Introductions: Hook, Line and Sinker

Introductions are the most exciting and ultimately terrifying of the literary endeavors. There is a firmly held belief that without imbuing the essence of a meteor shower into your first few lines, your manuscript will summarily find its new home in the overly-inhabited trash pile of the publisher. I disagree with this sentiment, primarily because I firmly believe that by now they have fully embraced the art of recycling.

How do you make your own beautiful creation stand out like a beacon of hope to prospective readers? I’ve never felt particularly qualified to answer this question. After all, its not exactly like I’ve got a slew of best sellers standing proudly at attention while bearing my name. No, I do not have that. But then I realized that I have something else, something better. I am an avid reader- one of those book junkies you hope to hook on your opening line, fiercely loyal to my favorite authors and quick to recommend their newest work. What could possibly make me more qualified than being a proud member of what is ultimately the target audience?

I believe that there is something universal that all agents, publishers and readers are looking for when they peruse the pages; they want to find something honest, original and brave. The best work will keep your mind reeling and your fingers feverishly thumbing through the pages. In your first chapter, you need to catch their attention and give them a reason to stay. Think of it like an appetizer, giving them a taste for what the kitchen has to offer. But how do you get them to stay?

There are a thousand theories on the do’s and don’ts of a first chapter, a lot of it can be pretty conflicting; don’t open with a dream sequence, don’t have too little dialog but also don’t open with dialog; don’t open with a character’s thoughts. Now, while there may be some level of merit to some of these ‘rules’ in regards to specific publishers, I’ve never turned a book down because the character had a dream on page one. I think a lot of this has to do with the context of the story, and while you should perhaps be cautious using different techniques, I don’t think there are any automatic disqualifiers. So instead, I am going to focus on the style of the first chapter as opposed to the concrete content.

Keep your prose tight. This is the biggest struggle of the first chapter. Tight verbiage is the sign of a seasoned writer. We all want to show off our skills, to pull someone in. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of flourishing descriptions and intense back-stories. I strongly advise that you be sparing. You don’t need to explain your entire world in the first chapter; you can let the mysteries slowly unfold throughout your work. Don’t lay all of your chips down up front. Remember who you are and why you are writing this book. What is it about? What is your purpose? Hold on to that and do not lose your focus.

Ensure that your tense and point of view stay uniform. If you have a changing POV in your story, make it clear quickly who is speaking. I’ve read a book or two where I had no idea which character I was following for a few pages, and that can get very frustrating for a reader. You want your work to be smooth, to be concise and easy to follow. Unclear shifting of tense and POV will leave your reader confused, which doesn’t exactly entice them to continue on to the next page. Consistency will be key.

Introduce a strong character right away. The quickest way to get a reader hooked is to give them something to care about. Typically, this means that you need to give them a character that will matter to them. The main point here is to give them a character that feels real; one that you could picture living and breathing, a three dimensional being that draws them in. In my personal opinion, the focus should be more on their personality traits and how they are interacting with the world around them, as opposed to flower descriptors. Teach them about your character through movement; let their actions speak for them. You don’t have to explain that they have a chip on their shoulder, or that they would give you the shirt off their back- show the reader these traits, let them come to these conclusions on their own instead of having to take your word for it. After all, you created them- of course you love them. Let them fall for your creation too.

Be sparing with your descriptive settings. The main point to take away from this piece of advice is that you don’t want to get lost in your setting; unless your scenery is essentially acting the part of a character, it’s best to be concise. You can show off your descriptive prowess later in the story when your reader has a reason to care; right now, you still need to convince them to turn the page. It is easy to get lost in descriptors. I have put some books down simply because the explanations overpowered the story itself. If it’s not going to add to the scene, then perhaps it doesn’t belong there. Pack a punch with the least amount of details, get creative with how you describe your scene. For example; in Crime and Punishment, the scene is described in terms of the way that Raskolnikov resented the opulence of St. Petersburg. You were able to understand the setting through your character’s eyes in a way that helped lay the groundwork for the rest of the story. Describe without making it obvious what you are doing. It might be an excellent passage, but if it doesn’t add to the story, then you might need to let it go, or perhaps find a more fitting section for it to call home.

