Wednesday, August 12, 2009

First drafts and doing the job

I quote Jeri Smith-Ready a lot because I admire her tremendously. I first saw her name on Smart Bitches, where a commenter was talking about her enormous love for REQUIEM FOR THE DEVIL. Intrigued, I checked that book out and found it was available as an ebook. I bought it. Read it. Adored it. Thus, began my love affair with Jeri's writing. So when I sold, I timorously asked if she would blurb me. To my delight, she agreed to read GRIMSPACE.

That email has started a wonderful friendship. I was lucky enough to room with her at RT and it was so much fun! We don't email as much as we used to because she's very busy and I always think people have better things to do than read ramblings from me. But anytime I see her name in my inbox I perk up with the happy; likewise with Sharon Shinn. Sometimes the people you admire turn out to be every bit as cool as you wanted to believe from reading their beautiful words.

So here's a quote by Jeri Smith-Ready that encapsulates my process: "First drafts are a nightmare for me--my brain just doesn't engage. It's like trying to sculpt air."

Yes, and yes, and did I mention, oh my God, yes. It's hard. Overall, I prefer revisions because that involves taking what's already there, even if it's a bit lumpy and ugly, and molding it into something refined and lovely. I can't plot or I ruin any desire to write the book. Why, when I already have all the answers? I love the journey, but at the same time, it's hard. It's not magical; it's work. Some days it goes better than others, and I've developed strategies to make doing a first draft go more smoothly.

1) Block the scene the night before
Though I don't plot in the usual sense, while I'm laying in bed at night, I think about where the book is going and what needs to happen next. In my mind's eye, I visualize the next chapter as if it's a movie. I see everything my character does and I hold that in my head. Sometimes I make a few notes on a pad beside my bed. That way, I'm ready to slip right into the scene when I get up in the morning.

2)Set a goal
Everyone has a different comfort level for what they can accomplish in a day, but it's important to set a specific goal, either in words or pages, and hold yourself accountable. Sure, life sometimes gets in the way, but if you make a habit of letting yourself off the hook, you get off schedule, which leads to missed deadlines. In this climate, meeting deadlines is important.

This next one may be a bit controversial, but I'm prepared for that.

3)Train up
I believe that writing is like exercise. The more you do, the more you can do. If you tell yourself there's no way you could ever write more than a thousand words a day, then you never will. Because you're not trying to. 1500 words used to be my comfort level. That's what I could accomplish, and anything else seemed like too much. But I decided to push myself and make 3K a day my new goal. That was several years ago now. For a while, my brain was constantly tired and it took me long hours to write those words, every single day. But eventually, I reset my comfort level. Now, I can write 3K in about 3 hours, providing conditions are favorable. I could probably train myself up to 5K (I know authors who do that daily), but I've hit on 3K as a good maintainable writing speed for me. I can meet that goal consistently without risking burnout.

4) Allow imperfection
For me, this was key to unlocking my ability to finish projects. I am by nature a tinkerer. Given my natural proclivities I will mess with a chapter for a week until it's perfect before moving on. That was killing my completion ratio because by the time I got to the middle, I was sick to death of the project and I would allow myself to be distracted by the next shiny idea. Once I accepted that it didn't have to be flawless in one take, I acquired the ability to write to the end, knowing I could go back and fix everything I'd done wrong. I make notes along the way, too, to guide my revisions. "Make this scene suck less." "Add sexual tension." "Make fight scene more action-y." A first draft is exactly that -- and you don't even have to let anyone read your ugly betty before you take a run at it. (I know I don't.)

5) Forgive failure
Nobody's perfect. Some days, the world seems stacked against you and even the crappy words won't come. This might seem like a dumb strategy, but I don't shower first thing in the morning anymore. Say I've gone to work on a book but the writing totally sucks and it seems like the well of words has gone dry. So I do something else for a little while. Play with the dog, ride the bike. Whatever. Once I've switched gears, I take a shower. That acts as a mental reset button; I'm washing off all the morning's failure. In the shower I think about why the chapter's not working. (I often have this problem if I've fallen asleep too fast to block the scene the night before.) Generally, I come out of the bathroom feeling ready to rock the book.

