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Top Ten Writing Tips: Tip #1

Monday, 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.

As an unpublished writer, how will you know if a story has enough plot, enough conflict, to sustain an entire 80–100,000-word novel unless you write the whole thing?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.

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.

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?

  1. Monday, May 10, 2010 3:47 am

    Loved this – “You’re not Faulkner, by the way.”

    So VERY true. I have one finished manuscript under my belt if you don’t count 5 completed novel-length fanfiction stories? OK, I won’t count those. One manuscript. It took me about a year of herky-jerky, start-and-stop writing to get the first 2/3 done, then about a month to get the last third done. I found myself going TOO far back and revising before finishing. When I finally stopped doing that and simply WROTE until I hit that surprising and blessed “THE END,” I was much more satisfied with the story as a whole. I still went through it about 4 times, but I’ve determined now to get on with life – er, manuscript #2 – and only do more editing when someone smarter than me (hopefully an editor) tells me to.

    Thanks for this series, Kaye. I need it desperately to get myself BACK into the swing of writing furiously. Glad I could help with the first five – who knew five tips was more than the norm? 😉


  2. Monday, May 10, 2010 8:09 am

    Thanks for this timely writing tip. The novel I’m working on has slowed a bit and this post reminded me that I need to keep pressing forwards, even if it’s not my best writing.

    The shortest time it’s taken me to write a novel was thirty days when I participated in NaNoWriMo. I must admit how I was surprised once it was over. I learned so much about writing, but three things stick out from that experience.

    First, I realized that I could finish a manuscript. Doing NaNoWriMo moved novel writing out of the dream world and into my reality. Second, I learned how to balance being a plotter and pantser. There were times where I sat down to write a scene, but something totally unexpected would flow out. But then there were times where I forced my words out one by one. Third, I learned how to write my first draft in a way to make the revision process better. If a scene felt stiff, I would make a notation on them and keep moving (I couldn’t stop and edit them because I didn’t have time). By highlighting my trouble places, revising had some sort of structure.

    Thanks for the tip, Kaye.


  3. Monday, May 10, 2010 10:14 am

    Thanks, Kaye. 🙂


  4. Monday, May 10, 2010 12:02 pm

    Great post! I totally agree!

    I wrote my first book in three months.
    My second completed book I wrote in 4 months, but I took a month off towards the end to prepare for ACFW conference, pitching, and all that fun stuff, and then to actually go:-)

    Those are my 2 completed books. I have 2 other partials (one half finished and one about 10k words) but those are sequals to one of the completed books, so I put them both aside until I am able to (crossing fingers) sell that first book.

    I started another stand-alone in January but am not even close on it. My plan was to complete by this month, but I didn’t count on baby exhausting me so much, then complications have just made it impossible. I still work on it a little at a time, because I don’t want to put it aside. But I DO think there are times when life must come before writing. Just like there are times where I put my family before my day job too.


  5. Monday, May 10, 2010 7:20 pm

    Thanks for the tips. I used to think that plotting a novel chapter by chapter is exactly what you needed to know if your plot and characters, etc. would last an entire novel. But even with that, completing that first draft is still necessary. You can never tell exactly how it will all play out until you commit yourself all the way to the end.

    I think the fastest I wrote a novel was 11 days. It was a story idea I got right after being born again. It was definitely on my heart. But otherwise, I take a few weeks to plot out my stories and another for research, then allow for around 8 weeks to finish them. And another month to polish it up. I just finished my 13th novel and now, finally 🙂 I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.


  6. Brenda Scruggs permalink
    Monday, May 17, 2010 9:09 am

    Thanks Kaye, for your writings tips. I log on to your website several times a week just to see if there’s anything knew. The tips have helped me improve my writing skills. I have one published book, with four others done, working on sixth.

    The shortest time for a book was my second, it took three months to finish until I found your website. After gleaning from your tips, I went back through each of my books and revised them. Even found places that I could add to the story. Again, thank you for your website and tips.


  7. Monday, May 31, 2010 8:43 pm

    You mentioned that your writing posts aren’t as popular but I have to explain. 🙂 I stopped reading the writing posts as rabidly when I saw this one. I’ve got a while before I’ll be finished with my current ms. So there you have it. I’ve got my major lesson for now. WRITE!

    I’m still reading though. Just laughing at myself.


  8. Kim permalink
    Sunday, June 6, 2010 11:33 pm

    I really like this quote -“A pro is someone who writes, whether inspired or not, and keeps on writing”. So true! 🙂

    The book by James Scott Bell looks so amazing! I’ll have to go check it out asap… 🙂

    thanks for the post!


  9. Friday, April 13, 2012 10:20 am

    *Is Ashamed!*

    I’ve never finished a novel! All this time I thought it was the beginning that matter. I’ve restarted my collaboration three times because I just didn’t like the beginning!

    I’m going to see her next week….. I’m going to start putting this into practice! 😀


  10. Sunday, July 15, 2012 8:55 am

    Excellent advice, Kaye! I think too often we creatives make the mistake (at least I do!) of waiting until we really feel like writing. So this article is a great reality check! Thanks 🙂



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