first drafts

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

The Work Progresses

You would think by now it would be easy. After all, I’ve written and published five novels and a bunch of short stories. I have idea notes, planning notes, things-to-fix-in-the-rewrite notes, and problem-solving notes.

But writing the first draft is still hard. In fact, some days it’s a real struggle. And yet, it lurches forward.

The work in progress is a sequel, which complicates things. It means I have to know everything each character knows about all kinds of things. Who knows what? Who lied to whom? It’s amazing how many details I’ve forgotten from the previous book, even though I wrote it.

Some characters from the first book have changed quite a bit. I need to account for those changes–plausibly, and in a way that contributes to the plot.

It will be bad news if something I think is crucial for the sequel doesn’t line up with, or even contradicts, something important in the first book. (A good argument for writing both books before publishing the first one.)

Then there’s First Draft Daily Anxiety Syndrome. I’ve managed to keep up with the page a day resolution I made back in December, but knowing I have to put in the required time every day to crank out the next page or two can be a cloud on my horizon as I emerge gummy-eyed from sleep.

Strange thing, though: sitting down and picking up the pen has an almost magical effect. With only the vaguest idea of what is going to happen next, I start to write, and a scene unfolds, complete with details and nuances. (Whether it will stand the test of the rewrite is another issue.)

I’m 85% through the first draft and on schedule to finish it by the end of June. The trouble is, now that daylight arrives early and lingers late, the garden exercises its own allure. I may have to shift my writing sessions from first thing in the morning to what I call Glare Time, the hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the light is harsh and bright and the garden is devoid of magic.

Never mind–at least now I can finally see the day I’ll get this one off the ground!

hot air balloon on ground rainbow colours
Image from Pixabay

Fellow writers, I’m sure many of you have WIPs under way. What works for you? What gives you fits? Share your WIP woes and wins.

SWCF manuscript pages

A Page a Day

Once again, I have a work in progress. It took me a while to assemble the story’s elements, but on December 11th, 2020, I started writing.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve realized I can’t depend on obsession to fuel my writing projects, which is what happened in 2000 and 2001 when I wrote The Friendship of Mortals. (Writing project? No, that first novel was a bout of delightful madness!) For me now the normal state of writing a novel is a long and weary slog.

First drafting is a draining experience. Except when a scene fully blooms in my imagination and simply must be written, bridging the gap between imaginings and words is hard work.

A neglected work in progress is an albatross, a ghost, a sinister shape seen out of the corner of one’s eye, a bad smell lurking in the corner. A neglected work in progress is a burden. The choice is to keep slogging or lay it down and give up.

Giving up is out of the question.

So I made a deal with myself–write one page a day. One page, that’s all. If I hit a point where the work takes off and I write more than a page–great! But one page is enough.

A page of my handwriting is between 400 and 500 words. I’m aiming for a 100K-word first draft, eventually to be reduced to between 85 and 90K. A page a day until the end of June should get me most of the way there.

I’m not saying this is the best way to write a novel. I haven’t tried this technique before, but it seems to be working for me right now. Most days I can find the time and energy to write one page. Often, the session extends to a second or third page. The work is coming to life and asking to be written. After 12 weeks, I’m at 40K words, approaching the halfway point of the first draft.

Fellow writers, do you speed through your first drafts or squeeze them out word by word? Do you have any tricks to make yourself keep writing?

Perfectly Plotted? or, Does Story Structure Matter?

I’ve seen quite a few posts that mention story structure, otherwise known as narrative structure. Many books have been written about it.

One version of story structure looks like this:

Three_act_structure_visual
Image from Wikipedia. Author: Jft701. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

But does this actually help a writer who is creating a story or novel?

Here’s what I think:

These ideas about structure result from analysis and comparison of completed works, often by academics. They are the kind of thing one learns while studying literature. But (for me, anyway) the state of mind needed to bring a piece of writing into existence is totally different from that which analyzes a completed work.

A familiarity with story structures and plot trajectories is of limited use to a writer pounding out a first draft, unless that writer is a full-blown plotter, who builds a story in parts. Pantsers and others who look at first drafts like lumps of mental clay to be shaped with the tools of the imagination don’t need to worry about that stuff–until later.

