On Writing: 10 Tips for Your First First Draft

Sunday, July 8, 2012

10 Tips for Barfing a Book

I tend to think of my first drafts like barf.

That is to say... they come out fast and furious in one big, violent rush that I can't really stop. And what comes out is messy, chunky, and made of lots of disparate elements blended ungracefully together.

Oddly enough, the final book, I hope, is more like a five-course meal. That starts as barf and gets edited, rearranged, and polished until it's presentable. And the great thing about barfing is that anyone can do it!

So here's my guide to barfing out a first draft.*

1. DON'T LOOK BACK. If you reread what you wrote yesterday or the paragraph you just finished, you might find yourself caught in an endless loop of polishing. Barrel firmly forwards, willy-nilly and pell-mell, even if you know you'll have to change something later. First drafts are skeletons. You can add muscle and skin to pretty it up later. Even Stephen King admits his first drafts suck.

2. DON'T BE SCARED TO MESS UP. Here's the big secret: YOU'RE GOING TO MESS UP. Probably a lot. I do. Don't let it stop you. You can change point of view or tense half-way through your draft. You can change *anything* at any time, right up until your work is in print. Accept that mistakes, typos, and major draft surgery are part of the process. Fix it on the second draft.

3. IF YOU GET STUCK, DROP A GUMDROP AND KEEP GOING. If I'm not sure about something, can't get a scene to work, or need to do some more research, sometimes I'll just mark it with [need more] or [insert party scene here] or [kill him somehow and make it good] and keep going. Don't get hung up on something you can fill in later, when you've got it all figured out. That's how Hansel and Gretel got out of the forest, right?

4. BE SELFISH. If you feel passionate about writing, then carve out what you need. Time, space, all the Hershey's Kisses. For at least a little while, the people who love you should honor and understand your need to pursue your goal. Yes, it will grate on their nerves if it goes on too long, but the first draft is the most crucial part. You might need to stay up late writing instead of watching Game of Thrones or go out for a few hours in the afternoon to write. It's okay. Everyone deserves space to pursue their dreams.

5. HAVE A PLAYLIST. I have an album or playlist for every single book or novella I've written. I keep them on Spotify, and when I'm stuck or getting ready to pound out a scene, I listen to it. The playlist is thematically or dramatically related to the story and drops me right back into that world. I do a lot of problem-solving in the car while rocking out or in the bathtub while trancing out. Trust the playlist.

6. DON'T LET ANYONE READ ANYTHING UNTIL IT'S DONE AND POLISHED. Don't let your significant other, critique group, writing partner, or online friends read ANYTHING, EVER. The slightest nose wiggle or indifferent shrug can kill your passion for a story. Get the first draft out, then give yourself at least one more draft to polish it before letting that baby deer wobble out into the world.

7. MEDITATE. Not in lotus position or anything. Sometimes, when a writer starts out fast and furious and then rolls to a halt, it can mean that they haven't thought through the story far enough. Think about it as you fall asleep, as you wake up, while driving. Take notes. Imagine the scene, possibly even outline it before you write it. If you don't know where you're going, you don't know how to get there.

8. MAKE EACH SCENE YOUR FAVORITE. You know how there are some scenes in books that you just skim through, and it feels like the writer was just filling in space to get to the exciting/juicy scene after it? You don't want to do that. There should be something in each scene that you look forward to writing, whether it's snappy dialog or intriguing world-building or the first whiff of a later twist. If the scene is boring for you to write and edit, your readers will get bored, too.

9. SET UP IDEAL CONDITIONS. My recipe for 10,000 words per day involves getting dressed up in a pretty skirt and heels, going to a favorite coffee shop, putting in noise-canceling earbuds and my playlist, ordering coffee and a treat, and writing uninterrupted for as long as possible. Your recipe may be totally different, but once you know what it is, set up your opportunities to optimize output as often as possible. And don't waste your time trying to work in uncomfortable or annoying conditions. Set yourself up for success!

10. BE OPEN TO POSSIBILITY. Sometimes the best characters walk in out of nowhere and steal the scene. Sometimes your character makes a decision you weren't expecting, and it changes the entire course of the story. Sometimes you discover something entirely new during dialog. Let it happen. Your subconscious is brilliant and will feed you lines from offstage, if you let it.

Go forth and barf!