Monday, October 24, 2011

Why First Drafts are the Best Drafts

I'll probably get run out of town for saying this, but I love first drafts. They're by far the best drafts I ever write of anything. No, they're not grammatically correct, and granted, they go on and on in weird directions that often, upon second glance, make no sense. But still, I love them more than any other draft, even the final one.

Let me explain.

Writing a first draft is about saying "yes." Most of the time, we are forced to say "no" -- when shopping, when taking on projects at work, when trying to decide between seeing a movie or getting coffee. "No" shapes our experience much more than "yes" does, overall.

And yet, when we sit down to write, we can say "yes" to anything. ANYTHING! Think about that for a minute. True, you don't want to start off writing a book about werewolves and end up writing about the stock market crash of 1929. That would be a pain in the ass.

But barring that, you can write about anything you want. So why would you censor yourself? I see authors outlining their brains out, and I'm not saying it's a bad thing to do in general (I mean, truth be told, I write up general outlines when I write), but my advice is to not let outlines box you in too much.

For instance, with the wip I'm working on now, I deviated from my outline on page ten or so. I refer to it now and again, but for the most part, I haven't looked back. I realized early on that most of the groundwork I'd laid no longer served the story that was emerging from my imagination.

And that's the important thing to remember, in my opinion: an outline should serve your imagination, help to organize it a little better. It shouldn't work the other way around, where your imagination has to take a back seat to rigid organization.

Saying "yes" means that you have to be ultimately flexible, able to accept new ideas and write them down without questioning them. And also, you have to be prepared for your draft to take longer than one associated with a strict outline would take.

But what you get in return is so much cooler.

I barely ever question ideas in a first draft. They come from a mysterious room in the dungeon of my brain, from behind a door that's been bricked over and covered with wallpaper. Somehow or other, little chinks of mortar have chipped off, and when I write, a faint breeze starts to blow out of the room and straight into my fingers.

This air has been bottled up for so long, told that it must live in darkness at the bottom of a pit ten thousand feet deep, that you can barely feel it coursing through you. But it's there, all the same. So what a pity it would be stamp it out.

A lot of people never make it out of the first draft stage. I've abandoned lots of projects before finishing even one draft. We all do it. And I think I've mostly done it because I didn't see how I could finish those drafts, given the chaos that had broken out in them. But looking back, I really wish I'd hung in there, because there's no telling how beautiful they could've been if I'd just kept opening myself up to what they could become.

Say "yes" as much as you can, especially in your first draft. You'll end up with lots of unusable stuff, but you'll also end up with cool ideas that never would've occurred to you had you stuck close to your outline.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nostalgia, Thy Name is Autumn

It's turning out to be a gorgeous fall here in DC. This town, to my mind, is a gross, cement-lined mosquito nest of seething humidity for 3/4 of the year. On top of that, it's filled with busy-body technocrats who dress head-to-toe in black/gray/grayish black clothes. Honestly, you sometimes don't know whether you're following a funeral procession or people on their way to work.

But come fall each year, a cool wind blows in, the trees blaze up into reds and golds, and the whole place becomes awesome.

Nostalgia, thy name is Autumn. Hell yes it is.

I've always liked the Autumn. It's a time of death before renewal. There's something instructive in that. Something that lets us know on an intuitive level that after the Fall comes a rebirth of sorts. It unsettles us with its burst of beauty, its shrivel and decay, and its promise of a new, brighter world to come.

As authors, it's important for us to understand nostalgia. We should respect it, not toss it aside as base sentimentality. Because to me, the best books tap a reader's well of pleasant recollections, most especially from childhood. We should open our minds to what we've loved and lost, and try to recapture it in our writing. Because others will sense this sharp, sweet sense of loss too, and it will remind them of their own humanity if we do it right.

Communining with others in this most human way is what great writing is all about. Whether you're writing a post-modern novel or a picture book, your vulnerability has to be on every page, in every word. And nothing will make you feel more vulnerable than the pinch of nostalgia.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Don't Force Your Ending

That's what I keep telling myself. I want so SO badly to be done with the first draft of my wip--I'm in the midst of writing my first YA fiction fantasy saga-ish book right now--but, alas, I'm not finished.

I'm ALMOST finished. But I haven't entered the last period, haven't printed off drafts for my beta readers to sink their teeth into yet. I'm writing the penultimate battle scene at the moment, and there are still two major sequences to go after that.

While it would be super convenient to just hurry up and contrive some ending and slap it on there, I can't allow this. Because books, once they get going, take on a life of their own, and you cannot suffocate that life. It just has to wind down of its own accord.

And let me tell you, it's taking its sweet time.

I can feel I'm close. It's kind of like at night, when all of the lights are off. You stick out your hand because you know the bathroom door is close, it's only a few inches away, but you can't quite see it.

Not to equate my book with a bathroom. But you get the point. If you're in a similar position as me, realizing that even once you finish your book you still have months of edits ahead of you and, doggone it, wouldn't it be better to just finish the draft and get it into your readers' hands asap?--don't succumb to this urge.

Finish what you started. Give your book/story/play some space and let it end the way it's supposed to end. Otherwise, your readers will sense that you tacked on an ending. And that's a huge mistake because it makes it seem like either A.) you don't have a very firm grasp on the internal universe of your story, B.) you're in it for the money and are just cranking stories out like some book-writing machine, or C.) you just got bored and said, "To heck with it."