“Later” is the rewrite stage, when the first draft is finished and the complete material of the story is laid out before the writer. At that point, I (otherwise known as “the writer”) can consider whether the story’s structure corresponds to the diagram above, or to any of the defined plot types, such as “rags to riches” or “the hero’s journey.”

When the first draft is finished, the writer can step back from it and analyze it, identifying places where changes need to be made, possibly making the plot conform to one of the named trajectories. But only if that makes sense to its creator, the writer.

Am I saying writers should ignore story structure? No, but I’m not sure a writer needs to worry about it at the first draft stage. But then, I write from the inside; perhaps writers who devise their creations from the outside find it helpful to consciously design them with structure in mind.

Of course, I could be wrong about this. So, fellow writers, how many of you write your first drafts with story structure in mind? Do you ever adhere to any of the defined story structures or plot types?

Featured image from Pexels

Handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 2: The Proto-Draft

That pile of paper in the featured image is the original manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals.

When I began writing my first novel in 2000, pen on paper was the logical medium. I did not know if I could create anything worthwhile or if I would soon abandon the project. Besides, it just felt right. Until the 20th century, all books were written with pens scraping along on paper. (Okay, I didn’t use a quill pen.)

Even now, I write my first drafts by hand, but those drafts are getting sketchier, especially for short stories. They’re somewhere between outlines and fully realized drafts. Sort of like really detailed outlines, with occasional fully realized scenes or pieces of dialogue.

I think of those handwritten starts as proto-drafts. They are the first organized manifestations in words of the ideas and mental images behind my fictional works.

Handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals
A novel disguised as two inches of scribbled-upon paper.

The objective of a first draft is to get the whole narrative down in words, even if some of it is left skeletal, a framework or scaffolding. I supply detail and finalize the plot as I type the thing into a word processor. With that document complete, the real work begins. The words are legible and I can cut, copy, apply colours, search, replace, and delete.

But the handwritten proto-draft is an essential part of my writing process. Here’s why:

  • A page of scribble is less intimidating than crisp words on a white screen. If I’m not sure about a new story or novel, or if I’m trying some sort of new technique, I don’t want the half-baked thing glaring back at me looking stupid.
  • The first thing I see when I go back to the new writing project is the spot where I left off, rather than the first paragraph. I can slip back into the story immediately, instead of thrashing my way through the beginning.
  • I can avoid the distractions of the internet.
  • I can write almost anywhere–outdoors, on the bus, or in the bathtub (as long as I can keep the paper dry).
  • It’s more complicated to shred or burn a paper draft than to hit the delete key with vindictive glee if I decide the work is crap. I can stuff it into a box or drawer–or even the recycle bin–where it will be safe until the fit has passed. (I wonder how many great works may have perished when open fires were used to heat writers’ rooms.)
  • I don’t have to worry about losing any work to a computer malfunction or power failure. Fire and water are the only immediate concerns. Or leaving the manuscript on a bus or in a coffee shop–theoretical possibilities only, since I don’t actually write in such places now. (I always shudder when I think of how T.E. Lawrence lost the ms. of Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a train.)
  • If anyone accuses me of plagiarism, I have proof that I wrote every word myself, along with crossings-out, circled paragraphs with arrows, and sentences squeezed in along the margins.

When the longhand draft is complete, I put it away for a week or a month. Then I go back and start on the real first draft, by transcribing the handwritten text into a Word document, changing, omitting, and adding as needed.

First page of the handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals
The beginning of TFOM. I must have written this on November 7th, 2000.

The longhand draft is sort of like a compost heap, only better organized. It’s a big pile of words I can work with to refine the raw material into a completed work.

Copy of The Friendship of Mortals ("big" version)
The final product.

For me, the toughest part of writing a piece of fiction is the process of embodying concepts with words or solidifying imaginings into prose–the raw act of creation. The sooner I can get that done, the better, and the proto-draft helps.

If writing by hand on paper is out of the question, a writer can still do a proto-draft. Control + End takes the cursor to the end of the document. Then it’s just a matter of writing like there’s no tomorrow until THE END.

Fellow writers, how do you create your first drafts? Longhand, word processor, detailed notes, sketchy outlines? How do you bridge the gap between ideas in your head and words on page or screen?

