Monday, February 20, 2023

FIRST DRAFT aka Cow Manure -- by Christine


As a passionate gardener I cannot overstate the value of good, sterilized cow manure for my vegetable patch and perennials. But we’re not talking about my other passions, we’re talking about that first draft of whatever you’re writing, full-length manuscript to a short blog piece, and everything in between. Or as in my current work-in-progress, a dual time novel which adds a whole new dimension to developing that first draft.

 Rachel recently shared about the fear of the blank page and I’m following up with a truth that as a writer you must absolutely come to believe with the driven devotion of an Irish monk on the barren island of Skellig. Your first draft will be and must be absolute #@&%, in polite words—cow manure. 

 I know it’s hard, believe me I know, but you must get words on the page. You may end up tomorrow or several months from now deleting 50% of those words, but here’s the thing:  50% or less—or more—may end up being absolute gold, an absolute treasure of a scene or the surprising development of a character, etc. You will use these standout passages later to craft the rest of your story.

The temptation, however, to edit your first draft as you write is overwhelming. You read over those first words, and you cringe. But don’t go back. Hold on to your vision with the tenacity of that Irish monk as a full-scale gale whips you back against that thin, rocky cliff.

 As I write my thoughts on first drafts, I must insert a but, a huge BUT. I cannot go any further on this theme because I believe I have put the cart before the horse. Another garden or farm analogy. I confess that I am not a seat-of-the-pants writer but an outliner. In my opinion, before you start the first draft you’ve got to put in some planning work. No first draft really goes smoothly until you have worked on the following:

  • Premise
  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Preliminary Research
  • Outline

 With first drafts though I must interject an analogy from another of my passions—art. When working with clay one must repeatedly slam the clay onto a work surface to force out air bubbles. Then you slap that clay on in huge clumps. Then you begin to scrape away huge amounts of that clay to sculpt and carve the image you desire. It’s the same with your novel. You can’t really edit until you’ve got the whole lump to work with. The objective is to flesh out the outline into 70-100k words, no matter how those words fail to live up to your dreams.

 It’s okay if it’s messy – you’re just getting the story down in detail on the first round. The depth and beautiful language, etc. comes later when you can see the whole story.

To keep your motivation up during this time, remember that artists, no matter whether they are painting, sculpting, writing music or fiction, see the finished vision in their heads. This is what motivates us to keep going when the raw material is rough and ragged. As imperfect as the first draft seems now, once it’s all down, you’ll have the opportunity to craft that clay into that Bust of Nefertiti or carve that Michelangelo’s David out of marble.

 Remember to be that driven monk on the Isle of Skellig. Keep the faith until you’re done.

Monday, February 6, 2023

10 Tips for Overcoming Your Fear of the Blank page


If you find staring down a blank page frightening, know you’re in good company. It’s a common issue for writers, from students writing their first term paper to multi-published authors. Putting those first clumsy words down, digging for the unknown parts of your scene, and wondering if the final product will live up to your imagination can be disconcerting. In fact, starting the day’s writing is often likened to diving headlong into a cold sea. Here are a few tips that may help you warm up to the writing when the water looks too icy.

1)      Start early in the day. Your mind is at its best after a good night’s sleep, and while you’re still close to your dreaming subconscious. Even if all you can give in the morning is half an hour before heading off to work, getting a few paragraphs written gives you that dose of courage that makes you feel as if you can finish the scene later in the day.

2)      Jot down a few notes beforehand. Having the skeleton of what you’ll write gives you a good start, even if you veer off in different directions later. I’m no outliner, but writing down a few key points for the scene ahead gives me the feeling that I’m not staring into an abyss when I begin.

3)      Remember the first draft is just the clay. It’s rough. It’s flawed. And that’s okay. Later you’ll mold it into something better, once you’ve got the first draft in place. As the popular Nora Roberts quote goes, “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank one.”

4)      End your day’s writing in mid-stream. This was Hemingway’s technique. By leaving his day’s work in the middle of a scene, he guaranteed that he wouldn’t be coming in cold for the next day’s work.

5)      Prime the pump. Begin writing, even if it’s not your story. Steinbeck warmed up by writing a letter to his editor each day before starting his work on East of Eden. I’ve heard of other novelists who start the day with a journal entry, random lists of words or even a haiku to get the words flowing. 

6)      Write quickly. Too much thought might be what holds you back. Writing fast allows your subconscious to take over, and you could be surprised at what it brings to the surface.

7)      Focus on the page, not the novel. A page per day makes for a 365-page novel in a year, but only facing the day’s work, not the entire project makes it less overwhelming.

 8)      Remember the joy. Writing comes with a lot of challenges. But what excites you about the scene you’re about to write? What is particularly fun, beautiful or interesting? Focus on that, and you'll be more eager to show up at your computer.

9)   Read and read some more. Read poetry. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. And you’ll be so saturated with words and ideas, you’ll have the material to work with. Many authors start their writing time by reading something short. Once you’ve started stacking up the pages, you may even want to read a page or two of your favorite already-written scenes to remind yourself you can do this thing.

10)    Write consistently. If possible, write daily at the same time in the same place. Our brains may rear and buck when they feel like we’re taking on something new (a/k/a scary), but once we’ve built the habit, our mind is more likely to face the blank page with calmness.

There are probably dozens of other ideas where those came from. Ask other writers. But most importantly, ask yourself: what gives you the courage to begin a fresh scene?

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