Showing posts with label first drafts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label first drafts. Show all posts

19 December 2018

Fever Dream

Courtesy Western Washington University Libraries
by Robert Lopresti

Before we get started: I have an essay up at Trace Evidence, the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine blog, discussing "A Bad Day For Algebra Tests," my story in the current issue of AHMM.   Now, on to our regularly scheduled piece...

It happened like this.

I was reading a nonfiction book and enjoying it very much.  And then one day, it happened to be a Sunday, a little switch in my brain flipped and a voice asked:  Can I get a crime story out of this?

The more I thought about it the more it seemed like the answer was: Yes. Maybe a whole bunch of them.

On Monday I pondered characters, names, premises, and the shreds of a plot.  Pretty soon I had all the basics except one.  I wanted this to be a fair-play mystery, and that required a clue.

I hate clues.  They are the bane of my writerly existence.  I have several stories that will never be finished because I literally could not get a clue.

On Tuesday I figured out a clue.

Wednesday I had to make a trip to Seattle, two hours away.  (If you must know I had been invited to lecture at the University of Washington about my own nonfiction book.  There, you dragged it out of me.)

My wife drove.  She prefers to do the driving on long trips because she suspects that when I'm driving part of my mind is busy dreaming up characters, names, premises, plots, and clues.  She isn't wrong.

So I was free to open my Surface and start to work on my story.  The tentative title is "Law of the Jungle," which is all I'll say until it's published.  (Notice how he said "until" like it was a sure thing.  That's confidence, folks.  Or bravado.)

As I have said here many times I am a slow writer.  This is exacerbated by the fact that I have to rewrite and rewrite to translate my work into English from the original Gibberati.  Because of this I always try to write first draft as fast as I can.  It doesn't need to be perfect because quite likely not a single sentence will remain untouched through the final edit.

But there is another reason.  I will never be as in touch with the original inspiration for the story as in those first few days.  I want to get the whole story done before the fever wears off and I am back to my normal self.

And this time I succeeded.  I finished the draft on Monday, still hot with my idea.  6,300 words in five days. For me, that's light speed.

I know there are months of work ahead.  One scene needs to be set in a different location.  A character needs a new name.  Some information needs to be better hidden.

But I can see the road ahead.  In six months or a year this story will be flying off in search of a good home. And it will be a better tale because I wrote the first draft at a fever pitch.

One more thing to add: In retirement I have decided to try to learn to play the guitar.  My first lesson came just about the same time as the idea for this story.  Now every time I start plunking out a few chords I find myself thinking about my characters.  Has something like that ever happened to you?

10 December 2018

The Fast First Draft

by Steve Liskow

Between about 9 and 10 am Thursday morning, I wrote 1534 words on my current WIP. I'm not bragging because (1) I'm sure everyone else who blogs here can do the same and (2) I'll probably revise everything except the proper nouns over the next nine or ten months. That's my normal approach. But it's worth noting because while it takes me two or three months to assemble my scene list--my version of a storyboard or outline--I expect to write a scene a day, normally in less than two hours. In most of my books, the scenes average around 1500 words. For contrast, in my senior year of high school, my honors English teacher gave us eight weeks to produce a research paper of 1000 words. If we taught children to walk the way we teach students to write, the human race would crawl on all fours.

Years ago, Graham Greene produced 300 words a day. Books were shorter then. Now, the average thriller clocks in at 100,000 words or more. My own books average 83K. I plan on eight weeks (or more) to create the outline, then another six to eight for the first draft. I revise the entire text four or five times with at least a month between drafts, so my novels usually take me about 15 months.

Jodi Picault says that a writer has to learn to write on demand. When you sit down at the keyboard, desk, legal pad or clay tablet, you job is to produce words. Stephen King and Lee Child expect to produce 2000 a day. None of those authors mentions how many of those words change, but that's a separate issue.

How can writers write so quickly?

Well, part of it is being able to type or write quickly, of course. The other part is easy once you know about it. Alas, pretty much everything you learned in school gets in your way.

Back in the mid-80s, I stumbled on a few books that completely changed my way of teaching writing. We had a copy of Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers in our English department bookshelf, but I don't know if any of my colleagues read it. I didn't until about 1990, and I had to blow dust off it. It was a landmark book that few people appreciated when it appeared.

The book I did appreciate (All the books I mention here are available on Amazon) was Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. She introduced me to clustering or webbing, a quick way of connecting apparently random and disparate ideas for writing. She also pushed free-writing (Elbow's idea first). She offered a series of techniques and writing prompts students could grasp and apply quickly. I was struggling with kids who read five or six years below grade level, hated grammar, and were terrified at putting anything more than their name on paper. For years, they'd known they were stupid because their teachers and their grades told them so.

