Thursday, February 26, 2009

Overcoming Obstacles and Finishing That First Draft

Writing that first word of a story or novel can be like summiting Mt. Everest! There's this whole blank page in front of you and no one else can fill it up. Your heart beats a little faster because you know you're on the threshold of creative potential but you're afraid to step over it. Such is the excitement and terror of a first draft. What are some of the things that can hinder your progress in getting to the end, and what can you do to deal with them?

First Draft Freedom
The first draft of anything (even this blog post) is a beautiful thing. You have free reign to say whatever you want, however you want. No one has to know what mangled phrases and misused words littered that first attempt at a masterpiece. Like a newborn baby, you don't know exactly what the idea will be when it grows up. Like a child, a first draft needs a little freedom to explore and discover what it wants to become. Unlike children, your first draft needs no limitations. In fact, the fewer the better. Below are a few things that could get in your way and tips to avoid them.

Obstacle #1: Editing and Rewriting
These two things do not belong in the same room with you when writing the first of anything. Repress the desire to rewrite the first sentence; don't fret over word choice; and leave things blank if you can't think of the word(s) you want. If you can't think of a name for a character, try inserting NAME until later. I find that keeps me from stalling and also reminds me that that character needs a name. Ideas won't flow if you stop to adjust mistakes constantly or rewrite every sentence as you go. The Editor is your best friend later but not now.

Obstacle #2: Overthinking
Should Jimmy find out from his brother that Christine lied to him? Maybe not but this is not the time to worry about it. Remember that your first draft is a skeleton, a place to start. For now, follow impulses, embrace wild or incredulous ideas, and pick details from a hat. Analyzing belongs to the rewriting portion of the program. I've heard published authors mention how a main character's name (and to some extent identity) changed in rewrites. Clearly, they didn't fret over details on the first go around.

Obstacle #3: Criticizing
"This is the worst story anyone has ever written!" Comments like that should never be uttered to yourself while writing the first draft. This is the time for fumbling and blundering. You'll write boring passages, scenes that are D.O.A., and rough dialogue. But you may also find a character with a lot of emotional potential, stumble upon a moment when the story becomes something more, or write a scene of raw feeling you never knew you had in you. There's a lot of magic that can happen if you push through the imperfection. Tell The Critic to take a vacation. You have work to do.

Push to the End
Writing magic can happen in a first draft when you stop editing yourself, thinking too much, and criticizing every word. When you shush these three obstacles, you may find a story in the rough just waiting for you to chip away at it until you expose its full potential. And that is worth all the anguish a blank page can bring.

Get Writing!
Take an idea from your notebook or a favorite writing prompt source. In one writing session, complete a first draft of this idea (beginning, middle, and end) in 500-1000 words. Your Goal: Telling yourself you're writing a complete first draft of a story is a great way to quiet mental obstacles. You'll be more focused on writing, and putting a deadline on the draft can really kick things into high-gear.

What is your biggest obstacle when writing a first draft? How do you overcome it? Share your thoughts here!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Writing Prompt

A baby is born and says, "Hello. My name is...." Write what happens from there in about 500 words.

What's your response to this prompt? Post it here!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Leaping Out of My Comfort Zone: Writing a Novel in a Month

Most of you have probably heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I've never participated and this past November (when the contest takes place), I had too much going on personally to take part. Instead, I decided to do it by myself in January 2009. So I buckled up over the last week of December 2008 and told myself there would be no wriggling out of it. I was writing a novel in 31 days.

I've never written a novel in a year or more nevermind one month. The NaNoWriMo challenge is writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, or around 1,667 words a day. NaNoWriMo creator Chris Baty recommends giving yourself a maximum of one week to plan. The way my life went in December, I had a few hours to scrape up a vague premise and main character. So on January 1, 2009, I knew I was writing about a young woman in medieval England who was marrying a complete stranger and leaving her home and family.

The first day or two of writing I thought, "This is going to be the worst novel ever." I walked along with my main characters, feeling them out, seeking out a plot. At one point, my biggest aspiration for my main character was that she would have a baby! That would have been fine too but the characters started speaking and dealing with each other and pretty soon the main storyline was charging ahead. In the end, I wrote I pretty satisfying tale and actually exceeded the word minimum by about 10,000. More importantly, I wrapped up my story, which had some exciting twists that even I didn't see coming.

Will I do things differently the next time I write a novel in a month? Yes and no. I knew going the historical route would be difficult. I have a decent knowledge of the Middle Ages but it drove me nuts ignoring details I didn't have time to research. So next time I'll stick to a modern setting. I also found the plot got a little more complicated than I desired. The hardest part was wrapping up all the loose ends. I did well but afterward I realized I'd still missed something. I'll definitely keep things simple the next time around. I still won't spend much time planning ahead though. I like not knowing exactly where it's all going.

Would I do it again? In the middle of January I was ready to start again in February. And at the end, when I was burnt out and struggling to finish the story, I still wanted to. So yes. When November 2009 rolls around, I hope I can participate. If not, I'll do it on my own again. I came out seeing character development in a whole new light. Writing short assignments of 300-500 words now seems like nothing. And I see my writing from a whole new vantage point.

If you've never written a novel in a month, I recommend trying it. You'll be scared, excited, and frustrated, sometimes all at once. But when you finish and have the first draft of a book in front of you, I promise you won't regret one minute of it.

Have you participated in NaNoWriMo? What was your experience?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to Concentrate When Writing

Do you have trouble concentrating when you write? Do you find thoughts of anything and everything, from laundry to weekend activities, rush into your mind? I certainly do. I know part of it is the desire to procrastinate. But some of it is just life. Many of us have families and day jobs and homes to care for. These things take time and energy both physically and mentally. So how can you escape from all these things begging for your attention? Here are a few suggestions I've found helpful and I hope they will help you too.

Quiet outside distractions. Some distractions are simple to cut off - the TV for example - while others not so much, including family members or others in the house. If possible, find a room you can disappear into and close the door, or at least a space away from everyone. You might try leaving the house, going to a park or another place. I've even written in my car while parked outside a fast food joint. Sometimes just switching environments can make all the difference in your concentration level.

Put on background music. Light, non-intrusive music can help quiet the other thoughts in your head and help you to focus on the task at hand. I find lightweight classical music (Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach) and classic jazz make great companions. Whatever music you prefer, playing it softly can really help you get down to business.

Deal with one thing crowding your brain. If something keeps nagging me, sometimes I just get up and deal with it. I tell myself that I will fill the dishwasher and then I am under obligation to sit down and write. It's not always a good idea though. If you know that it's just a procrastination trick, it may be better to ignore it and keep writing. But if the task is important (you forgot to pay a bill), you may be better off taking care of it first. But make sure to make a deal with yourself that you're only doing that one thing because it's important. Don't let the tricky Procrastinator lure you away from your notebook!

So when it's hard to concentrate on writing, try to turn off or escape from external distractions, switch on some soft music, or take care of one task that won't leave you alone. Then sit down, take a deep breath, and put that pen to paper!

What helps you to concentrate when you're writing? Post your suggestions!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Writing Prompt

A woman walks around town with a parrot on her shoulder. In about one page, write a scene where the woman bumps into a new neighbor. What does the parrot say? What does it reveal about its owner to the new neighbor?

What did you come up with? Post your response!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Writing Prompt

On a beach, lifeguard chair marked ZOE vertically on the side is empty. Who sits in this chair? And where is he/she? Write a scene in 300 words.

What did you come up with?
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