Category: Blog (Page 2 of 4)

First drafts suck, and that’s okay

If you want to be a writer, there are six words that you need to memorize above all else. You need to tape them to your wall, tattoo them on your arm, and teach them to your parrot until it repeats them back to you a hundred times per day. You need to pay skywriters to draw them in the sky above your house and hack your cybernetic ocular display so that they hover in front of you wherever you go.

Are you ready? Here are the six words.

First drafts suck, and that’s okay.

“Oh, sure,” you say. “I know that.”

Yeah, but do you really? The extraordinarily, depressingly huge suckitude of first drafts is hard to grasp. It’s like comprehending the size of the universe: you expand your mental image until it’s a hundred billion times larger than anything you could possibly think of, and then just to be on the safe side you multiply that by a hundred billion, and then you find out that in reality it’s a hundred billion times larger than that.

Just to be clear, the idea isn’t that your first drafts suck. Or that first drafts of beginning writers suck. It’s that all first drafts suck. By anyone. Anytime. Ever. When you write a craptastic first draft, not only are you not alone, you are in the company of literally every writer who ever lived. The first day some primitive human decided hey, that’s a good story, I should invent writing so that I can write it down was the first day that a sucky first draft was written. Homer wrote them. Shakespeare wrote them. Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce. You name ‘em, and I promise that they’ve written catastrophically bad first drafts.

First drafts suck, and that’s okay.

At some point people start to realize that writing involves multiple drafts, and that the final words of books they read do not spring from writer’s fingers like Force-lightning. (This is sometimes hard for kids to grasp—I’ve spent several conversations trying to explain to my seven-year-olds why I’ve written multiple drafts of one book. “You mean, you just write the same book over and over?”) But even once people acknowledge that rewriting is a part of writing, they still generally believe that a first draft is just a slightly-unpolished version of the final product, as if all that’s necessary is to sandpaper a few rough edges and paint over the odd mistake.


First drafts suck, and that’s okay. Because the point of a first draft is not to be an actual coherent story. The point of a first draft is to start getting the various bits and pieces of a story down onto paper so that you can look at them and see what they are. (“Oh, hey, looks like I wrote a story about were-rat jewel thieves from Flanders.”) You get it all down, you write something that looks approximately-kinda-sorta something like a book, and then you step back and figure out what story you actually want to tell. Because a lot of the time, you discover that the story you end up wanting to tell isn’t the same one that you started out with.

Let’s take a little side-journey into metaphor-town. Imagine that a story is like a blanket. Maybe it’s the sort that your grandmother might knit for your living room couch, or maybe it’s a little warm blanket for a baby bed. Whatever it is, you can see it in your head, and so you brew a pot of coffee and you sit down to knit. You stretch your fingers and you get out your knitting needles.

And then you realize that you don’t have any yarn. You don’t even have thread to spin into yarn. You don’t even have cotton to spin into thread, or plants that might grow cotton that you could spin into thread.

What you have is a field and some seeds. You plant those seeds, and you water them, and you fertilize them, and many moons later you have some full-grown cotton plants. You pick that cotton, and then you spin the cotton into thread, and then you spin the thread into yarn.

Once all of that is done, you cast your mind back to that day you sat down to knit, and you remember that your goal wasn’t to produce piles of yarn. So you brew some more coffee and sit back down and knit that yarn into your blanket.

After all of that is it any wonder that the blanket you come up with looks like crap? You’d planned for it to be nice and square, but one side is longer than all of the rest. Some of the threads of yarn stop and start or change color or just disappear altogether. There are giant holes where you forgot to knit anything at all, and one corner is knit so tightly you’re pretty sure you could stab someone to death with it.

But that’s okay. Because what can be knit can be unknit and knit again.

See, you don’t need a cotton field to write a second draft. You’ve already got all the stuff you need right there. Just pull your first draft apart until you’ve got a giant pile of yarn and then start knitting it together again. You’ll need to add some thread here and there, and you’ll throw away so much yarn that your trash can will look like you slaughtered a coven of Muppets. (The More You Know™: ‘coven’ is the correct collective noun for a group of Muppets). But now that you can concentrate on how the knitting will look instead of spending all your time wresting thread from the earth, that second draft will be easier. Oh, will it be easier.

The corollary to the first drafts suck mantra is this: revising makes good. Just as people have a hard time realizing how bad first drafts can be, they don’t quite realize how much a story can be improved through the process of revising. Your non-writer friends might read your first draft (if you let them, which you shouldn’t) and drop polite hints about how the restaurant on the corner is hiring servers. Your writer friends who read your first draft (if you let them, which you probably still shouldn’t) will squint at it, hem and haw, and then say “sure, there’s a story in here somewhere.” It’s a first draft; it sucks. But your second draft will be better, and your third better still. If you can improve your story with every draft, then all you need is time.