Next time: Writing from the Inside or the Outside?

The Willful Character And The Act of Writing

 

I read comments by writers all the time saying their characters take over and start driving the plot of the story. With my current work in progress, I’ve become quite the plotter, making detailed outlines for each section of the work before I start writing. So imagine my surprise when the pen in my hand started writing a scene that was definitely not in the outline! What’s more, it was an unplanned sex scene.

Once it was written, I had to admit that scene actually worked, but the whole thing got me thinking about the willful character. Maybe it’s a form of “automatic writing,” not in the supernatural sense, but the result of tapping into subconscious impulses while in a state of receptiveness induced by the act of writing. (Hey, that’s not bad, considering I made it up on the spot).

The best fictional characters are like real people, complete with flaws, quirks and contradictory impulses. Some writers develop their characters before they actually start writing the novel. Physical features, musical and food preferences, hobbies, education — a complete curriculum vitae. I’m not that kind of writer. I have a hazy vision of my primary characters, that becomes clearer as I write. There seems to be a department in my brain called Character Development, that trots out details about each major character when needed. Sometimes it throws me a surprise.

One of the best parts of the writing process is when this automatic thing kicks in and the words pour out effortlessly. Sometimes it feels as though I’m just copying stuff dictated to me by a disembodied brain. It’s probably my brain. Or some kind of collective unconscious, a well of ideas available to all who yield themselves to the writing urge. That’s where our characters come from, finding their way in response to tentative images in our writing brains.

Characters manifest their characteristics, prompting a kind of negotiation with the author. “Okay, that’s fine — you can do this, but not that. And definitely not the other thing.” But cut them some slack. Willful characters aren’t a problem, but a sign that the writer’s imagination is engaged beyond the scope of the outline, tapping into a realm of mystery. And that’s good.

Sitting down to write, giving yourself up to whatever you are creating, is like going down an unexplored trail. You just don’t know what you might meet around the corner, even if you have a map. Whether you outline your plot in detail before you start, or write by the seat of your pants, you must be prepared for the unexpected.

SWCF manuscript and notesThe first stage of creating a work of fiction — the first draft — isn’t the place to worry about rules, or getting every detail right. At this stage, the writer’s imagination needs to be cranking out stuff, producing raw material to be refined later. That’s why I still write my first drafts — or maybe they’re better called “proto-drafts” — in longhand. Actually, “longhand” seems too fancy a term for my cursive scribble on the borderline of legibility.

The thing is, at this stage you don’t want to read over what you’ve written and polish it. You want to forge ahead, beating out the rough shape of your story, bumps, holes and all. Don’t look back! For me, stark black words on the bright white screen are just too intimidating. I really doubt I would have written that sudden sex scene if I’d been using my laptop. But I scribbled it down, and when I typed it up a few days later, the critical, analytical part of my brain said, “Well, okaaay, I guess it works.”

As for my work in progress — the first draft is almost done! Another 5,000 words or so, and I can write Finis.

And then, of course, I go back to the beginning. The crazy, creative part of my brain will take a back seat, and the critical, analytical part will get to to do its thing.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

3 Reasons Why You Need to Finish Your Writing Project

At the 2/3 point through a first draft that’s getting to be a tough slog I found this inspiring. Writers, read this before you think about quitting!

Knowledge is Power

Have you ever wondered why starting a project can be so full of ideas, motivation, focus, and commitment, only to later on land into an overwhelming state of pressure, agonizing middle, and a completely dispirited end? This scenario occurs more often than not, and am moved to refer to it as the curse of the writer.

Stumbling blocks characterize almost all writing projects, so badly in some situations that they completely disorient what was once a comprehensive research, sleepless nights, sincere effort, and immense sacrifice, just to name a few. Ranging from lack of time, family issues, writers block, running out of ideas to fear of rejection, stumbling blocks can easily lead to an incomplete and stagnated end.

Every writer’s desire is to start writing a book or an article, and most importantly to finish it. Here are 3 reasons that should make you reconsider completing your project.

