Giving Birth (to a first draft) with Less Pain

My writer friends are creative people. When we meet over coffee, talk often turns to story ideas and characters they’re creating. Then, someone inevitably says something to the effect of, “I just can’t get through my first draft.”

There’s an excellent reason for that: First drafts are really, really hard. I gave birth without drugs, and I can tell you that process was less painful than birthing almost any first draft I’ve ever written.

Writing is not for the faint of heart.

Still, if you want to conquer your next first draft, I encourage you to try these tips. The process still won’t be pain-free, but I’m hopeful these bits of wisdom will help you push through:

Be Honest with Yourself

Can you crank out pages of spectacular fiction in a busy coffee shop – or do you need complete silence at a clean and organized desk to be able to write anything? I once met a very prolific romance writer who was most productive when she wore blackout glasses while sitting at her computer; she said taking away visual distractions allowed her to focus completely on her stories.

Figure out when and where you are most productive. Are you an early morning person? Is your creativity at its highest after an evening jog? Assess your working habits and preferences and try to rearrange your schedule so you can write during these prime creative times.

Set a Timeline

If you have a deadline, figure out how much time you have between now and then to complete your project. If you work really late on Mondays and Wednesdays and you know you can’t write then, you’ll subtract those days. Can you spend 30 minutes per day writing? Or would it work better for you to write three hours per day twice each week?

If you don’t have a deadline, give yourself one – and hold yourself accountable. Join a critique group. Knowing that you need to bring new projects to biweekly or monthly meeting will help you keep moving forward with your writing projects

Just Jump In

If a lawyer has cases to research or a contractor has tile to set, they typically just roll up their sleeves and do the work. It’s work and it needs to be done, so they do it.

Why don’t writers think that way? When a writer has work to do, he might:

  • Make sculptures out of paper clips
  • Sort through old emails
  • Clean the bathroom
  • Finish some online shopping
  • Reorganize his closet
  • Almost anything but writing

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. The hardest thing about writing is getting started. Set a time and a date that you’re going to sit and start your project – and be there. Start writing, whether at a computer or longhand in a notebook. Put down words – any words. It’s likely you’ll find that once you start, you won’t want to stop.

Stop Expecting Perfection

First drafts are all about discovering what’s happening, meeting characters, and figuring out where they’re going.

First drafts are not about producing perfect prose or dazzling dialogue. If you’re writing along and a brilliant line pops into your head, for god’s sake, write it down. But for the most part you must remember that the first draft is going to be ugly. That’s OK, because simply having words on paper gives you something to polish and improve in subsequent drafts.

I live by author Anne Lamott’s words: “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Write All The Way Through

For me, the easiest way to get through a first draft, is to sit down and write the whole thing in one sitting. I call this the “pre-first draft.”

I’m not talking about writing a 400-page novel in one sitting. What I’m suggesting is that you sit down and write what your story is going to be. Start at the beginning and don’t get up until you finish.

So many people – myself included – have started really promising stories that were never finished. That’s because we didn’t know where those stories were going.

Before you allow yourself to thoroughly develop characters and set up premises that you’re emotionally attached to, you must know where the story is going. Sure, you might later change your mind, but characters who don’t have a path are going to wander and readers will get bored – and so will writers.

Give yourself 30 minutes or an hour and just write down what your story is going to be. Taking the time to do this prewriting, will make your first draft (and subsequent drafts) easier to write.

See It Before You Write It

If you know your story is going to take place in a high-end department store, begin by visualizing it. As you open the doors, what do they look like? Are they heavy and polished? Are aisles wide or narrow? What do shoppers look like? What are they wearing? What does the store smell like?

Picture the setting through your viewpoint character’s eyes. Make notes about the sights, sounds and smells. Imagine how your character will act in this place. Is she confident? Uncomfortable?

Fill your mind with the scene you want to write. Once you’ve allowed your character to wander through the scene in your head, pick up your pen and start writing.

