Wednesday, July 01, 2009

First Drafts for Dummies

Yeah, I know. I wrote a post called Writing and Leisure, and then I disappeared. But I am not in Tahiti. Not even DisneyWorld. I’ve been parked on this couch writing, and the writing goeth swimmingly, and all is right with the world. More on this later.

For now, behold: This is me writing the first draft of a new chapter.

Step One: Read previous chapter to get the flow of the story so far. Resist impulse to change “just this one word.” That way madness lies. Not to mention the rest of the day.

Step Two: Sit in rocking chair with notebook (spiral, not computer) and pen. Jot down thoughts about new chapter: setting, action, conflict, characters’ motivations, brilliant flashes of insight. If no brilliant flashes of insight, draw arrows between notes. Arrows make me feel smart.

Step Three: Go downstairs. Heat mug of milk for Ghirardelli white chocolate drink. This is a Ritual and must not be skipped under any circumstances. If we’re out of milk, whine. Get over it and pour a glass of cranberry juice instead.

Step Four: Boot up laptop. Open new document. With great efficiency, format header and page numbers. Type chapter title. Realize with small shock that now I actually have to start writing.

Step Five: Go back to chapter title and underline it.

Step Six: Get up to let dogs out.

Step Seven: Type a paragraph.

Step Eight: Delete paragraph except one phrase that’s kind of cool.

Step Nine: Delete phrase.

Step Ten: Let dogs back in.

Step Eleven: Stare at laptop screen. Decide that what I really need to do is more research. Immediate burst of happiness. Realize that happiness means that research is, in fact, the last thing I need to do. Stare at laptop screen some more.

Step Twelve: Remove cat(s) from napping position across laptop and both forearms (an attractive position to cat because arms have been so motionless as to seem completely inert.) Push away when he/they try to climb back on.

Step Thirteen: Phrase in character’s voice floats through head. Scramble after it, pin it down. If dog starts barking or phone starts ringing and concentration is lost, woe betide. WOE. That means you, Ginny.

Step Fourteen: Write next sentence. Resist impulse to immediately delete. Repeat until manage to string together approximately 1000 words. When stuck,* go check email on upstairs computer. Come right back. Resist impulse to play “just one game” of Scrabble.

Step Fifteen: Save document. Savor feelings of achievement and virtue. Proudly report word count to spouse when he gets home from work.

Writing the first draft of a new chapter, Days Two to…?
Step One: Read the previous day’s work. Delete approximately seven hundred of the thousand words.

Step Two: Drink most of hot Ghirardelli white chocolate drink. Feel marginally better.

Step Three: Repeat Steps Five through Fifteen until chapter is complete. Resist impulse to spend most of each day polishing first three pages to a high gloss while ignoring the fact that the rest of the chapter isn’t yet written. As needed, buy new tins of Ghirardelli. Try not to run out of milk.

Now that you’ve seen how to write the first draft of a chapter, the next stage is writing the first draft of an entire novel. Which you might assume would be simply repeating the above process over and over. But wait, grasshopper! Flaming eyes of danger lurk in that tall grass. Stay tuned.

*The varying levels of stuck are commonly recognized as:
Level 1: Five minutes spent checking email or wandering aimlessly through the house is enough to achieve unstickage. Writer returns promptly and happily to manuscript. Some experts believe that this is not actual stickage, but simply a pause to refresh.

Level 2: Writer cannot resist urge to play Scrabble game. Writer vows to return to manuscript after one game. Okay, two games, because the computer opponent cheated. Writer wins. Order to universe is restored. Writer smugly returns to manuscript.

Level 3: Writer finishes Scrabble game(s). Realizes it’s been over an hour since last checking previous novel’s ranking. Writer checks. Writer becomes surly. Writer spends an hour reading blogs and/or updating Facebook +/- Twitter. Writer reluctantly returns to manuscript.

Level 4: Writer decides checkbook must be balanced without delay.

Level 5: After balancing checkbook, writer willingly cleans bathroom and/or cat litter.

Level 6: Writer’s house is spotlessly clean. Lawn is mowed, dogs are bathed, bills are paid and this year’s tax receipts are sorted and filed. Oh look, it’s late. Time to make dinner.

Level 7: Some experts believe Level 7 stickage does not exist. (No doubt these are the same cockeyed optimists who doubt the validity of Level 1.) Among novelists, however, it is commonly believed that no one knows what happens at Level 7 because no writers so afflicted have successfully found their way back to their manuscripts. Keep a candle burning in the window for these lost souls. (Metaphorically, of course. No sense setting fire to the drapes.)


Blogger Jenny Seay said...

This sounds very similar to my own writing process, with only a subtraction of the animals and more recently, the significant other.

It's always so reassuring to hear that this is a common experience. Not that I wish it on anyone, but at least we're suffering in solidarity! :)

7:07 AM  
Blogger Melissa Marsh said...

Hahahaha - this was a great post, Christine! And boy, can I ever relate. Sometimes it takes me ages to settle down and really get to work.

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Walter Rowntree said...

I'll second the Haha.
Esp. "Arrows make me feel smart"
In most ways doing a surgery is just so much more straight forward. There is no going for white chocolate drink, no wondering how long we can stand having our arm circulation cut off.
You know, maybe I should try my hand at writing. Sounds kinda' like fun.
Looking forward to more!

5:44 PM  
Blogger Christine Fletcher said...

Jenny and Melissa: yeah, we all go through pretty much the same process, don't we? :) It's reassuring to know that we're not the only ones.

I think those writers who can bang out a first draft lickety-split are actually aliens from another planet, sent to Earth to annoy us. Note to aliens: It's working.

Walter: As you know, I avoid surgery...maybe because it's a little TOO straightforward. It's the lack of an UNDO button that makes me nervous. And yeah, writing is fun. Even though it seems like we do nothing but's still a blast. Plus it's a great excuse to drink something incredibly decadent and bad for me.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Sally Nemeth said...

Thanks for the suggestions. Your post contains a couple of procrastinations in which I don't yet indulge. YET. May I return the favor?

9:36 AM  
Blogger Christine Fletcher said...

Sally, return away! I'd love to know how other people procrastinate...I need new ideas. :)

5:30 PM  
Blogger lkmadigan said...

This post is painfully familiar. You can see it being played out in my house with only minor variations. (My barker is a black dog ... my beverage is iced tea.)

I now know if I really want to be productive, I have to go to the library and sit in a Quiet Room, with the WiFi disabled.



6:28 AM  
Blogger Christine Fletcher said...

Lisa, the library Quiet Room is a fabulous idea. Although I have to admit I've gotten pretty good at dealing with WiFi; I disable it on the laptop, which means I have to go upstairs to check email, etc. Given that I am intensely physically lazy, this actually works most of the time. :)

8:51 AM  
Blogger lkmadigan said...

If only my barker did not find it necessary to alert me each time someone walks down the street.


9:26 PM  
Anonymous walter said...

A bark! Must get up and see who/what it is!

3:35 PM  
Blogger Lisa Schroeder said...

Mmm, Ghiradelli white chocolate drink? I think I want!

I think Lisa, you and I are all working on a first draft. We must have a BIG celebration when we all finish.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Christine Fletcher said...

Lisa, I would be SO up for that!

Ghirardelli. Fred Meyer. Coffee aisle. Don't buy the last one or I will hunt it down and take it from you.

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Lisa Nowak said...

Oh, this is hilarious. Especially Level 7. I don't have so much trouble on the first draft, because I'm one of those evil beings who uses an outline, but when I'm doing a final polish and absolutely can't think of how to re-word an awkward phrase, I'm guilty of all this plus yard work.

12:16 PM  

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