WFMAD Day 26 – Permission to write suckaously

Several of you asked me to address the universal discomfort of sucky early drafts.

Given the barn floor quality of my early drafts, I consider myself an expert in this area. “Queen of Awful Early Drafts,” that’s what you can inscribe on my crown.

Here’s the thing they probably don’t tell you in MFA school: writing a book that is good enough to be published will always take longer than you want it to. Much longer. As in, it could take years longer.

So what?

You haven’t bet the mortgage payment on being published in the next six months. The health of your children or partner doesn’t depend on how many words you wrote today. And no matter how hard you try, your writing will not change the path of Hurricane Irene.

One of the best things I ever did to help my career was to pay a visit to the Cornell University Library. There, in the third sub-basement, and after surrendering my driver’s license and kidneys to the gorgon guarding the door, I went into a hermetically sealed room, and pawed through the papers of E. B. White.

Guess what? He wrote some HORRIBLE pages in the early drafts of Charlotte’s Web. Stanky! He rewrote the opening chapter something like eight times!!!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that my writing talent and skills even come close to those of E. B. White. So if he needed time and space to write suckaously in order to find his path to his clear writing and brilliant storytelling, then I sure as hell have permission to muddle and muck around as much as I need.

You have permission to write sucky.

You do not have permission to submit sucky writing.

You have permission to write as many drafts as required to bust out of suckaiousness and into something that readers will enjoy.

You do not have permission to whine because the process takes longer than you want.

Ready… Make sure you have stored one gallon of water for each person in your house for the next seven days. Plus water for your pets. And realize that if the hurricane does mess up your life this weekend, there’s a chance that you might not be able to flush your toilet for a while. (Hurricanes give writers such good material to work with!!!)

Set… “Be obscure clearly.” E. B. White

Today’s prompt: Write yourself a permission note to write less than Newbery- or Pulitzer quality in early drafts. Be sure to note things like the fact that you are not a demi-god, and that demi-gods are crappy writers anyway, and if it were easy, you wouldn’t be challenged and you’d be trying to do something else, like composing duets for harpsichord and spoon. Heap it on. Shovel hard. Try to fill two pages in fifteen minutes.

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…

WFMAD Day 25 – Dive in


One of the differences (for me) between an early and a late draft is that as I revise, I trim or cut the opening chapters. I have a bad habit of frontloading too much information in early drafts. I see this when I do manuscript critiques, too. The author goes on a long-winded explanation of the culture of the world where the story is set, or they give every detail about the night the main character’s grandparents met, etc. These chapters have a great deal of “telling,” usually in the narrator’s omniscient voice, and not much in the way of “showing,” i.e. action or dialog.

If you are feeling a little guilty after reading the paragraph above, knock it off. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It means you’re still arm-wrestling an early draft.

But at some point, you need to take a deep breath, cut out all the fluff, and dive in to your story.

We shove all that background stuff into the front of the book where it doesn’t belong, because WE, that is, the author, are still figuring out the world of the story. The trick is once you’ve figured out all the background and the situations that led up to your opening dramatic scene, to cut out most or all of it. (The Latin for this is in media res.) You’ll find ways to subtly weave in the information as the story unfolds. If you absolutely, positively cannot bring yourself to cut out the four pages of chapter one in which you explain why all the characters have one foot, and the etiquette of how a left-foot person asks a right-foot person to dance, and the overthrow of the government that was the direct result of the covert importation of the first sneakers ever seen in this distant land, then I have news for you.

You might want to find a different opening scene, one that is so compelling, you don’t drown your reader in backstory.

Ready… Clear your throat. For real. You sound like you’re coming down with something. Do you want a lemon drop?

Set… “Finally, I try to work slow. I plod, double-check, and triple-check and then check a couple more times. If I go slow enough, I can hopefully craft something that the reader will fly through in a straight rush. That’s the goal, anyway.” Joe Hill

Today’s prompt: Write “Once upon a time,” and then complete the sentence. BUT! Make it an action-packed sentence. No background. No explanation. All showing, no telling. Make it the kind of sentence that will put your reader on the edge of his seat and beg you for the rest of the story. See if you can write at least fifteen of these sentences in the next fifteen minutes.

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…


Thank you.

The 4th Annual WFMAD Challenge is almost over. What would you like me to discuss in the days we have left? Any burning questions? Pet peeves? Ponderous problems? Tell me all about them and I’ll see what I can do to help.

OK. Now go do that scribble thing.

