadn’t seen coming. For instance, you may need to go back and introduce a new element, change a character, or foreshadow an event. To keep the first draft flowing, fight the urge to revise every time you sit down to write.

Instead, keep a running list of revisions in your notebook. I make notes by chapter that I will revise later. Things like, “Better transition into the figure on the moor and make more dramatic.” Or sometimes, I’ll ask questions: “Chapter 5–Should this be the first encounter with K? What was the function of seeing him earlier?”

Keeping track of things you want to revise while you are writing alleviates the need to constantly tinker and stall any forward momentum.

4. Decide Where You’re Going Next

Speaking of first drafts, Hemingway gave this advice, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.”  No doubt you’ve found yourself ending a writing session because you’ve run out of ideas, only to kick yourself the next day as you stare at a blank screen and flashing cursor.ernest-1097984_640

To avoid this, take time at the end of each session to write in your notebook where you want to go, what you think the next scene should be, and how you think you can get there. This is the time to scribble down ideas without censorship and see where they lead without committing them to your actual document.

Deciding where to go next in your story follows naturally the process of reflecting on the day’s work. At last, you’ve come full circle and without that pesky procrastination rearing its head.

Of course there are a dozen more ways to fill your notebook: making notes about a setting you’ve visited, documenting area-specific sayings and their origins, creating more backstory, scheduling writing times and goals, etc. But above all, it will only help if you find how it works best for you and your current project.

How successful have you been in keeping a writer’s notebook? Do you use a physical or digital version? What other ways do you use it?

 

 

How to Cultivate a Writing Practice in 2017

So you’ve decided to get serious this year, man up, put on your big girl panties and write. Every single day.

Both a worthy and lofty goal, especially if you were less than successful with the same resolution last year.

But how are you going to do it? How are you going to do it differently? Whose advice are you going to follow? Who are you going to believe?

All important questions, grasshopper-san. Let’s see if we can answer them.

  • For starters, get over the notion that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit. Not going to happen. Not scientifically, not theoretically, not even in our wildest dreams. So stop investing in all those 21 (or 30) day fix programs. You’ll most likely miss a day, quit prematurely, or just feel miserable when that 22nd day comes and nothing has changed.

This notion of 21 days’ habit formation comes from a 1960 quote made by plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz. He observed that it took a minimum of 21 days for patients to recognize their own faces after, say, getting a nose job or for phantom limb symptoms to disappear after getting an arm or leg amputated.

That pivotal quote, published in Psycho-Cybernetics, was, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.”

Two things wrong with using that quote to base your 21 day habit formation off of:

  1. He said “minimum.” The number is not absolute. And there is nothing wrong with you if it takes longer.
  2. He was talking about an “old mental image to dissolve.” That is not the same thing as actively trying to change your behavior.

So how long does it take? According to a study published by Phillippa Lally in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, depending on the person, habit, and circumstances. But more importantly, it takes more than two months.

Ask any parent who has to train her kid to brush his teeth 3x a day, wash his hands before eating, and use the toilet instead of his diaper. If it only took 21 days, we’d have a lot less stressed mommies and daddies in the world.

(For more on this awesome news, read How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) by the  inspiring behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement blogger, James Clear.)

  • Now that you’ve decided you’re in for the long haul, set time aside every day to write. Yes, every day. Yes, on Christmas and your birthdays. And on days when you have no time. (Hey, if it works for Stephen King…)

Do you have to spend the same amount of time writing every day? No. If all you can spare is 15 minutes, then that’s all you do. It’s not the amount of time that matters, it’s the act of doing it.

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Creativity coach, author, and speaker, Rosanne Bane, writes often and emphatically about the magic of writing 15 minutes a day. Doing it is the key to habit formation.

So how can we do it more easily? Especially when we don’t “feel like it” or have time.

  • Create a reward system, not only for those days when you don’t feel like it, but for every day you accomplish your goal. Rewards can be big or small, and they can increase in value or size depending on how hard it was for you to sit your ass in that chair or how long you spent in it: a piece of chocolate, a new book, a massage, an hour to binge watch your favorite new show on Netflix, a dollar in your savings account, 15 minutes in the sunshine, 15 minutes on Pinterest. The choices are endless, the preference individual. Spend some time creating your own reward system.

When you start cultivating this new habit, you’re going to feel resistance. You’re going to not feel like doing it. It’s inevitable, and it’s a good thing. I swear.

