First Drafts

The first draft is probably the hardest and most nerve-wracking part of writing a novel. I know in my experience, especially when beginning a novel, I start to have various self-sabotaging thoughts about my work. Is it any good? Who’s going to want to read it, anyway? What if my writing sucks? What if everyone hates it? Is it believable?

If you’re a perfectionist – and even if you’re not, these kind of thoughts can completely put a stop to your efforts. You may be tempted to go back and read what you’ve written and make changes. This is not the time for that. This is the rough draft stage, which means that you need to write and write and not think about what you’re writing. When you’ve completed your novel, then you’re allowed to go back and make your changes.

The reason it’s important to keep going is that if you allow yourself to stop and read what you’ve written, you take yourself out of the action. You put yourself in the mindset of an editor instead of the mindset of a writer. There’s time to be an editor later. Right now, you need to be a writer. You need to be thinking about what happens next, rather than wondering how you can make it better.

The first draft is going to be terrible and full of flaws. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time. But the important part is to finish the first draft. Keep plugging away. Keep focusing on the end result. Remember that nobody is going to read the first draft but you.

A professor once told me that first drafts are meant to be written as quickly and as mindlessly as possible. Don’t think about it. Just write. Worry about spelling later. Worry about how you’re going to word things later. You can always go back and add descriptions and take out adverbs and make things sound better. That’s where your perfectionism will come in handy.

Right now, focus on the magic of the story. Let your imagination run wild. Ignore the words, ignore the flaws, and definitely ignore that annoying little voice in the back of your head that’s telling you it’s no good or that other people might think it’s stupid. This is your chance to be creative. Give the world something they’ve never had before – a story by you. You can do it!

Happy writing!

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Original Detail

I’ve been reading  a lot of books on the craft of writing lately, perhaps as a way to inspire myself to become a better writer.  Throughout this journey, I have discovered a few authors who amaze me.  Natalie Goldberg is one of them.  Her book, Writing Down the Bones has such good advice and encouragement for all writers, not just beginners.  Here is a snippet about original detail.  It was too good to summarize, so I thought I’d share it with you:

Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.  Even if you transplant the beveled windows, slow-rotating Rheingold sign, Wise potato chip rack, and tall red stools from the Aero Tavern that you drank in in New York into a bar in a story in another state and time, the story will have authenticity and groundedness.  “Oh, no, that bar was on Long Island, I can’t put it in New Jersey” – yes, you can.  You don’t have to be rigid about original detail.  The imagination is capable of detail transplants, but using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.  It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build…  Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious.  “Okay, I’m at a wedding.  The bride has on blue.  The groom is wearing a red carnation.  They are serving chopped liver on doilies.”  Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart.  You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redhead mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.

First Sentences

I know we’re way past this, but today I started thinking about first sentences in novels.  They’re what pull you in to the story.  They set the tone for the entire book.  They’re like the entryway of a house.  They greet you, they give you a brief feeling of what the rest of the house is going to be like, and they let you know whether you should be taking your shoes off or not.

While the logical thing would  be to begin at the beginning, first sentences seem to have the most appeal when they begin in the middle of things.  While “once upon a time” works for fairytales, it doesn’t always have the draw that we look for in a novel.  Some of the best books I’ve read begin where the action starts, and makes it impossible for me to put it down.

Let’s take for example Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Her novel begins with: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”  The reader’s immediate response is to read on.  Who is Giovanni?  Is he going to kiss her?  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think her opening line would have been nearly as effective if it had begun with her living a normal suburban life with her husband, telling the story in chronological order.  Bringing Giovanni in right away gives it an edge of sexiness – a little bit of excitement.  It’s brilliant.  Fortunately for her, the rest of the story follows suit.

Another great example: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  “When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why.”  Doesn’t this instantly make you wonder why she is wondering about babies?  If this story had begun from the beginning, it would have started before her birth, and wouldn’t have created such a sense of mystery.  This opening creates questions in our minds and urges us to read on.

Here are some other great openings.  Hopefully some of them will inspire you.

The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov

They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.

The Blue Men by Joyce Williams

Bomber Boyd, age thirteen, told his new acquaintances that summer that his father had been executed by the state of Florida for the murder of a Sheriff’s deputy and his drug-sniffing German shepherd.