Choose your details carefully, create a sense of urgency. When you do use your descriptive words, make sure they pack a punch. Instead of saying that the bike was dusty from lack of use, show the reader the corroded metal and the blanket of unused cobwebs. Use imagery that will stick, something that will hold the attention. Amp up your word choice, step outside of the box.

If possible, attempt a mini plot. This wont work in every situation, but in some situations, having a mini-plot to delve through will give your readers something to sink their teeth into. It will introduce your characters and show how they handle tough situations. This could be something similar to a magazine excerpt with ‘false closure’ at the end. It will only be the tip of the iceberg, but it will show what your story might contain. Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example; the first chapter stood alone quite well, it introduced the setting and the life that Harry was going to have, it ended with ‘false closure,’ and it successfully hooked the reader enough to start in the Chapter 2 where the crux of the story began to unfold.

Be fashionably late to your own party. Begin your story as late as you can, as close to the drama as possible. You want your reader to jump in with a sense of urgency, you don’t want them meandering through page after page without a clear path. Throw them into the action just before the elevator door closes, right as the plane is about to take off, when the cab has sped by.

Conflict is the key. Bait them, give them a reason to see the story through to the end. Make them care about what happens. Make them believe in your characters the way that you do. And make them squirm a little bit. We all love a touch of conflict, a dash of drama- do not disappoint, give them a taste of what your book has to offer.

Be bold. Put your best work out there. Do not humbly introduce your story, do it with a flourish. Make it memorable. Have confidence in your work. Remember why you are doing this and show them.

Take my advice with a grain of salt, like I said- I do not have a number of best sellers behind my name. I am bumbling along like everyone else. What works for me or my pieces might not work for yours- that doesn’t mean that one way is right and the other is wrong; they are different creations in need of different elements. I am a reader, that is where my insights come from. I acknowledge the elements that I crave to read and try to work those into my own pieces. Do your own research to decide what works for you.

Pick your favorite books and find a common thread. What made you turn the page, what hooked you, what was it about that story that made it impossible to turn down? Read your favorite books and look at them with your writerly eyes. You might be amazed at the simplistic beauty that brought you back for more. No two stories are ever the same, therefore the advice to imprint on each project will not be universal. You know your style and your stories better than anyone. Make them shine.

Armed with a Pen: The Editing War

You must view your work with the clinical eye of a forest fire: burn down the old to make room for the new. Unless you are descended straight from the muses themselves, the first draft is going to be a ragamuffin of a creation in desperate need of some TLC. For me personally, finishing that first draft is a mixed blessing; I’m elated that I actually saw the project through to the final sentence, and I am simultaneously terrified of the mountain that is now looming before me. The editing process takes up the vast majority of my project time; to use an over-worked example: if writing were an iceberg, the first draft would be the little blip on the surface, but the editing is the hulking beast just below the water line. Suffice it to say, it’s a large investment. I have never been able to take the image I have in my head and get it down on paper perfectly the first time. I don’t think I would trust anyone who could do something like that, it just isn’t natural.

I wish I had a series of masterful tricks and rules to impart on the best practices for the editing endeavor, but alas, I do not. I stumble through the process blindly, just like everyone else. It’s really just a matter of grit and determination. I do, however, have my own personal set of guidelines that I try to follow when I reach this stage of the game. I am not a pro, but thus far they have worked out well for me. Spoiler: it involves a lot of reading and re-reading.

If I had to condense my editing theories and boil them all down into one word, it would be: distance. There is nothing more important than giving yourself space to find perspective on your project. It’s more difficult than you would think; these stories take up our lives, we pour our hearts and souls into them, we string one word after another even when we don’t think we have the energy to complete one more sentence. So to take something that is so personal and try to view it with a clinical eye can feel next to impossible some days.

