5 Tips for Writing a First Draft – About Writing: Part 4

Hey guys, this is the latest post in my series About Writing. This week I’m covering writing another subject I touched on briefly in my step-by-step guide to writing your first story. I know a lot of writers struggle to get past their first draft, so I hope this is helpful. If there’s anything specific you’d like me to cover in future, you can drop me a line

Enjoy! 

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1) Write now, edit Later

One of the hardest things about getting through the first draft is separating out your inner writer from your inner editor. Each role uses different parts of the brain and they’d don’t co-operate well. If you let your editor take over while you’re still in first draft, you’ll never make any real progress. Worse still, your inner editor isn’t really going to do a good job until it’s got a complete piece to work with. Worrying too much about sentence structure and characterisation when your plot doesn’t even have an ending is like taking two steps forward and one step back. When you’re writing your first draft, leave your editor at the door. His time will come.

2) Have a plan and know it well

We’ve covered before why it’s so important to have a plan, even a loose one. You’ll encounter seat-of-the-pants writers all the time, but they’ve usually honed their skills over years. Just remember, writing isn’t like following a set of blueprints. You need to be free to write what comes to mind and get a feel for the piece. Your plan should be clear enough, and loose enough that you can learn the major points without too much worry. Then when it comes to writing, you can just sit at the keys without having to refer back to your plan. Get the story clear in your mind, and the words will flow soon after.

3) Don’t be afraid to go off script

A plan is important, but it’s usually a little sterile. They’re created from the spark of a bright idea, but often a plan just hammers out a functioning plot from that premise. During the writing process you’re going to be setting off a lot more sparks in your head, you need to be free to follow these whims if and when they crop up. A plan should prevent you writing yourself into a corner, but if you find it’s inhibiting new ideas, take a detour. Whatever happens, you’re in control, and you can always find a way back the pre-arranged path if you need to. The idea is to always do what’s best for the story.

4) Specifics can wait

Don’t get bogged down in the details. The best thing about a first draft is that nothing is permanent, you can always sort things out later. Can’t decide on a name for a new character? Don’t sit back and mull it over until you find the perfect name, write the first name that comes into your head and move on. The same goes for any little details. Technical details, place names, references, sources for quotes. Whatever it is, it can probably be worked out later. Just write whatever you have now, and mark the place with a little star. When it comes to rewriting, you can take as much time as you like making it perfect.

5) Write unrestrained

Restrictions and confinements are as much a part of good art as unbridled creativity. Painters study colour wheels to learn which colours go together and which don’t, musicians usually confine themselves to musical scales. For a writer, rewriting is very much a process of restricting, restraining and cutting writing to make it read better. In the first draft, however, it’s important for the writer to be as liberated as possible in their approach. This means you should write every sentence as it comes to you. Don’t worry if the language seems corny, or if the subject matter starts to become graphic or distasteful. Don’t worry about subtlety, be totally overt about what you want to say and why. When it comes to rewriting, you’re going to smooth things down and clean things up. Make sure you know exactly what you’re trying to say first.


 

If this article was useful to you, take a look at my other posts exploring the writing process, or check out some of my books on Amazon. Subscribe using the box on the right for more updates and articles.

Five Habits New Writers Should Develop – About Writing: Part 3

Five Habits New Writers Should Develop:

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This is the third in my series About Writing. Check out Part 1 for a step-by-step guide to writing your first short story,  or Part 2 to learn more about planning.

In this part, I’m going to be talking about some really good habits new writers can develop. If you’re serious about writing for a living, it’s important to develop as a writer and develop a fitting work ethic. Read on to learn how!

1) Write every day.

Here it is, folks. Writing 101. Writing every day is one of the most important steps you can take on your path to becoming a writer. It doesn’t really matter what you write, and it doesn’t have to be much. But if you can carve a slot in your daily schedule to sit at your desk at the same time every day and write. Well, you’ll probably make it.

Daily writing has a few key benefits. Firstly, if you’re working on a long piece like a blockbuster novel, you’re going to finish your first draft a lot sooner. Secondly, If you’re between projects or suffering from writers’ block, writing every day will train up your brain so that you get better at writing on command. Our brains are adaptive, they learn, they develop new patterns and ways of thinking, but conditioning your brain this way relies upon routine. If you’re the kind of person who does NaNoWriMo every year that’s great, but if you don’t sit at the keyboard for the other eleven months it’s going to be slow progress.

If you’re new to it, start small. A couple of hundred words a day is enough to get started, work your way up to a thousand if you can. 365 Thousand words written in a year is enough for anyone to make a career out of (with a little practice.) Doesn’t matter if you write fiction, non-fiction, or just want to writing an amazing blog. The practice will help you all round.

