All First Drafts are Shit

Ernest Hemingway said “the first draft of anything is shit”. And I’m not starting any nerdy lit wars, but he’s kind of a big deal. He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to writing, at least.

This has been my mantra while writing my current novel — which I feel comfortable calling a novel rather than just a work-in-progress (even though it is) because I freaking FINISHED A FIRST DRAFT EVERYONE.

This may not seem like a big deal, but trust me when I tell you this is huge. Approximately 50,000 words relating to the same story with a beginning, middle and end. Chock-full of shoddy writing and more than a few space-saving brackets where things need to be fleshed out. But DONE.

The key was figuring out how to turn off my editor-brain, because that’s what’s always hung me up before. To do this, once I finished writing for the day, I was done with that section. I could not reread it or tweak it anymore. I created a section for notes each day, where I would put ideas for changes, things to research, etc, so when I go back to do my first round of edits (which I am so excited for it’s almost embarrassing), I’ll be able to see if the changes fit and remember what else I might be able to add.

Like I said, at some points I put in brackets — a lot of points, actually. Almost every minor character in my book is currently known simply as [X], because I’ll need to research typical names and did not want to get sucked down a research rabbit hole. I left some really shitty lines like “we all fight a lot and people die right and left” because I will need to watch videos and read articles to accurately depict battle scenes, but also needed to move the narrative of the first draft along.

But the point is, it is done and I am floating on a high like I have not known before.

And now I may be able to return some focus to this blog, which I really do love.

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Writing and Stuff

I’ve been writing a lot lately, which is really great except that pretty much all my creative juices are going into my story and I have nothing left over for this blog. That makes me feel guilty, because this blog is a commitment to myself as much as it is entertainment for my readers, so I’m sorry for being a little more absent lately. It’s for a good cause.

I recently read Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis and it was really freaking good. So many of the chapters resonated with me, but the part that stuck with me the most was about how easily we tend to flake on ourselves. I really hate the idea of being seen as flaky — I used to have a problem saying no, then feeling really bad when I had to cancel last minute. Now, I’ve learned to only agree to things I’m confident I can see through, and to be honest with myself and my friends if I can’t manage something, whether physically or mentally. Still, when it comes to making commitments to myself, I flake all the time. It’s as if I don’t matter to myself as much as literally anyone else — and that’s something else I’m becoming more aware of. I need to value myself and my time.

Another thing she said — which I’ve written out and taped to the ceiling over my bed — is that no one else has power over your dreams. Only you can decide to give up. And, in case her readers still need to hear it from someone else, Rachel says “You do not have permission to give up on your dreams!”

Writing is hard and exhausting and exhilarating. This time, when I sat down, I looked at why I keep giving up sporadically. I am 100% an editor-writer. I struggle with getting a first full draft written because I constantly reread what I’ve already written and tweak and change and start again. This time, I refused to do that.

This time, I start writing around where I left off the day before. If I don’t remember for sure where that is, I’ll jot a brief summary of what I think that last scene was before jumping in. If I can’t think of a name or term, I write (X) and keep moving. If I can’t think of anything amazing, I will write what literally needs to happen.

He says something else that makes me laugh, and I feel a little better.

When I *finally* get to turn my editor brain on (draft 2, and not before), I will have so much fun re-imagining the scene over and over until I know exactly what he says that makes the character laugh, and I’ll be able to show her feeling better about their situation. For now, I’m writing a first draft full of placeholders.

It’s the only way I know how to get to the end of a fully formed book. In the past, I’ve left bullet points or synopses before moving on, but to me, that doesn’t count as finished. This way, the story may be full of shoddy writing, but it will be a fully formed story nonetheless.

So that’s what I’m up to. I’ll try to get a few more posts in here and there, but for the most part, I’m committing to the characters I’ve been following around for almost five years now. I owe it to them — to me — to get a full version of their story on paper.

Writing Procrastination

“I’m going to write today.”

Easier said than done. Anxiety hides behind tiny rituals that keep me from spilling my imagination onto the page.

I settle on the couch, but I’m too cold, so I have to get my favorite slippers. I remember I jotted down some great ideas yesterday, so I should definitely read through those before getting started. While I’m at it, why not refresh my memory on the other scene variations I’ve already written?

Not every page in the notebook on my lap has been dedicated to my current work in progress. But it’s so fun to read through notes for other stories, jotted quotes, journal entries, doodles of potential titles. Here’s a fun finding — a future book dedication:
For my brother in law, who told me once I should write something and charge everyone a billion dollars. You might have meant a manual for checking electrical outlets, and this probably won’t cost a billion dollars, but I mean, close enough, right?