What, you may ask, is the easiest way to create distance between you and your project? Well, it is no different than creating distance between you and a friend (and no, I am not telling you to have a few too many drinks and decide to have an ‘honest conversation’ with your novel about the new man in it’s life). Time- that is the answer- time creates distance, its only natural. After I finish the last sentence on my novel, I close it up, and stick it on a shelf. Then I work on something else- anything else to get my mind off of the old project and immersed in something new.

In a few weeks, when I finally feel like I am ready to start digging down into the trenches, I will take it down, dust it off and crack the cover open. The first read through is going to be the easiest part. This first round is always where I get a feel for the way my story is presenting itself to the reader. I take care of any small corrections: spelling, grammar, name usage, etc. I also make a ton of notes on scenes that need to be changed, impressions that I get and new additions that have to be worked in. Personally, my first drafts always wind up feeling a bit too ‘fluffy’ for my tastes. So this is the point where I start modifying my word choice and adding some tougher scenes to force the grit to bubble to the surface. It’s always important to pay attention to the building blocks of your story and view how it unfolds to an outsider. I want to capture the big picture before I start tearing at all of the little pieces of my work.

The second round is where the true damage will take place. In round one I am merely an ember; in round two I turn into a raging fire, burning through my work mercilessly. Do not go into this task lightly, my friends. I come ready for literary war at this point. Never charge at that first page without being fully armed with your pen, willing and able to slash through the enemy letters without batting an eye, using copious sticky notes as your shield. This is where most words will be shed, each one fighting for their right to survive through to the final production. There can be no mercy when you are a warrior of the words; everything must have a purpose, the prose must tighten their ranks like the Spartans, each character must fall into their proper role, and all plot holes must be expertly paved over. You forge your work in the fire, making it stronger because of the trials it must endure at your hands.

I’ve found that a thesaurus will be one of your best friends at this stage, test your boundaries, pay attention to the connotation of your word choices, and whenever possible, condense. You can easily give a stronger emphasis to the underlying feel of your novel simply based on your word choice. For example: saying that someone is anxious will give you a stronger feeling than saying that they are very worried, the same way that saying you cherish someone gives you a warmer feeling than that you simply like or love them. Be intentional with the words that you choose, they will become your voice.

Pay attention to your characters and make sure that they remain true to themselves throughout the work, consistency will really give your novel the polish that it needs to become a believable piece. I go so far as to test the dialog: reading their quotes out loud to get a feel for how natural my word choice and inflections are. Are these things that you can actually picture your character saying or do they need to be changed? Do they have enough conflict? Never make anything easy for them; add some drama by strategically placing a few more problems for them to overcome.

When you are all done go back and do it again, as many times as you need. Keep tearing it down and rebuilding it until you feel like it has finally matured enough to stand up on its own. It’s not an easy process, and I know my system is a bit labor intensive; I’m sure someone else out there has a much easier way to go about this. But it’s always worked for me, and editing is one of those things that I firmly believe should not be rushed.

September is the month of going back; I’m pulling out old projects, dusting them off and pushing through until they feel ready. It is one of the most difficult parts of the process, but it is also one of my favorites. I love re-reading scenes that I once wrote, getting lost in a story of my own creation for a fleeting moment and rediscovering what I once loved about these characters. It feels great to dust off the pages and make them shine. I can only hope that the second, or third, or fourth draft will finally sound like the story that I had in my mind, the one that kept me awake at night before I was able to get it all down on paper.

Technological Love Spat meets Determination

I’m writing this post on my cell phone because my laptop and router seem to be having yet another lovers quarrel, and the router is refusing to let anyone connect to resolve the conflict. She has figuratively locked herself in the bathroom and until she decides to open the door and reconnect to the outside world, I am stuck typing on this teeny little touch pad. My fingers are far too large for this and autocorrect is getting much too clever for her own good tonight. But I am still here, writing away. 