Writing every day doesn’t just produce a lot of work, it makes you think and feel like a writer. It makes you better at spotting good writing opportunities, and getting your thoughts from brain to page more clearly. You don’t have to share, or even keep, everything you write, but the experience gained is invaluable.

2) Finish your first drafts.

A lot of new writers have trouble bringing pieces to completion. I had this problem for years and it stopped me from ever trying to write anything really meaty. Too often I would look back on the things I had written and feel like they didn’t come up to scratch. In longer stories, I’d get tied in knots and lose motivation. I didn’t realise at the time how much difference a good plan and rewrite would make for a story.

This can really knock your motivation. You want to move forward, but you’re sitting on piles of unfinished stories. Worse still, you’ve never gone through the process start to finish, you don’t really have much experience with anything but starting first drafts. You need finished stories to work with, and you need the practice bringing those stories to completion.

When you’re writing your first draft, give yourself a loose idea of where your story is going and just write it. Don’t worry about the quality, and don’t worry about fixing mistakes. Think of it like building a house, trying to rewrite during your first draft is like picking out carpets before building the roof. Even if you’re hitting stumbling blocks, push through and finish the draft. You’d be surprised how much you can sort out later.

3) Enjoy reading.

I know this one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many writers don’t really read. None of us reads as much as we’d like, I’m sure. It’s hard to find the time, or a book that really grabs us. There are stories to finish, jobs to do, and when it comes to spare time, the TV is much more passive and inviting. However, reading is a skill like any other. The more you do it, the more you get out of it.

Reading regularly is one of the best ways to develop a natural, confident writing style, and it happens without too much conscious effort from the writer. Reading great books gives you a feel for a well constructed sentence, and brain that is more comfortable with the written word. Books aren’t paced like films, or TV. Absorbing yourself in them with give you a better sense of how a written narrative unfolds. You’ll get a good eye for the type of writing you like, and the chances are someone else will too.

4) Keep rewriting

Rewriting is the real craft of writing.

Writing a first draft is the fun, it’s like doodling or strumming out a song on the guitar. It’s loose, it’s freeing, and it’s all about exploring every opportunity you can. Rewriting is harder. It’s slower work, and it’s all about being tough on yourself. Every does it differently, but the goal is the same. Take your first draft and smooth it out, preserve your strengths, your style, but make the hand of the author invisible. Iron out the creases so that when someone reads your book, it feels right.

It can be tough to sit at your computer and be so harsh on yourself. Worse still, it usually takes multiple passes. Building a strong approach to rewriting is a great skill. Try to separate yourself from your role as the author, look at your text as though it were written by a stranger. Read it and every time you hit a hurdle, smooth it out. Rewrite. Cut and compress. Turn it into a pleasurable activity, read for fun, say the words, find out sentences and make fun of yourself. Be daring, cut entire paragraphs into oblivion if it’ll help your book. Just keep doing it.

If you can be tough on yourself, if you can learn to go back to your book over and over again, writing and rewriting until there’s nothing you can fix, your books will benefit, and so will you.

5) Let your work settle.

If you’ve mastered the previous four habits, then this next one might be a bit of a struggle for you.

This is a recent problem for me. You see, I am an inefficient workaholic. I don’t get as much done as I would if I used my time better, but I really have trouble letting go of jobs. If I post a book freebie, or add something to the blog, I can stop peeping at stats. If I write a story and I’ve really got myself into a rewriting state of mind, I tweak and I tweak. And even when I convince myself to leave it, I think about it and dwell on my mistakes.

There comes a time when you need to let a piece settle. Sometimes it’s easy to know when. If you’ve just finished the first draft of a novel, go away. Leave the book, start something new. Just leave it. If you’re rewriting? That can be trickier, you might need to repeat and repeat the rewriting process until all the kinks are out, but you can get too close too. Sometimes a piece of writing just doesn’t work until you can separate yourself from it. That means stepping back and letting yourself forget about it for a bit.

If you’re having trouble with a piece that just won’t sort itself out, step back. Forget your wrote it, write something else or get away from writing completely for a few days. Give it as long as it needs, it’ll still be there when you get back, and the chances are it won’t be so bad.


 

That’s all for now. If this was useful to you, check out some more articles about writing. Pop your email address in the box on the right hand side of the page to be notified when new posts arrive here. If you’d like to read some of my work, check out my author page on Amazon.

