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Writing a First Draft Part 2

Organize your thoughts each day. 

It’s hard to begin writing anything with only a vague idea of what we want to write. Those empty moments when we’re not sure what we want to say are when self-doubts begin to rise, Excuses invade our minds, and we decide we don’t really need to write today after all. If we begin each day knowing where we want to start, we can begin with focus, avoiding the “monkey mind” Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones.

One trick I use is to write an outline before I start writing the first draft. For a novel, my outline is a blueprint of what I think will happen in each chapter. Notice I said what I think will happen. As most writers will tell you, once you’ve started writing often the story or the characters will take you in a different direction than you intended. Those first ideas are simply a tool to get you thinking through your story, a way to get you writing something. If the ideas aren’t coming for me one day, then I’ll do a free write. A free write is simply that–a brainstorming activity where I’ll write whatever comes to mind about a character, the setting, the theme, or the plot. Sometimes if I’m really stuck I’ll start freewriting about something that has nothing to do with my story just to get the words flowing. Don’t skimp on the prewriting. As a long time writing teacher, I know that a lot of students want to skip over the prewriting process. But I think you’ll find prewriting time well spent. There are writers who do all right without any prewriting, and that’s great. For me, the more I write, and the longer I teach writing, the more I find that the idea-gathering process makes for an easier first draft.

Where do I begin each day? Wherever I want. Most days I begin with my chapter blueprint and type out my ideas for the next scene the best I can. I say the best I can because my first drafts are little more than quick descriptions, bland character interactions, and a ton of banal dialogue.

“Hi! How are you?”

“I’m great! And you?”

“Oh, you know. I’ve got that leaky wart on my big toe…”

I’m not kidding, by the way. My first draft dialogue really is that bad.

For me, the first draft is only a fleshed out outline. As I’m writing a first draft I keep pushing forward, one word after another, until I’m finished with the story. I give myself few rules while writing first drafts. Writing a first draft is hard enough without following arbitrary rules I’ve set up for the sole purpose of making myself more miserable. As long as I’m producing words that push the story forward every day, it’s all good.

You don’t have to outline as your prewriting activity. That’s simply my preference. I know other writers who outline, and they do it to keep their thoughts organized, as I do. Others find outlining too stifling, like they’re trapped within the imaginary boundaries they’ve created. They prefer to take a creative leap each day and see where the story carries them. That’s why I love writing fiction. You don’t have to do anything. There’s no right way. Everything about the first draft is about toying with words, playing with ideas, exploring possibilities. Explore away.

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Writing a First Draft Part 1

Every writer I’ve ever known, and every writer I’ve ever read about, says the same thing: the art of writing is in the rewriting. Writing the first draft is a chore, but we can’t proceed to our final draft without it.

Three books that have helped me through all stages of writing are Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and How to Write and Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier. I’ve read those books so many times that the information contained within has intertwined into my DNA (like hair coiling in Avatar).  Many of the tips I have shared with writers over the years come from these books. If you’re a writer, I recommend you read them.

Tip 1: Make sure you love what you’re writing. If you don’t, you probably won’t write it.

I often encounter people who’ve had this great idea for a book for years but they haven’t gotten around to writing it. I tell them that if the idea isn’t pressing them to the point of distraction, then it might not be right for them. I tell them that if they have a nice life, a nice job, a nice family, and don’t feel a burning desire to write that story then they probably won’t. Thinking you want to be a writer and writing are two different things. Writing is hard enough when you feel compelled by Fate to do it. It’s even harder, if not impossible, when you don’t have that burning desire. When is it time to write? When it’s more painful not to write something than it is to write it. If an idea is gnawing at you and won’t leave you alone to your nice life with your nice family, that’s when the writing process begins.