You sometimes read about how a particular writer published the first book they ever wrote, while another, just-as-successful author wrote eight novels before they got one into print. That first writer isn’t necessarily any better than the second, and they probably didn’t write any fewer drafts overall. Some people write umpteen drafts of the same novel because they really want to tell that story and get it right. Other people write two or three drafts of several different novels, because by the time they’ve rewritten one story a few times, they have a new idea that they want to try out.

Either way, in the end, two things are still true. First, by the time they’ve learned how to tell a good story, they’ve written a lot of drafts.

Second, their first drafts sucked.

And it was okay.

from the you-should-have-read-the-first-draft-of-this-post dept

Why I (usually) don’t outline, but (maybe) should

Writing advice is intensely personal, in the sense that what works well for one person may not work at all for someone else. As Chuck Wendig puts it: all writing advice is bullshit — but bullshit makes good fertilizer. The bullshit advice I hear most often is “don’t use adverbs,” followed closely by “don’t use filtering words.” Both of these rules are good in theory, but the best way to use them is to look at them, understand them, and then bury them deep underground where they can fertilize clean, clear prose judiciously littered with the odd “quickly” or “she heard.”

But the piece of advice that seems to divide writers the most is whether or not to outline. Almost everyone has a strong opinion (including, as it happens, me). Like any other advice, take anything you read with a big grain of salt, and see what works for you. If you’re just starting out, I recommend that you don’t attach yourself too hard to either the don’t-outline or do-outline camps. Try them both, to some degree or another, and see what works. Keep in mind that outlining may be good for some stories and not others, or that it may be bad for your first book and then work well after that, or vice-versa. Be flexible.

When the first drink is poured in the bar, I’ll usually proclaim to anyone who will listen that I’m a pantser by birth, choice, and reputation. (Isn’t that how everyone starts conversations in a bar?) By the time the second or third drink is rolled out, you might hear me admit, with a mild bit of drunken sulkiness, that I’ve found outlines to be useful under certain circumstances.

The main reason I ‘m a confirmed pantser is because I spent a number of years outlining without actually writing anything. I worked on several projects in that time without managing to get more than a page or two of actual prose down on paper. The problem, in hindsight, was that outlining was a way for me to focus almost exclusively on plot. I would end up using my left-brain, organize-and-categorize mode of thinking instead of a more right-brain, create-and-synthesize mode. I would spend hours trying to craft a fragile, glass-spun spiderweb of a plot that was devoid of any holes or mistakes. In addition to not being much fun, this meant that I always felt I had ‘failed’ if I had even the slightest unbelievable moment or unexplained bit of action. Since I never achieved perfection, I never started on any actual writing. I think that I had ever had managed to create a ‘perfect’ plot, it would most likely have fallen apart as soon as I tried to attach a story to it. And even more importantly, the stories I came up with were dry, character-less, and not at all fun (for me) to write.

So it wasn’t actually the outlining that was the problem for me. Instead, it was plotting, or more specifically over-plotting. Whether you use outlines or not, this is something you absolutely need to watch out for. It’s an obvious warning sign if your plotting means abandoning decent stories at the first sign that your plot isn’t going to work out exactly the way you want. (I say ‘obvious,’ though of course, it took me years to realize this myself) But even if you do get around to writing that over-plotted story, there’s a very real danger that it will end up like a Christmas turkey that has sat in the oven for too long: beautiful and golden-brown on the outside, but dry and tasteless inside.

When you’re plotting or outlining, keep in mind that the best story is not the one with the fewest plot holes. The best story is the one that sweeps up the reader and gets them moving with such speed that any holes or loose ends flash by without so much as a glance. After seeing Black Panther yesterday with our kids, my wife and I talked about how much we loved it for the rest of the afternoon and evening. It wasn’t until bedtime that I mentioned how there’s one bit that I thought was kind of silly and unbelievable. During my over-plotting years, if I had come across a scene like that in one of my stories, I would have thrown out part (or even all) of it just because it didn’t live up to my perfect-plot expectations. But as the viewer I was so caught up in the story and characters that I barely blinked.

Every time you feel as if you have a plot ‘hole,’ ask yourself: is it really worth fixing? Sometimes, of course, the answer will be yes. But if the fix is worse than the problem, leave it and move on. A good story is like sex: there’s you, and there’s them, and when it’s good, nobody really worries about the details. If you find yourself alone at your computer, trying to achieve some kind of orgasmic perfection, that’s not sex—it’s masturbation.

