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Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #1: FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Originally posted as Top Ten Writing Tips: Tip #1 on May 10, 2010.

The members of Middle Tennessee Christian Writers asked if, for our May meeting last week, I could present “Kaye’s Top Ten Writing Tips” as the workshop topic. Having been forced by a blog interviewer to come up with five (thanks, Regina—I usually only have to do one, maybe two) tips, I agreed, thinking it would be easy to come up with an additional five. Well . . . it wasn’t as easy as I anticipated—especially since I wanted to make sure I had “experts” to back me up on all of them.

And since I went to that much work, I figured they’d make a nice blog series. So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, you’ll be treated to Kaye’s Top Ten Writing Tips.

Kaye’s Writing Tip #1. FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT.
As I just mentioned in a class on writing opening hooks, don’t stress out about perfecting your opening hook before you have your entire story written—until you get to the end, you don’t really know what your story is about, no matter how detailed your outline/synopsis is.

It’s all well and good if you can write great openings, three to five great chapters. It’s fantastic if you can win contests with them. But if you never actually finish a manuscript, winning contests is all you’re ever going to be able to do.

You’ll never know how to write the beginning of a novel until you write through to the ending of it. You don’t know what hints/clues/red herrings you need to incorporate. You don’t know what themes are going to be important to introduce early. And you don’t know what secondary characters or subplots are going to come into play that need to be worked into the beginning of the novel.

In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell wrote:

Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other.

Some writers tinker over their words endlessly, perhaps fearing the end result. It might stink.

Yes, it might. But it’s the only way you’re going to get better.

Finish your novel.

(Bell, p. 65)

As an unpublished writer, how will you know if a story has enough plot, enough conflict, to sustain an entire 80–100,000-word novel unless you write the whole thing? The only way you learn how to write a novel is by writing a novel. You’ll never be a professional author if all you ever write are snippets and snatches and opening chapters.

Instead of getting so wrapped up in going back and trying to “perfect” what you’ve already written, when you sit down for your writing time, don’t do anything more than re-read and possibly do a light revision on what you wrote yesterday, but then move forward. Try to push yourself to write a few more words today than you wrote yesterday. In War, Bell encourages writers to “write hard, write fast” when you’re writing your first draft. By pounding out the story in a shorter amount of time, you stay in its slipstream much more easily—the story takes on a life of its own and compels you to write it.

Obviously, this requires writing every day. If you want to be a professional (i.e., published) author, you must treat writing as your profession (even if it’s a second, third, or fourth profession in addition to a full-time job, spouse, and kids). “A surgeon can’t refuse to operate because he’s upset over the Lakers game last night,” Bell writes. “A criminal defense lawyer can’t ask for a continuance so he can go to the beach and dream of someday getting a client who’s actually innocent. And a professional writer can’t sit at the computer playing Spider Solitaire, waiting for a visit from the Muse. A pro is someone who writes, whether inspired or not, and keeps on writing. . . .”

Madeleine L’Engle put it this way in Walking on Water:


We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it.

(L’Engle, p. 24)
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Bell gives quite a few examples of authors who put the “write hard, write fast” principle to work:

  • “William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word. (You’re not Faulkner by the way.)”
  • Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris in 1925.
  • From 1953–1954, John D. MacDonald produced SEVEN novels of high quality. Over the course of the decade, he wrote many more superb books, including The End of the Night and Cry Hard, Cry Fast. MacDonald quelled a critic (who said he should give up writing “paperback drivel” and write “real fiction”) by saying in thirty days, he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in magazines, selected by a book club, and turned into a movie. The critic laughed and bet him $50 he couldn’t. MacDonald went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, made into a film in 1962 that continues to garner acclaim (and remade in 1991): Cape Fear.
  • Ray Bradbury wrote Farenheit 451 in nine days on a rented typewriter. He had a newborn at home so he needed somewhere else to work. He had no money for an office. But UCLA had a room in the basement of the library with 12 typewriters for rent at ten cents per half hour. $9.80 later, Bradbury had written his famous “dime” novel.
  • Jack London would shut himself in a room and write, sometimes for up to eighteen hours a day. He filled a trunk with rejections. But he was learning. When he died at the age of forty, he was one of the most prolific and successful writers of all time.
  • Stephen King says he used to write 1,500 words a day every day, except his birthday and the Fourth of July.
  • (Bell, pp. 77–83)

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For discussion:
What is the shortest amount of time it’s ever taken you to complete a manuscript? How many manuscripts have you finished (written through to the ending)? How long did it take you to finish your first full-length manuscript? Why do you think it’s important to finish your first draft?