How to Plan a Short Story – About Writing: Part 2

Hey guys, this is the second article in my series about the writing process. If you’re interested in a broader look at the basics, check out Part 1, How to Write Your First Story. This time we’re going to look at planning in a little more detail. This article will show you how to turn a good idea into a great plot, so get out your notepads and follow along. 


 

coyote5Writing without a plan can be difficult, deceptively so, because part of writing well is making the twists and turns of a story look natural and flowing. In a well crafted story the hand of the author should be invisible, leaving the reader to getting fully absorbed in the tale. A well writing book leaves the reader thinking the writing process  was as effortless as reading it was, with one event occurring neatly after another until we come to satisfying end. Some writers do work this way and produce very good books, but for most the results turn out less impressive. Writing without a plan leaves the writer vulnerable to writing themselves into a corner, or losing all sense of pacing completely.

A good plan is like sketching out a canvas before beginning to paint, or framing and lighting a photograph before snapping away. Some free spirits will tell you that writing a plan is constrictive, but done well the process can be liberating. Letting you unleash all your creativity onto your first draft without worrying about how the plot will develop next. There’s nothing to lose, if you find the plan isn’t working for your story any more? Well, you’re not obliged to stick to it.

When people ask me about getting into writing, I always advise them to experiment with short fiction. I like to try out new things in stories around a thousand words because I like the format and you can get results pretty fast. If you read Part 1, then you’ll know I covered my process for a story that length from start to finish, but in this article I’m going to really try to explore planning in more detail. This is less of a step by step guide, but if the advice is useful to you, then you can go back to Part 1 and incorporate all of this into that guide.

A short story shouldn’t take as much planning as a novel (for obvious reasons) but you can still get yourself tied in knots if you aren’t careful. Part of the problem with writing off the cuff is that so often it’s hard to tell the difference between a good plot and a good premise. Having a great idea can send you scurrying to the keyboard, but there’s some development between “what’s the story about?” and “how does the plot unfold?” For example, “dinosaur clone theme park” is a great premise, but it tells you nothing about the plot. It takes a little time, and a little planning to turn that into “a billionaire clones dinosaurs to use as theme park attractions, he invites a small group to tour the park and endorse it, but during a storm the park is isolated and the dinosaurs start to escape.” And that doesn’t even include an ending!

A good way to think of planning is taking a simple premise and extrapolating a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t even need to be much. A functional short story plan can be achieved just by writing a quick couple of sentences that cover the key points of the plot.

When I wrote my story Lift, I started with a simple premise. An old lift (or Elevator for my American readers) is operating on its own in the night. When I sat down to plan, I set my target word count and broke that down into three blocks. I then tried to flesh out a story with that in my head. I knew I wanted a protagonist, someone to hear the lift operate, otherwise it wouldn’t be as spooky as I imagined. I knew I didn’t want to be to overt about the cause, so I came up with an ending I liked, and I went from there:

Block 1, Alfie hears the lift and thinks about hearing it night after night.

Block 2, Alfie gets up the courage to go investigate.

Block 3, resolution. (I’m not going to spoil the whole thing, you can read it here.)

The story only ended up a little over a thousand words, and the plot is hardly elaborate, but by planning out a loose sequence before I started I was free to write the story how I wanted. I really liked the way it turned out.

Most stories in the western literary tradition follow this three act structure. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s the model most TV shows, films, and popular books follow. If you’re reading this, it’s a form that you’re probably unconsciously well versed in, and that means that it’s a great place to start when it comes to planning stories. Formally it’s defined as Setup, Conflict, and Resolution. Though, you’ve probably also heard the “put a man up a tree analogy,” which says you should put a man up a tree, throw stones and him, then get him back down again. Place your characters in a situation, give them problems to overcome, bring them to a resolution. Again, remember that this is just a model. A guide to aid your own storytelling skills. It’s not a blueprint for every piece of writing you do, if you become to rigid about it your stories will feel stilted and contrived.

Personally, I find a character focused interpretation works well. What is your central figure trying to achieve? What stumbling blocks will they face in achieving this goal? How will they overcome this? That makes it sound a little lofty and dry, but it works pretty well for all kinds of stories and characters. Take a typical adventure story like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones wants to find the Lost Ark and rescue his old mentor. This is difficult because Nazis are also looking for the ark and they have kidnapped his mentor. He overcomes this by recruiting his mentor’s daughter, tracking the Nazi’s down, and learning the history of the Ark so when it opens the Nazis are killed and he isn’t. Of course, the film is a more layered and complex narrative, but the broad strokes still fit into this form.Most of the classic action adventure films do. Adopting the form for short works will make it easier for you to keep your plots focused.  When you move on to longer, more intricate stories it’ll still apply.