Why would a reader stick with your book if you weren't even willing to? Haste makes waste. So do the right thing!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Ok, I'm officially into Halloween now. Not sure why, but it just hit me that Halloween is exactly 20 days away!!

Friday, October 7, 2011

What to Do When You Feel Like Giving Up


Keep fighting.

Unless it's driving you crazy, then take a break. But don't give up entirely. If you're breaking your neck to write three or four blog posts a week, just write two. What's the big deal? Will the world not be as interesting without one or two of your blog posts each week? No it will not.

Because the world is just fine without you.

But that's all it is. Just fine. You'll make it much, much better by producing your art, but let's face it: the world will not explode into a billion bitty pieces because you didn't tell us how many pages you wrote last night.

Which is liberating! It's not negative in the least. Nope, it takes all the stress away. I think when people get all stressed and down about not having achieved enough, they forget that even when people achieve a lot, these achievements may linger on in the memories of their kids or friends or colleagues, but after they die or go insane, unless they're very, very lucky, not many people will remember what they did.

After all, do you know who invented the can opener or who developed modern atomic theory? No? These were massively important inventions. And no one even pays homage to these titans anymore.

Sure, you might write something that transcends the ages, but odds are you won't. And even if you do, you may be ridiculed in your own lifetime, or, if the stars are shining on you, your books may go unread only for some nerd to stumble upon your masterwork in the future and, through sheer force of nerdy intellectual will, get you some mad props.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you why you should write—there are lots of reasons to write. But for me, I couldn't bank on the slim hope of getting famous or rich from writing to sustain me spiritually. I want to write for the sheer happiness it (hopefully) will bring people. That may sound hippyish and cloying, but it's true. What other more tangible goal can there realistically be?

The point here is not to give up. For even trying to become a published writer, you are awesome. Scale back the work if you have to; there's no shame in that. Heck, I only blog twice a week nowadays. No, I'm not burning the world up with followers (thanks, by the way, to my loyal band of 6!), but I also don't have a product to sell right now (am working on that), so whatever. Forcing yourself to spew up content is like telling an elephant to sit on an almost-empty tube of toothpaste: sure, something will come out, but it won't be much, and you will have angered a three-ton animal in the process.

I used to think I had to be all over Twitter every third second in order to catch eyeballs, but the weird thing is, when I take a couple of days off from tweet-land, I often come back to find that I have more followers.

Sure they're spambots...but they count too, dammit! Don't you dare dismiss spam. And that's not entirely true, some of them are actual people. So.

Don't give up, intrepid ranger! If you just can't think of a subject to fill your weekly quota, embed a cool-ass YouTube video. Or a timely picture like this one. Do something to let us know you're still kicking.

Don't quit!!

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Monday, October 3, 2011

My Writing Playlist #2

Hi, all. Every once in a while, I list a few of the artists/songs I've been listening to lately while writing. Maybe this will help you get into a good head-space while you write your WIP. I'm working on a fast-paced young adult fantasy novel at the moment, so I need lots of high-octane tunes to get me through my writing day

Note: I don't like a lot of lyrics with my tuneage, especially when I'm trying to write a complicated scene, so I've found that these artists are great for that. If there are lyrics involved, the singers' voices are sweet and soft and don't elbow in on my thoughts.

Just click on the little icon at the end of each description to be taken to sites where you can hear samples of the music. Some of these albums are better for listening to while writing certain scenes than for others. Here goes:

1.) Loud Pipes by Ratatat

This NYC duo really hit a nerve with me. It's got driving undertones that really help me when pacing a scene where tempo builds to a crescendo. But, oddly, at other times it soothes me so that I can write more tender scenes. The song sort of reflects whatever mood you're in, or what mood you need to be in. If you know you have to write a hard-driving scene on a certain day but just don't feel up to it, pop this in your iPod and give it a try.


2.) Sweet Disposition by The Temper Trap

Going against my pre-stated disdain for lyrics in songs (I know: a writer who dislikes lyrics? Weird, I admit), I love this song. The dude sings so lightly through most of it, and in such a weird register that I only hear as background noise, that this is perfect writing material. Their stuff varies widely, and is uneven quality-wise, but this song, to me, is fantastic. There's something about it that reminds me of an ending song for a movie, something that signifies a denoument, so it's good to listen to if you're trying to wrap a scene up and can't figure out how.


3.) Animals by Miike Snow

I know nothing about this guy (so I have no idea why he spells his name with two "i"'s), but stumbled across him while listening to Pandora. I couldn't tell you a single lyric from any of his songs; it's great for background writing music, because, for whatever reason, his music puts me at ease. Good for writing upbeat or whimsical scenes.

last fm

4.) Is There a Ghost by Band of Horses

Leave aside the atrocious video here and the godawful group name (it reminds me of a bunch of My Pretty Ponies running through a sun-dappled forest) and this music is oddly hypnotic. Good for writing transitional scenes where time is passing by because it's got a lyrical, time-gone-by feel to it.

last fm

This is just a brief sample of what I've been listening to lately. Hopefully these songs help you relax and write well. Do you have any suggestions for good writing music? Let me know in the comments section!

A pick-me-up

Can't seem to get enough of this song. It's by Ratatat.