For all the projects I’ve completed, many more lay by the wayside. If I wasn’t compelled by what I was writing, then I dropped it. If I can’t convince myself that the project is worth writing, how can I convince a reader that it’s worth reading? When I began working on Her Dear & Loving Husband, I was so compelled by James and Sarah’s story that I worked on it nearly every day for a year—367 days to be exact. I may have taken a Sunday off here and there, but even on those days when I wasn’t at the computer the story was always on my mind. In that case, I wrote the first draft in six weeks. It was, come to think of it, the easiest first draft I’ve ever written. Why? Because I had to write it. I had to get the story out of my head and onto paper. I couldn’t live peacefully with myself if I didn’t.

Do you love what you’re writing? If the answer is yes, then you’re on the right track. If the answer is no, that’s okay. Not every idea is meant to be a long-term project. Keep searching until you find that idea that keeps you up at night itching to get back to it.

Scrivener, I Love You

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I had been struggling as I was writing my new historical novel. Nothing in the story seemed to be working, and for whatever reason I was at a loss as to how to fix it. I decided to give myself some time off from writing. It was the best decision I could have made since it allowed me to take the brain break I needed. I’ve been writing long enough to know that the ideas would show up when they were ready, and I was right. Only this time I had some help from an unexpected source.

About two years ago I bought Scrivener as a screenwriting tool. I used it to write a couple of screenplays, and that was that. I saw that it could be used to write novels, but when I looked at the directions they didn’t make sense and at that time I didn’t have the patience to fiddle with it. For whatever reason I found the directions confusing and the buttons and other tchotchkes didn’t make sense. I ended up leaving the program to languish unused and hidden in my Applications folder. While I was taking a break from writing my novel, I kept reading these posts about Scrivener and how all these writers said the program changed their writing for the better. Kristen @ She’s Novel pins these Scrivener Tutorial Posts on Pinterest, and Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn offers a course about how to use Scrivener. As I read these articles, I remembered that I had Scrivener on my computer. I wasn’t sure if the program could help me through the fog that was my novel, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

Before I go on, I should point out that I’m not getting any compensation from the nice Scrivener folks at Literature and Latte for this. I’m simply sharing why I’ve come to love the program and how it helped me write my novel after I had been stuck in the mud for some months.

When I decided to try Scrivener for novel writing, I looked at the directions again, and again they didn’t make sense. This time, though, I was motivated to keep trying, and I watched some of the Scrivener tutorials on YouTube. The tutorials were integral in helping me understand what the buttons and tchotchkes were for and how they were used. My suggestion is to not try Scrivener without first watching a few of the videos or taking an online class. Where most computer programs can be figured out by twiddling with them, I find Scrivener needs further explanation. It seems confusing at first, but after I watched a few videos and played around with it I found it rather easy to use.

Scrivener Manuscript with Synop and Notes

I’m not going into step-by-step details about how to use Scrivener since there are so many tutorials that do that far better than I can. I’d just like to point out some of the features that helped me gather my thoughts. First of all, I like that you don’t have to write your novel in one long file. You can write your story in separate chapters or you can write your story in scenes if that’s the way you think. You’ll notice on the left-hand side of the screen the different folders for each section I have so far. On the same screen you can also see your synopsis of the section you’re writing, and you’ll notice I added my research notes in the bottom right hand corner. This way I don’t have to go back and forth between my research notes and the section I’m writing—the notes are right there on the screen. If you find those doo-dads on the screen too distracting, you can use the full screen mode so all you see is the text you’re writing.

Scrivener Split Screen

Now here’s something I really love about Scrivener—the fact that you can import photos. The novel I’m writing is historical fiction, set in England in 1870, and so of course I need references about clothing, buildings, gardens, furniture, etc. If I want to see a particular photo, all I need to do is scroll down to the folder where I store my photos, click on the one I want, and there it is. If I split the Scrivener screen (another handy-dandy function) I can have the photo right in front of me as I describe it. In the example you can see the photo of the church in the beautiful English countryside, which is the photo I used as inspiration for the funeral scene that happens at the beginning of the story. With the split screen I can look right at the photo while I’m writing. Since I tend to use photos to inspire my writing, this feature alone makes Scrivener a winner for me.