Gesturing by John Updike

She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.

Covering Home by Joseph Maiolo

Coach discovered Danny’s arm when Danny’s parents were splitting up at the beginning of the season.

Exchange Value by Charles Johnson

Me and my brother Loftis came in by the old lady’s window.

Judgment by Kate Wheeler

When Mayland Thompson dies he wants to be buried with the body of a twelve-year-old girl.

The Remission by Mavis Gallant

When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera.

Inventing the Abbots by Sue Miller

Lloyd Abbot wasn’t the richest man in our town, but he had, in his daughters, a vehicle for displaying his wealth that some of the richer men didn’t have.

The Lost Cottage by Davide Leavitt

The Dempson family had spent the last half of June in a little rented cottage called “Under the Weather,” near Hyannis, every summer for twenty-six years, and this year, Lydia Dempson told her son, Mark, was to be no exception.

Nickel a Throw by W.D. Wetherell

These are the things Gooden sees from his perch eight feet above the dunking tub at the Dixford Congregational Church’s Charity bazaar.

Medley by Toni Cade Bambara

I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The first children who saw the dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea let themselves think it was an enemy ship.

The Winter Father by Andre Dubus

The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.

Appaloosa by Sharon Sheehe Stark

My father’s girl friend’s name was Delores and my mother went by Dusie because she was one.

A School Story by William Trevor

Every night after lights out in the dormitory there was a ceremonial story-telling.

Forgiveness in Families by Alice Munro

I’ve often thought, suppose I had to go to a psychiatrist, and he would want to know about my family background, naturally, so I would have to start telling him about my brother, and he wouldn’t even wait until I was finished, would he, the psychiatrist, he’d commit me.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.

Some of these examples are borrowed from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Breaking the Rules

I broke my own rule and read over some of what I had written.  This turned out to be a really bad idea, because before I knew it, I was thinking “this is garbage,” and totally rewriting my most recent three chapters.  This wouldn’t be so bad if I had only corrected spelling and grammar and left it at that, but I took the story in an entirely different direction than I had planned, and now I’m left wondering which direction I should continue.  Either way, it’s going to make a whole lot of extra work for me.  Why didn’t I just resist the urge to peep?

Anyway, the last couple of days have been very slow in the writing department because of my breakdown, and my creativity doesn’t seem willing to allow me to write anything more in this story until I’ve chosen which path I’m going down.  After all, it would be pointless to finish both, wouldn’t it?

Elements of a Best-Seller

Today I want to discuss the elements of a bestseller. Obviously, not all bestsellers can be considered great literature, but what most of them have is a story that keeps you hooked and wanting to read more. The way they accomplish this is by keeping the story moving. We’ve talked in the past about keeping the reader in the action, and that’s exactly what you’ll notice when you’re reading a bestseller.

Let’s take, for example, the Twilight series. Whether you love them or hate them, you have to admit that Stephenie Meyer is pretty good at keeping the reader caught up in the story. She throws in little bits of suspense here and there to keep the reader hooked. And it works. Even though nothing too bad ever happens to any of the major characters, there is always the threat of something happening to them that looms over the story, keeping the plot moving. That’s what you want to do in your story.

Keep in mind, though, that your readers trust you, and it might not be the best idea to keep foreshadowing action without ever letting it occur. This can become frustrating for your readers after awhile. So plan some kind of action for your story, and write towards it. I once heard someone say that you should always be writing toward your climax. So it might be a good idea to figure out what your climax is going to be right away. It will give you a direction to work in, and not only will that give your story momentum, it will keep you writing.

Probably the most important component of a bestseller is believable characters. Not all best sellers are well written, but they do have a magical way of connecting in an intimate, personal level with the audience. This is accomplished through characters that the reader can relate to. The author Peter Rubie, once wrote that “the story is not about what happens, but the character to whom it happens.” You might have a good plot, but if the reader doesn’t care about the character it happens to, your have nothing.

Make your characters feel like real people. Give them thoughts and feelings and flaws. Make them people that your readers will like and understand. Use your story as a way for your audience to get to know your characters gradually. If you put everything you know about a character right in the beginning, a reader is going to wonder: “why should I care about this character, anyway?” Think about it this way – when you make a friend, you don’t find out everything about them right away. Little pieces of their lives unfold naturally over time as you get to know them. It works this way with characters, too.