This isn’t the first time that my two little technogoical love birds have found themselves in a spat- oh yes, I have bore witness to many a sudden disconnection- leaving me awkwardly hoping that the cute little quip I had finally concocted managed to save before the technogoical silent treatment ensued. Normally when this happens I go through a few stages of my own grief. First there is denial, where I repeatedly click the refresh button and hold my breath. Then there is anger (I will spare you the visual, but needless to say, it involves some very colorful swear words and threats- lots and lots of threats). After that I reach the bargaining stage: trying to make deals with my little cyber couple, using every episode of Friends I have ever seen to convince them that they do love each other and communication is the key to their happiness. From there I spiral into depression: I will never be the author that I hoped to be if I can’t depend on the tools at my disposal. I can’t exactly upload a post with my handy dandy notebook. And then I reach that blissful point of acceptance. This is where I resign myself to my fate, go find a tub of ice team, pick up the remote and begrudgingly embrace my writerless fate of The Big Bang Theory. Better luck next time, ole girl. 

But that was the old Katie, the pre-goal Katie, if you will. Today slinking away was not an option. Instead I got up, grabbed the leash and walked away my frustration with a very happy dog (simultaneously checking off another item on that ‘goals’ list I made). And when I got home, I was ready to give it my all- even if that meant delicately clicking these touch pad keys and scrutinizing every word to ensure that my chubby thumbs did not completely mangle it (providing autocorrect with creative license to turn it into anything her demonic little heart desired).

What’s the point to this odd little story, you may ask? It’s simple, really. It doesn’t matter what the goal is, there will always be something that decides to stand in your way. Life is good at givingus little tests of faith, trying to find how bad we really want what we are striving for. Sometimes we succeed and show our true grit, other times we fail and slink away to lick our wounds. The point is to get back up and keep on reaching, keeping on pushing yourself one step farther. Be creative if you have to, but don’t give up just because a roadblock tries to fall on you. Sometimes what you really need to do is stick out your tongue at the moody little router and remind her that you have a data plan you have been sparingly using this month for just such an occasion. 

You will only be defeated if you let yourself be. If you want an excuse, you’ll find one- the world is full of them. But if you want a solution, take a deep breath, find a new angle and look a little closer. There is always a work-around, if you are only willing to push yourself to find it. 

So tonight, I celebrate a small success. It’s just one little post, it’s not my best, it probably won’t be one that anyone finds particularly noteworthy- but it’s here. I set a goal, I promised myself one post every other day. And I kept it even though it was so easy to break, to back down and tell myself that I will simply write two days in a row next time to make up for it. Today I was determined, today I was tested, and today I passed. (Now if I could only find this kind of attitude for my alleged work-out routine. Baby steps, I guess).

The Writing Space (my little hobbit hole)

I’ve stared in envious jealousy when my favorite authors have posted pictures of their offices, these beautiful and spacious writing areas that are conducive to their own form of brilliance, usually complete with their very own wood-burning fireplace. And then I look at mine and wonder if it will ever be anything more than what it is. My writing space is my sanctuary, it is the place where I find my genuine self. My seat is worn, my desk is typically messy, and my book shelf has seen better days. But it is mine. It is the home of my favorite creations, the worlds that I bring to life on the page.

There is nothing more important to the creative process than finding a space that will nurture it. I spent many years (okay- virtually all of my life) without one, I worked wherever I happened to have space- usually on my bed with my back propped up against the wall- and full disclosure, I am actually doing that right now because there is a slight possibility that my desk is covered in pears that I got from work, and I’m too lazy tonight to find a reasonable place to store them while they ripen. The kitchen is out of the question, they will be eaten before I even get a taste. So, naturally, I am hoarding them on my desk and writing in my bed.