Scrivener Corkboard

Another thing I love is the corkboard. I know a lot of writers who have real corkboards on their walls in their writing space. They write scenes, ideas, notes, etc., on index cards and pin the cards onto the corkboards. I’ve always loved that idea, but I don’t have enough room on my walls for a corkboard so I was never able to try it out. With Scrivener’s virtual corkboard I don’t need room on my walls. I can create virtual index cards with all of the same details—characters, plot, research, ideas, notes. This feature actually helped me figure out the plot because I could see at a glance when the order of the scenes didn’t fly. I was also able to spot that there was some missing information—missing scenes, if you will—and I was able to add new cards with information about what might happen in that scene.

Research Split Screen

I also like the fact that I can add my research notes. Since my novel is historical fiction, I have notebooks of research that I need access to while I’m writing. Instead of keeping a messy pile of notebooks around, I typed my notes into the Research section of Scrivener. From now on, instead of handwriting my notes I’ll type them into Scrivener. If you’ve typed your notes on another program like Word, Scrivener allows you to import them so you don’t have to retype them. And just like with the photographs, you can split the screen and look at your notes while you’re writing. As I said earlier, I like to add my research notes to the bottom right hand corner of the page, but if I have a lot of research notes for a particular section, I’ll probably split the screen so I have easy access to all the information.

Through the process of adding my novel to Scrivener, deciding on the folders I needed, using the corkboard, and importing the photographs and research notes, I was able to sort through the story. As a result, a lot of the problems I had are gone. I understand the characters better, I have a plot I’m happy with, and I can see where the story is going and what the underlying themes are. What Scrivener did for me was allow me to think through the story in a step-by-step way that helped me see what was missing and what needed to be reorganized and revised. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but at least now I have a direction, which I didn’t have before.

I’m definitely on the Scrivener bandwagon. It isn’t crazy expensive ($44 when I bought it), and to me it’s worth the price for the way it allows me to organize my work. They even offer a free 30 day trial so you can try it out to see if you like it.

Can You Feel It? Writing Scene Sequels

When I began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009, I saw the internal and external conflicts for James and Sarah so clearly in my mind, but I was having trouble articulating it on paper. It was the first time I had ever used two points of view in the same story, and it was also the first time I had a nonlinear plot since Her Dear & Loving Husband moves back and forth between the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and present day Salem. For some reason, the narrative flow didn’t come easily for me as I plodded through draft after draft. A fellow author shared the concept of the scene sequel with me as a way to slow down and allow the character, and the reader, to think through what is happening. The scene sequel takes place in four steps.

Step 1: Emotion

This is where the character is reacting to what has happened. In that moment when something happens, we feel it first. Before rationality, before logic, there is emotion.

Step 2: Thought

When the emotion of the moment fades away we begin to think about what has happened. Sometimes logically. Sometimes not. But the intention is to make sense of whatever is going on. What does this really mean? What is the right thing to do? For me, the thought stage is where the character questions what has happened, what should have happened, what might happen. If I do A, will B, C, or Z result?

Step 3: Decision

After the thinking is done, what will you do? Will Sarah run screaming from James when she discovers his secret? Will James tell Sarah what the secret is? This is the moment when the character forms a judgment based on his or her thoughts, making a decision one way or another.

Step 4: Action

This is the result of the decision. Once the decision is made, then the character has to do something about it. Sometimes the decision is to do nothing or to deal with it later, but there should be some culmination to the thinking and the decision.

I have become a huge fan of the scene sequel. A fellow author told me that she kept the formula on a sticky note on her computer for years, and now I do the same. The sequel is relatively simple, just four steps, yet it allows us to understand the characters on a deeper level. I think part of the reason the formula works so well is because it mimics our real-life process of dealing with whatever it is we have to deal with. First we react in an emotional way, then we think about it, then we decide what to do, and then we do it (or we decide to do nothing, which is also a decision).

A scene sequel isn’t the kind of thing you want to use at every little event. But whenever something important is happening, it’s helpful to slow down and allow your characters to feel, think, decide, and do. This will create a richer, fuller story for both your characters and your readers.

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