Keep Going

The first draft is just the beginning. Once it’s finished there will be rewriting and revising. Perhaps subplots will need to be added or characters will need to be fleshed out or eliminated. I don’t show anyone my first drafts, but I keep them all because I like to see the transformation my characters and stories go through. That sort of progress motivates me.

I find it’s best to write a draft and then let it simmer for a bit before I begin polishing. Time away from the project allows me to think about it without actually writing. It gives my brain a break so that, when I start again, I am able to look at it through fresh eyes.

Stephen King wrote in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that, when he completes a first draft, it lets it sit for about six weeks. During this time, he works on other projects. After the six weeks are up, he re-reads the manuscript and writes draft number two. King sends his second drafts out to beta readers and uses their input when he begins work on his third draft.

Yes, first drafts are difficult but they’re not impossible. Do the work and soon you’ll realize the joy of a complete and polished story.

 

 

Tick Tock: Time to Put Procrastination to Rest

Want to know how to tell if I have a deadline approaching? Check my bathroom. The shinier it is, the harder I’m working to avoid the inevitable.

Avoidance-by-cleaning became my modus operandi when I was in college. Over the years I’ve scrubbed more sinks, washed more mirrors and scoured more bathtubs than a fleet of Merry Maids. It’s my special routine for procrastinating. I’ve also learned it’s become one of my go-to activities when I need to think.

Deadlines to meet and I’m taking time out to think? You bet. Honestly, one of my main reasons for procrastinating is that I’m not exactly sure how to tackle the project that lies before me. Whether I’m struggling with wording or I’m having problems connecting two theories or I can’t figure out how to conclude a chapter, cleaning gives me the time to think. Oddly, this bathroom cleaning routine has helped me paddle through the procrastination pond and meet – or beat – my deadlines.

Unfortunately, not all procrastinators are so lucky. When I was teaching high school, I often asked students what kept them from getting their work done. I’d ask them to go to the white board and write down what they were most likely to do when they should have been finishing homework or wrapping up a big project. Because they were teenagers, their answers most often revolved around technology: Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, X-box, texting. A few also admitted to baking or playing with a pet.  Whatever their answer, it was helpful for students to recognize their go-to distractions – the activities they turned to when they should have been doing important tasks.

Most of us do it to some extent. We dawdle until there’s too little time left to do the work. Anxiety sets in. Deadlines whiz by. We swear we’ll never wait until the last minute again, but we can’t help ourselves. It’s so easy to get caught up in this never-ending cycle: Procrastinate. Panic. Procrastinate. Panic.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Acknowledge you have a problem (acknowledgement is always the first step). Then follow these tips to get the work done:

Eliminate distractions

If cat videos are your downfall, don’t allow yourself to watch YouTube until you’ve accomplished a certain amount of work. Instagram addict? Turn off your phone. Go through the process I did with my students and identify what you’re most likely to do when you should be finishing homework or wrapping up a big project. Then do what you can to remove the distraction, at least temporarily.

Break it down

I’m most likely to procrastinate when a project is overwhelming – perhaps it’s multifaceted or especially complicated. Breaking the assignment into smaller, more manageable portions will allow you to chip away at the work in a relatively pain-free fashion.

Don’t just think about divvying up the work; make a plan and write it down. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells this story: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

The next time you’re faced with what seems like an insurmountable task, break it down and conquer it paragraph by paragraph, or chart by chart, or budget report by budget report.

Set deadlines

Once you’ve divided the work up, set a deadline for each chunk. If you’ve got seven days to write a report, set a realistic timeline for accomplishing the task in six days, so you give yourself an extra day for proofreading and formatting. Again, the key here is to write down your plan – that makes it more concrete.

Ask for help

If you’re not sure how to handle some aspect of your project, get assistance. Don’t understand your company’s internal style guide? Ask a colleague. Do your Excel skills need sharpening? Watch a tutorial. Would background or history on your project make moving forward easier? Read past annual reports or old strings of emails.

Fretting about what you don’t know, will not get work done. Take action – and quickly – to fill in knowledge gaps.

