Saturday, November 28, 2009

Crappy First Drafts

If you scroll down a bit, you’ll see one of my favorite quotes from Anne Lamott and her “how to write” book, Bird By Bird. In it, she delivers a lot of good advice for aspiring writers with wit and verve, so much so that you’ll want to read it again just for her sense of humor. Hidden within the chapters of that book is a section on writing first drafts. As a writer of young adult fiction anticipating that some of those young adults (and the parents of the same) will find this blog, I won’t repeat her moniker while discussing this stage of the writing process. Instead, I’ll choose a toned-down equivalent – crappy first drafts.

When I was a young(er), less experienced writer, I labored under the misconception that every time I sat down to write, perfect prose should spring from my mind fully formed onto the page before me. The blank page should transform my words into the finished product automatically, with my pen or keyboard as the conduit to brilliant wordplay, complex characters and engaging plot. The first draft would be the last draft, it would be held up as an example of the greatest tale that modern storytelling has to offer, and that would be that.

I was such a cute little novice writer.

The truth of the matter is, it never happens that way. Never, ever. I would consider myself lucky if I liked half of what ended up on the page, and more often than not, I would be completely unsatisfied with what I’d written. Largely, it was crap, a pale shadow of what I had intended to convey in my writing. It would send my perfectionism into fits of rage that would put the Hulk to shame, and leave me depressed and doubting my ability as a writer.

I’ll let you in on a little secret, one that took me a long time to discover but opened up my writing in all new ways. I’ll even give it some space so this mind-blowing concept doesn’t get lost in the shuffle, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know that elusive key to turning crap writing into great writing.

Ready? Here it is:

Your first drafts are supposed to suck.

Who knew, right?

Seriously, your first draft isn’t supposed to be the be-all, end-all of spectacular writing. (And if it is, keep it to yourself, because you’ll have a legion of jealous writers hunting you down to usurp your magical powers for themselves.) The first draft is supposed to be crap, because that’s the only way you’ll get that story onto the page. Laboring over each chapter or even each line, polishing it to perfection before moving on to the next, is a surefire way to make sure you’ll never finish that story. You just have to let it flow, crap and all, and get to the end before you start polishing the crap to get to the gems within.

And there will be gems. A free flow of ideas, unfettered by perfectionism or your inner critic, will yield so much garbage, you’ll fear the stench will linger around you for years afterward. But hidden within all the crap will be the pieces of genius that will make your story. Some of it will be a shade off from what you had imagined it to be, and that’s okay. Some of it will be a pretty radical deviation from what you wanted it to be, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes these variations will inspire whole new facets of your story that you’d never stumble across otherwise, and these can take your story to the next level of greatness.

The secret is not to find a way to make sure your first draft is your final draft. The secret is to keep writing, to avoid getting discouraged, to stick with your story until the bitter end. Once you’ve got it all down from beginning to The End, you can go back any time you want to change up some words, maybe add in a few details you’d skipped before. You can do all the nitpicky stuff you want at your leisure, because the hard part is done.

I know the crappy first draft is not an easy thing to accomplish. If it was, everyone would be doing it. Rest assured, however, there’s no better way to write your tale, and the satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from getting that crappy first draft onto the page will lift your soul to unimaginable heights.

Then there’s the second draft, but that’s a story for another time…

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's that time of year, when I overindulge in turkey and pumpkin pie with family and friends while watching a plethora of movies. That's right, it's Thanksgiving once again, which means this week's usual Friday entry may be delayed due to food coma. There will be a new entry, but it might be on a Saturday or Sunday.

I hope all of you have a very happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009


No, it’s not baby speak, or technobabble, or any other sort of babble. NaNoWriMo is the abbreviated form of National Novel Writing Month, which takes place throughout the month of November. While I won’t get into the specifics of NaNoWriMo here (you’re better served by following this link to find out more straight from their website), I thought it very timely that my first real entry here should discuss this month-long writer’s challenge and how it helped me reach the next stage in my life as a writer.