Procrastination

Procrastination is one of the biggest reasons first drafts don’t get finished. I know this first hand. I can’t even tell you how many stories I’ve started and then never finished. I think the reason for this is simple – I would begin to think of it as work, rather than entertainment.

The minute writing stops being fun, it becomes a chore, and therefore, you’ll be less likely to do it. The way I’ve gotten past this is just as simple – look at writing as entertainment. Once you get into your story and the characters become real to you, you’ll begin to look forward to sitting down every day to your writing. To me, it’s like watching my favorite TV show, only I get to decide what happens and how it ends. To me, this is more fun than any other thing.

Sure, it’s easy to get sidetracked making dinner, or playing with your kids, or going out with friends, or even watching the latest episode of Lost. There will always be distractions. That is unavoidable. What you can avoid is letting these distractions ruin your chances of becoming a writer. Don’t let them take away from your writing time. If your writing time is every evening at 7, but you end up getting distracted and watching American Idol, maybe it would help to change your writing time. At which point during your day do you feel least distracted? Maybe it’s first thing in the morning before you do anything else. Maybe it’s sitting down for an hour before bed and getting a few pages finished. Any time is better than no time. Maybe you can only afford to spend 20 minutes a day on writing. That’s okay, too, as long as you get in the habit of doing it every day.

What works best for me is writing right before bed. Usually I’ll go to bed an hour or two early, and bring my laptop. I seem to do my best writing at this time of day. Maybe it’s because I’ve had all day to think about what I’m going to write. By the time 9 o clock rolls around, I can’t wait to climb into bed with my laptop and write for a couple of hours.

Another thing to consider – how exciting is your story? If you’re having a hard time getting into your story, perhaps the reader will, too. You might want to consider adding an element of excitement to it. Every story can benefit from a little action, or a little romance, or a little mystery. If you’re excited to write about it, your readers will be excited to read it, too.

Happy writing!

Writing Challenge – Day 3

Today is Day 3 of the Novel Writing Challenge. How is everybody doing? So far, I have 13 pages finished. This is proving to be easier than I thought.

Today, I want to talk about first drafts.

The first draft is probably the hardest and most nerve-wracking part of writing a novel. I know in my experience, especially when beginning a novel, I start to have various self-sabotaging thoughts about my work. Is it any good? Who’s going to want to read it, anyway? What if my writing sucks? What if everyone hates it? Is it believable?

If you’re a perfectionist – and even if you’re not, these kind of thoughts can completely put a stop to your efforts. You may be tempted to go back and read what you’ve written and make changes. This is not the time for that. This is the rough draft stage, which means that you need to write and write and not think about what you’re writing. When you’ve completed your novel, then you’re allowed to go back and make your changes.

The reason it’s important to keep going is that if you allow yourself to stop and read what you’ve written, you take yourself out of the action. You put yourself in the mindset of an editor instead of the mindset of a writer. There’s time to be an editor later. Right now, you need to be a writer. You need to be thinking about what happens next, rather than wondering how you can make it better.

The first draft is going to be terrible and full of flaws. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time. But the important part is to finish the first draft. Keep plugging away. Keep focusing on the end result. Remember that nobody is going to read the first draft but you.

A professor once told me that first drafts are meant to be written as quickly and as mindlessly as possible. Don’t think about it. Just write. Worry about spelling later. Worry about how you’re going to word things later. You can always go back and add descriptions and take out adverbs and make things sound better. That’s where your perfectionism will come in handy.

Right now, focus on the magic of the story. Let your imagination run wild. Ignore the words, ignore the flaws, and definitely ignore that annoying little voice in the back of your head that’s telling you it’s no good or that other people might think it’s stupid. This is your chance to be creative. Give the world something they’ve never had before – a story by you. You can do it!

Happy writing!

Writing Challenge – Day 2

Hello writers!

Today is day 2 of the first Three Hundred Pages Writing Challenge. I hope you’ve all gotten a good start on your novel!