The writing space isn’t necessarily about the physical set-up: you don’t need a large oak desk and a fancy computer to get those creative juices flowing, you don’t need modern art to feel that rush of words slipping from your finger tips. No, the writing space is more about the way you feel when you are in it. It’s about surrounding yourself with what inspires you, the things that make you think, that remind you what you are working for. It could be something as simple as bringing your favorite Iron Man notebook out to the big oak tree at your nearest park- that could be the place where all of your fictional beings are born. Or perhaps you feel that vibe at your local coffee shop with a caramel macchiato. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of the perfect work space. And for that matter, it doesn’t even have to be the same space each time. Just because it is working for you one day, doesn’t mean it will be the ideal spot for you tomorrow. I rove around a lot when I work. During the summer I love sitting out at the picnic table on the back patio, throwing my dog’s favorite toy and listening to the rustling leaves while I type away. Other days I camp out on the couch with a fluffy blanket and a sweatshirt. You have to be in tune with yourself to know where you will be most likely to stay focused and inspired. It is not an easy task.

So today, I’m going to take you on a virtual tour of my own little area- and I will apologize now, the picture is just a little bit older, simply because you are probably not interested in seeing the mountain of pears, and I know I am not interested in cleaning it up. And there might be a coffee mug. And a water bottle. And maybe a bowl of Hershey kisses. But shh, you don’t have to know that. Here it is, my little comfort zone- it’s changed a little bit since this picture was taken, but not enough to make a big deal out of it.

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I am going to preface this by saying that I live in small quarters, trust me, there is not a Pinterest trick on saving space that I have not read or tried at least once, and there is not a single organizational tool that I have not bought and (more often than not) promptly sent off to Goodwill. I have learned to be very creative with what I have. So my writing space is nothing lavish or fancy, it is not going to be getting me on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, and I sure wont be featured on HGTV anytime soon. But I love it, and that’s all that matters in the end.

My fiancé and I both have our own little desks in the ‘office’- which also happens to double as our main living space. This usually doesn’t cause a ton of problems, although there are the occasional noise complaints from one to the other- luckily, that is why headphones were invented.

My desk is nothing fancy- it’s one we bought at Ikea a few months ago when we finally made the space for it. I was actually quite proud because I managed to put it together all on my own without any male assistance- and to top it off, they were Ikea directions with no words and very confusing pictures. I was feeling like one hell of an independent woman that night, She-Ra Warrior Princess in the flesh. There was only one board I put on backwards, but I caught it before irreparable harm could be done. That same night it was christened ‘Katie’s desk de independence (no boys required).’ When I bought it I fell in love with the fact that it had a built in whiteboard, although I have since learned that it’s not the best quality and the markers wont erase without special cleaners, so instead I cover it in sticky notes.

As I said, it is a small space. It’s pressed up against a bookshelf on one side, which holds our tv, and on the other is the wall that I like to stick current projects materials to. Above it are some wall shelves that hold a lot of my books- including all of my writing focused ones. It also carries my cherished binders, my ‘story bibles’ if you will- all of my prepping and plotting work that I’ve done for each of my projects (one of which you can see on the desk in the picture). I have sticky notes taped everywhere with my favotire inspirational quotes, a few stickers I got from a Nano donation a year or so ago, and odds and ends I got as gifts or on vacation. It’s an odd assortment of things I have surrounded myself with, but everything on it is no-shame, 100% me. The Chinese fortune sticks on the far left (behind the water bottle as shown), my favorite black elephant decoration is smiling right at me from his perch, there’s a small hour glass that holds a piece of coal taken from the Titanic, my Walking Dead and Disney figurines, there’s an empty flask my sister got me that looks like a Nintendo game, a little gold Buddha and some pictures from important moments in my life (there are a couple more now than there were when this was taken). My prized possession though would be the little orange book with the white tabby on the cover- written by the only person in my family I have ever known to be published.

It’s not a popular book by any means, but I did manage to find a few copies on Amazon and Ebay. It holds a place of prominence, a reminder of what I can do if I only try hard enough. It’s a children’s book called ‘Tuffy’s Travels,’ written by my mother’s favorite aunt, Marie Persson. Annie Ree- that’s what they used to call her. She passed away from cancer before I was born, I never met her. But she inspires me every day. I always keep her book where I can see it as a reminder that it’s not impossible, I can make it if I only work hard and keep trying to improve my craft. Getting published has always felt like such a distance dream that belonged in the realm of ‘someday.’ This book reminds me that ‘someday’ gets a little bit closer every single time I start stringing those words together.