Todd Herman from thepeakathlete.com says, “Your resistance is a sign that your system is reconfiguring itself toward success.”

If you’ve read The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte, and I suggest you do, then you have come across this quote and its explanation.

But if not, she explains the phenomenon of resistance as, “when you enact a significantly positive lifestyle change (new fitness practice, breaking off a toxic relationship, taking on a new job), your brain temporarily floods your body with feel-good neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. It’s your brain’s way of giving you a high-five. The happy-drugs start flowing, fueling your good intentions with seemingly boundless energy. Your commitments seem effortless. This is going to be easier than you thought. You’ve so got this covered. And then, in a cruel-but-necessary act of nature, the party train grinds to a halt. Your neurotransmitters collapse back to their normal output levels (and thank goodness, because otherwise you’d go crazy, in a literal, clinical sense). And like a rushing river that dries up to a trickle, the rah-rah ferocity dissipates.”

This is when you most need to meet that resistance head on, acknowledge it, talk to it in the mirror, embrace it and say, “This resistance and not-feeling-like-it is actually good for me because it means my brain is changing, my habits are starting to stick, and I’m gonna kick its ass. Because that’s what I do.”

  • Literally schedule the time you’re going to write in your planner or calendar.
  • Track your progress to stay accountable then figure out what trips you up and what makes you rock.

This can be done in a number of ways and is again individual. You can use tables, flowcharts, or journal writing. Some things to track might include what time of day you wrote (did you have to squeeze writing in at 11:45 pm because you put it off until the last minute or did you wake up before everyone else so you would have time alone?), what other things were going on in the day (was it your anniversary? were you on a business trip or vacation? was it a day you had nothing else planned?), what you worked on, what you accomplished, what you didn’t accomplish that you wanted to or were supposed to, and how you felt about your writing session.

  • Tap into how you want to feel when you write.

We all visualize ourselves walking into a bookstore and seeing our books on the shelf, or signing copies of our NY Times Bestseller, getting that publishing contract, meeting our agent to negotiate a six-figure deal, etc., etc., etc. But have you ever visualized yourself actually sitting there doing the work, actually writing? Try it. Right down to how you want to feel when you do write: happy, excited, creative. Is it easy, fulfilling, fun? Smile to yourself because you absolutely adore your main character. Cry when your characters cry; laugh when they laugh; get mad when your antagonist takes everything away.

  • Meditate on that feeling often. Revisit the scene of you writing — the feelings you feel — every night before bed, every morning when you wake up, every time you sit down to write.
  • Write about that feeling in your journal. Make it real with as much description as possible. Describe it as if you are a character sitting at her desk writing. How does she feel? What physiological changes are happening in her body? Where does she feel it? In her heart, her stomach, the tips of her toes?
  • Create a writing ritual. Jen Sincero calls this mooching off another habit. It’s when you take a pre-existing habit and attach a new habit to it. The old habit, that you’re already doing, becomes a trigger, so every time you do it, you will use it to create a new habit. For instance, every time you sit down with your first cup of coffee in the morning (or tea), you decide to write for however long it takes you to drink it (or reheat it a million times until you finish it). At some point (maybe not in 21 days), your brain will automatically associate drinking coffee (or tea) with writing. Now, no matter what time of day it is, whenever you reach for your coffee, you’ll start to feel like you want to write. And eventually you just will write. This becomes the ritual.

This will only work if you choose a habit you already do every day and make a conscious effort to attach writing to it, so choose wisely.

  • Make a sacred space for your writing. This can be a desk, a kitchen table, your bed, the couch, or even a seat on the subway. It’s all about inspiration and how you feel when you are there. You don’t have to have a luxury office in the turret of your Victorian home to write. I have a desk, but I never use it except to pile junk on it. It’s in my bedroom where I throw everything I don’t want to see or haven’t had time to put away yet. My bedroom is not inspiring. I feel closed off when I’m in there, which is great for sleeping, but not for feeling connected to anything. Instead, I write usually at my dining table. It has a comfortable chair and it’s at the center of my apartment where I can look out the window or be in the same room with my cat who likes to sleep in the chair next to me. In the summer, I like to write on my balcony because it’s sunny, full of flowers, and my cat likes to hang out there too. Besides, I get to look at the Victorian house across the street and dream about having my own office in a turret someday.

