Your Infant Story

Muse at 11, Writing

Your first draft is a baby story, not fully-grown story.  Be kind to it.  Nurture it.  Work hard on it, sure, but don’t be hard on it.

Babies are such a nice way to start people.  ~Don Herrold

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Be Honest, Be Accurate

Muse at 11, Writing

In one of his books, Stephen King describes a “purring fart that sounded like ripping cloth.”

When I first read that, my genteel side reacted–Whoa!  Gross!  No thanks!  But a second later my mind’s eye (or ear, I guess) reported back:  “Nope.  He’s right.  That’s what it sounded like.”

This is another thing that can be tricky about writing whatever shows up.  Sometimes what shows up is weird.  Or gross.  Or cheesy.  Or nonsensical.

Nevertheless, if you want your writing to really transport your reader to the scene that’s playing within your mind, you have to report what shows up accurately.  If you gloss over details (even the gnarly ones), you’re cheating your reader.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. — Exodus 20:16

Your Worst Draft Ever

Muse at 11, Writing

In our last episode, I advised that you “write whatever shows up” in your first draft, including seemingly unrelated tangents.

But sometimes…you know…writing whatever shows up just…feels…awkward.  And it certainly doesn’t look nice and publishable when you’re done!

Here’s a trick you can use to conquer perfectionism paralysis.  It was given to me by Professor McFarland, a German teacher of mine.  He said, and I quote:

“Write the worst paper ever.”

This was an actual in-class assignment from him, and it helped me out all throughout college and beyond.  Anytime the blank page looks to intimidating, I just give myself the goal of writing the worst piece of writing ever.  And suddenly, I can get started!

A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.  ~John Henry Newman

Write Down Everything That Shows Up

Muse at 11, Writing

This advice may seem contrary to what I just posted (“Trim fat, add muscle“).  But when you’re in the moment writing (not editing!), if something random comes up, don’t immediately scream ‘THAT’S NOT RELEVANT’ and move on.  This is especially important in your first draft.

If you exclude absolutely everything not related to the plot, your story’s flavor will suffer.  If my character decides in the middle of a scene that he’d like to talk about his mom now (or more specifically, about these pills his mom takes), I let him.  Sometimes what he says shows up later in a MUCH more dramatic way!

(At the same time, though, if you have a pet subject that shows up in your story and you go on and on about it like it’s the natural history of whales, that may be a natural outgrowth of your enthusiasm–not a natural outgrowth of the story.)

Follow the story.  When you’re writing down something new, write down everything that shows up–in the editing stage, it’s much easier to trim and rearrange than it is to write something that’ll fit in the empty yawning hole you avoided writing in the first place.  (Trust me, I had to do it in Out Where the Sun Always Shines.  It worked, but writing it in the middle editing felt really awkward).

“Pay very close attention to the first three concepts that come out–they are usually the most fresh and unhindered.”

–Luc Mayrand, The Imagineering Way

“Trim fat, add muscle.”

Muse at 11, Writing

This is something for you to kind of have an eye out for during the writing process (but don’t do anything about it–because you’re writing, remember?).  But when it comes time for you to actively edit your piece remember this:  SKIP THE BORING PARTS.

I just read two books: Bruce Coville’s My Teacher is an Alien

vs and

Richard Paul Evans’ Michael Vey: Prisoner of Cell 25.

Both have interesting premises (Coville’s is Exactly What It Says on the Tin; Evans’ is about a boy with electrical powers), and deal with kids taking on forces way bigger than them.

But here’s the thing: Coville’s book is only 128 pages.  But every scene that has to be there, is there (with exception of one–when a shy bookworm suddenly starts showing his smarts in class; that’s summarized, and I’d bet if Mr. Coville did it today, he’d write that scene out so we can see it), and there is nothing…well, there are extraneous-sounding things, but all of it’s entertaining, and in the end, relevant in some way or another.  The scenario is played out to the fullest degree.  The high notes were hit, the dull parts summarized, and the book became memorable.  All in 128 pages.  The story, in other words, is so tight it could float.

In contrast, I’m thinking the first section of of Evans’ 326-page novel plods.  In the first hundred pages or so (remember, in that amount of time, Coville’s written an entire story) I have to sit through the presentation of the following:

  1. Michael is an average dude.
  2. Michael is short.
  3. Michael has problems at school.
  4. Michael deals with bullies at school.
  5. Michael’s Mom has single-mom problems.
  6. Michael likes a girl who doesn’t know he exists.
  7. Michael may have a mysterious past.
  8. Oh, yeah, Michael has a mysterious power.