I can only hope that someday I will be able to look back at my humble beginnings- all of those nights spent on my bed or couch with my laptop propped on my knees. My time in this little desk that I made all my own, crammed into a tiny room that we’ve have to refinaggle to fit into. Clicking and clacking away at the dream that has never left my soul from the moment I was able to tell my tall tales as a child.

The writing space is only important as long as it helps you be creative. Some people thrive in clutter, others practically need a ruler to line up their pencils. I am somewhere in between. It’s not always ideal, but it is mine. This is what I have, and I am so proud of it. Although if you have ever taken a peek at the office of James Rollins (one of my all-time favorite authors)- holy cow, I can ony dream of reaching that level someday. Go ahead, peek through his office window like a creeper and see the magic inside- I don’t think he’ll mind, this image came courtesy of his Twitter feed, after all.  (twitter.com/jamesrollins/media)- and while you’re at it, if you are looking for a new series to read, give the Sigma series a try, you wont regret it. Until then, the dream will live on.

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Write What you Know – Misleading or Misunderstood?

We have all heard those words, the first cardinal rule told to any aspiring author: write what you know. Some say that this is the worst piece of advice that could ever be given in the history of the written world. But in true Tisy Typer form, I am going to  play a bit of the devil’s advocate with this one, mainly because I believe that it’s a bit of misunderstood advice.

Those who take the words at their face value find themselves at a loss; does this mean that to write a believable murder mystery you have to actually have the experience of killing someone? Or to write about an actor, do you need to jump out there and get your fifteen minutes of fame so that your frame of reference is authentic? By that same token, J.K Rowling should have personally attended Hogwarts, Suzanne Collins would have to participate in the Reaping for the annual Hunger Games, Douglas Adams should have dragged a towel through the universe and Tolkien should have annual birthday parties with the hobbitsies. And yet these are all still excellent books. So do these examples themselves refute the old quote?

No. You see, there is a very similar thread that runs through all of these stories, and it is a rather simple one. They were all written in such a way to make you feel something deep in your gut, something true, something genuine. These authors wrote about what they knew in terms of the emotions that they used. Have you ever been so scared that you felt your body move on pure instinct- you could run a thousand miles, pick up the baseball bat you have next to the door, scream bloody murder in the middle of the room? You have just discovered the animalistic fear that shades The Hunger Games. Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong, like there was something different about you that everyone else could see? Have you ever felt the desire to protect those that you love? Do some of those emotions remind you of Harry Potter at all? The truths that you need to write aren’t superficial events, they are the truths buried within your soul. They are your fears, your hopes, your dreams, your emotions. The thing that makes a book truly magical is the feeling that it can generate in another. The books that speak to me are the ones that seem to be reading my soul and reflecting it back to me. They say the words that I have never been able to utter. Those are the stories that change me, those are the things that make a good writer elevate to a great one.

It’s easy to get caught up in superficial thoughts and emotions of a scene, to plot and plan what you would expect a character to feel- which is right enough in its own way, but you can’t forget to add that prism of personal color. You need to tap into your own heart to convince your audience that the words you say are real. Use these lessons, these experiences, these deep emotions- and bring your work to life. If you wish to make an impact, you have to learn to bleed your soul into your writing. Otherwise you will be just another fluffy novel on the shelf, to be easily forgotten.