Plan it more detail if it’s helpful to you. For longer stories, I’ll usually devote a paragraph for each third of the story, and try to flesh out specific events in more detail. The more characters and scenarios you include, the more forethought it’s going to take. There are pitfalls, however. It’s important to leave yourself room to breath. A lot can change in the course of writing a first draft, and it’s important to have key plot points established before you begin, but you need room to work. If you find, over the course of a story, that it makes sense to drop a character, or for people to leave, arrive, change sides or even for the setting to change completely,  this shouldn’t send you completely back to the drawing board. Characters are important because they draw people into your story, but planning is about making your plot work on a functional level.

You probably have a few ideas for short stories already. Try taking one and breaking it down into three sentences representing the beginning, middle, and end. You briefly planned the story from start to finish! Now flesh out the plan a little, rewrite it in a little more detail, a couple of sentences for each act. For a short story, this is probably enough of a plan. For a novel, you can follow the same process, expanding a little more each time. 

The most important advice is always not to worry. At this stage you’re just framework for the story, the adornments come later. A story isn’t finished until you send it out into the world. It’s never too late to fix things, when you’re writing up, you might find your plan wasn’t quite so well structured as you thought it was. Don’t worry about it. You can hammer a lot of things into shape with a good rewrite. Just remember, the better the foundations at the start, the less you’ll have to fix up later.

Now go out and plan some stories, try using the process from Part 1 to write them up into complete pieces, then let me know how you did!


 

If this article was useful to you, then you might enjoy my book Two Cephalopods Walk Into a Bar. It’s a collection of sixteen short stories, written using the same methods I’ve discussed. It’s available on Amazon to read on the kindle, or the kindle app on your smartphone or tablet.

How to write your first story – About Writing: Part 1

This is the start of a series of articles I’ve been meaning to write for some time. I’ve often avoided talking about the writing process because, having read so many great books by great authors on the subject, it’s always felt a little presumptuous to butt in and say “I have opinions on writing too.” Still, enough people have asked me about why I write, how I write, and what it’s like publishing through KDP, that I’ve decided to just push ahead and do it. And what better place to start than at the beginning. 

How to Write Your First Story.

The biggest hurdle for a new writer is taking a piece from the blank page to completion for the first time. We’ve all written stories or started the first chapter of long and winding epics, but being able to take an idea from its conception to a finished piece is what separates a hopeful writer from the real thing. The length of the piece is largely irrelevant. What matters is being able to step back from a piece and say that it is complete in itself. Unfortunately too many new writers get completely lost in the process, leaving cluttered desktops of half-finished ideas, never really know where they went wrong. Not so long ago, that was me. If it sounds familiar to you, read on.

There’s a reason new writers get tangled up in their stories and abandon them. From a young age, we are encouraged to write. Children are natural storytellers, they can fill pages and pages with their imaginative scrawl. Unfortunately, we aren’t taught how to write well until fairly late in our lives. When most start writing seriously, they begin as they had as a child. They write the first words on the page and go from there, expecting a story to spring forth. Then after a couple of sentences, they go back and read, only to find it doesn’t sound as clean, or as clear, as the last published author they read. It can be disheartening, and a lot of people stop there and never start again.

Somewhere along the line, we acquire the notion that writing should come naturally. That those who write well, do so as freely as others write a shopping list. But writing as an art form isn’t like that. It’s just like picking up a paintbrush for the first time, or learning your first notes on an instrument, we can all do these things but that doesn’t mean we can paint or play the saxophone. We have to learn a little craft.

The Stages

Writing is really made up of three stages. Everyone’s approach  is a little different, but if you asked around, I think you’d find broad agreement with this. Each stage requires a different set of skills, and trying to work on them all at once is a surefire way to get mixed up. Try to think of each stage as a different hat, a separate role you step into.

Stage 1 – Planning.

The first step is all about figuring out what you’re going to write. There’s lots of debate as to how much you should plan. Some writers go completely off to cuff, but they’re a rarity. Other plan almost paragraph to paragraph in excruciating detail before they start, but they’re the exception too. Personally, I find I need a loose plan that details what my story is about, how it’s going to evolve as it goes, and the final resolution. If I don’t have one, I write myself into a corner. If I plan too tightly, the writing becomes restrictive and I can’t get into the flow of this better.

For short stories, I usually break the idea down into three acts, and write a paragraph or two in each laying out the narrative. A plan doesn’t need to be clean, or tight, or even well written. It just needs to guide the flow of the story a little so you’re not trying to plot the next twist and turn of your story while you’re trying to write a good scene.