  1. You Owe…

View original post 354 more words

clock mechanism

Fictional Details: Timing and Chronology

Approaching the halfway mark in the first draft of my work in progress, all I want to do is forge ahead, laying down the road — or trail, or path — to the climax and conclusion, in which the big, important themes that are the whole point of the thing will shine and resonate in the brain of the delighted reader. Clanging gongs and fireworks, that’s what I’m aiming for.

So why am I agonizing over whether something happened yesterday or the day before? Or how long it takes to get from point A to point B? Wouldn’t that dinner last a lot longer than the conversation that was its entire purpose? And aren’t those characters having way too many drinks in too a short time? At this rate, they’ll be incapable of the action scene that follows.

Why agonize over these details? Because it matters, damn it! If to only one reader, or only to me, the author.

Especially in genres such as mystery and thriller, but even in semi-literary, quasi-supernatural, adventure-type opuses such as the one I’m working on, it’s necessary to pay attention to matters of timing and chronology.

Consider, for example, the word “minute,” meaning sixty seconds. People use it all the time in conversation with no expectation of accuracy. “I’ll just be a minute,” you say, when you know darned well it will be ten. Or, “It was here a minute ago,” when it was actually five seconds. That’s okay. But when a narrator uses that word, as in, “He stood staring at me for a minute without speaking,” just visualize it, and count those seconds. A minute is actually a long time. If someone stood silent and staring for an actual minute, you would be asking them if they were okay, and maybe calling 911. “Moment,” “second,” or “instant” are much better words here.

At some point before pressing that “Publish” button, a read-through for timing and continuity issues is definitely in order, either by the author or an attentive beta reader.

When I’m reading someone else’s book, I don’t look for stuff like this. I’m fine unless things seem seriously out of whack, such as going from July to Christmas in the turn of a page, or a if a character without supernatural abilities whips up a five-course dinner in half an hour. Readers give writers a kind of license about chronological details if they can follow the plot. But they do matter to me, the writer, as a matter of principle. When I’m working out plot details, I need to know that when I begin a paragraph with, “The next morning … ” the one after it doesn’t make a sudden jump into the following week.

Which is why I’m wrestling with moon phases, distances in and near Luxor, Egypt, the steps involved in launching a hot air balloon, and the chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Trust me, it will all make sense when I’m done. With luck, that might even be in the present decade.

balloons luxor

Image courtesy of Pixabay

type

Counting Words

The novel I’m writing (my sixth) is proving to be a bit of a struggle. In my memory, writing the other five was a silky-smooth process, in which I effortlessly spun out an endless stream of words whenever I sat down at the desk.

Well, it probably wasn’t like that. When I concentrate, I remember plenty of occasions when I sat there, staring at the giant rubber plant (now in a better world), trying to shape another scene.

But this time around, “flow” simply isn’t the word. Scraping, beating, cobbling, hewing — those are the words that come to mind. I’m getting blisters on my imagination.

Part of the problem is that this time, I’m fixated on wordcount. I’ve decided I want to end up with a first draft of 90,000 to 100,000 words, of which I may delete 10,000 to 20,000. Having too many words feels better than too few. It’s as though writing is a weird kind of sculpture — first I hew out a block of stone, and then I reduce it to its final shape. I don’t want to limit myself with a block that’s too small to start with.

I wondered if this warped the process. Instead of letting the plot unfurl organically, I set myself a goal to crank out a minimum of 6,000 words to present at the monthly meetings of my longtime critique group. Before that, I wasn’t writing at all, letting days go by while I played the procrastination game of waiting for the perfect day or moment. Now, with this self-imposed deadline, I’ve been diligently beavering away for five months, and technically am one third of the way through the first draft.

While this approach is getting me to produce, I’m wondering if I’m just churning out crap of which 98 per cent will have to be rewritten. In other words, if I’m just faking it. Okay, the critiquers seem to think the work has potential, but I haven’t reached a point where they can really see the shape of the finished novel. Which is a problem in itself. Or, maybe not — at least the plot isn’t predictable.

This leads to the question of whether it’s better to write too much and cut out a lot in rewrites, or too little and have to flesh out and add stuff. I’ve always taken the more is better approach, and now that the thing is finally coming to life, I intend to press on and test that idea later.

So, back to the quarry…

sandstone-from-obernkirchen-1612461__340

Images courtesy of Pixabay