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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NaNo Warm-Up Part 4

We’re heading into the home stretch. Just a mere 10 days before National Novel Writing Month officially kicks off.

Hopefully, you’ve taken advantage of some of the writing exercises I’ve shared in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and it sparked a new juicy novel idea to work on next month.

For some, you might not have been as consistent with your writing as you would have liked and now you’re asking yourself how will you ever be able to write 1,667 words for 30 days in a row? That’s like going to take way longer than 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Your heart picked up a little just now, didn’t it? And your breathing got a little shallower. Your inner critic is probably laughing at you and telling you it’s not possible.

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Of course, it’s possible. Thousands of people do it every year. And you can too. Consistency is the key. Every day you have to sit down and try. Try is the operative word. Even if you only manage to write, say, 100 words a day, that’s still 100 more words than you had yesterday. And that is cause for celebration. (Hey, if James Joyce considered two perfectly written sentences a full day’s work, so can you.)

So instead of giving you another writing exercise this week, something that may only take a few minutes to complete, I thought I’d share some tips on how to write consistently and not feel like crap about it.

  • Be specific about when and where you are going to write. Choose the time and place that fits your schedule. It may vary depending on what day of the week it is or even what your kids’ schedule is like, but knowing ahead of time when and where you will be writing every day will alleviate the first hurdle.
  • Set boundaries on your time. If you don’t have the luxury of living alone, don’t let other people bother you when you’re trying to write. Lock yourself in the bathroom, get up earlier or go to bed later than everyone else in the house, slip out to the library for an hour. The best place to write is a cemetery. No one bothers you there.
  • Decide on what or how much you want to accomplish each day. Start off by setting the bar low, like really low to start, so that when you’ve met your goal, you feel like a badass. Start with 100 words a day, then 250, then 500, then the dreaded 1,667.
  • Or if the thought of a word count already raises your blood pressure, start off by completing one scene per day, or one page per day. You’ll be in the company of John Steinbeck who advised the same thing when he wrote, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” 

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  • Never stop writing when you can’t think of anything to say. You’ll be frustrated before you even start the next day and you’ll waste valuable, precious time pulling your hair out, slamming your fists on the desk, and swearing into your computer screen. Ernest Hemingway said it best when he offered this piece of fatherly advice, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
  • Create the habit of writing by attaching it to a habit you already have (preferably one that’s good for you, but I guess it doesn’t have to be). My favorite thing to do on weekend mornings is drink a pot of tea. When that tray comes out and the first cup is poured, I know it’s time to write.
  • Likewise, you can create a writing ritual. Perform the same meaningful (or meaningless) routine to get you in the mood. Charles Dickens would rearrange knickknacks on his desk, Steinbeck would sharpen 12 pencils, Mark Twain wrote lying down, and Victor Hugo stripped naked to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (For more weird writing rituals of famous authors, check out this book.)

If the thing that gets you down is not so much the time spent at writing but what you end up with on the page, remember you are not the only writer to ever think that what you’ve written is crap. Maya Angelou said, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay, I’ll come.'”

Remember the operative word is “try.” No one is going to think that what they wrote at such a furious pace like the one set by NaNo is great. And if they do, then it really is crap. The point behind the challenge is to just get the words out, the story finished, not to labor over linguistics.

Joshua Wolf Shenk puts it like this, “Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and rewriting the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

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So this week, make writing a priority, or at least set plans to in motion, and have the courage to try.

Hey, if it helps, you can always tell yourself you were trying to write the worst novel ever written.

Good luck!

 

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 3

Welcome to Week 3 in the NaNo warm-up writing prompts.

In last week’s post, we explored ways of coming up with story ideas based on book titles. Some of you may have come up with your own titles or some may have worked with titles of already-published books that you knew nothing about. Either way, writing a short book synopsis is a great way to start thinking about a story in terms of plot.

But what if writing plot isn’t your strength or you prefer to write a story based on character instead?

Mary Hilton in Potent Fictions: Children’s Literacy and the Challenge of Popular Culture criticised the Point Horror series’ main characters, who were often teenage girls, as basically being used as a plot device. These femalce characters spend much of their time being upset, stalked, dumped, terrorized, paranoid, or killed. It’s true. The main characters of any of these books could be swapped from one to the other without changing storylines much.

But for literary writers, stories begin with character, and plot grows organically from there.

This week’s exercise focuses on creating characters who have a specific story to tell and comes in two parts.

Remember the Bestselling thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the movie The Man in the Iron Mask? How about Girl With a Pearl Earring? Each of these titles is basically an innocuous character description, and if you had never read any of these books, you would be hard pressed to guess what genre or plot they suggest.

The first part of this exercise is to come up with a list of various character descriptions. These could describe some physical attribute, a personality quirk, or an emotional state. Heck, you might even want to take a cue from Edgar Allan Poe and be as generic as possible: The Black CatThe RavenThe Sleeper.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • The man in the green speedo
  • The girl who cried at midnight
  • The boy who ate glass
  • The cat whisperer
  • The woman in the rain

The second part to this prompt is to randomly select one from your list and create a character from it. This could be done any way you want: personality profile, character questionnaire, backstory narrative. You can work on one character per day or spend several days on the same character. There is no wrong way to do this.

The most challenging option for this exercise is, once you have selected your character, to write his or her story. This is done by asking simple questions: WHO? WHAT? WHY? HOW?

For instance, why is that man wearing a green speedo? Is it socially acceptable because he’s on a beach in Italy or Spain? Is he on a swim team? In the Olympics? Is his choice of swim attire out of place on the rocky Maine coast?

Why is the girl crying at midnight? Who is the woman standing in the rain? How does one know they can communicate with cats on some otherworldly level? What makes a young boy eat glass? The answers are endless, and no matter which ones you decide on, your character will dictate your story and not the other way around.

Happy writing!

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!