Be accountable

The first time I ran a marathon, I announced my plan nine months prior to the race. I told my family, my friends, people at the gym, total strangers. I knew if I made my intentions public, these people would continue to ask me how my training was going. I couldn’t possible tell them I’d given up. They would, without knowing it, keep me on track.

Do the same thing with your project: Tell a colleague or a friend what you’re doing. Ask them to check in and hold you accountable.

Reward Progress

I’m not suggesting you throw yourself a party every time you take a step toward finishing your project, but a little reward may help keep you going. Buy yourself a fancy chocolate bar and allow yourself a bite each time you meet one of your break-it-down objectives. Take time out for a yoga class or a walk through the neighborhood. Draw a smiley face on your deadline checklist next to your freshly accomplished goal. Stop for a moment to celebrate your forward motion.

These rewards feel great and, long term, may lead to what University of Houston Professor Robert Eisenberger calls “learned industriousness.” By creating a cycle of work-reward-work-reward, you’re training yourself to work harder and smarter in the future.

Following these tips isn’t a surefire guarantee that you’ll never again put off work.  But they may help you manage your work and time in a way that makes future projects less stressful. Channel your inner Golda Meir who once said, “I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.” Tick Tock. Time to take control of your time.

Here’s Something Every Writer Needs: Proofreading

You’ve written something – a novel, an email, an essay – and it’s important. Really important. So, before you hit send, I beg you: Proofread like your life (or job) depends on it.

Everyone makes mistakes. Unless you’re a reporter working on deadline, chances are you have the few extra minutes necessary to proofread and edit before your mistakes become public – and embarrassing.

My first job was as a newspaper copy editor. By the time stories got to me, they’d already been edited, so I was providing a final proofread. I caught lots of mistakes. I single-handedly stopped the newspaper from printing articles about “cork prices” (corn, corn, corn) and “barbecuing children” (make that chicken, please). I am sure I missed mistakes too, but none were as big and bad as these infamous proofreading fails:

Chalmers Roberts, who documented the history of the Washington Post, wrote about a headline the paper printed in 1940 on the first page of its early edition: FDR IN BED WITH COED. The President was actually in bed with a cold. The newspaper reportedly caught the mistake partway through the printing process and destroyed the offending copies before they were distributed.

In 2012, The (Centralia, Ill.) Morning Sentinel published this correction: “Due to a typing error, Saturday’s story on local artist Jon Henninger mistakenly reported that Henninger’s band mate Eric Lyday was on drugs. The story should have read that Lyday was on drums. The Sentinel regrets the error.”

Banner Travel Agency bought a $230 ad in its local Yellow Pages to promote its exotic vacations. Instead, thanks to a lack of proofreading, the ad touted “erotic” travel. In 1988, the Travel Agency successfully sued Pacific Bell for $10 million.

To ensure that your next email, tweet or blog post doesn’t contain the kind of error that makes it go viral for all the wrong reasons, follow these important steps:

1) Spellcheck. It’s a good first step, but it’s only a first step. Spellcheck doesn’t know whether names are correctly spelled and it doesn’t know if you’ve used the correct word. Use it, but don’t rely entirely on it.

2) Print it. Somehow mistakes you didn’t see on your computer or phone screen become glaringly obvious when they’re printed out. Take the time. Don’t just glance over the copy, really proofread it, line by line.

3) Read it out loud. Sure, you may sound loony if you share work space, but you’ll be amazed how many mistakes jump out at you when you hear them as well as see them. Reading aloud is also great for catching punctuation problems and words you’ve repeated over and over.

4) Get a second set of eyes on it. After you’ve done your first few read-throughs, ask a trusted colleague or friend to proofread your document, too. You know what the text is supposed to say. Someone who is not so familiar with it may find mistakes you’ve overlooked.

5) Double check names of people and places. You may spell Pflugerville or Skaneateles correctly the first time, but make sure those spellings don’t morph on the second or third mentions. When I worked for a newspaper in Iowa, Terry Branstad was governor. Within a single news article (pre-copyediting) I saw him referred to as “Brandstad,” “Branstand” and “Brandstand” – and his name isn’t even particularly difficult. Check, then double check.