For your first story, try writing out a plan for a 1000 word story. A good start is to divide your plan into three, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Each would be about 333 words long.) For now, ignore the old storytelling tropes like “put a man up a tree”, just get an idea you like and loosely plot it with three acts.  Keep it simple, something too complicated won’t fit well into the word count.

Stage 2 – The First Draft

The first draft is probably the most important part of the process. It is closest to what most people think of when they think of writing, and with good reason. It’s the stage where you’re probably going to be doing the most work. For me, it’s my favourite part of the entire process. I know other writers who find it to be a slow and agonising step, with each word like hard labour. For a first draft, you will take your plan and turn it into a story. This means sitting at your computer, typewriter, pen and paper, or whatever you’re using, and actually writing for significant lengths of time.

This is where a lot of people fall down. Writing can be hard work, and it’s tough to keep your inner editor at bay. Artists of all kinds will tell you, looking back on your own work is extra hard because you can always see all the little flaws. It’s easy to look back your first drafts and hate your work, but you have to ignore that voice. Probably the biggest secret in writing is that all first drafts are terrible. You will hear stories of writers like Harlan Ellison who knocked off masterpieces on the fly, but those guys were magazine writers who hammered out science fiction stories for a penny a word, day after day, week after week. They did it or they went hungry. You learn to be very good, very fast under conditions like that. For the rest of us? First drafts suck, they all suck, and it doesn’t matter, because you never have to show it to anyone.

Writing a good first draft is just about turning the plan into a more elaborate, expressive piece. As a writer, your job is to be completely unrestrained. Take off your editor’s hat completely, and tell yourself that you can write whatever you want, however you want. A lot of what you write will be terrible. A lot of it will be corny, tired rubbish. It’ll be sappy, groan worthy, hackneyed trash, and it’s supposed to be. A first draft is all your ideas, without restraint, or taste, or manners, or patience. Just write the damned thing. We’ll fix it later.

With that in mind, take your plan for a 1000 word story, and write it up into a first draft. It shouldn’t take much time. Writing is a skill you build up over time, typing will come along with it. If you set yourself a little time to work every day, you’ll soon be able to write well over 1000 words in a single sitting. If you aren’t there yet, don’t worry. Write your first act, don’t think too much. Just plug away at it. Then go take a break, think about something else, then come back and do the next. Soon you’ll have all three written. They might be terrible. But they’ll be done.

Stage 3 – Rewriting

Once your first draft is done, you let it settle. Maybe for a day, maybe for a few days, maybe longer. The idea is to come back to the work with a clear head. Now you put on the editor’s hat, the nagging voice that has been trying to drown out everything else through this entire process. Now you re-read your story, and you make changes.

I don’t love rewriting. After the first draft is when the fun ends for me. About the only pleasure I get from rewriting is seeing good writing slowly being brought out of the bad. Again, everyone’s approach is different. Some start almost from scratch, using their first draft as a loose plan to a major rewrite. I don’t have the stamina for that, personally I prefer a read and polish approach. I take a finished first draft, save a backup so I can always go back to it, and the I read the story through. I try to detach myself from it, and read it as I would any book I’d picked up from the shelf. Every time I hit something that doesn’t read right, anything that sticks in my mind as feeling wrong, I rewrite it. When I get to the end of the story, I start again. When I can read the story through comfortably, I pass it on to some other people to read and get some feedback. A word of warning though, it is possible to rewrite too much. To get too caught up in the process, and essentially write your story to death. Draining your own writing of all its character and humanity in an attempt to get the writing cleaner, purer. If you’ve got to the point where you’re just swapping words in and out and it’s not making much of a difference, it’s time to stop.

Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing, describes rewriting as being like a sculptor working stone, with each pass of the chisel bringing out more detail and refinement to the finished piece. It’s an analogy that really works for me, and it keeps me going through the lengthy process.

I’ve gotten better at it as the years have gone by. My first story published, Christmas Past, was a nightmare rewrite. I read and re-read that story so many times for months that I could still tell you every line from the book. Over time, your writing grows and improves. Today my first drafts come out cleaner, and my rewriting goes quicker.

Now it’s back to you. After you’ve given your first draft some time, go back. Read it, re-read it, and edit it as you go. Try to make the writing smooth, make it read well and feel confident and clear. When you’ve subjected it to a re-write or two, let it settle again. Read it after a few days and see how it feels, share it with others and see what they think. It might need another rewrite, but if you can step back and say “I’ve taken this as far as I can” then well do, you have successfully written your first story!