We want to see fiction that speaks to us because it is full of truths. We take inspiration from everything that we encounter in life; the books we read, the movies we watch, the magazines we scan, the news that assaults our ears, the coworkers in the breakroom- the world is full of nothing but literary fodder. We love the created realms that remind us of a part of our own lives. We are drawn to apocalyptic fiction because it feels like that is where our world is headed, it feels like the road we are traveling. We see a terrifying truth within those pages. We love Harry Potter because, in spite of the simmering cauldrons, incantations and wand waving, we remember what it was like growing up. We remember that girl in class who knew all of the answers, the boy that everyone wanted to know, we all had that funny best friend that made all of the difference. We remembered the friends of our own past that became family; fights and all. We also recognized the simple fact of a world divided. There were those that believed in keeping the wizarding bloodlines pure, and those that felt embracing diversity would be the answer to all of their problems. Doesn’t that sound like a familiar theme? We want to see something that we can recognize in a world full of wonders and adventures. We can look at the pain and problems of our own world through the prism of a story.

When I read a book I want to feel something. I want words that will resonate in my soul. I want to feel like I am not alone- because at least one other person out there has felt the way that I have felt. We all have such varied experiences to color our work. Some know the pain of losing a loved one, the deep struggle of dealing with addiction, the joys and frustrations of love, the fear and panic a midnight call can bring- we have more stories within us than we will ever know. Write what you know, be brave enough to remind your readers that they are not alone in this big scary world.

The Rough Draft: Building Sand Castles

Once upon a time in the land of the laptop, hidden in the obscure folders no one but the renowned author would ever dare visit, there lived the mysterious first draft. And what a horrendous creature he truly was. Stitched together with well-intentioned words and colored with a myriad of flourishing descriptions, he grew into something unrecognized by his creator. He face was pocked with plot holes, he was verbose with his descriptions, and minimal where it truly counted to make a point. His word choices were elementary and unrefined, he had more ‘buts’ than an ashtray and more ‘ands’ than this sentence. His grammar was tragically outdated, and his conclusory comments were rather anti-climactic. The average author would run in sudden fear at the sight of such a monster. But not this author, no. Much like Shrek, this author saw the potential buried under the grimy prose of the creature. This author was the Belle that would turn this beast into a beautiful prince.

Anyone who has tried to write a novel knows that the first draft is only the beginning, it is the tiny tip of the colossal iceberg. It’s not like in the movies where you sit down, you type and then in one fell swoop you have an instant best-seller with no need for revision. I tried to explain this once to someone who has been asking to read my work for a while now. I mentioned that I needed to do one more round of editing before the project would be ready. Their response, while well intentioned, was fairly misled. They believed that I had worked hard enough on the draft that someone should enjoy it. While it is true, I had put my blood, sweat and tears into the project- that was exactly why I didn’t want anyone to see it yet. When you work so hard on something, you want it to show, and often time the first draft does not reflect the work that went into it.

I have to constantly remind myself that the first draft is just the first stepping stone, the true heart of the work happens after the crude words are penned. I keep some quotes taped to my writing desk, right at eye level so that they are easily seen when I am ready to toss down the pen or close the laptop and walk away. They remind me to keep fighting for my goals, they propel me to give it just one more try. There are hundreds of quotes floating around out in the world that tell about the difficult struggle that is the first draft, leading me to believe that even the best writers feel the same pressures that the humble little no-name me feels too. These are just a few of my favorites:

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No one is going to see the first draft unless you decide that you want them to. Think of it like the solo runs, preparing you for the big race. Don’t take yourself so seriously, and don’t expect your work to glitter and shine at this stage. There will be parts that you write that will make you beam with pride at your own genius, and there will be parts that make you cringe and seriously contemplate burning it all. But in the end, the first draft is only the groundwork.

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This draft is for you, to flesh out the story and figure out what it really is that you want to say. Personally, I usually go into my first draft with a particular idea in mind, but by the end I am starting to see a glint of something new shining through. It isn’t until I begin my revisions that I start to see what it is that had been hidden under all of my other thoughts and bubbling words. I find the heart of my work and start brushing all of the clutter away to make it shine. Tell yourself the story that you want to hear so that you will be ready to speak it to the world when the time comes.