I wish I could remember the joke about electrical outlets, but either way, I’d better get on writing that bestseller so I can really carry that joke through to the finish line.

Now I’m getting too hot. My throat is dry — can’t expect myself to write without proper hydration!

Ok, back to the task at hand. OH WAIT! I had a GREAT idea for a spin-off story in the shower…I’ve got to jot down what I can remember about that plot…

OKAY! Time to open up the laptop and churn out a masterpiece. BUT not until I’ve got my playlist all figured out, because there’s no way I’m writing without some awesome tunes to pump me up. I love Spotify suggestions…I’ll just add several to my queue so I can discover some new inspiring songs.

Crap, I just wasted 15 minutes scrolling through songs and adding them to different writing playlists. I need to buckle down. Now, which playlist best fits what I’m hoping to write about today…ah, I’ll just start with one and probably change my mind five times and waste another ten minutes but, I mean, this is really important.

Is my husband making tea? Tea would be really great — very author-like.

Stop — no more procrastinating. I’ve had a lot of good ideas and need to take advantage of this gray, sleety day to make some progress.

After I finish this blog post…

Rough Draft

I am a rough draft of an unfinished story.

More scribbles and scratch-outs than fully formed pages.

Rearranged and torn in two,

Rewritten and crossed-out and written anew.

I am wrinkled nights and broken mornings,

Blackened fingers and crumpled words.

Half-thoughts and almost-ideas left for tomorrow.

I am a page, bleeding ink,

Splotched with tears and tea-stains.

Spiral bound with bent wires and torn covers.

Loved and hated, fiercely possessed and easily discarded.

I am guarded secrets and hushed truths,

Hidden beneath layers of fiction.

I gather dust on the bottom shelf of an over-stuffed bookcase,

Forgotten indefinitely.

I am a burst of inspiration,

A frenzy of black and white smudged with gray fingerprints.

I am midnight mac-n-cheese and ice cream for breakfast.

I am candle smoke and flickering flame.

I am the cramps in fingers

Squeezed too long around an unforgiving pen.

I am every ache along every vertebra of a bent body.

I am drooping eyelids and lengthening shadows.

I am hope—caffeine-fueled and desperate.

I am defeat—emptiness and melting pillows.

Scalding showers washing sobs and ideas down a drain already clogged with shattered dreams.

I am pride and I am shame.

I am everything that could be and nothing that ever was.

I am a half-formed story, waiting for someday.

The Dark Side of Writing

This is about to get really real. Maybe too real. “Over-sharing”. But it’s been inside me for a long time and needs to get out. And maybe someone else needs to hear it. Maybe we aren’t alone, after all.

Sometimes, my dreams of getting published seem hopeless. And not because “so many people are trying, why should I succeed?” or “I’m just not good enough.” Maybe a little of the fear comes from the second, but not for the obvious reason that I think my writing is crap. Semi-objectively, my writing is decent. I’ve written some brilliant things I’m super proud of, and some really awful things that make me cringe just thinking about, but most of my writing falls into the category of “good enough” to be published. I notice weak writing — recognize my own short-comings — in published books all the time, so why not me?

No, I’m hopeless because I hit these blocks that are so much more than “writer’s block” the way I understand it. I don’t know how other writers experience it, so maybe I’m not as alone as it feels. The term “writer’s block” seems so benign. Like “eek, I’m stuck, time to brainstorm” or “wrote myself into a corner” or “let’s take a walk to clear my mind and come back fresh.”

That’s not me.

When I hit a block, words desert me and I tumble face-first into a rock-strewn canyon. It’s dark and frigid and lonely, even walking hand-in-hand with my lover in the sunshine. A revelation smothers me, replacing the marrow in my bones with a certainty that I am nothing and will never amount to much more.

It’s not so much that no one will care what I have to say. That fear is quiet and constant, like a cat sleeping at my feet, occasionally hopping onto the table to flick my nose with its tail.

No, the writing depression is darker, more personal. It assures me that I do have a story worth telling; it encourages me that someone — maybe even just one person — needs what I have inside me, but I’ll never find the words to tell it. I am my own worst enemy and the only thing standing in the way of greatness.

If only I could shed the weaker parts of me. If only my brain could leave my damaged heart and trembling fingers for a stronger body. Or maybe it’s my heart — tender and full — that needs to escape the dictator in my brain, unfeeling and inconsiderate of the words trying to bleed freely. Maybe my skin is trapping the story, pressing it against muscle and bone instead of allowing it to burst into the world. If only I’d been born someone else, I wouldn’t have this problem. My imagination inside a stronger vessel would find its purpose.