The following September, I stared using Rico's exercises. By the end of the first semester, many of the kids wouldn't admit it, but they wrote more clearly, more creatively, and with more pleasure and less fear. Rico encouraged them not to worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. I spent the first month of classes encouraging them to write fast for five or ten minutes without worrying about making sense or being correct. If they got something down on paper, we could fix it later.

Remember, a first draft is like the block of marble before you sculpt an elephant. That first few minutes is chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Rico does that. So does Elbow. The beauty of free-writing is that the only wrong way to do it is to think about it. Just write. If you go fast enough to outrun the constraints, an idea will present itself. That was the hardest sell for my students, but they finally discovered it was true.

Henriette A. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain uses many of the same techniques. The left side of our brain is sequential, literal, and organized. It also judges. The right side works in patterns, sounds, and images. It's creative without judging. We're trained from day one to be correct, but we don't learn to let go. Those books showed me how to help my students let go.

Years later, I discovered Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird with her priceless advice on the value of the "shitty first draft." Don't think about spelling, grammar, punctuation or making sense. Just push yourself. If you don't know what you want to say, the cluster or web will help you. If you do know what you want to say, don't worry about how to start. Jump in and listen to the words. Maybe even say them out loud. But turn off the editor.
A character web for my WIP. Over half the names have already changed.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I checked the spelling) published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience around the same time as the other books, and James L Adams gave us The Care and Feeding of Ideas with the same message. Their findings work for almost any field you can name. Athletes call it being in the zone and musicians talk about finding the groove. Time stands still because you focus ONLY on the task at hand, whether it's shooting the free throw, following the chord changes or staying in the moment without worrying about the result...yet. Very Zen, yes?

For me, once I know what should happen in a scene, I write a first sentence (usually telling where or when it's happening) and keep going. Maybe it's a great sentence, but more likely it's junk. It doesn't matter because I can fix it later. I no longer listen to music when I write (I used to like Baroque Largos because the slow tempo helps concentration) because I have to hear the words. Sometimes I even say them out loud and the scene becomes a dialogue or group discussion. I can type about 85 words a minute and I don't worry about typos or grammar. That's what the next five or six drafts are for. If I get lost, I type whatever comes to me and cut it or move it later. A few years ago, I wrote a scene

that had a half-page of "where the hell am I?" over and over until I found it again.

It's energizing and it's productive. The hardest part is letting go of everything you were taught to worry about in school.

17 February 2018


by John M. Floyd

Offhand, I can't think of many words that have more different meanings than "draft" does. Drafts can refer to breezes, horses, beer, checks, athletics, military service, depth of water, and--yes--preliminary versions of a piece of writing. In other words, you can feel them, harness them, drink them, sign them, get caught by them . . . or write them.

I write a lot of drafts. Mine are usually short, since I write mostly short stories, and the first is often longer than the second, the second longer than the third, and so forth. (I tend to overwrite a bit.) I should mention, too, that my first draft is usually terrible. That doesn't bother me--nobody but me is going to see it anyway--and I think it's better to get as much as possible down on paper than to leave something important out.

I also like to write a first draft all the way through, without stopping to do a lot of analysis on the way. I've never been one of those people who "edit as they go." I don't even pay much attention to punctuation or spelling or grammar in those first drafts. They truly are rough.

A writer friend of mine insists that she doesn't have to deal with drafts--and not because she keeps the windows closed. She just makes every page as perfect as it can possibly be before going on to the next. Her reason for doing that is simple, she says: when she's written the final page of her book or story, she's finished; no corrections or subsequent drafts are needed. The reason I don't do that is simple, too: I might later decide to change something in the plot, or add another character, or take one out, or change the POV. If that happens, and if I've already tried to polish the first scenes and pages to a high gloss, that means I'll have to go back and re-edit what I've already edited. I'm not super-efficient and I'm sure not smart, but I'm smart enough not to want to do the same job twice. Besides, getting the whole thing down on paper, start to finish, gives me a warm and comfortable feeling about the project. It makes it something I know I can handle.

Writing a first draft all the way to the end in one swoop isn't as hard as it sounds, because I'm one of those writers who likes to map the story out mentally before I ever start putting words on paper. I think about the plot for a long time beforehand. Again, that doesn't keep me from later making changes, but it does allow me to have a blueprint to follow when I start writing, and having that structure in mind gives me--as I said--a sense of security. You might not do that or need that, but I do. Different strokes. (By the way, if you outline on paper and if your outline is long enough, sometimes that IS your first draft.)

I occasionally don't even have names finalized when I do a first draft. My hero/heroine might be H, my villain might be V, the hero's best friend might be BF. These are just place-holders, so I can come back later and fill in the names. Same thing goes for locations or situations that will require detailed research, or scenes that need a lot of description--I don't spend the time to do that in first drafts. I'm more concerned about plot points and the flow of the story. (Not that it matters, but I've found it's fairly easy for me to write beginnings and endings. It's the middles that are hard. Maybe that's why I write shorts instead of novels.)

