First – let me state right up front, writing in spite of fear and insecurity is a lesson I still struggle with. In no way do I feel like I have mastered the ability. I have, however, learned a few things along my journey and I write this missive with the hope that my struggles might help you avoid some of my mistakes. And there have been plenty of those.
DON’T EXPECT A FIRST DRAFT TO BE PERFECT – In fact, don’t try to make it perfect. Sam Havens (Professor Emeritus at the University of St. Thomas) gives this advice: Write Drunk! He was not encouraging us to over-indulge in spirits – he insisted that the best way to write a first draft was free-form – let the words flow and don’t worry about commas, or grammar, or if what you just typed makes any kind of sense at all. Don’t worry about point of view, don’t worry about the clothes the people are wearing, don’t worry about sensory details, don’t worry about settings, don’t worry about creating a ‘talking head’* scene. In first draft: Don’t worry. Period. You can edit all that ‘stuff’ in second draft. First draft is about getting the story told, from the beginning to the end.
(* a talking head scene is a conversation where two or more people are talking, and you have given no stage direction. “Stop,” he said. “What?” she said. “Wait.” he insisted. “Why?” she asked. Is she adding sugar to a cup of coffee? Crossing a street? Or, maybe they are snuggled in bed. For the purpose of first draft –stage directions are not important. Write the conversation. Don’t be afraid to use “she said” and “he said.” No one needs to whisper or declare in first draft. First draft is all about telling the story. All of these things can be finessed in second draft. In fact, most likely it will be easier to add these things in second draft than to stop the story flow and figure it all out the first time around.)
And that brings me to, DON’T EDIT UNTIL YOU HAVE REACHED THE END. It is so easy to get caught up in the desire to write a perfect first chapter. Or maybe you don’t feel you can go forward until the first three chapters are exactly right. Maybe you want every page to be perfect, and don’t want to move forward until you have made sure every line is edited to perfection. So, you’ve written your pages of perfection – and you arrive at The End. Then, WHAM! DAMN! Your characters don’t behave. They throw a total new element into your story. But that element is what makes the story really shine. That new ‘pop’ is exactly what you didn’t know the story was missing.
Surprises happen to plotters and to pantsers, so don’t believe that you are immune because you have the story completely plotted out and know exactly what is going to happen. If you trust the story, and follow it, frequently something happens that will surprise you, and now you must to go back to those 300 perfect pages, and edit, edit, edit. Much of that perfection will end up on the cutting-room-floor.
Don’t misunderstand me – write to the best of your ability with every word you put on the page. But, don’t sweat the small stuff – and in first draft, anything that is not story progression is small stuff!
Let me reiterate this – WRITE TO THE BEST OF YOUR ABILITY WITH EVERY WORD YOU PUT ON THE PAGE. I was a C student in English. I have a high school diploma and a few hours of college and I am intimidated as hell by commas. But, I practice my craft every time I sit down at the computer. I don’t consciously worry about commas, but by gosh – I’m starting to believe I might SOMEDAY (that isn’t today, but someday), I, might, actually, understand, why, a, comma, goes, here, and, not, here. And don’t get me started about the use of explanation points!
The most important lesson I have learned regarding my writing is to TRUST THE GIRLS IN THE BASEMENT (your writing muse). And this is true whether you are a plotter or a pantser. Regardless of where you think your story is headed, trust the story to go where it is supposed to go. Trust your instincts. Put your butt in the chair and put words on the page. Turn off your inner-critic, banish your inner-editor and write.
How do we get better? Writer, teacher and mentor BK Reeves said: “Write a million words!” The more you write, the better you get. But how do we keep writing, even when the writing is tough? FIND YOUR TRIBE! If you are confused about point of view, or, if you are a master at deep point of view – find your tribe. Take a creative writing class; on-line or at your local community college – there are a ton of resources available. Join a writing group. Seek out other writers. They speak your language. They understand about the solitary confinement required to write. They don’t think you are a little bit nuts because you talk about the characters you create as if they are real people. They understand that you still love your family, even when you want to kill them because they interrupt you right in the middle of scene and make you lose the thought. There is something very freeing about being in a community of writers and discovering comrades who have the same or similar struggles you are experiencing.
Trust the story. Write drunk. Don’t edit until you type The End. Write to the best of your ability with every word. Those are all important, but I believe that the single best thing you can do to avoid being frozen by knowledge, or a lack there of, is to build your writing community. Writers are some of the most generous people alive. In my experience, the more successful they become, they more they are willing to share.
Don’t stand on your island alone. FIND YOUR TRIBE!
Have you written today?
Terri Richison (writing as Terri Rich) lives in Clear Lake City, TX with her husband and a giant Great Dane (giant even by Great Dane standards). She is working on self-publishing women’s fiction and avoiding getting a pie in the face if she doesn’t produce pages for every critique session! PIES OR PAGES! Terri started telling stories almost as soon as she could talk – she learned everything she needed to know about storytelling at her grandmother’s knee. Craft however, is something she is still learning – those damn commas give me nightmares!