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Works Cited:

Bell, James Scott. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. Print.

L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980. Print.

It’s the First Monday of the Month–Time for Reading Reports! (09-14)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Happy First Monday of September, everyone.
It’s Reading Report time!

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

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Tell us what you’ve finished over the last month, what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your To Be Read stack/list. And if you’ve reviewed the books you’ve read somewhere, please include links! (To format your text, click here for an HTML cheat-sheet. If you want to embed link your test (like my “click here” links) instead of just pasting the link into your comment, click here.)
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  • What book(s) did you finish reading (or listening to) since the last update?

  • What are you currently reading and/or listening to?

  • What’s the next book on your To Be Read stack/list?

The Great Exhibition Series: “The Lost Prologue”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

I’ve had a bunch of people contact me to ask if there will be a third book in the Great Exhibition series. As of right now, the answer is, unfortunately, no.

But here is the “lost” prologue—part of what I’d written before my contact was canceled. Click the image to bring up the full PDF version.

The Lost Prologue

What I Have in Common with George R.R. Martin

Thursday, August 21, 2014

I discovered today that I’m not alone in how I feel about writing a first draft vs. rewriting/editing:

“I enjoy rewriting much more than I do first drafts. Rewriting, at least you have something to work with. I find writing first drafts extremely difficult.”
– George R.R. Martin

Read more about what the inimitable Mr. Martin, along with fantasy author Robin Hobb, have to say about writing here: These Writing Tips From George R.R. Martin And Robin Hobb Are Just Epic on BuzzFeed.

George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb | Image via Daniel Dalton / BuzzFeed

George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb | Image via Daniel Dalton / BuzzFeed

What are you reading? (August 2014)

Sunday, August 3, 2014
Open Book by Dave Dugdale

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

It’s the first Monday of the month, and you know what that means . . .

Book Reports!

Tell us what you’ve finished over the last month, what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your To Be Read stack/list. (And if you’ve reviewed the books you’ve read somewhere, please include links!)

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  • What book(s) did you finish reading (or listening to) since the last update?

  • What are you currently reading and/or listening to?

  • What’s the next book on your To Be Read stack/list?

EVERYWHERE is a good place to brainstorm a story!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I’ve told the story in workshops and writers’ groups before, but I don’t know if I’ve ever shared it here.

When I was first working on the germ of the idea for what would become the Ransome Trilogy, I wasn’t sure exactly where the story was going, who would be involved, or even how long the story would be.

Back in May 2005, most of my extended family were in Baton Rouge for a family wedding. We’d all gone up to the Saturday Night “Southern Gospel Service” at my grandmother’s church for supper and to hear one of my cousins and his wife sing, along with my aunt who was part of the group who sang every week.

After dinner (on long banquet tables covered with butcher paper), they lowered the lights and the music started. Now, anyone who knows me knows I love music. So it’s not that I wasn’t enjoying myself. But, being a visual person, I start to get restless when just sitting and listening to music (even when I can see the people singing). I’d already written the first chapter of Ransome’s Honor (most of it has since been cut) for a workshop at grad school the next month. So I’d been playing with the story idea for a while.

At that point, I had two conflicting ideas running through my head of how to (a) get William and Julia together and (b) get Julia back to Jamaica and away from her scheming relatives. The first idea was to have her stow away on William’s ship disguised as a boy; the second was to have her propose a “marriage in name only” which could later be annulled if he wanted. If you’ve read Ransome’s Honor and Ransome’s Crossing, you know how I ended up using both of those scenarios.

Because I’m a writer, I always carry at least one writing utensil with me. And there I was, sitting at a table with a HUGE expanse of blank paper in front of me. So I started jotting down notes. It started with an A/B list—Stow Away on one side, Marriage of Convenience on the other. And it just grew from there.

Well, in the past nine years, I thought maybe I’d lost it or accidentally thrown it away. But tonight, in digging through my files for something else, I found it. So here it is in all its glory!

Ransome Brainstorming

What Are You Reading? (July 2014)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Open Book by Dave Dugdale

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

It’s the first Monday of the month, and you know what that means . . .

Book Reports!

Tell us what you’ve finished over the last month, what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your To Be Read stack/list. (And if you’ve reviewed the books you’ve read somewhere, please include links!)

.

  • What book(s) did you finish reading (or listening to) since the last update?

  • What are you currently reading and/or listening to?

  • What’s the next book on your To Be Read stack/list?

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