In more recent years, I’ve found that outlining can be helpful for me, as long as I use it properly. Stories always begin in my head as a few key scenes or arcs, and I usually flesh those out a bit before I write the first line. Outlines are a good tool for me to get those ideas down on paper so that I don’t forget them. The key for me is to not try to outline everything. It’s okay if I leave gaps or end up with parts of the story that are more vague. For one thing, I know that when I get to any particular thinly-sketched scene I’ll be immersed in the world of my story and my brain will draw out new details and ideas to flesh it out. Just as importantly, though, there’s a good chance that by the time I actually get to that part of the story it will have diverged so much that my notes aren’t helpful anyway.

The other benefit of outlining is one that my mentor Wade Albert White taught me a few years ago. He pointed out that even if you don’t like to outline before you write a first draft, it can often be helpful to outline afterward. First drafts are messy and misshapen, and it can be hard to grok everything you’ve just written so that you can massage it into something more refined. Outlining the story can help you step back and see the whole thing. Structural problems or missing threads might be much more obvious to you after you’ve outlined it. And once you have that outline, you have a good tool for shaping your story before diving into the next draft.

Experiment! Try outlining; try not-outlining. Your first couple of novels will be learning experiences. Don’t decide in advance that there’s one true way for you to write. Even years from now you’ll probably be tweaking how you do things.

from the bullshit-advice-dept

Things you DON’T need in a first draft

First drafts are a pain in the ass. They are, by far, the hardest thing about writing. There’s a blank page, there’s you, and there’s some idea you’ve got for how to turn that empty whiteness into a full-fledged story.

There are a few important rules for first drafts. First and foremost is always that first drafts suck. You have to turn off your inner editor and just write something. The second rule is write what you have. Don’t spend lots of time trying to come up with ideas, scenes, characters, plots, settings, or anything else that doesn’t come naturally. Just keep going and finish that draft.

Of course, you do have to have something, or it’s not a story. So what do you need to have by the time you finish that first draft?

First, you need a beginning and an ending. Every story has an inciting incident (which isn’t necessarily in the opening chapter or scene). The beginning has to begin this story, not a different one. Similarly, your novel has to resolve itself somehow, in a way that’s faithful in some way to the story you’ve told. Just like how combining any subject with any verb creates a complete sentence, putting together a beginning and an ending creates a story.

Second, you need enough detail for the core of the story to be told. If you say “boy meets alien and eventually helps him return to his spaceship,” then you have a beginning and an ending, but there’s no detail. If you listed out the core scenes of your story (boy and alien go trick-or-treating, boy helps alien phone home) you still won’t have enough detail to really ‘know’ the core of your story. A first draft can get by without every last tidbit that will go into the final story, but it does need enough detail to flesh out the story. Without that detail, all you have is an outline. Outlines can be helpful, but the thing about them is that they’re a plan, while a story is execution. Even the most detailed plan goes astray when you get to the point of actually putting it into action. An outline is like Xs and Os on a coach’s clipboard; a first draft is like an actual practice with the full squad. As soon as you see your plan in action, you’ll be changing it, because the act of fleshing it out will push it in directions that you didn’t foresee.

Third, you need—well, you really don’t need anything else. If you write a beginning and ending with enough detail to tell the story, then you have a workable first draft. More specifically, here are some of the things you can skip in a first draft:

A middle

Okay, you can’t actually skip having the middle of a story. Every story will technically have a middle that ties together the beginning and ending, even if it’s just the phrase ‘and then.’ But you don’t need a good middle in order to have a first draft. You don’t need all of the various plots and characters that will eventually go into your story. You don’t need all of the scenes that will stretch out the pacing so that the reader has enough time to anticipate and enjoy the ending. All you really need in a first draft is enough connective tissue to lead the story from your beginning to your ending. When you’re in the middle of your middle, that’s the time to make sure you keep your momentum up. Beginnings are easy, since there’s so much possibility. Endings are easy, too, once you have an idea for what they’ll be, since the pressure of the story is pushing toward that last chapter. But middles are like endothermic reactions: you have to add energy to keep them going. So focus on keeping up that momentum and keep the words flowing. There will be plenty of time later to tighten things up and add all the bits you skip.


Oh, boy, is this something you don’t need. Worrying about continuity in a first draft is like worrying about your kid’s college fund when you or your partner are in labor. If something changes halfway through your draft, let it change. Jot it down somewhere if you want, but keep going. Nobody is going to read this draft except you, remember?


Like the middle, a setting is something you can’t really get away from. But you don’t need a fleshed-out setting. In fact, I believe that you should actively try to not flesh out your setting until you’ve finished that first draft. You’ll probably have at least something of the setting in mind when you start, and that’s great. But don’t spend any time at all at world-building (meaning, the process of expanding that notional setting into something that feels real and believable) until later. In your second, or third, or tenth draft, it may be very helpful to know a million different details about your world, but before you write that first draft, how do you know which million details you need? And what happens when you get halfway through and realize that you need your castle to be next to a river, except that your well-fleshed-out world has your castle sitting in the middle of a desert? There will be time for world-building, but the story has to come first. By all means, include whatever details you already have, or which come naturally while you’re writing, but don’t spend a millisecond actively trying to build your world until you have (at least) one draft of your story written.