Anne Lamott said, in her book Bird by Bird, ". . . The first draft is the down draft--you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft--you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed or even, God help us, healthy." She also said, "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts."

Readers have often asked me how many drafts I write, of a short story, The answer is, it varies. It also depends on how you define "draft." If you go through a work-in-progress and change only one sentence, is that new version another draft? As for me, I don't usually do many extensive re-writes, but I do go back through the manuscript a few times after a third- or fourth-draft polishing and see if there's anything more that needs correcting or fine-tuning. But, as all writers know, you don't want to go over it too much. When you can read through what you've done several times and not find anything glaring, you're probably finished. If you persist too long, you'll get to the point where changes might make things worse instead of better.

How about you? Are you a draft-dodger, and just edit everything as you go? Or do you rehearse and shoot several takes before you print the film? If so, how many drafts does that usually involve? How do you decide how many drafts is too many? How detailed is your first draft? Do you ever outline beforehand, either mentally or on paper? Do you ever write the ending first?

I once heard that a novelist has to be a good storyteller and a short-story writer has to be a good craftsman. Maybe both have to be good draftsmen.

Now, I wonder if I need to do more editing on this column . . .

25 September 2017

Nano, Nano

by Steve Liskow

At least one source claims that over 300,000 people signed up for National Novel Writing Month (November) last year, and I'm guessing that about 5% of them actually achieved the 50,000 word target by the 30th. If you're thinking about joining in this year, you have about five weeks to gird your loins, sharpen your pencil, or polish your keyboard.

I present workshops on preparing to write for NANO and I encourage people to sign up for several reasons.

First, if you're one of those people who has always believed you have a book in you, now's a good time to find out. Keep in mind that the catchy title is misleading. You won't write a book in a month, partly because a novel is longer than 50,000 words and partly because you're going to have to revise everything several times to make it coherent. If you don't believe that, maybe I can discourage you after all.

Second, trying to write 50,000 words in a month will help you find your most efficient process. Do you write more comfortably early in the morning or late at night? Do you work better in one long stretch or in shorter bursts of 30-45 minutes? Do you find it easier to type at a computer or use a pen or pencil and write your first draft out longhand? Can you simply jump in and start writing, or do you prefer to outline and create character biographies first? Writing, especially fiction, is a personal and intimate process, so nobody else can really tell you how to do it. You need to experiment and learn from your mistakes. Once you can get words on paper, you can learn more about plot and character, better point of view choices, and all the other mechanics.

But the first task, especially if you're new at this, is learning how much effort it takes to produce an average of 1667 words--roughly six and a half pages in 12-point font--every day. For the newbie, this is a daunting task. Even the act of sitting long enough to do it is rough, and you need to resist the urge to check your email, play computer games, or edit your picture files. Many established writers set daily word limits for themselves. Stephen King expects to write 2000 words, roughly eight pages, daily. I'm not sure, but I don't think he outlines. Neither do Dennis Lehane or Tess Gerritsen. Robert Crais outlines and plans, maybe because he got his start writing for television.

Keep in mind that if you're going to produce that much every day, not all of it will be brilliant. That's the biggest secret I can offer you. There are no obscure psychological tricks I know except giving yourself permission to produce lots of crap. Think of your first draft as a block of marble. The revision is the sculpting part: chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant or the Venus de Milo. Don't worry about whether what you're writing is good or bad. That comes later.

Some people (I'm one of them) like to do a rough outline or character background. I try to create a sequence of fifty scenes before I start the actual writing, then plan to produce at least one complete scene daily ( I NEVER quit in the middle of a scene because I'll lose the rhythm overnight). For whatever reason, my scenes average about 1600 words, so aiming at one a day keeps me on the target. By the time I write a complete first draft of the book, I'm often on the fifteenth scene list, or even more.

But sequencing and pacing come with practice and NANO is a great first step toward that goal.
If I write that quickly, I begin to find the rhythm of the book, too, and learn when a scene is in the wrong place or needs a different point of view. Then I change it on my outline/scene list. Actually, my first draft is that scene list.

Remember, if you write 50,000 words in a month, it's only the beginning.

But it's a great beginning.

02 July 2016

Edit As You Go?

by John M. Floyd

As I mentioned in my column on defining mysteries a couple of weeks ago, there are a lot of questions that always come up when writers get together--and some of the answers depend not so much on knowledge or experience but on the individual quirks of individual writers. Some of our methods and practices seem to be done or not done simply because that's the way our brains are wired, like whether to squeeze the toothpaste from the end of the tube or the middle, or whether we're always early to appointments or always late, or whether we prefer to unroll the T.P. from the front of the roll or from the back. For writers, one of those questions is do you edit as you go. or do you edit only after the first draft?

