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.

 

 

Don’t Let Perfection Kill Creativity

I’ve been in a creativity drought these past few weeks. I’ve spent hours just sitting and staring at my computer but words wouldn’t come. I have read, hopeful that proximity to great literature would motivate my own muse. I’ve tinkered with old drafts and attended author events. Through it all, the creative juices have failed to flow.

Until I tried painting.

Let’s get this straight: I am a writer – not a visual artist. But, when an illustrator friend invited me to a mini art session at her house, I jumped at the opportunity. Why not? I thought. I’m not accomplishing anything else.

Seating us at easels, my friend distributed paper and brushes. We would do something called intuitive painting. She handed us cups of water and tubes of watercolor paints. Nothing about this felt intuitive. In fact, the whole thing felt very Age of Aquarius to me, but I did as I was told.

Our illustrator friend provided little in terms of instruction. She would play some music but there should be no talking. Other than that, she simply urged us to paint what we were feeling or thinking – no planning. There was to be no right or wrong, no judging.

I sighed deeply and, after some initial difficulties trying to figure out how to use these fancy, adult watercolors, I put brush to paper. I created waves of blue and green, yellow and orange. I painted thin lines and fat, opaque sections and transparent. I was still painting when our self-appointed leader stopped us for a quick check in. How were we doing? How were we feeling?

Somehow, we’d been painting for well over an hour, yet it seemed like we’d only just begun. I was no Claude Monet, but my page was blooming with color. I had entered into this process with zero expectations, yet somehow I was creating and having fun. I was feeling pretty proud of myself.

When I returned home from our painting party, I picked up my laptop and started typing. I was focused on maintaining this No Stress, No Judgment mindset. And something strange happened: Words came. I typed scene after scene, page after page. I had stopped trying to be the next Harper Lee or William Faulkner. By giving myself the freedom to simply write, I’d allowed myself space to experiment and make mistakes.

Perfection can kill creativity.

I know this from teaching, as well as from my personal writing experience. It’s why I’ve never graded students’ first drafts. Yes, I want to see that they’ve done the work, but those raw words aren’t ready to be assessed. Early drafts are about getting the story down on paper; fixating on grammar, description, or punctuation too early in the process can get in the way of the actual storytelling process. Trust me on this. I have a drawer full of “perfect” first chapters that have gone nowhere because I focused on improving what I had before I allowed myself to figure out where my story was headed.

Unfortunately, most of us set such unreal expectations for ourselves, that we don’t allow ourselves to take risks or fail. It’s a lesson I was reminded of by my intuitive painting experience.

A few years ago, I had the great honor of hearing author Judy Blume speak. She talked about writing her stories on a manual typewriter. As the audience groaned, she continued by explaining that when you type, you don’t stop to Spellcheck or use the online thesaurus. There’s no copying a sentence from one paragraph so you can paste it somewhere else. You don’t get caught up in making the first paragraph absolutely perfect – so perfect that the second, third and fourth paragraphs can’t possibly measure up.

With a typewriter, you simply type the story – beginning to end. When you’re finished – and only when you’re finished – you start reviewing your stack of pages. You know there are typos and overused words and entire pages of dialogue that need to be cut or reworked. But you don’t fix any of that until you have the whole story on paper, beginning to end. Allowing yourself to make mistakes during this drafting process, she reminded us, will free your creativity.

To those who say they have a good idea of where their stories are headed, I say, “Bravo.” You still need to write it down. It’s so much easier to react to and begin reworking a story that’s been written down than it is to mold an idea that’s still running wild in your mind.

Do I always allow myself the luxury of a no-expectations first draft? No. That’s reality. Sometimes I’m in a time crunch and sometimes I fall into bad habits. But when I do allow myself to fail – with the promise of time to refine later – I almost always produce sharper, more creative and brighter copy. More importantly, I produce completed stories or essays or articles. No surprise here: Judy Blume knows what she’s talking about.

Try it.

No judgment, no expectations, no rules. Give yourself the chance to write without restrictions and see where your creativity will take you.