You can come up with your own rituals for failure-begone if mine sounds dumb. The most important thing is not to let this failure spread into days, and then days to weeks, and so on. Writing everyday is the best training to be a professional writer; after all, this is your job, right? Certainly it has an artistic component, but if you want to keep your release dates, you must adhere to a schedule. To continue with the exercise analogy, your brain gets wobbly and out of practice, the longer you go without writing. So the longer you wait to get back on the horse, the harder it will be to get going again.

With these tips in mind, you should be able to come up with a schedule that works for you in terms of finishing your first draft. I hope this has been a little bit helpful for somebody. Note: I don't claim what works for me will work for everyone, but I'm very interested in hearing about your writing rituals.

What little things do you do to keep the words coming?


Sherry Ficklin said...

Well said! These are great tips! I'm glad to know I'm not the only writer who struggles with initial drafts. Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

1) Block the scene the night before
Though I don't plot in the usual sense, while I'm laying in bed at night, I think about where the book is going and what needs to happen next. In my mind's eye, I visualize the next chapter as if it's a movie. I see everything my character does and I hold that in my head. Sometimes I make a few notes on a pad beside my bed. That way, I'm ready to slip right into the scene when I get up in the morning.

This is me. more specifically, this was me last night. By the time I got up, all I could think was WRITE!

Very good tips, especially for those of us who aren't exactly plotters by nature.

Ann Aguirre said...

I love my first draft for about the first 30K words. Then I hate the book with the intensity of a 100 white hot suns. I usually love it again before the end. Usually.

The blocking is crucial for me. It eliminates a lot of wasted time staring at a blank Word page.

Alessia Brio said...

Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing it! I especially like the "Train Up" advice. When the kids return to school, I'm gonna give it a shot. :)

Anonymous said...

Every one of those points speaks to me. I plot at night as I lay (lie? that's my one constant grammar fail) in bed trying to fall asleep. And I tend to obsess over every word rather than just trying to get the bare bones of the story down.

I've found that if I write in longhand, and then transcribe it, it flows better and I don't get so hung up on perfecting the prose in the first take. Don't know why longhand makes such a difference in the flow, but it really does. (I can't do it all in longhand, of course.)

Ann Aguirre said...

Another thing I forgot to mention that's pretty crucial to pantsers... (I guess we'll see if anyone reads the comments!)

Be flexible and adjust your schedule for thinking / research time. Sometimes the plot goes in a way you never could've predicted and now you need to spend two days researching ancient Samoan burial rituals (or maybe the Samoans didn't bury people at all - you need to know that too!) Even if you're not adding to word count for those two days, don't feel bad. You're gathering information to enrich your plot, and that's okay.

I'd suggest not laying off more than two days during a draft, however, doing unexpected research. You can always add detail later, but once the momentum is lost, it's hard to get back.

Angela said...

Thank you for the tips! I'm 20k into my first novel and still haven't quite figured out the process. I'm not a full-on plotter or pantser and the need to have a perfect first draft has been weighing my writing down.

So, I've been searching like mad for insight into how other authors approach it.

Your post was much needed.

Kwana said...

Thanks for this great post. Wonderful tips.

hermit_the_crab said...

Pretty similar to my process, really. Though I have to forcefully NOT block the night before - if I think about anything story-related at bedtime, I never sleep. Which snowballs into not being able to write the next day, of course.

But the visualization of the scene as a movie - spot on. I learned to type faster just so I could transcribe it as it moves in my brain.

azteclady said...

(I read the comments)

(even when I have nothing to add to the conversation)

Shirley Damsgaard said...

Ann, I'm in the same boat as Hermit the Crab...if I write at night, after work, I can't sleep!! My characters will not leave me alone!! They keep talking when I'm trying to sleep!! My creative time is early (very early) in the morning when it's quiet. And to be honest, preferably when it's still dark outside. Weird, I know, but I think it gives me a sense of intimacy...just me and the characters...that's harder to achieve when it's daylight.

Of course, if I'm behind a deadline, it doesn't matter what time of day it is!! The most important thing at that point is just to get it DONE!! lol

Angie Fox said...

Hey, I did learn something from the comments. Azteclady is a smart a**.

Seriously, though, this is great advice. I'm not a fast writer like Ann, and I don't set word goals, but I do set times to write, where I'm in front of the computer creating. Whether that's a scene or a new character that I love, it doesn't matter.

Some writers work better when they have a set goal to accomplish. That just locks me up. So know yourself and how you write. And, yes, that first draft is never going to be perfect. That's okay.