Monday, April 19, 2010

The First Draft Is For You

Much as we want to believe that this time, we will only need to write one draft of a short story or a novel before it is publishable, down deep we know that if we’re serious writers we will never get off that easily. (There are benefits for the writer as well as the reader in revision, however, and I have discussed some of these on my Militant Writer blog.)

Because no first draft is ever going to be the final draft, creative writers (and most other kinds of writers, too) need to give themselves permission to relax at the first-draft stage.

The first draft is for you. At this stage, you don’t need to worry about your audience. Here you can just let go—write whatever you want to say, overwrite, get sidetracked and distracted. You don’t need to leave anything out because “people might not like it,” or “it isn’t written properly,” or because you know that you are capable of a better metaphor. If you know you are going to have to come back and rewrite anyway, you can leave unfinished sections and move on. You don’t need to worry about polishing sentences or making sure that your paragraphs aren’t too long. You just need to get the words down. You are free to get them down.

This is not to say that the audience is not crucial to the writing process. It is. If you ignore those you are writing for, as far as I’m concerned you will never write anything meaningful. But you don’t have to think about the audience until you get to the revision stage—in fact, it might be better if you don’t.

When you do start revising—or at least before you finish revising—you do need to include the audience in your deliberations. “Is this passage clear?” you need to ask yourself. “Are my readers going to understand why my main character is doing this?” “Are readers going to be bored by this repetition, or will they understand that I am using it deliberately—and why?”

The revisions need to satisfy you, of course, but they are also intended to ensure that your message and your story reach your audience in the way you intend them to receive it. But the first time through, you can turn your back on your readers.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In Praise of Revision, or the "four fails" of trying to write the final draft first

(I have written quite a long blog post called "In Praise of Revision" and posted it on my Militant Writer site. You can check out the whole post here Below are the first few paragraphs....)

When I was a new writer, I read a lot about how other writers wrote, and I became deluded into thinking that I could calculate how long it would take me to complete a writing project.

My reasoning went like this: if I wrote 500 words per day, I would be able to complete a short story in about ten days. If I upped the total to 1,000 words per day, I could finish a novel in 60 to 100 days, depending on the length of the novel. Those word goals seemed fairly modest to me, even a bit cushy: hadn’t I just been reading about writers who set themselves to write 5,000 words a day—and did it?

I got out my calculator and started pressing buttons. I reasoned that if I took a weekend off from time to time, and a week or two for vacation every year, I could still complete about a hundred novels and several collections of short stories by the time my 80th birthday rolled around. All I needed was the will power and fortitude to actually get the work done—and I was sure I had those in abundance. (I always feel that way before I start a project.)

It was then that I first faced what have come to think of as the “Four Fails” of trying to write the last draft first.

The first of these Fails occurred when I started my next novel. (It was my third, the first that would be published. My first and second novels had been abandoned part-way through, perhaps because they had failed to write themselves fast enough.)

I set out on the first day to write my 1,000 words, my schedule in hand and my determination firm. But I found I could not think of which 1,000 words to put down first—or, in fact, which one word to put down first. I told myself it was natural to feel this hesitation: with the schedule I’d set myself, a lot relied on the first word. The rest of the story had to ride effortlessly and smoothly on its back.

Continued here:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Getting started

I have days when I find it impossible to get started on my work. The very act of opening the file on the computer in which my story or novel is contained is more than I can manage.

It may be that I am tired from my other work, or worried about whether I will be able to write as well as I want to on that day. But try as I might, I keep getting distracted by news stories, opinion pieces, Internet forums and Facebook discussions. When I've had my fill of perusing those and answered all my emails, I may decide it’s time to update my website, or do the grocery shopping, or clean the oven.

All day long I hope that at any moment I am going to open the file on my desktop and get to work, but also all day long I also fear that I will not. As suppertime approaches and then passes, I begin to accept that this day has been shot and that, for reasons I do not clearly understand, I am the one who shot it.

I have recently discovered that when such a situation arises, there is something I can do to make the day change direction in my favour. Actually, I have two options, at least. (You may have others -- please feel free to add them in the Comments section.)
  • I can unplug the laptop and take it to a public place such as a coffee shop where the Internet is more difficult to obtain than it is at home. I open my fiction file while the barista is still making my Double Shot CafĂ© Americano, and I get to work. After an hour or so of this, and always leaving at the start a new thought, I am able to take my laptop back home and continue with the story.
  • Another course of action that works effectively for me is even less disruptive. I print out the last few pages of whatever fiction project I am working on and take it with pen and a pad of lined paper to a corner of the house (such as the dining room table) where I can comfortably write by hand. I usually start by writing revisions on the printout, and before I know it I have covered most of the print-out page with handwritten notes and moved on to the lined paper. Within half an hour, I am usually ready to return to work on the computer but I stay where I am for at least another fifteen minutes. By then the writing has become more interesting to me than any of the distractions that earlier so thoroughly intrigued me.

Monday, January 12, 2009

discussion question #1

I recently responded with enthusiasm to a friend on FaceBook who said he was about to teach a course in creative non-fiction. I asked him if he would be talking about creative non-fiction markets, which can be hard to find.

A friend of his, who is also a widely published writer of creative non-fiction, responded to my comment by saying, "Serious writing is not about markets."

What do you think? Can you be a serious writer and still concern yourself with who is going to be buying, selling or reading your stories, essays, novels or poems? Does an eye on audience affect your writing--either negatively or positively?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Use competitons as deadlines

Find short-story, flash fiction or even novel competitions and commit to entering them. They provide invaluable deadlines and offer the additional advantage of keeping the manuscript you have submitted off your desk for weeks or even months.

By the time you learn that you didn't win the competition, you will be ready to revisit your submission with a fresh eye. Your edits will improve it, and you will have a piece of fiction ready for submission elsewhere.

And if you do win... well, that is always a nice thing, too.

Note: Many writing competitions now include entry fees. If these fees seem to be appropriate -- a reasonable sum to cover administration costs and an honorarium for judges--don't let them discourage you from entering. More and more literary journals are using such contests to help defray operating costs, which makes good sense. In most cases the fee will cover a copy of the journal or a one-year subscription in addition to the opportunity to enter. The key word here is "appropriate." Some competitions charge excessively and their only purpose is to make money for the organizers. Caveat emptor.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Keeping track of days and dates in fiction

Keep a file in which you note the dates of your characters' births and any particularly relevant events in their lives, such as their marriages, or the deaths of family members. A file or chart of names and dates helps you orient yourself consistently, so that you don't inadvertently refer to one event in 1987 as having taken place when the narrator was five, and another in the same year as having taken place when he was seven.

Also keep track of the dates in the current time frame of your story. If it is spring one week, even with climate change it is unlikely to be mid-winter the next. If your character's sister breaks her leg at Thanksgiving, the healing process will probably extend into any Christmas scenes you may want to depict.

Especially with supporting characters, authors can lose track of time and place, and errors can be overlooked by editors as well. Sharp readers will be distracted from the story by such mistakes, and after they do it takes time to get their concentration back again.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Names of characters

The names of major characters in a work of fiction need to be distinctive from one another, particularly when the characters are of the same gender. If Susie and Sarah, or Bob and Bill, or Mary Jane and a Maryanne appear in the same stories, readers can become confused. Even somewhat similar names, such as Phoebe and Phaedra, can cause some readers to have to stop and think about which one is which.

Help your readers by ensuring that the first letters of your characters' first names are different, and if possible also vary the number of syllables in the names of major characters. Use Bob Marquist and Harold Smith rather than Bob Jones and Tom Smith.