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?

 

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 2

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, young adult horror novels were all the rage. Authors such as Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike, and R. L. Stine were suddenly catapulted to success with their contributions to the Point Horror imprint from Scholastic Publishing.

These novels, with titles such as Blind Date, Mirror, Mirror, and The Vampire’s Kiss, were not works of literary genius nor were they probably meant to be, but they were immensely popular and fun, quick reads.

While I never read most of the Point Horror books, my favorite YA author growing up, Richie Tankersley Cusick, had written four titles for the imprint, including The LifeguardTrick or TreatTeacher’s Pet, and April Fools, which I must have read at least a dozen times over the years (as well as all her other books). Trick or Treat was my favorite because I love Halloween, and in fact, Ms. Cusick’s books are what inspired me to write my own YA horror/mystery/suspense novels.

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I recently read a Q&A with Cusick regarding the Point Horror series, and she stated that the authors were all given specific titles to work with and had to write stories around them. While some might consider this “factory” writing, I thought the idea would make an interesting writing prompt, especially for those of us who are plot junkies or those who may need a little help coming up with a plot or title.

Again, this is a two-part exercise.

  • First, you will have to come up with at least a dozen (or however many you feel like) titles for would-be novels. I suggest you don’t use titles for books you already know you want to write. That’s cheating! (And don’t worry if you find out there is already a book published with one of the titles you came up with. There is no copyright law for titles.)
  • Secondly, each day, you will randomly select one of the titles and write a short plot summary that you might find on the back of a paperback or inside flap of a hardcover.
  • Set your timer (if you wish) for 10 minutes and get writing. Stop when the timer dings or keep writing. It’s up to you!

This is the synopsis for Cusick’s novel The Mall, which I happen to have at my fingertips, and as you’ll see, it’s not particularly long or involved but is a general skeleton of the plot, the two main characters, and the overall tone of the story:

“Trish smiles into the dressing-room mirror, admiring herself in the gorgeous white dress. Unknown to her, someone else is watching. He knows she is smiling just for him. His soft, strange voice whispers her name from the crowd. His hooded eyes follow her every move … At first she thinks he’s just a creepy customer, hanging round Muffin Mania where she works at the mall. But suddenly he’s everywhere, the man with a thousand faces tormenting her day and night. He knows her secrets. There’s no safe place to hide. There’s no one she can tell, no one she can trust. How can she escape a madman wiling to kill to make her his–forevermore.”

And here are a few titles I came up (again, keeping with the horror theme) to get you started:

  • Blood Sisters
  • Murder Island
  • Hall of Mirrors
  • Cursed
  • Cellar Stairs

If you have trouble coming up with titles, I found this infographic on Passwordincorrect.com that gives you 15 examples of how books are titled.

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Alternatively:

  • Make a list of already-published book titles you have never read before nor know anything about. You might want to stick to a genre you wish to write in or may want to go outside your comfort zone and look for titles in an unfamiliar genre.
  • Continue as above.

I found these examples by Googling mystery titles:

  • Ghostwalk
  • City of Liars and Thieves
  • MacDeath
  • Belzhar
  • Crime Rib

This exercise is not meant to hone your synopsis-writing skills, so don’t worry about making the summary perfect or enticing. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, paragraph breaks, or even coming up with catchy phrases. It’s more about just brainstorming a general story idea with a few important characters. You may even find one of these ideas is perfect for your NaNo novel next month.

Good luck and let me know how you like this exercise. Even better, I’d love to read some of your synopses!

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 1

Perhaps you haven’t been writing as often as you’d like lately, or you haven’t written anything at all in years.

Perhaps you even think that signing up for NaNo next month is just what you need to get back on track.

Well, hold on, sport. Trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days when you haven’t written that much in a year is like trying to run a marathon when you can’t even run a mile.

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There’s training involved. You have to flex those creative muscles first, get them warmed up and firing. Does this mean you have to glue yourself to a desk and write for hours on end? Hell no! Chances are you probably wouldn’t even make it to the chair if you thought that.

What you need to start with is consistency. Don’t worry about how long your sessions will have to be to write the obligatory 1,667 words a day during NaNo. For now, just focus on writing something every day. Sounds doable, right?

Writing consistently, without specifying a time limit, will reduce anxiety, especially if you fail to meet your minute mark because something else came up. Life happens. No one’s perfect. Not even you. But you can probably manage a sentence or two every day.

Writing consistently will also help you form a sustainable habit like brushing your teeth. It will just become something you do without any dreadful thoughts about how sucky you are at it. I mean, how often have you said to yourself, “Wow, I could have brushed that right incisor better.”

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And if you haven’t been writing consistently, you probably do have some nagging thoughts in your head about how sucky you are. You might even think, “I’ll never be able to write anything ever again.”

Let me just put that fear right out of your head. You have not suddenly forgotten how to hold a pen or pencil and form words on a piece of paper, or forgotten how to open Word or Google Docs and type. And you probably have written something in the past 10 minutes, be it an email, text, or grocery list. So I don’t believe it when you say you can’t write. What you’re really scared of is not being as creative as you used to be.

