Tag Archives: craft

Bad First Drafts-Not Just for Beginners

In her classic craft of fiction book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devoted an entire chapter to bad first drafts. She used a more colorful term, but her overriding message was almost all first drafts are bad. This reminded me of a quote I came across on Karen Miller’s blog from Terry Pratchett that was so on target I wrote it down: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Whether new or experienced, most writers find the first draft a daunting task. Writers are still discovering their story and yet they expect too much from the first draft. When the story isn’t flowing the way it should, writers get discouraged. Experienced writers work through this, but novice writers should mind Anne Lamott’s advice. The truth is first drafts don’t have to be great, or even good. First drafts just have to be finished. Even if the writer believes his first draft is the worst piece of fiction ever written, there’s a story somewhere amid those 80,000 words. There are characters waiting to be filled out and completed. The writer’s job is to find the story and the characters, polish them and refine them.

The first draft is easier when the writer approaches it with an uninhibited mindset. As Lamott put it, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Like many writers, I constantly fight the urge to edit my first draft. I’m one of those writers who has to read what he wrote in the previous session before continuing with the first draft. This does two things: it gets me into the flow of the story and I also discover some glaring error that I correct. However, we must recognize that too much editing and obsessing over scenes already written can derail the writer.

Here’s another quote from Lamott that I should tape to my laptop: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

When you finish your first draft, put it aside for at least four weeks. When you return to it, some of the questions to ask are:

  • What is the essence of the story? Is the premise fully developed? Is the theme evident?
  • What is the main character’s strongest trait? Biggest weakness? Is it evident to the reader? Does the main character grow or change?
  • What is the central conflict in the story and has the writer maximized it to its full potential?
  • Is there enough tension throughout to sustain interest in the story?
  • What is the best scene? What is the worst scene? Can it be cut?
  • Who is the weakest character? Can this character be cut without harming the story?

Here are some other perspectives on first drafts:

Karen Miller

Harriet Smart

Learn to Write Fiction

Writer Unboxed-Anne Greenwood Brown

Write to Done

Writer’s Digest

What’s your view on first drafts? Do you labor over them or rush to get them done?

 

 

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I’d Like My Stakes Well Done, Please

One of the reasons Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy became such a runaway international bestseller was his uncanny ability to raise the stakes throughout the three-book series. In an interview published in the November/December 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, bestselling author Ken Follett put it this way: “There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic.” Larsson did a masterful job of that. Pick up any of the three books and every four or five pages, something happens that quickens the reader’s heartbeat.

Stakes don’t have to be large. The fate of the world doesn’t have to hinge on every plot twist. Stakes do have to create tension. They have to matter to the reader. Agent Donald Maass, in another Writer’s Digest article, talked about three types of stakes: personal, ultimate and public. The type of stakes an author chooses to employ will depend on the genre. In a mystery, the stakes are obvious. Someone has committed a crime and it’s up to the main character to solve it. In a spy thriller, the fate of the world might rest with a character who must stop the bad guys from destroying the planet. In a family saga, the stakes are more personal, often involving an inner conflict or a battle of wills between two characters.

Here are some common mistakes a writer might make in developing stakes:

  • A relationship between two characters develops too fast, sucking all the tension and uncertainty out of the story. This could work in a romance when the main character wins the heart of her man, and then loses him. She then embarks on a quest to get him back, but a quick resolution will wreck the suspense.
  • The initial stakes are too high, leaving the writer with nowhere to go. If the main character is involved in a fierce firefight on page one and one thousand people die in the first chapter, how does the writer top that? A rising body count won’t do it.
  • Surprise twists that the writer fails to  tie to the central conflict or to the story as a whole. Surprises are an essential element in building suspense, but the consequences that arise out of the surprise twist must be consistent with the story.
  • Giving away too much information too soon. The best writers hold something back. They don’t drop a giant info dump that tells the reader everything she needs to know about the protagonist on page 2 of the story. They parse information, often withholding important details until just the right moment.
  • Relentless action. The reader needs to take a breath. Watch a suspenseful movie. There’s always a pause, a lull in the action, because the viewer cannot process nonstop action.

One of the best techniques for raising the stakes is to put the main character through a series of ever-more-difficult challenges. The character must summon an inner strength she never knew she had to overcome these stakes. When the stakes are significant and the main character struggles heroically or must make a difficult choice, the reader feels satisfaction.

Think of stakes as the engine that drives your story. When you feel your story lagging, raise the stakes.

What are the best examples of novels where the author skillfully raises the stakes?

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