Fill your sacred space with inspiring quotes, pretty stationery, exotic trinkets, or anything else you need to feel comfortable and creative. (Don’t underestimate the value of good chair. In fact, I think the whole design of your space should revolve around it.)

  • Read! Voraciously. Read for pleasure, read for inspiration, read for execution. Take notes and record your thoughts in your journal.
  • Take time for other activities that enhance creativity but have nothing to do with writing. Stephen King walks every day. Laurie Halse Anderson runs. You may want to dance or lift weights, kayak or fish. You may want to take up coloring, sewing, baking, painting, scrapbooking, model building, or anything else that focuses your mind on the task at hand. This gives your brain quiet breathing space in the background to work out issues in your writing without you having to think them to death. You may even find meditation or even just focusing on your breath helps.

Above are some tools that I think are pretty user-friendly and free. You don’t have to invest in a program, a scheme, or even a book. You just have to invest in yourself and do the work.

Was 2016 a blast or a bust? What are you going to do differently this year? 

What techniques have helped you create a writing habit? What advice would you give someone who wants to do the same thing?

 

 

Take What You Need

A little widget told me it’s been a year since my last post.

During that time, I’d been on a quest to work my way through Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days. It was more like 30 weeks. I didn’t finish that quest or continue to blog about it mostly because I realized I didn’t want to plan the crap out of my story.

And a first draft is really much more difficult than just writing an expanded outline. But I don’t have to tell you.

Unfortunately, I’m the type of person who believes that if I don’t write the way _______ writes, then I’ll never be a good writer. (I also believed everything my teachers told me because they were supposed to be the experts.)

So after finishing Wiesner’s book and realizing that wasn’t the process for me, I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (and it’s not as much a book written by him as it is a transcription of the writing classes he taught).

This book=polar opposite. His premise is that, to write literary fiction, you can’t write from your literal mind. You can’t logically, intellectually, consciously plot and plan. You must go into your writer’s trance and “dream” up your characters, scenes, and structure. You cannot write summary, generalization, or what teachers like to call “telling.” You must create yearning in your character and describe everything sensually, i.e. through the five senses. It is not okay to write something like, “As she walked into the party, she looked around and saw her ex-husband standing at the bar.” That is telling. There is no yearning or sensuality in that sentence. (Actually, you’re not even supposed to write, “She looked around.” Or, “She walked into the party,” for that matter.)

So for about six more months, I felt like crap because I couldn’t do what Butler was telling me to do–write first thing in the morning before doing anything else so I was closer to the dreamworld than the realworld, describe every scene sensually, stay away from summary and generalizations (there are some interesting chapters in which Butler deconstructs his students’ stories sentence by sentence to illustrate his point), and use an object to highlight this yearning which creates a metaphor which becomes a motif.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for him to tell you how to get into that writer’s trance, A.K.A. the flow, he doesn’t.)

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I like about this book. For instance, visualizing your story, your scenes, your characters from a dreamlike state (even those you will eventually throw out) and how to write using film techniques like shots, close-ups, cuts. (This chapter, using a brilliant example from Hemingway, explains why you should never write, “She looked around.”)

But the thing that gives me the biggest niggle is that Butler chooses to distinguish “literary” writing from “entertainment” writing in a not very nice way. He even goes so far as to call Stephen King a “non-artist.” He does this because he thinks “entertainment” writers have an agenda before they even start to write (as in, King wants to scare you). Butler says, “These writers know the effects ahead of time and so they construct an object to produce them.” Real artists, A.K.A. literary writers, don’t know ahead of time what they’re writing because the characters, their yearning, their metaphors and motifs happen organically.

Are we to believe, then, that “literature” (as opposed to “commercial” writing) should not be entertaining? Is this why so many people hate English? But what’s the point of reading fiction if not to be entertained in some way? To escape where you are, who you are, what you think, what you feel at this moment. Writing “entertainment” fiction does not mean the author, or the reader, cannot also explore the human condition in some deep, meaningful way. It just means something actually happens in the story.

To sum up, I think it’s important to not follow just one author’s method or process of writing. Even if it’s Stephen King’s process. Read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, watch interviews and TED Talks by writers about writing to give you ideas, not force you into thinking there is only one right way to be a good writer.

And by all means, use your sixth sense. If your gut gives you a niggle that the advice isn’t right for you, trust it. Take what you need and leave the rest.