None of these things are exactly irrelevant, but do we need to spend 100 pages on these mundanities?  Especially when there’s kids with superpowers and conspiracy theories and bad guys about?

All of these things be written about in an interesting manner; the trick is to “trim fat, add muscle” (as my writer friend Linsey told me once).

If it sits there, it’s not getting you to the good part, and you should consider cutting it.  If it’s moving the story forward or adding flavor, keep it!

When you’re in editing, take note of anything that you, personally, are skimming over.  It might be a clue that it needs to be cut, summarized, or rewritten.

It is a crime to bore your audience.

–Unknown

Better Frankensteining with Multiple Drafts

Muse at 11, Writing

I have like a million drafts of everything.  The original handwritten draft, of course, exists in its own book.  Once I type that into the computer, it gets saved as my first draft.  Every set of edits is saved afterwards to my harddrive under a different name, like “OWTSAS-Draft 1.”  (I keep my digital drafts in other places, too–besides my main harddrive, I keep copies on my flash drive and a separate external harddrive.)

Why do this?  Easy: I might need to Frankenstein something.

Sometimes I’ll be five drafts in and realize, “Hey, I wrote a great sentence for this back in draft one!”

Thanks to the miracle of backing up my older drafts, all I have to do is open the old draft, extract the phrase I want, and paste it into the current draft I’m working on.  Some work later, I’ve created the perfect paragraph!  I call this practice of piecing together parts of different drafts “Frankensteining”, for obvious reasons.

I used this practice often when writing papers in school, and it’s also come in useful in writing Out Where the Sun Always Shines (which wound up having five digital drafts total).

In computing terms, text takes up very little space, so backing up every draft isn’t a big deal, even with a huge novel!

A backup is like a spare tire, easily forgotten when not needed, but when you do need it you really do need it.

— Unknown (taken from Backup.info)

Building Up and Breaking Down

Muse at 11, Writing

Before we get too far into things, I wanted to put up a couple of my definitions.

Writing is the act of putting words on a page and making something new.  You put word upon word, line upon line, paragraph upon paragraph, always moving forward.

Editing is taking a draft of writing and tinkering with it.  You add, you take away, you rearrange.

Writing is the first action.  It’s about getting something down.  For me, this process is about “allowing” and almost not-caring about what I’m doing.

Editing is the second action.  You examine and evaluate the results of your first step.  Your goal is to improve, smooth out, something that already exists.

Both steps are necessary to the overall writing process.  And I’ve found that they’re best done at separate times.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven [. . .]  A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up[.]”

— Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3

Say Yes

Muse at 11, Writing

You’ve probably seen Whose Line is it Anyway?, a show where the points don’t matter and comedians come up with funny sketches on the spot, and the audience loves it.

Improv’s an interesting theatrical practice where you say “yes” to everything, because, well, saying “yes” makes things happen.

I discovered (through my friend Meike) that there’s actually a lot of theory running around behind improv.  One of the sayings I found, and actually have included my novel’s Word file so I see it pretty often, is the following:

Improv is allowing, not forcing.

When you allow your novel to do its own thing, yeah, a couple times you might run into a dead end, but I’ve found that the more I trust the material to do what it wants, the more fascinating things it does without me having to think about it.

Don’t feel held back by what Orson Scott Card some writing manual says you should do.  Let things happen in your work–the results may delight you!

“Discoveries are often made by not following instructions, by going off the main road, by trying the untried.”

–Frank Tyger

White Sheet of Death

Muse at 11, Writing

The blank sheet of paper (I just wrote “blank sheet of failure”) is scary.  It comes with an implied message that you, sir, ain’t manly enough to fill me with anything of quality. 

Ignore it.  A dozens of pages of embarrasing scrawl in your notebook may be humbling, but those pages are also tangible results of your work.  Retreat from your desk with nothing in hand and the blank paper will be smirking behind your back before the door’s clicked shut.

Here’s my motto:

YOU CAN’T WRITE SOMETHIN’ IF YOU DON’T WRITE NOTHIN’.

Want to write something of quality?  Get ready to murder some trees, because until you start filling pages with something-anything!, you will never achieve quality.

Take ‘er away, Chuck.

“You’ve got a million bad drawings in you; you better get started.”
Chuck Jones