Uh. This one may be a bit of a puzzler. How can you write a story without using prose?

Well, playwrights and screenwriters (screenwrights?) do it all the time. Their format is nice and simple: dialogue, centered on the page with the speaker’s name on the line above, and stage direction or screen direction in blocks where necessary.

Is it helpful to write out the first draft of a novel as a screenplay? I think it can be. Not as a full screenplay format, but something closer to a script treatment, which is sort of a film industry rough draft. The nice thing about the script treatment format is that it’s clearly not your final draft, so there’s much less pressure to get any part of it right. You still have your dialogue, which is one of the most important bits of a first draft, and you have the major action. You can include as much incidental action as you want, but you get to do it in a nice shorthand format. Here’s a section of a science-fiction novel I’ve been working on:


     The cargo doors open up, revealing the Atlantis about a hundred meters away, framed against the blackness of space.


     This is as close as you can get?


     Just get yourself in position and jump. Don't overdo it.


     What if I miss?


     Don't miss.

Elena goes first, and to no one's surprise, lands gracefully at the waist airlock. Addy goes second and manages okay. Rahul somehow manages to put himself in a slow tumble, and Elena has to catch him. She waves at Lucas, who then jumps over easily.

The nice thing about this format is that I can write much more quickly than if I write ‘real’ prose. The bits of action are written as notes to myself, which lets me be as detailed or un-detailed as I want. Whatever I have, I put in; whatever I don’t, I leave out. One of the things I really hate is when I know I need to move to the next scene, but I don’t have a clear way to ‘get there.’ With this format, I just stop where I am and start the next scene, and leave the connecting prose to a later draft.

If you want a great example of a script treatment, you can read James Cameron’s treatment for The Terminator here. Cameron does a great job of telling the core of his story in the most simple and straightforward way possible. If you look closely, there are details and bits that an actual shooting script would require, but at the same time, the story is all there, right on the page.

The downside of this format is that you haven’t actually written your prose yet, and that’s something you’re eventually going to have to do. But for me, a first draft is often so rough that I can hardly keep any of the text, anyway, so using a completely placeholder format doesn’t end up wasting much time.


Out of all of the things that a first draft doesn’t need, this is the biggie. Nobody is going to read this draft but you. Tell yourself that, over and over, while you write. It can suck. It can leave bits out. It can be a barely-functioning, on-life-support story, but as long as it’s a story with a beginning and end, and as long as it has enough detail to prove out the novel that it will become, then it’s a first draft.

The flip side to this mode of thinking is that eventually, you do have to care about quality. Your story will require a middle, and prose, and setting. All of those things will have to be developed. If you’re the sort of writer who can rattle off all of those things in a first draft, then god bless you. For the rest of us mere mortals, figuring out which parts you can leave out is one of the major keys to finishing that first draft.

from the missing-pieces-in-a-jigsaw dept.

Write what you have

The most important thing for me when writing a first draft—other than trying to remember that First Drafts Suck, and That’s Okay—is to focus on writing what I have, instead of trying to come up with what I have not.

Right now, for my next book, I have something of a beginning, and something of an ending. I have an idea for how it might develop. I have detailed thoughts on several characters and light mental sketches for a few more. All together, it’s entirely insufficient for writing an actual novel. There are probably more scenes that I haven’t thought of than ones that I have. Most of the characters are so thin they’d hardly stick to the virtual paper I’m typing this on. The core idea of the story may not work. And so on, and so on.

Fortunately, it is enough to write a first draft, as long as I focus on those parts that I have. “First drafts are for figuring out what your story is about,” someone once said (I can’t find the attribution, comment below if you know who it was). The best way to figure out what your story is about is to write the parts you have, and ignore the fact that there are clearly massive question marks.

One big question mark is plot. In any first draft I write, there are always big holes. Not “plot holes” like you might find in a finished story, but gaps, where it’s clear something has to happen. I might have a clear idea for Scene A, and a clear idea for Scene B, and a clear understanding that Scene A and Scene B can’t happen right next to each other. Maybe more time needs to pass, or maybe something specific has to happen in between. But if I don’t have anything to put in between those scenes, then I can either a) struggle mightily to try to find something suitable or b) ignore it and keep going.

As much as possible, I try to choose option B when working on a first draft. First drafts aren’t for anyone else to read. They’re often closer to a Hollywood-style script treatment than a real prose draft. A first draft is an exploration that’s documented well enough for me to follow the same path (or a similar one) a second time. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth…

The most important thing in a first draft is momentum. It’s mind-numbingly hard to write when I don’t have any momentum built up, so I try as hard as I can to conserve it. I’d much rather write a quick sketch of a scene (or skip the scene altogether) rather than get bogged down trying to make it good. Good can wait until I actually know whether the scene will make it into later drafts, and I won’t know that until I actually get to those later drafts. The key for keeping up momentum is to write what I have in my head, regardless of whether it’s any good or whether it’s missing any obvious bits.