 

Then again, if you prefer to be blunt…

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Oh Hemingway, never one to mince words. Perhaps you prefer the route of brutal honesty, if that is the case, then this is the quote for you. I have to say, to know that someone with such talent and success felt this way about his work- it gives me hope that perhaps I am not too far off the mark myself.

This next one is the one that I keep right in front of my eyes at my desk, it is my constant reminder of what I am actually doing…

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Every time I write a first draft, I hate it- I can see the promise, but it is never the grad word I had hoped for it to become. I always have a vision in my head of what the story will look, sound and feel like. I begin my draft with the best of intentions, and yet my final product never matches what I had thought it would become. There is always a trace of it’s true potential underlying the mess I have made, a beautiful string that echoes the truth I had hoped to convey. That is the moment when it is time to wield the red pen with a vengeance, slicing through the muck and the grime to let the true promise shine through.

I can tell as I an writing that I am not doing my story justice. There are days when I feel like I should quit my current project, put in some more work practicing, and then come back when I feel like my skills are more on level with the caliber of story I want to write. Don’t fall into this trap. The first draft is not meant to be beautiful, it is not meant to be good. There may be people out there who think that writing is simply sitting at your keyboard, running through one draft and then shopping for a publisher- they have simply never bled over a keyboard the way that we do. Your work is like an iceberg. The first draft is just the tip that pops out of the water line; all of the editing is below the surface. A first draft is a warm up, the work out is in the editing. I could come up with a hundred other analogies, but I bet you get the picture.

Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect- if that is what you are aiming for, you will never reach your goal. The first draft is meant to be ugly and messy. It is the bones of your story, to be molded and shaped later. It is simply a start. Don’t give up when the first draft is not what you envisioned. You are simply shoveling sand into a box so that later you can build castles. And what beautiful castles they will eventually be, if you are willing to take the time to sculpt them.

Stood Up By My Muse (Again)

The muse is a fickle creature, one minute inspiring you to ignore the entire universe and feverishly write without thought of food or personal care, then next moment she traipses away like smoke in the wind, leaving you land locked and unsure. If there is a way to force her attendance, I have not discovered it yet. She is a flighty creature, and will come and go as she sees fit. Unfortunatly, she usually picks the most inopporitune times to strike: when I am busy at work, in the shower, or out living my daily life (unfortunately, the groceries have not yet figured out how to buy themselves and walk home).

And yet when I plan out my night, fully expecting her to join me for a romantic computer-lit date filled with witty quips and shocking plot twists- she is nowhere to be found. I am left to type away all on my own, with only the slightest hint of inspiration to keep me trudging through the words to reach my daily goal. I have realized over the years that she is the flaky friend you cannot wait on, because if you do, you will find yourself simply spinning in circles.

So what do you do when your muse stands you up yet again? You can go for a walk, run around the block and hope you attract her attention. But after a while you open your laptop (or notebook, per your preference), take a deep breath and start writing. The muse waits for no one- but if she is to magically appear, she ought to find you working. It is the one thing that might attract her. It’s hard to continue typing away when you have no real fire burning inside of you, when you have to pry every word from your fingertips and paste them to the page. But you do it anyway, because as writers we are that kind of crazy. You write, and you slog through, and in a few weeks when you begin your editing- you wont know which scenes she had been present for, and which ones you fought for all on your own.

Writing is not easy, we don’t do it because it is simple. We do it because there is a story inside of us that must see the light of day before it drives us mad. When the muse decides to grace you with her presence, take advantage of that, write feverishly, stay up late, immerse yourself in the words pouring from your soul. And when she is gone, don’t stop. That flighty fiend will always find a way back to you when you least expect it. Writing is the surest way to draw her back in.

I’m not saying to push it when every fiber of your being needs a break- by all means, take the time you need to recharge. Go for a walk, take a shower, read a book, watch a show, bake something- recharge your batteries. But if she still hasn’t arrived- run and jump, dive back into your story and reach your goals. You can do it, even without her- you are a spectacular writer. Just remember that.