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

11 July 2020

First Drafts Ain't Pretty

Special treat today. I am a member of the Mystery Writers of America - Northwest Chapter. Last month we had an online meeting, featuring Dana Haynes speaking on: "Writing in Quarentine: How to Keep Your Fiction Moving, Even When the Damn Coronavirus Means You Can't!" I was impressed enough to invite him to write a piece for us on a topic of his choice.

Dana is the author of the new mystery/thriller novel, ST. NICHOLAS SALVAGE & WRECKING, which marked his debut with Blackstone Publishing in 2019. This is Haynes’s eighth published mystery. The sequel, SIROCCO, is set for a January 2021 release.

He has spent 25 years in Oregon newspaper newsrooms, split between weeklies and dailies. He currently serves as managing editor of the Portland Tribune. He has won awards as a reporter, columnist and editor. A native of the Pacific Northwest, he also served as spokesman and speechwriter for the mayor of Portland, Oregon.

— Rob Lopresti

You can't fix what's not on paper, so get your manuscript finished, warts and all, then worry about making it perfect

by Dana Haynes

I don’t know a novelist who hasn’t had a book come unraveled because he or she smashed into a wall. Not a writer’s block; those I can handle. I mean a writer’s Great Pyramid of Giza, bringing the whole project to a screeching halt.

Those indomitable walls are the one that make us put manuscripts on the back burner, then in a file cabinet, then in recycling.

I found a solution. It works for me. It might work for you.

The secret is in reimagining the purpose of a first draft. A first draft isn’t the place that you seek perfection. It isn’t a final draft. If it were, we’d call it that.

The purpose of the first draft is to get the narrative down on paper.

You can’t fix that which isn’t on the page.

The other secret is to keep moving forward through a first draft. The all-important words, the ones that give us goose bumps and that secretive little grin when we’re standing in line at a coffee shop, are “The End.” My trick for writing means that every day, week after week, month after month, I draw closer to “The End.”

Some writers can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Try this trick, and you’ll find the light at the end of the tunnel will require you to wear sunglasses.

Here’s what I do in first draft.

I write about 10 pages, stop, read ’em, and see if I’m happy. Are they pretty good? Do they advance the story, or help with character development, or set up a joke? Yeah? Good, move on.

I write the next 10 pages, stop, and read those 20.

(Note: “10 pages” could mean eight, or 12, or whatever. This isn’t rocket surgery. If you hit the end of a chapter and you’re in the ballpark, call it “10”).

I write the next 10, stop, and read those 20 — which is to say, pages 11-to-30. Write the next 10 and read 21-to-40.

I call these Go-Backs.

What am I looking for? Well, not perfection. If your first draft isn’t a pig’s breakfast, you’re doing it wrong. I ask: Did this scene fit the narrative? Do I round out anyone’s character? Is there a clue-drop or a reveal? Is there a setup for a visual or verbal joke?

I don’t do a ton of lovely, layered description in first drafts. For instance, if Katalin Fiero Dahar (one of the heroes of “St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking” and “Sirocco”) walks into a tavern, I might write the first draft like this:

Fiero parked her bike, doffed her helmet, and stepped inside the tavern [scripto]. She spotted Finnigan, already at a booth, ordering drinks.”

That funky word in brackets, “scripto,” is a note to myself that I’m gonna want to describe the bar.

I just don’t have to do it today. This is my first draft. My goal is to get to “The End,” remember? Plenty of time to describe stuff later.

I just wrote a scene in which Finnigan and Fiero are on the run in an automobile junkyard east of London. What do I know about British cars? Bupkis. So I wrote,

“It was a graveyard of old trucks. Chassis here, axles with single wheels there, bits of engines and drive trains from [splaino] scattered about…”

My term in brackets, “splaino,” is a note to myself: If they’re in a modern-day junkyard in England, what English trucks might have been built, say, 50 years ago? That’s some bit of research that’ll be a mild distraction to do someday.

Just not today.

(If you’ve ever been lost on the island of Venice and asked a local how to get to, say, the Rialto Bridge, they’ll point forward and say, “Drito. Semper drito.” It means “always straight.” Why? Because it’s a damn island: You simply can’t get that lost, and no matter if you turn left, right, or straight, eventually you’re gonna see a sign that leads you to the Rialto. So you might as well go straight. In the labyrinth that is Venice, it’ll get you where you’re going as well as any other direction. In first drafts, you should routinely mutter to yourself, “Drito. Semper drito.”)

When I get to more-or-less Page 100, I stop, put the manuscript down, wait a week or so, print it out, and read all 100. That’s what I call a Read-Through.

Now I’m making note of bad writing that I can fix; changes that will help the narrative; noting the “scriptos” and “splainos” that require a bit of gussying up.

And I ask myself: Do these first 100 pages serve the narrative? Is this a book I’d want to keep reading? Have I meandered? Are the pace and flow good? Does the dialogue ring true? Am I happy?


Then write the next 10 pages.

If not, this is a good time to sit down and ask myself: What was the original idea for the novel? If I’ve strayed off it, am I straying into a better novel? Or do I need to jettison a bunch of this stuff and start over?

Once I have that answer, I realize, look, I’m more than a quarter of the way to “The End.” I’m making real progress. Let’s keep going. Semper drito.

This method of writing works so well for me that I generally can write the first draft of a 400-page novel in about three months. Then I can take my own sweet time to do the second, third, fifth, eighth drafts that will be needed to make this a novel. I’ve built the table and it stands sturdy. Now I can the time to sand the wood and varnish the surface.

If you get majorly stuck in your early draft, you likely won’t ever finish the novel and the writing process will grow less and less satisfying. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, hell, I probably should write Chapter 3. Oh, and schedule that colonoscopy…” then the bloom is off the rose and you ought to just chuck it in.

Go-Backs and Read-Throughs mean I’m always, always moving forward. I won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I just turned in my ninth novel to my publisher and I can safely say: Every hour spent writing it was a blast, all the way through and out the other side of the tunnel to “The End.”

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.