So: Write What You Have, and Ignore What You Have Not.

In the next post, I’ll give some tips for how to keep your final-draft brain quiet so you can finish that first draft and move on to figuring out what your story is really about.

Closing the deal

If you’re a professional writer (or ever plan to be one) and don’t have a day job as an intellectual property lawyer, you really need to read Kristine Rusch’s Closing the Deal on Your Terms. I guarantee that you will learn at least one detail about publishers, contracts, agents, or copyright law that will a) scare you and b) make you smarter about how you approach the publishing business.

Rusch has some positions that are a little extreme–she basically thinks that nobody should ever hire an agent or sign a traditional publishing contract–and sometimes her condescension can be grating. But her arguments are compelling. If at one end of the spectrum you have the starry-eyed writer who’s certain that they’re going to make it in the publishing business as long as they have a good book and a good agent, then at the other end you have Rusch, waving her hands and shouting about all the things that can go wrong if you make bad business decisions.

She goes through a pretty comprehensive list of things you should be aware of before signing a contract, from options clauses and rights licensing to termination and reversion. A lot of it is stuff that, if you’re lucky, you’ll never need to worry about; most people probably won’t have publishers trying to extend the lifetime of a contract in perpetuity or enforce dumb non-compete clauses. But the smart money is still on making sure you don’t end up in those situations by negotiating contracts that aren’t tilted against you.

Sometimes Rusch’s stories about the horrors of traditional publishing make her seem a little like the neighbor with a bomb shelter who thinks you’re an idiot because you don’t have a month’s worth of food and water handy in case of a worldwide flu epidemic. You’ll need to make your own decisions about how you publish your  book and what sort of contracts you sign. But whether or not you follow her advice to the letter, you’ll make smarter decisions if you hear her arguments and consider her points before you sign on the mythical dotted line.

from the how-many-rights-did-you-just-sign-away dept

There are really just three steps to learning how to write well

Writing is hard.

Boy, howdy, is it hard. There are a million things you need to learn if you want to master the craft. There’s big, story-level stuff like character arcs, plotting, theme, and pacing. There’s small, line-level skills like writing clearly, using proper grammar, and not overusing your favorite part of speech (whether that’s adjectives, adverbs, or participle phrases).

But really, there are only three basic steps to becoming an accomplished writer. (And two of them are the same thing.)

Don’t believe me? Here they are.

Step One: Write something as well as you can

“Oh, is that all?” you might say. “Just write well?” Except I’m not saying you need to write something at any particular level—just that you write it as well as you can. It doesn’t have to be David Copperfield. It doesn’t have to be anything other than the best you can do.

It’s still easier said than done! Writing something to the best of your ability means not putting up with anything less than your best.  It means taking everything you’ve learned so far and applying it to the entire story. It means rewriting sketchy passages until they’re as polished as you can make them. It means trying to get your characters as human as you know how to make them. It means making it your very best.

It also means finishing. Not just finishing the first draft (and aye, that’s hard enough) but taking the time to clean it up so that it’s consistent. It means not stopping with your rewrites until there are no areas that you know how to make better.

I know this seems blindingly obvious, but it’s important. You can only fix problems that you know how to fix. Furthermore, you won’t know how to fix every problem until you’ve mastered the craft (and maybe not even then). You have to force yourself to solve the problems you know how to solve, while also not beating yourself up about the problems you don’t know how to solve.

Curtis Sittenfeld said it much better than I can:

“It’s OK to let your book be [finished] if you can see its flaws but don’t know how to fix them. Don’t let your book be [finished] if it still contains flaws that are fixable, even if fixing them is a lot of work.”

I’m paraphrasing, here, since she wrote “published” instead of “finished,” but the same principle applies.

So you’ve completed step one! Congratulations. You’ve written something that you can justifiably be proud of, whether it’s your first time at the keyboard or whether this is your tenth novel in ten years. You’ve looked it over and found no problems that you know how to fix. What do you do now?

Step Two: Learn how to make it better

You figure out some of those problems you don’t know how to fix. You figure out how to make it even better.

Once again, this is easier said than done. Didn’t you just write this to the best of your ability? Didn’t you stop precisely because you couldn’t make it any better? Well, yeah. Except you know that it can get better, in a hundred different ways. You just don’t know precise solutions yet. And it’s now your job to figure some of those out.

The first thing you need to do is set it aside for a few months. When you come back to it, you’ll have a much more objective eye, and poorly-written passages will stand out like sore thumbs. Or a particular plot arc (one that you were so proud of) will make you roll your eyes.