WFMAD Day 24 – Overcoming the pain

No earthquakes up here on the tundra today, so I’ll write yesterday’s original blog idea.

The idea came from my right knee. The right knee that started acting up at mile 13 during yesterday’s run, and forced me to stop many, many times to stretch. (Because it’s not really my knee that is the issue. My right ITB has a tendency to tighten up, which pulls the knee a bit out of alignment.)

Yesterday’s run was supposed to be my first attempt at 20 miles as I continue with my training for my first marathon this fall. I was nervous. My husband couldn’t come with me. I got started later than I wanted. But mostly I was nervous because what kind of idiot thinks they can run 20 miles? Or 26.2? That is insane.

The knee pain I was fighting seemed the best confirmation of my worst fears; that I’m not really a runner, that I’ll never be a runner, that I was born without the talent or the knees to run serious distances, that I’ve been deluding myself all year, that people are laughing about me behind my back, that I’m wasting my time, energy, and money, that I should be sensible and stick to 5Ks.

Sound familiar?

When you are pain, the whispers of doubt start to shout. It happens to everyone who is trying to express themselves creatively. The discomfort and confusion of trying to figure out a first draft leads you to doubt yourself, then get angry and criticize yourself, then come up with a bogus reason to procrastinate.

I did not quit yesterday. I slowed down, stretched a lot, walked a bit, and kept going. By mile 18, I started singing. Because I was going to make it. Not fast, not pretty, but who cares? I was running farther than I had ever run before. The sun was shining, birds singing, and I was joyous. I ran 21 miles yesterday. I did not let the fear and pain conquer me. They ran alongside me for a while, but I found the courage to wave good-bye to them and go off on my own path.

Ready… Take a minute to dream your secret dream of artistic or athletic triumph.

Set… “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Today’s prompt: Write about a moment when you or your main character had to face a fear.

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…

WFMAD Day 23 – Earthquake edition

I had a great run today. On that great run, I thought of the PERFECT WFMAD blog post. I shuffled home, ate, showered, and headed out to run a few errands before I sat down to write. Somewhere in the middle of the errands, there was an earthquake. No, I did not feel it, though several people in my area said they did. (For the record, my kid in Brooklyn, and my kid outside of Philly both felt it rather dramatically.)

As I write this, damage and injury caused by the earthquake seem to be minimal. Since that’s the case, I’m using it.

(I’ll write the blog post I thought up while running tomorrow, as long as there is not another earthquake.)

image from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

Ready… Make sure you have a clear path to the doorway, in case another earthquake hits and you need to flee. You can finish your fifteen minutes as soon as you are safely settled outside.

Set… “I by no means rank poetry high in the scale of intelligence – this may look like affectation but it is my real opinion. It is the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake.” Lord Byron

Today’s prompt: Does your story have any earthquakes; some huge, unexpected, and potentially devastating? If not, brainstorm a list of potential earthquakes; a car accident, a divorce, cancer diagnosis, etc. that mght completely upend your character’s life. You probably won’t use this in your book, but it is a useful exercise for getting to know your character’s inner life better.

What kinds of emotional or physical earthquakes have you survived? How does the way you feel about it today differ from your reaction when it happened?

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…

WFMAD Day 22 – Habit-trails

We are gerbils.

We have our paths that we run daily; kitchen, car, office, school, work. We pause at regular intervals to eat and to (ahem) get rid of what we’ve eaten. Most of us bathe regularly and brush our teeth.

We are the products of our habits. Only problem is, when not enough of our habits feed our souls, we get cranky, gloomy, cantankerous, spiteful, melancholy, and we eat vats of ice cream. Life has turned into a giant Habitrail. We press our paws and nose against the plastic walls, but if feels like there is no way out.

One of the more painful (and useful) lessons in life is realizing that people can say anything, and that what they say can be hot, smelly air. If you really want to understand someone, or you’re trying to figure out what kind of person they are, observe what they do. Actions do, indeed, speak much louder than words.

What do your habits say about the kind of person you are? Is that who you want to be right now?

Ready… Not that I want you to waste anymore time on the Internet, but one of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits, is sure to help if you are trying to reorient your life. Also, Lifehack has 6 Ways To Make New Habits Stick.

Set… “The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” Samuel Johnson

Today’s prompt: Make a list of habits that either you or your main character has. If you’re writing about your character, make a note of which habits he is aware of, and which ones he doesn’t realize that he does. Which of these habits (yours or your character’s) have begun to stand in the way of obtaining a desire or fulfilling a dream? How? Why?

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…