To that I say, consistency will train the creativity muscle. The more you show up for your muse, the more your muse will show up for you. She might even have to sleep over because she’s sick of driving back and forth every day. Just think, muse on demand.

The trick to being consistently creative is to start out by writing something inconsequential. Don’t try working on the next Great American Novel, even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day. That’s too much pressure. Instead, work on quick writing prompts. Remember, this is a warm-up, not the long haul. Wait until your muscles are sufficiently fired up before diving into that important project.

So for the next month, I’m going to supply you with a new exercise each week. You don’t have to set a time limit, but if you want, start with something small like 10 minutes. Literally set a timer. When it dings, you stop. Or you continue. Either way, you win.

NaNo Warm-Up Part 1:

I’m sure this exercise has origins elsewhere, but I found it in Lawrence Block’s Write For Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers. This is not a craft book or how-to write anything specific book. It’s about how to write more often, despite fear and procrastination, not about how to write better.

Here’s the two-part exercise.

  • First (and you can use this as one of your daily sessions), you will have to come up with 50 to 100 sentences you can use as the opening line of a story
  • Then type the list double- or triple-spaced, print it out, and cut each sentence into slips; or write each one on its own index card
  • Secondly, every day, randomly select one of the sentences (set your timer for 10 minutes if you choose) and continue the story without stopping until the timer goes off or you have run out of steam
  • If you come up with 365 sentences, you can have a different prompt every day of the year

Easy peasy. Now to help you get started, I’ll share some of the opening sentences I’ve come up with. Feel free to add these to your collection or use them as a jumping off point. If it would help, you also might want to come up with prompts in your genre of choosing. For instance, I tend toward murder mysteries, so a lot of my sentences were geared toward them. However, once you get the wheels turning, you might want to try coming up with prompts in a genre you are unfamiliar with. This will flex those muscles even more.

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  • When the weather turned cool, so did his emotions.
  • She only had time to pack one evening dress, and it wasn’t even her best one.
  • Another year, another dead body.
  • If she knew how to read tea leaves, hers would say, “Death.”
  • Backpacking across Europe sounded like a great idea until he did it.
  • It wasn’t just the tights that turned him off from being a superhero.
  • Baby Jesus hung upside down in a tree.

Alternatively:

  • Open a random book to page 52 (or any page number you prefer)
  • Choose the second sentence (or any number sentence) on the page (even if it’s just one word) and use that as the opening line for your daily prompt
  • Continue as above

Do not worry about grammar, punctuation, or if what you’re writing even makes sense. Do not try to work these prompts into something you are already writing or want to write. Let the ideas flow without restricting them. If you can’t think of anything to write, write, “I can’t think of anything to write,” over and over again until you can think of something or the timer runs out.

The only way you can fail at this exercise is to not do it.

Good luck and let me know how you did or share some of your opening sentences too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Power

Star Date: October 30, 2011

A freak snowstorm battered southern New England yesterday, resulting in a wet, white, foreign,semi-crystallized substance that accumulated on colorful leaf-laden trees. As heavy branches snapped under the weight and crashed to the ground taking power lines with them, all forms of communication with the inhabitants were cut off.

(Except for those of us who have Internet on our cell phones and happen to have a car charger or a power inverter. Well, I don’t have either of the apparatuses to transform my gas and battery-operated Jeep into a source of electrical stimulation, so when the cell phone juice ran dry, I was left alone and lonely.)

Fast forward to 10:00 PM two nights before Halloween, and I was in the dark, cold and alone, and lighting candles all over my house. What a wonderful time to write a ghost story, I thought.

And then I realized almost everything I wanted to write required research, and I had no means of accessing Google or heading out to my local library or Barnes & Noble.

It got me thinking what our forefathers had done. There were newspapers of course, and journals I supposed, that authors could have subscribe to, but how else had they gotten their information? How had they written all those wonderful classics such as The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins without the need for facts at the tips of their fingers and at lightning speed? Was traveling overseas so easy then or jobs for foreign correspondents were just plentiful?

I remember a time before computers and the Internet, and sadly it was probably one of the most creative and productive times in my writing career. I didn’t
look up anything; inspiration came from personal and physical experiences. Like a remote twisted country road, an eerie tree-lined path, the Tlaquepaque Mall in Sedona, AZ, and a torrid, sordid love affair. I used my mind and the power of my imagination to transform this stimuli into the characters and plots and settings of my stories. I used the “What If” method without even knowing it.

Why then should it be so hard now? Have I, and the rest of us, gotten so used to relying on other people for our knowledge of, well, anything that we can’t even pound out a semi-original ghost story?

I agree that the Internet is a fascinating invention that keeps us connected to a world we might never have known existed, but at what expense? With so much virtual information out there, I feel like we are becoming less and less creative. Look at this year’s major motion picture releases. How many of them were remakes of older movies? How many were based on books or comics or graphic novels?

Though Emily Dickinson might not have left her Amherst home for most of her adult life, she also did not resort to accessing the World Wide Web for inspiration and research.

It only took a few days without electricity and Internet service to realize the true power of creativity lies within our own imagination. But unlike modern
technology, if I can harness it, I will never have to worry about service interruptions again.