But in the meantime, you need to get help from other people. Read books, attend classes, go to conferences and seminars. Ingest their advice like an elixir of learning and store it in your belly. Take notes, highlight, bookmark, record. When you go back to your manuscript, take your notes and see how they apply to your story. You’ll likely find a half-dozen ways to use the advice to improve your manuscript.

Even better: get people to read your story! Preferably, get critiques from other writers who are at least as accomplished as you are. There are a lot of online critique groups which will help you do exactly this. Your fellow writers will helpfully (and constructively) point out a dozen more major things you can do to improve your story. Remember, though, that it’s their job to convince you of things that need to change. You’re not looking for someone to hand down edits from on high. You’re looking for someone to show you what things aren’t working and suggest fixes. Most of the time, you won’t take their fixes exactly as suggested. But their suggestions will spark ideas of your own for how to improve the piece. And more importantly, their feedback will help you understand how to write better, meaning that even if you never actually go back and revise this particular manuscript, you’ve still advanced your knowledge of the craft.

Which brings us to the final (?) step…

Step Three: Do it again

In Step One, you worked on your manuscript until there were no problems left that you knew how to solve. In Step Two, you spent months learning how to fix things that you suspected were broken and finding out about new types of problems that you didn’t even know existed.

Now you put that knowledge to use by looping back around and writing again.

It doesn’t have to be the same manuscript. It’s up to you whether you spend time improving something you’ve already written versus starting on a new project. Sometimes you’ll spend months learning and yet still feel like there’s no specific way to improve the manuscript you’ve just finished. In that case, move on! Start something new.

But a lot of the time, you’ll come back to that manuscript with a mental list of the things you can do better. It’s almost like those daydreams you have about how much better you could do high school if you could do it all over again. (Everyone has those daydreams, right?) You’ve gained wisdom. You’ve gained confidence. You’ve leveled up.

And so whether you start a new project or rewrite an old one for the umpteenth time, you’re writing better. That’s the only thing that matters.

When you look back at something you wrote ten years ago, what’s your first thought? I’ll bet it’s oh, man, I can do so much better than this now. That’s the one-and-only sign of becoming an accomplished writer. There’s no reliable way to measure yourself in any absolute sense. But you can certainly measure yourself relative to your skill in the past. And if that writing you see in your rearview mirror always makes you scream holy cow I’m better than that, then you’re learning your craft.

To put it another way, it doesn’t matter where you are as a writer right now. The only thing that matters is your trajectory. If you’re improving, and you keep working at it, you’ll keep improving. You’re upward-bound. Think of it like this: would you rather have $100 now, or $10 per year for twenty years? Growth is the thing that matters, not your current skill. If you keep growing as a writer, you will eventually achieve your goals. Full stop.

I freely admit that I’ve glossed over nearly all of the important details about writing. This advice, on its own, is almost useless. You’ll need to study and follow the guidance of writers who are much better than I am if you’re going to actually accomplish any of this.

And yet.

That advice can be overwhelming, frustrating, and painful, because you can’t always follow it. You’ll pore over a book on writing better dialogue, and then you’ll apply it, and you’ll say wow I still screwed that up. It takes a long, long time to learn everything there is to know about even a small part of the craft of writing.

But you can always follow these three steps. Nothing can ever stop you. Write, improve, write again. When everything else seems bleak, you can look back and know that you’ve learned something new and put that knowledge to use. If you keep following that path, you’ll always get where you want to go.

from the lather-rinse-repeat-dept

I miss you, Dad

My father passed away on March 10th. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but we didn’t have much time to prepare, either. He started suffering from dementia the previous August, and his condition very quickly deteriorated. The doctors’ best guess is that it was Lewy-Body dementia, but since there’s no specific test to confirm that (at least not prior to death) we don’t know for sure.

The entire course of the disease lasted about seven months. And yet still, something about my dad was very different by the time he died. I believe that if my dad had died suddenly last August, and my father had been able to look down at all of us in the church where his service was held, he wouldn’t have really understood why we were here.

For nearly all of his life, my father had a pain inside of him. Out of that pain came a voice which told him over and over that he couldn’t be loved because there wasn’t anything about him that was worth loving. If he had seen us gathered here, that voice would have told him ‘they’re only getting together because that’s what you do when someone dies — they don’t really mean it.’ If he had overheard us saying how much we would miss him, that voice would have said ‘of course they’re not going to miss you — what about you is there to miss?’

There were certainly levels at which he understood our love. He knew it in his head—he knew that we all loved him. And sometimes he would feel it, too. But always, the feeling was fleeting. Always, there was the voice.