Some authors feel it's necessary to make each page (or each paragraph) as perfect as it can possibly be before proceeding to the next; others don't worry much about rewriting or refining until the entire piece is complete, whether it's a poem, a short story, or a novel. (NOTE: I'll concentrate mostly on shorts here because that's mostly what I write, but the process can apply to longer works as well.)

For the record, I fall into the second group. My first drafts of a project are not only first drafts, they're rough drafts. And I mean really rough. In my first drafts, I don't worry about style (grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, spelling, capitalization, word choice, word usage) at all. I just write down a stream-of-consciousness summary of the story, sometimes plugging in place-holders like D for detective, K for killer, V1 for first victim, LND for lady next door, etc., and laying out the plot from start to finish. Then I go back and start rewriting and polishing and assigning names and personalities. I've often said that if I'm run over by a truck, anybody who later finds one of my first drafts would think I'd lost my mind, because those yet-to-be-edited works-in-process are truly unreadable to anyone but me.

Again, though, many writers I know choose not to postpone the task of editing. They go ahead and edit their current output, whether it's a hundred words or five thousand, in order to be ready for the next day's work. Some even edit their sentences and paragraphs as they create them. One writer friend of mine is so efficient at doing that, she says that when she's completed editing the final page of her book, she's done. There's no need to do any more editing on anything. I can only imagine that, and in fact I'm in awe of those who can do it. And--for most of us at least--I'm not sure that's the best approach.

My reason is simple. If I did that, if I studied and corrected the words or pages I've completed today
and kept on editing until they're as perfect as I can make them before proceeding, and if I continued to do that day after day . . . what would happen if I suddenly decided, later on in the project, that I need to add something to the plotline, or take something out, or otherwise change the flow of the narrative? I'll tell you what would happen: I'd have to go back and rewrite what I've already rewritten. And I'd wind up wasting a great deal of time. (I should mention here that I use the same edit-only-after-the-first-draft process for nonfiction pieces as well; in fact that's the way I wrote this column. I typed some overall points I wanted to make, all the way to the end, and when all that was finished I went back and tried to fine-tune everything until (hopefully) it made sense.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. I know because if you were telling me this, it's what I would be thinking. I would be thinking, If you find you're having to go back into the story and correct so many things, structurewise, maybe you should plan a little more carefully before you start, and then you wouldn't have to backtrack and change things so much. And that'd be good advice, if it worked. For me it doesn't always work. I do plan, and pretty carefully, before I start. Matter of fact, as I've said before at this blog, I'm an outliner rather than a seat-of-the-pantser. I try to map things out all the way from the opening to the ending, at least in my head, before I begin writing. But (which might mean I'm not very good at it) I do often find, during the heat of battle, that I want to improve something or introduce another character, or maybe even change the POV--and when that happens I go back into the story and insert, remove, or rearrange words, phrases, paragraphs, or pages. And when I do that, I don't want to have already edited that part of the story to the degree that I'm satisfied with it. I want instead to plug in the new material and/or remove the old and only then do my final editing. But that's just me.

My edit-as-you-go pals tell me there are several advantages to their way of doing things. One is the fact that (as I've already mentioned) when you're done, you're done. If you're finished, and you've competently edited your work after each page all along the way, let's say, then your story is now complete--no extensive rewriting is required. Another advantage is that you might feel a little more enthused about starting the next day's writing if the previous day's is already edited and near-perfect. And a third reason, I guess, is that if you are constantly editing, improving, and correcting, nonstop, then maybe you're staying sharp(er) and consistently doing what will turn out to be a better job in the end.

I can see that. I can understand those reasons. But I still can't, and won't, do it that way. To me, the advantage of first putting the entire rough story down on paper (or onto your hard drive) is that when that's been accomplished, the hard, creative, most important work is already done. All that's left is the playing around and the polishing, and I'm one of those weird purple who actually likes to rewrite. I like to adjust and refine and tweak a story and try to make it shine--and I'm not at all put off or bored by that process, or by doing it all at one swoop. But I can see that some writers are. To each his own.

A couple more opinions. In a review published in The Writer several years ago, Chuck Leddy wrote: "Irish novelist Anne Enright says, 'I work the sentences and the rhythms all the time. I can't move on from a bad sentence; it gets more and more painful, like leaving a child behind you on the road.' Curtis Sittenfield, however, completely disagrees: 'I strongly feel that trying, in a first draft, to make every sentence shine and be perfect before moving on to the next one is a recipe for never finishing a novel.'"

Which brings up the inevitable questions: Do you prefer to edit your manuscripts as you go? Or do you like to write it all down first, warts and all, and then do the editing? Does it depend on the category (or the length) of the manuscript--short/long, fiction/non? Do you see a distinct advantage to either approach? Do you think the preference is by choice, or that it's already ingrained in our DNA?

And the best question of all: If the final product is good . . . does it really matter?