By Stacey Kade
Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of writing advice. Some of it has proven useful; some not. (Can we talk about how frustrating “Write what you know” is? Gah.) But one piece of advice—with a single addendum—has made all the difference to me. It’s something I wish I’d known from the start.
Here it is: Write all the way to the end. Don’t go back and “fix” (or quit) until you have something resembling a draft. A beginning. A middle. An end.
Or, at the very least, a beginning and an end.
You can have schizophrenic characters, plot holes aplenty, and rambling notes to yourself everywhere. Fine. That’s exactly what drafting is supposed to be. But don’t stop until you’ve got something that’s vaguely story-shaped.
If you get to page 100 and realize your main character should really be a double-amputee war veteran with survivor’s guilt instead of a prom queen with daddy issues (um, wow), make a note of the changes required for earlier chapters but KEEP WRITING with your veteran as the lead instead.
Some writers keep a running Word doc of all the changes they need to make in the second draft. I prefer to use the sticky note feature in Word and leave my future self notes about what needs to be corrected.
Whatever works for you is fine. The point is to keep making forward progress. Keep swimming. Fight your instinct to go back and fix. To quote Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!” Fixing is quicksand that looks like an oasis.
Why? Well, there are a few forces at work.
It’s ridiculously easy to get sucked into polishing, worrying over every word in the first three chapters instead of pushing forward and writing chapter four. Fixing is easier than writing. It requires less mental and emotional sacrifice. And when pressed, we’re always going to go for the easy out when we’re afraid. This project, whatever it is, is important to us and we don’t want to screw it up or look like an idiot. So it’s better to obsess over what we’ve got and make it perfect, right?
Uh, no. First, there’s no such thing as perfect, and chasing that is a fool’s game. Second, every writer sits down and faces her/her fear every damn day. You will never have absolute confidence that what you’re doing is right. The best you can do is have faith, take a leap, and write the next chapter.
Two, compromised judgment.
We are own worst critics. When you’re in the middle of writing a first draft, you have NO idea what’s good and what’s not. You are in no position to judge. Think of it as a brain surgeon operating on herself. While intoxicated.
Chapters I actively HATED while writing have ended up being some of my favorites, ones I’m really proud of. I honestly have no idea why that is.
Stephen King says it best in On Writing: “Running a close second [as a writing lesson] was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
Three, you don’t know what you need until you need it.
All the prep work in the world cannot take the place of actually writing the book. There is simply no way to think out an entire book. You just can’t. There are too many variables, too many details. Even the most devoted of outliners will admit that sometimes the story or characters veer off the designated path into uncharted territory.
Do the prep work. Make your outline. But know that actually writing the book may change your understanding of a character or situation. And when that happens, you need to keep writing. A book is a living, breathing creature, fluid and changing. That character or situation may not be done evolving. If you go back and make adjustments too soon, you may end up doing it over and over again.
I know this from personal experience. When working on my first book sold on proposal, I stopped writing my first draft, three-quarters of the way through. I was convinced it was absolute crap, and nothing could save it.
I listened to the fear and the panic in my head and scrapped the draft. I immediately started a new draft, which turned out to be overly complicated, convoluted and messy because I was trying to address every perceived inadequacy of that first draft.
I turned in that second draft and hated it. In revisions, I ended up rewriting that book completely except for maybe 10 pages in the middle. I love it now, but getting there? I was exhausted and terrified.
The funny part is, when I went back and looked, my first draft, the one I scrapped, was actually a much better book than the draft I initially turned in. If I’d finished that first draft all the way to the end, I likely could have skipped the horrible second draft because I would have seen the issues more clearly and known what I needed to do to fix them.
Write to the end. No matter what.
Well, great, you might say. Now what? I have to slog through this horrible, miserable first draft all the way to the end. That sounds like fun. Thanks a lot, Stacey.
Wait. Remember that addendum I mentioned? Here it is: you have permission to write a sh*tty first draft. Getting into this deeply would require another blog post. But this beautiful and freeing gem of wisdom comes from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Go. Read it now, please, I beg you.
The basic idea is that the pressure to get something perfect on the first try is paralyzing. It kills creativity. So, give yourself the freedom to make a mess and have fun with your first draft. Will there be insane bits that make no sense? Yep, but there’ll be some really good stuff in there too.
So, write all the way to the end and don’t be afraid to make a mess of it. You get more than one draft to make things right. Keep swimming.
(Disclaimer: This method works for me, but as you know, there is more than one way to write a book! And, apparently, skin a cat. But you wouldn’t do that. Cats are nice.)
About the Author
As a former corporate copywriter, Stacey Kade has written about everything from backhoe loaders to breast pumps. But she prefers to make things up instead. She is the author of The Ghost and the Goth trilogy from Disney-Hyperion (The Ghost and the Goth, Queen of the Dead, and Body & Soul). Project Paper Doll, her new series with Hyperion, launched with The Rules in April 2013.
When she's not reading or writing, you'll likely find her on Twitter (@staceykade) or parked in front of the television, catching up on her favorite shows—Scandal, The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, Suits, and others. Stacey lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, Greg, and their two retired racing greyhounds—Walker and Pansy.
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About the Book
1. Never trust anyone.
2. Remember they are always searching.
3. Don’t get involved.
4. Keep your head down.
5. Don’t fall in love.
Five simple rules. Ariane Tucker has followed them since the night she escaped from the genetics lab where she was created, the result of combining human and extraterrestrial DNA. Ariane’s survival—and that of her adoptive father—depends on her ability to blend in among the full-blooded humans in a small Wisconsin town, to hide in plain sight at her high school from those who seek to recover their lost (and expensive) “project.”
But when a cruel prank at school goes awry, it puts her in the path of Zane Bradshaw, the police chief’s son and someone who sees too much. Someone who really sees her. After years of trying to be invisible, Ariane finds the attention frightening—and utterly intoxicating. Suddenly, nothing is simple anymore, especially not the rules…
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