That voice compelled him to continually seek validation. He would sometimes push advice or recommendations on his family and friends, because that voice told him that maybe if someone saw him as a person of wisdom, that maybe then he would be lovable. Or he would make jokes because that voice told him that maybe if he were funny, then perhaps other people would value him as much as he valued them.

I know the sound of that voice, because I hear it too.

That voice wasn’t my father. That voice is not who he was. It was a cancer that had grown inside of him. But by the time he was sixty, that pain and that voice were so twisted up that it was sometimes hard to see where they stopped and the real Ed Swiedler began.

Then, just in the last six months, something changed. I don’t know why — maybe it was confronting his own mortality, or maybe it was from talking with all of you in the hospital — but that voice went silent.

Everyone who visited him saw it, even if they didn’t know what they were seeing. They talked about how relaxed he was, how peaceful he seemed. Not just peaceful with the possibility of his own death, but peaceful with himself and who he was.

They talked about how funny he was and how his wit seemed to come out of nowhere. He would see something about the world that made him laugh, and he would just point it out. If you thought it was funny too, then you and he could laugh together. If you didn’t — well, too damn bad. He thought it was funny.

Ed Swiedler was there. The voice was not.

Over the last few months, we were given a gift. We were able to see my father for who he was: someone who loved himself and accepted himself, and who could love others and accept that others loved him. That gift is something that I will always treasure.

And so I believe that if my father was able to watch us at St. David’s Church on March 15th, 2017—if he could see us all gathered together in his memory—I believe that he understood why we were there.

Reading your own writing, for fun and profit

Reading your own writing is a strange experience. It’s kind of like listening to your own voice while you’re singing: it feels like such a part of you that it’s hard to know what it really sounds like.

With your voice, it’s easy to record yourself and then play it back. Instantly, you get the same experience as a listener. It’s much harder with your writing, because your brain is very good at short-circuiting the reading process. It’s seen those words on your screen a thousand times, and so it doesn’t route them through the same neurons that get used when you read someone else’s work.

There’s also a subtle psychological ‘packaging effect’ when you read an unpublished manuscript. Because it’s not bound, justified, and paginated the way a book from the bookstore would be, manuscripts feel like they’re not books. Printing and binding a book says “this is a real book.” Printing a manuscript on an inkjet printer says “this is a work-in-progress.” Worse, it’s your work-in-progress, and it’s easy to believe that those Times New Roman words aren’t worth the copier paper you just printed them on.

So how do you trick your brain into reading your own work in the same way that you read a book you would buy from a bookstore? Well, short of wiping your memory clean, you can’t do it. But there are two techniques that can help.

The first is a bit of advice that probably dates back to Homer: put the manuscript away and work on something else. Let your brain process some other words of yours. When you come back to the first piece, a lot of the baggage will have been wiped clean, and you’ll see your story in a new light.

The second technique is to read your book in the most book-like format you can. Up until recently that was almost impossible, short of sending your rough drafts off to a vanity press for a one-copy print run. But with e-books, it’s a cinch to take your manuscript, format it for a Kindle or Kobo reader, and put it on your device.

(It’s a cinch, anyway, if you use Scrivener. If you don’t use Scrivener, well, this alone might be a good enough reason to switch.)

It’s amazing how different your own story feels when you put it on an e-reader. It’s like taking a painting, framing it, and putting it up on the wall of a gallery. Almost immediately, certain sections feel like they belong. Your brain says, “sure, this is a real book.” And some sections feel wrong, like they’re typewritten rough drafts that got pasted in. If you’d read those same sections on your screen or on printed paper, you might have passed by them without a second thought. But now that they’re part of a real book, they stand out as the stinkers they are.

So take some time away from your latest draft and work on something else. When you’re ready to come back to it, put your manuscript on your e-reader and read it in bed, or on the train, or wherever you read other people’s novels. Don’t worry about line-editing; just look for sections that feel unnatural. Mark them with the highlighting function on your e-reader and move on. When you’re finished, rewrite those sections and make them as fresh as you can.

Reading your work like this won’t replace beta readers, or developmental editors, or line-editing. But it will give you a good feel for which parts of your story are off-key, and give you confidence in the parts that do work well.

filed under electronic-words-are-people-too

How to deal with Type 2 writer’s block

As a writer, you’re going to run into times when you don’t have a good idea of what’s going to happen next. This isn’t full-on, Type 1, staring-at-a-blank-screen writer’s block, and it isn’t a mild case of Type 3, I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today doldrums. This is the in-between variety, the Type 2 writer’s block, where you know you could write a scene, but you don’t feel ready to write it yet.

For me, the problem is usually that I don’t have the right concrete details. I think there are two basic types of “what should happen” questions: high-level structural stuff and low-level details. You need both to make it through a draft (or at least, I do).