In this dark place, I sit on the cold ground, my back pressed to the ravine wall, staring at characters I love more than life. Apologies whisper past my lips: “You should be real,” I tell them, “not me.” It isn’t fair — they have words to share, but a worthless creator who can’t hear them.

The hopeless void stretches in front of me, with no end in sight. I read other people’s words and know I could have said it better, if only my brain worked harder, if only my heart felt more (felt less?), if my hands held the pen with more authority, if my soul didn’t smother my words.

My chest aches, dull and hollow, like an empty mussel on the beach at low tide, picked over and baked. I hunker down to wait it out, desperately clinging to the fragile hope that — someday — words will return, and it will feel as if I could never fail.

I’ll ride that high as long as I can, until, inevitably, I tumble to the ground again. I could walk away from writing, but in the words of Anne Shirley: “I can’t help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It’s as glorious as soaring through a sunset… almost pays for the thud.”

 

Writing Soundtrack

I’ve read so many books and articles and blog posts full of writing tips. Tips to focus, tips for time management, tips for character development. So many of them recommend silence while writing. If you must listen to music, it can’t have words, or if there are lyrics, they should be in a language other than one you speak.

I’ve made playlists on Spotify for every work-in-progress, and some for specific characters. If I hear a song that evokes a certain feeling or perfectly describes something a character is going through, I save it to the playlist and use it for inspiration later. Most of the time, I listen to these playlists while I’m driving or sunbathing or cooking or packing. They enhance the story I’m working on and help me see characters and events in a new light, the same way music changes my perspective in my own life.

I prefer to write with one of my playlists going. Usually, I’ll start with whichever song most recently spoke to me to jog my memory of all the pre-writing I’ve done in my head, and the rest of the songs fade into the background as my writing picks up. Then I’ll hit a snag and search for a new song to prompt another scene.

It’s worked for me as long as I can remember. Sure, I catch myself singing along sometimes, but I don’t think the lyrics are as distracting as the pros warn about. I mean, I’m also the type of person who needs to mindlessly rap along with T.I. or Eminem while driving through a snowstorm or torrential downpour or other traffic situation that makes me uncomfortable.

I’ve tried listening to the soundtracks of epic movies and shows and games like Thor and Game of Thrones and Assassin’s Creed. I’ve tried creating my own mix of lyric-less songs pulled from soundtracks and classical composers and string quartet covers of popular hits. I’ve tried the Russian Rap playlist I found through Spotify to give me the sound of human voices without the words I understand (although my four semesters of Russian come rearing up and cause excitement when I do recognize a word or two).

What it comes down to for me is this: I have a lot going on in my mind. Maybe it’s quiet, constant anxiety that makes my brain spin in a thousand directions at once. Maybe everyone’s mind runs things in the background and foreground at once. All I know is I need the lyrics to pull the background focus. If the behind-the-scenes-processing part of my mind is stuck in familiar songs, the rest of my thinking can focus outward. Whether it’s keeping control of a vehicle on an icy road or pouring my heart into a half-formed story, the music — with lyrics I can learn by heart — is imperative to my writing process.

Writing vs. Typing

I’ve made a commitment to myself to write 200 words or more each day. For the past two weeks, I’ve kept it. Most days, I’m able to write a lot more than 200 words, which is great. But on those days where I’m busy or exhausted or not feeling it for whatever reason, 200 is a pretty small number I can reach fairly quickly, even if I end up scrapping everything in a revision. It’s a way to hit a goal no matter how great or blah I’m feeling each day.

When I say I’ve done it every day, I should clarify that some days I hand-write and other days I type, so I don’t get an accurate count on the hand-written days. My husband and I share a computer and he has school work to do, so we have to take turns and the computer isn’t always available when I’m feeling most creative.

I used to hand-write everything for a first draft. I have entire novels in smudged ink and loose-leaf pages, packed away in boxes. I’m not sure if it’s laziness or efficiency that has shifted my preference toward typing. It saves time — I’m not writing essentially the same thing twice — and makes editing, tracking progress, and fitting together story bits so much easier.

But this week, being “forced” to return to handwriting parts of my story has reminded me of the art I fell in love with. There’s something beautiful about the connection between ink and paper, the power and vulnerability of a creator.

For the sake of time, especially when I have a long scene developing in my mind, I’ll choose typing into a computer, but when I have the time to let my mind — and pen — wander, I’ll indulge in the art form of my predecessors and carry the inkstains on my fingers for days.