Tuesday, January 13, 2015

New Year, New Draft: 14 Tips to Grow It

photo courtesy pixabay
"I hate first drafts, and it never gets easier. People always wonder what kind of superhero power they'd like to have. I wanted the ability for someone to just open up my brain and take out the entire first draft and lay it down in front of me so I can just focus on the second, third, and fourth drafts." --Judy Blume

We had all five grandkids in the house over the recent holidays in different stages, different combinations, different numbers of days. Happy times (well, except for the flu bug that visited some family members--we could have done without that), albeit messy. Let me count the ways: legos, bristle blocks, books, puzzles, markers, scissors, glue, Whoonu game chips, all that wrapping paper, random lost socks, and spilled flour during a cookie baking session. But I wouldn't have it any other way! Planting seeds in the soil of family is always a good thing.

Can I be as positive in this new year about the new draft I've decided to tackle--I mean really tackle and not just talk about? It promises to be messy, too. In preparation, I "dug up" tips to help me weed through its mess--which I offer to you, too, hoping they'll help you in turn.

14 Tips to Help Grow That First (Messy) Draft

1. Put Your Boots On. You know it'll be messy. You face knee-deep frustration and feelings of inadequacy. But there's a first step. START. Like Pixar's Emma Coates says: "Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone."

2. Plant the Seeds.  Put down words and let them germinate. Don't edit. Don't stew. Sow seeds you will later fix. "The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." --Terry Pratchett

3. Get Your Hands Dirty. Hubby used to watch Master Gardener Rebecca Kolls talk about gardening on TV. He especially liked her signature sign-off: "Get out there and get your hands dirty." Same with our first draft. We just have to dig in no matter how unpromising the pages seem at first. Darcy Pattison explains her process in Awful First Draft: It's Hard to Trust the Process this way: "Most of all, I remember: the purpose of the first draft is to figure out what story you are telling. The purpose of all other drafts is to figure out the most dramatic way to tell that story...I am trusting the process and writing a really lousy first draft."

4. Go With the Wind. Elizabeth Sims, in Writer's Digest's Get Messy With Your First Draft says it this way: 'learn to love anarchy.' She explains, "Ignore the sequence while writing your first draft...Nothing is as freeing as writing what comes to mind next, not necessarily what must come next...the first execution of your ideas must be as unfettered as possible. Which will result in--yes!--some crap: false starts, pretentiousness, clunky images and cliches. Fine. Get them out now. They'll contaminate the good stuff only until you get around to your second draft."

5. Greet the Sun. This is one of my main targets this year. In Write That First Draft: 6 Ways to Generate Material for Your Book, Huffington Post's Lisa Tener says make the time: "You want to talk bills? Kids? Out-of-town guests, day jobs, commutes? At times it seems life was designed explicitly to obstruct us from writing...So when I do manage to set time aside to write, I stick to it. I keep my writing appointments." And what about penciling in that time first thing in the morning? Will Self makes a point: "I prefer to write as soon as possible after waking, so that the oneiric inscape is still present to me." (Okay, I admit, I had to look this one up. Oneiric [adj]: of or having to do with dreams; inscape [n]: an interior view or scene.)

6. Thin the Rows. In other words, don't worry about length the first time through. "I generally write a first draft that's pretty lean," Nora Roberts is quoted as saying. "Just get the story down."

7. Shovel. I love this quote by Shannon Hale: "I'm writing my first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles." Keep shoveling!

8. Shake it Out. Elizabeth Sims again (see #4): "Get Loose. Relax, physically and mentally. If, as I do, you write your first drafts longhand, consider your pen a paintbrush. Hold it relaxed in your hand and move it from your shoulder instead of with your fingers. Your whole arm will move freely, and you'll pour out the words...Legibility is overrated. Remember that."

9. Plow. As in plow on through, surprises await. "Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised." --John Steinbeck

10. Water. It's okay to step away, take a breath, let the story work its magic in the subconscious. Ernest Hemingway advocated reading during such breaks: "When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day...I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it." Go to the well of reading. It will help.

11. Water Some More. Annie Dillard, from her book The Writing Life, admonishes: "One of the few things I know about writing is this, spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a  later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water."

12. Enjoy the Fruit. Have fun! Again, from Tener (above): "This probably seems like the most obvious one. If you're having fun, if you're experiencing the joy of discovery at all, then that freshness and excitement will be contained in the work you are creating. If you've made the time, you know how many other things you could be doing, but tonight or today you get to write. There's fun to be had. It is up to you to have it."

13. Harvest. It's simple wisdom, but as Julie Musil said in her blog post Why a Messy First Draft is a Great Thing: "A messy first draft means you've finished a book." Yes!

So where does this bring us? Why, to...hope for the second draft.

14. Celebrate the Bounty. Messy first drafts offer more than we first think. As Sims concludes, "If you practice looseness and receptivity when writing your first draft, the day will come during revisions when you realize you have a surplus of good writing to sort through." Good to know! Like rain on parched fields, there's hope in what we planted, propelling us to the next step.

So slog through that first draft. Don't let it get you down. And one last word of advice: "The first draft reveals the art, revision reveals the artist" (Michael Lee). So, in the next few months, I'm wearing my boots and getting my hands dirty in the mess of my first draft--and then on to the second. How about you? Are you ready to dig in and grow something with words, too?


  1. Wow - You did a lot of research on this one!

    I love the first draft process. Right now I'm rewriting a manuscript I "finished" some time ago, changing it from third-person to first-person. It's a little harder than I thought it would be. And honestly, I don't know which draft this is - maybe about fifth?

  2. Kendra, thanks for sharing some of my ideas! May 2015 be a very productive year for you.

  3. Peggy, like you, I lose track of the number of revisions my manuscripts go through, but that first draft? I appreciate hearing that someone loves the process! I put this post together as a reminder to myself to keep plowing through the mess, with hopes it encourages others, too :-) Good luck on revising from third-to-first person. I'm sure you're discovering different perspectives on the story by doing so. Hope you're happy with the results.

    Elizabeth, thanks so much for stopping in! I really appreciated your insights in your article and thought they might help others, too. Wishes in turn to you for a great 2015 :-)

  4. Excellent excellent advice! Just get the story down--that is so so true. I have had to hold myself back from self-editing the first draft. I wish there was a tweet button on this post so I can share it with everyone! Please add one as you write great posts!

  5. As always, this was an extraordinary post. If I had written your posts, I would be considering collating them into an e-book for sale or for free. Just sayin' ...

  6. Terri, I'm tying my hands (after getting words down) to keep myself from editing as I go! I'm determined to get this draft down no matter what. Then I'll see what I've got to work with after that. And thanks for your words of encouragement. I guess I've just been so afraid of the black hole of time that I've refused to do more social media stuff. You've almost convinced me to dive in. Now how do I get started?? So much to learn!

    And thanks to you, too, Cathy. Hubby tells me I should explore the ebook thing, too. I'm just about convinced. One of my critique buddies has done that--I'm going to have to get her to help me get started. Thanks for the prod...