The first question is pretty simple: where is the scene/chapter/novel going? At a high level, what is it trying to achieve, and how do the pieces fit together to achieve it? For me, by the time I get to a scene or chapter, I have a pretty good idea of what I want it to do. In the story as a whole, the plot goes like this, the characters develop like that. For a particular scene, this is the state going in, and this is the state coming out.

The second (and in my opinion, more important) question is: what are the key details? You need more than big-picture ideas before you can start writing. Every generality in your story is going to be supported by specific details. Readers don’t read about the duality of self; they read about how a particular self is torn in two by a specific set of events. They don’t read about obsession; they read about how a certain person becomes obsessed with a particular thing. This applies to a scene just as much as to a novel. Readers don’t read about a conflict between two opposing goals; they read specific dialogue between two characters who have those goals.

You need (at least, I need) a few of those specifics in mind before you start writing: a line of dialogue, a particular action, even a certain description. I can go from “this scene is a muddled blank mess” to “I have a clear picture of what this scene is going to be” just by thinking of one detail or one good line of dialogue from the most important part of the scene (usually something near the end). Once I have that specific bit, I can hang the rest of the scene around it. Other parts all fall into place as either leading up to that detail, or following from it.

It’s like trying to find your way through a wilderness: when every direction seems just as valid as every other direction, it’s hard to make any progress at all. But if someone were to whisper in your ear, hey, at some point you’re going to pass by an oak tree with a big black lightning scar on its trunk, in the middle of a field with nothing else around, then suddenly you’ve got a much better sense of where you’re headed.

For me, the best way to come up with these details is to take a walk. Walking is a wonderful distraction for your body. It’s physical enough that it gets your blood flowing, but not so much that your brain has to concentrate on what it’s doing. I think the simple repetition of putting one foot in front of the other has the same drone-like cadence of a meditative chant. It takes over part of your brain, and lets the rest of it wander.

Often I find that when I start walking, it’s hard to concentrate on what I want to think about—the next section of my manuscript—and that’s okay. I try to nudge my brain there, but I give it a little time to settle in. Then, about ten minutes into the walk, my mind gets into a focused zone. I can bring up questions like “okay, brain, what should happen next?” and quite often, I’ll get good answers.

Walking may not be your cup of tea. Your cup of tea might be an actual cup of tea, just under the point of scalding, sipped on your back porch. Or a hot bath, or a ride on a unicycle. Whatever floats your boat—including, I suppose, floating boats.

The key, I think, is to get yourself away from your writing, and to get yourself into a zone where bright little bits of creativity can emerge from the dark crevices of your mind. Big-picture things like plot or structure can be chewed-over by your logical mind. But the sharp little details that make a scene work have to come out of your creative side. You can’t force them into existence; you can only put yourself into a place where they can spring into existence.

When they do appear, it’s important to get them recorded quickly. Don’t trust yourself to remember them later! For me, the best way to save ideas while on a walk is to use the voice memo feature on my phone. Then later, when I get back to my desk, I transcribe them. Since walking-and-thinking usually takes long enough that I don’t have time to write as soon as I get back (real life, unfortunately, is waiting for me), I end up transcribing the voice notes at the start of my next writing session. Hearing my own ideas about the upcoming scene, and typing them out, is a great way to ease my mind into a writing state.

Whatever your specific method is, I’ll bet twopence to a pound that there’s something you can do to move your story along that isn’t chaining yourself to a desk (and isn’t playing hooky either). If you can figure out what you have to do to get your muse to whisper some details in your ear, you’ll spend less time in a literary wasteland, trying to figure out which way you should go next.

filed under walking-your-way-to-better-writing

Listening to books

Jason Hough recently brought up something that I’ve been noticing a lot myself lately: that listening to audiobooks can improve your writing. A few months ago I started listening to audiobooks on my morning and evening commutes (since if you’re going to be stuck in Bay Area traffic for 45 minutes, you may as well listen to a good book).

What I’ve found is that my “writer’s mind” is much more active while listening to books than it is when I read them as text. Sometimes I try hard to analyze a particular writer’s technique when I’m reading, but it’s always a struggle, because I’ll get caught up in the story itself and stop paying attention to what the author is doing.

Listening to a book, though, is completely different. For whatever reason, I can immerse myself in the story while at the same time thinking about whether it works, how it works, and why it works. My mind will regularly ‘ding’ with thoughts along the lines of “ooh, that was well-done” or “meh, that could be better.” I’ve started to feel like I’m learning much more about the technique of the writers I’m reading.

And now that I think of it, that’s usually how my brain works when I’m watching a TV show or movie–a fact that my wife absolutely loves. Because walking out of a good movie, it’s perfectly normal and lovable to spend the next half-hour dissecting everything about it, right?

Maybe it’s a good thing there’s nobody in the car with me listening to my audiobooks…

filed under there’s-no-such-thing-as-over-analysis

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