6) Proofread everything. Reviewing body copy is important, but so are headlines, subheads, and captions. A mistake in the copy in an annual report is a sin; a mistake in a 72-point headline could be career-ending. And, just because your company always adds the same boilerplate template to the end of every news release doesn’t mean it’s error-free. Proofread it all.

7) Do the math. Anytime your work includes numbers, make sure they add up. If you say you’re going to offer “5 Quick Tips,” make sure there really are five tips. If you’re reporting on budgets or percentages, check and recheck your math.

8) Look at the big picture. If your copy is part of a newspaper,  newsletter or website, make sure the layout doesn’t create a mistake. Do articles continue on the pages they really say they continue on? Do links work? Even if everything in your copy is perfect, consider whether its placement is at all odd. A newsletter article about witches, for example, may make people shudder if it’s placed under a photo of your city council.

9) Walk away. Often deadlines don’t allow you to delay proofreading but, if you have the luxury of a little extra time, take advantage of it. If you finish a document a day early, wait to proofread until the next morning. Fresh eyes are more likely to detect errors. Even if you only have an hour to spare, get up from your desk and walk around. Clear your head before you dig back in to begin proofing. Time away really does make a difference.

10) Remember: Proofreading and editing are not the same. Proofreading catches typos, spelling errors and missing punctuation. Editing is more in-depth, focusing on content, structure, clarity and flow. Most writing will benefit from both.

If you’re a notoriously bad speller or you don’t know a colon from an ellipsis, hire a professional proofreader, editor or writer to do the work. The money you’ll spend is an investment in making sure you and your business are portrayed in the best possible light.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Whenever writers say they don’t know what to write about, I tell them to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news. Real life can be a real inspiration.

Blame my roots in journalism, but I love the news. I read at least one newspaper daily – a real, paper copy – and I’m forever sending myself links to news magazines and websites. I’m not reporting on the events I’m reading about, but rather I’m looking for tidbits – thought-provoking nuggets that can spawn bigger stories. When I find something that interests me, I clip it or print it out and stick it in my idea file. I’m especially drawn to crazy crime stories, but the file contains a wide variety of real-life inspiration that I thumb through from time to time:

  • Teva, the company known for its outdoor footwear, made its largest pair of sandals ever – for Shanthi, a 41-year-old arthritic elephant who lives at the National Zoo. The sandals reportedly make it easier for the 9,000-pound pachyderm to walk around.
  • A 2007 clipping details the almost unbelievable unraveling of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, who drove from Houston to Orlando to confront a romantic rival. As she drove, she disguised herself with a dark wig, glasses and trench coat and wore adult diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop.
  • Two Kentucky men were arrested in 2016 after they accidentally called 911 while sitting in their car, discussing plans to rob a local restaurant. The dispatcher listened to their conversation and police were able to intervene.
  • A burglar got stuck in a chimney while trying to break into a home in Huron, California, in November 2015. The man was discovered when the homeowner returned and lit the fireplace. Bad luck turned into horrible luck; the would-be thief died as a result of burns and smoke inhalation.

Will I ever write a novel about star-crossed NASA lovers? Probably not. But the intimate details of that account – the ways in which Nowak became so obsessed with “the other woman” – could well find their way into another story. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday one of my characters butt-dials 911 and accidently confesses a crime.

Real life doesn’t have to be outrageous to be inspirational. I have journals filled with notes about people I’ve known or observed: How they dressed, wore their hair, talked, walked:

  • The high school classmate who always ate dessert first, in case she “ran out of room.”
  • The teammate whose softball uniform was so tight she confessed she had to shimmy into it while it was wet and let it dry on her body overnight.
  • The college Latin professor who carried a satchel, and wore a tight black turtleneck sweater and black leather pants to every class for a year.
  • My grandfather, who dressed in worn chambray shirts and drank one beer each summer – an Old Milwaukee to celebrate the end of haying season.

Those types of traits, those tiny details breathe life into fictional characters.

It’s not complicated. It’s real life. Observe it. Make notes about it. Use it the next time you need a little inspiration.