First Drafts Are Supposed to be Sh**ty
~ By Heather Ashby
As a former teacher of Gifted education, I’ve seen how perfectionism can paralyze writers. If my students were to attempt a novel, few would get past the first chapter. Following is some wisdom I’ve gathered along the way that helps me move past perfectionism to finish a first draft.
If you attended Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ workshops at RWA Nationals in Atlanta, you heard the following: “For a first draft, I give you permission to throw any crap at all onto your computer screen. Don’t stop. Don’t fix it. Don’t change it. Just keep writing. You will re-write, revise, and edit those words many times over. Just get them up there.”
Here are more quotes from other well-known authors, concerning first drafts:
Anne Lamott: “Very few writers know what they’re doing until they’ve done it. The first draft is child’s play. Just write it. You can make it grown-up later.”
Natalie Goldberg: “Keep your hands moving. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. Lose control. Go for the jugular. You only get one chance at first thoughts and first emotions.”
Personally, I compare first drafts to scooping sand into a sandbox. I can make sand castles later, but first I need to gather the sand. Here are a few tips I’ve learned that help me keep my hands moving and the word count rising as I pile sand into my sandbox.
1. I set in Bold Face Red any word or phrase where I’m tempted to check for spelling, if I already used it in the story, or if further research is required. I am forbidden to check it while writing. That could lead me down twisted, time-suck paths such as other chapters, the Internet, email, and Facebook. (See # 5)
2. I don’t worry about my Overused Words. Mine are: eyes, breath, smile, laugh, oh, just, and a whole slew of cuss words. (I write about sailors.) I spend several days at the end doing a find/search for these words and change/switch them out, so that smile, laugh, grin, chuckle, a smile lit her face, humor glinted in his eyes, etc. are spaced out and used appropriately. (I keep a list to work from so I can cross them off as I use them.) I’d rather spend a day tweaking these words than lose my train of creative thought while drafting.
3. I do the same for Viscerals. I know exactly where I need to have a character experience a physical reaction to something (fear, joy, shock, surprise, lust, etc.) But if that reaction doesn’t flow from my fingertips, I type VISCERAL and keep going. When I’m done the draft, I do a find/search for the word, VISCERAL and replace it with the right words. (Wine helps with this emotion-filled activity. You may find yourself scared or crying—or tracking down your husband for a round of “research.”) The Millennium Phrase Book For Romance Writers by Rebecca Andrews is an invaluable resource for word substitutes and visceral reactions. She gives you over 3,500 samples to inspire you to write your own. The Emotion Thesaurus – A Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is another outstanding source.
4. I set my phone’s timer for a certain number of writing hours every day and start typing. If I take a break for anything besides writing (see #2), I have to hit PAUSE. I can check my email or do research—or eat lunch or go to work or take a nap—but I still have to write for a set number of hours that day. And the time doesn’t count until I hit RESUME. This keeps me focused on the prize—finishing the book.
The bottom line? Understand that the first draft is going to be re-worked many times over after you finish it. Think of your WIP as an oil painting. An artist lays in a sketch of the composition first, like a rough draft. Once she has the total picture, she goes back and layers in colors and depth. She works it and re-works it until she has a masterpiece. But for a rough draft? As I used to tell my Gifted students: “Rough drafts are like Outback. No rules; just write.”
Heather Ashby is a Navy veteran, Navy wife, and Henery Press author of the military romance series, “Love in the Fleet.” Her debut novel, Forgive & Forget was voted “Best of 2013” by Suspense Magazine. Book Two, Forget Me Not, a 2012 Golden Heart Finalist, released in December, 2013. In gratitude for her Army son’s safe return from Afghanistan and Iraq, Heather donates half her royalties to Fisher House Foundation in support of wounded warriors and their families. Go to HeatherAshby.com for more information.