I did the math yesterday, and to write 300 pages in 92 days, that’s only 3.26 pages a day. I think we can all handle that. And if you take a break for a day, that’s still only six and a half pages to do the next day.

I’m the kind of writer that once I get going, I don’t want to stop, so I was a little over-ambitious and got 10 pages done yesterday.

How much have all of you done so far?

Writing a Novel – What to Avoid

State of Being Verbs

Avoid using the “to be” verbs which are: am, is, are, was, were, be, been and being. Any sentence that uses these verbs is “telling,” rather than “showing,” which is what we want. For example, instead of saying: “Sally is a funny girl,” you could say “I like Sally’s sense of humor,” or “Sally makes me laugh.” Even better, you could portray her being funny – maybe have her telling jokes, or making witty comments, which will completely negate the need to say she is funny in the first place, because the reader will already know.

Excessive Adverbs

Try to avoid using adverbs in your writing, especially after dialogue. An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, other adverbs, or various other types of words, phrases, and clauses, and typically are just adjectives that end with the suffix -ly. They will distract the reader from your story. There are too many instances of “he said incredulously,” or “she said sarcastically.” A good story or dialogue will convey the tone you’re trying to create without the use of an additional descriptor. The reason adverbs are bad, is that they draw attention outside of your story. It’s important that the reader does not feel the author’s presence but instead, should be able to absorb the story without distraction.

Excessive Description

Description is very different from specific details, which are necessary in a good novel. Description, however, can slow down your narrative. Use this rule of thumb to decide whether to provide a description in your writing – Does it relate to the plot and advance the story? If the answer is no, cut it. Writing is all about moving the plot along, and if you pause to provide a two page description of a building, no matter how lovely, you are stopping the action and taking the reader out of your story. Pace is everything. Stick with the action.

Avoid Generalizing

In contrast to excessive description, specific details are very important to a story. Taking a moment to name a street, or a restaurant, or to briefly describe a dress, makes all the difference to your readers. I recently read a book, which I won’t name, that didn’t provide any details. It made me so mad! She talked about a dress she had chosen to wear out that evening, but didn’t say a thing about it! She could have said it was a little black dress, or a slinky red evening gown, or a floral sundress. The fact that she neglected to provide such important details really took away from her story. It made it less believable. Most readers do have some imagination, but you have to give them something to work with. Expecting them to come up with all the details themselves is unprofessional, and frankly, a bit lazy.

Writing a Novel – How to Begin

With the first Three Hundred Pages Novel Writing Challenge coming up March 1st, I’ve been thinking about ways to make the process of beginning a novel much easier.

When you begin to write a novel, you may already have something in mind. Maybe you’ve had a story in your head for months or years, just waiting to get out. Or maybe there’s a certain character you’ve been creating over time, and you’d like to create a story around him or her. Maybe you have nothing in mind, and have just always wanted to write a novel. Well, here’s your chance!

There are two types of novels: story driven and character driven. Story driven novels happen when you have a specific story you’d like to tell, and you let the plot set the pace of the novel and define the characters. Character driven novels are the opposite – you begin with a character or several characters, and you build the story around them, based on how you feel they would act or behave.

In either case, I believe it is important to get to know your characters very well.

If you don’t know how to begin and have no ideas for a story or characters, here’s the easiest way to start:

1. Decide WHO you want your story to be about, rather than WHAT you want it to be about.

2. Begin to define your character – what does he or she look like? How does he or she speak? What does he or she like? What is his/her name? Write down everything you can think of about this character. You can always go back and change things once you begin writing. This is just to give you an idea of who this “person” is.

3. Once you have your main character, you can begin to define your secondary characters. Decide what their relationship will be to the main character, and write down everything you can about them. Again, you can always go back and change things later.

4. After you’ve come up with a few characters, you may be starting to have ideas of what will happen to these characters. At the very least, you must have an idea of the type of novel this will be. Will it be love story? A mystery? A thriller? All you have to do now is start writing, and let the characters guide the story. The better you get to know your characters, the more you’ll realize that the story is already there, you’re just writing it down.

5. Remember to be true to your characters. If your main character is scared of the dark, you wouldn’t have her going outside at midnight to investigate a noise she heard. Your readers will pick up on this, and you will lose credibility with them.

Happy writing!