Since this month is Speedbo month, I thought it would be appropriate to give you the best piece of writing advice that I’ve ever been given: Don’t get it right, get it written.
Many years ago, when I was starting out as a writer, I had a pile of unfinished manuscripts, each with only three chapters written. I would get a great idea, start writing, second-guess, rethink, rewrite, doubt, show it to someone, get bad feedback, rewrite again, and … finally, after months of working on those three chapters, I’d lose interest in that story and toss it into a drawer. Then I’d start a new book.
Then one day at a writer’s conference, I heard this principle, and it clicked. I went home, determined to write a first draft without judgment, without going back to change anything, without showing it to anyone. For the first time, I was able to fly through a manuscript, building momentum as I went. I resolved not to let anything interrupt that momentum. Because I knew the temptation to rewrite before I moved on, I didn’t allow myself to read what I’d already written before I started each day. I simply picked up where I left off and plowed forward.
I should mention here that I’m not going for magic in that first pass. My first draft is always really bad. Years ago, one of my great fears was that I would drop dead during a first draft, and out of a sense of nostalgia or sentimentality, my husband would show it to someone. The thought was horrifying, so very early on, he and I had an agreement that he was to burn any of my first drafts the very day I was hit by a bus or decapitated by a lumber truck. I told him often, just in case he got distracted by my sudden demise and forgot. It was as important as the fact that I wanted a closed casket and someone to clean my toilets before the mourners started arriving.
I have to admit, writing that first draft is drudgery, wrought with fear and dread as I force myself to get that story down. But those feelings instantly fade when I start the the second draft, because that’s when my creativity is allowed to flourish. That’s when I work on my prose and smooth out my scenes. That’s when my setting comes alive. That’s when I really get to know my characters. I no longer fear that I’ll never finish, because I’ve already finished it once.
How to Plow Through a First Draft
In order to fly through my first draft, I have to do some preparation. I need a map to follow so I won’t get off course. It’s probably possible for seat-of-the-pantsers to write a first draft quickly, but they must have a better sense of direction than I have. Inspired by the storyboards that film-makers use, I’ve adopted my own version of storyboarding. Whereas film-makers draw pictures depicting their camera shots, I write out my scenes on index cards, which I used to tack to a big bulletin board. Now I’ve gotten rid of the board and use the index card feature of Scrivener. I still often handwrite the cards, but then I type the scenes onto the Scrivener cards so I can keep them neatly on the screen.
I plot out the major arc of the story, with each scene that comes to my mind, spacing those scenes out accordingly. Then I plot backward if necessary, or I ask what happens next, and go as far as I can in both directions, making a card for each step. Then I look at the holes in the plot and figure out what should fill them. In the case of generalized cards, where it says something like, “She looks all over the country for him,” I try to figure out what that would look like in actual scenes. Would I show her going to Tulsa’s police department? Would she drive the streets of New Orleans? Who would she talk to? What would she learn? I jot those scenes on cards, then place them on the board where they should logically go.
Usually, I’m ready to start writing before I finish story-boarding, and I don’t want to quench that passion, so I focus most intensely on the first hundred pages of index cards first. Then I start that first draft. When I get to the end of the first hundred pages, I’ll take a day or so to pay meticulous detail to the index cards for the next hundred page segment. I don’t let myself go back and make changes. If I need to change something in the part I’ve already written, I make myself a note in brackets. It looks something like this: [CHANGE MARTY’S JOB FROM FIRE JUMPER TO MASSEUSE.] I will fix that on the next pass. But from that point on, I’ll just consider him a masseuse.
I’ll repeat that process for each hundred page segment until I’ve gotten to the end. Yes, my plot often changes as it’s in progress. Sometimes I don’t think of a plot twist until I’m at that point in the story, but then I just make some quick changes to my index cards so I can remember what I’ve done, and go on.
There have been times when my storyboard system breaks down, and I just can’t get a handle on the plot enough to write it. In that case, it’s helpful for me to go ahead and write a detailed synopsis for myself, so I can see how the whole story works on paper. It has much more detail than I would put in the synopsis I give to my editor, but once it’s finished, I then make changes to my storyboard to reflect what’s in the synopsis.
I know what you’re thinking. These steps sound like they slow down the process. But honestly, the storyboarding and writing of the synopsis usually don’t take more than a week. I don’t spend a lot of time on it. But once there’s enough on my board to map out a hundred pages, I let the horse out of the gate.
I hope this has helped you fly through your first draft for Speedbo month. If you don’t want to use index cards the way I do, at least take a few to post around your writing space. On them, pen the words, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” Make it your motto. Then avoid the instant gratification—or embarrassment—of showing your first draft to friends or writers’ groups for critiques (unless it’s just to show them that you’ve been putting in the work), and for heaven’s sake, don’t upload it to Kindle. Make a deal with your spouse and kids. That first layer is for your eyes only, until the end of time. Just get it down on paper as fast as you can. Then start all over, rewriting it until it sings. One level at a time, one draft after another, all on the flat foundation of that miraculous … and very messy … first draft.
Happy Speedbo Month! You can do it!
Terri Blackstock has sold over seven million books worldwide and is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. She is the award-winning author of Intervention, Vicious Cycle, and Downfall, as well as the Moonlighters, Cape Refuge, Newpointe 911, SunCoast Chronicles, and Restoration Series. Her latest book is If I Run.
See the complete list of Terri’s books at http://www.terriblackstock.com/books. Join her at Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/tblackstock) and Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/TerriBlackstock).
If I Run (Zondervan)
Casey Cox’s DNA is all over the crime scene. There’s no use talking to police; they have failed her abysmally before. She has to flee before she’s arrested . . . or worse. The truth doesn’t matter anymore.
But what is the truth? That’s the question haunting Dylan Roberts, the war-weary veteran hired to find Casey. PTSD has marked him damaged goods, but bringing Casey back can redeem him. Though the crime scene seems to tell the whole story, details of the murder aren’t adding up. Casey Cox doesn’t fit the profile of a killer. But are Dylan’s skewed perceptions keeping him from being objective? If she isn’t guilty, why did she run?
Unraveling her past and the evidence that condemns her will take more time than he has, but as Dylan’s damaged soul intersects with hers, he is faced with two choices. The girl who occupies his every thought is a psychopathic killer . . . or a selfless hero. And the truth could be the most deadly weapon yet.
Terri has generously offered a copy of If I Run to one commenter. Leave a comment letting us know how your Speedbo is going. Or leave a question for Terri, or an observation on "Don't Get it Right, Get it Written."
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