Back in 2005, I was struggling with my writing in a way I’d never done before. In hindsight, I was sabotaging my own efforts to launch any attempt at creating a novel-sized work with my own perfectionism, but at the time, it felt as though my inspiration had left me to flounder helplessly in my pursuits. It was the lowest point I’d ever reached in my writing to date, and that dark dissatisfaction at my inability to write wormed its way into other aspects of my life. Sure, I was writing short stories just like I always had, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to write a novel.

I honestly don’t recall now how I’d heard of NaNoWriMo. Maybe it was from a friend online who was trying to get other people into it as well, but how I got to their site isn’t nearly as important as what happened once I got there. The more I read about this challenge – 50,000 words written in the span of a month – the more I wanted to do it, if only to see how far I could get before my perfectionism shut me down. I decided on my story idea, inspired greatly by the flavor of short stories I was writing at the time, and was brainstorming characters and plot all the way through the last week of October. It was all in my head, nothing written down in any way that would give me a head start on the challenge, and all loosely structured to give myself the freedom to go anywhere my characters wanted to go with the story.

As the clock struck midnight, I started writing the opening chapter of my month-long obsession. I set myself word count goals for each day, taking into account the hectic family reunion on Thanksgiving day, and devoted myself to writing at every possible moment. To assist me in writing away from home, I bought a PDA (nicknamed Ziggy) with a bare-bones version of Word on it and a pocket-sized keyboard to go with it. I wrote on the train to work, at lunch, in coffeehouses and bookstores – anywhere I could find a few spare moments to tap out another little facet of my story. The discipline I exercised in that one month was greater than any I’d ever shown in my previous projects. Then again, I never had a community of fellow writers to hold me accountable in my previous projects.

It’s true, my favorite aspect of NaNoWriMo was the write-out. People would announce what coffeehouse they’d go to for a bit of writing and invite others to come out and join them. This flies in the face of the age-old stereotype of the writer locked in his little room, crafting tales in absolute solitude. It’s a stereotype I embody often, but for this one month I was the social writer, sitting with other writers as we all created whole new literary worlds. It was great fun, and immensely helpful to have those of like mind around to bounce the occasional idea off of, or perhaps to inquire about a particular subject or turn of phrase or what have you. That community of writers is at the core of NaNoWriMo and, I believe, the key to its success in many ways.

At the end of November, one day before the end of the month, I crossed the 50,000 word mark. I felt a sense of accomplishment greatly different from any I’d felt from completing a short story. Here, in all its crappy first draft glory, was my first novel, titled Inanimate Gods. It was the most agonizing, wonderful, terrifying, exhausting and amazing feeling in the world to have written my first book, and while I reveled in that achievement, I knew that my journey had only just begun.

But that’s a different story for another time…

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


"For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die."
Anne Lamott, Author, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Friday, November 13, 2009

Prelude to a Blog

Why write a blog? If you’re going to write, my brain rationalizes, why not go to that little menu in the corner of that computer screen right in front of you and pull up that Word document hiding somewhere on your hard drive that contains that young adult modern fantasy trilogy you’ve been slaving over? You need to be writing there anyway, and you’ll be making good progress by forcing yourself through word after word instead of wasting time online.

My brain raises some good points. Sometimes, though, you need to go with your gut and tell your brain that you’ll get back to it later.

Why write a blog? Truthfully, it’s because I need a break from that Word document hiding on my hard drive sometimes, but I still want to write. Better to switch gears, my gut says, than to force yourself to write something when you’re just not feeling it at the moment. It’d be a different case if I was writing something on a deadline, I’m sure, but since I’m not, it isn’t.

To assure my brain that this isn’t just a flimsy excuse for me to jump on the internet instead of doing the “real writing,” I’ll be using this space to chronicle the development of my aforementioned trilogy, from its humble beginnings all the way up to its eventual publishing date, and likely more beyond that. All the highs and lows will find their way in here, and I promise you’ll get plenty of both. In addition, a lot of very good ideas will be recorded here so I don’t forget them. Everything from quotable notes to notable quotes will end up on this blog, covering all manner of topics from story structure to character development and everything in between, as well as bits of inspiration that make the writer's life worth living.

In short, this will be a blog charting my progress as a writer.

Join me for the adventure, won’t you?