Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘first drafts’

Wrestling with a First Draft

As I’m nearing the end of another first draft, I’m reminded of how messy they can be. “Don’t worry about first drafts,” experienced writers advise. “The most important thing is to just get something down on paper. Allow yourself to write crap.”

I follow that advice. Yet what always astonishes me is how hard it is to get that crap down on paper. One thing that helps me is to set daily word goals. I most often set a goal of 500 words a day. It’s a word count I can reach with minimal hair pulling, and many times I surpass it. After all, the hardest part is just getting myself to the computer. Knowing I can quit after 500 words makes the whole process seem doable.

Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to set a much lower goal in order to lure myself to the computer. So I set a goal of 200 words a day. That only worked a few days and then I came to a complete stop. I soon realized why.

First, I don’t have a clear focus for the book. I need to be able to tell in a single sentence what is important about the subject of my book. Usually, I have that sentence clearly in mind before I start writing. But with this book, I’m on the last chapter of my first draft and I still don’t have a clue. I’ve had trouble making that decision because the subject has had so many accomplishments and she continues to achieve.

Second, I’m not sure of what I want to include in the final chapter. That indicates a problem with my research. Fortunately, I’ve come up with a plan to get back on track.

First, since this book is part of a series, I’ll read other books in the series. Then I’ll try to tell in one sentence what those books are about. It should give me a clearer idea of the focus for my book because reading what others have done is always a big help.

Second, I’ll go back to the research. Nine times out of ten, when I get “stuck” with my writing it’s an indication that I don’t have enough information. I need to dig deeper.

Finally, I’ll keep reminding myself to relax and just do the best I can on the first draft. After all, what follows is the rewrite, and that’s the part I love.

The Writing-Go-Round

It’s been only a few days since I sent the manuscript for my latest book off to my editors. That means I’m still adjusting to the loss. It’s what always happens. It’s a good feeling to finally finish a book, but there’s also a letdown. After working so intently on a book, when it’s gone, it feels like I’ve lost a dear friend.

Of course, I’m not completely done with the book yet. The editors will be sending it back with suggestions for rewriting. There will be more changes when the book gets to layout. That’s because of the unique features of the leveled readers I’ve been writing the last few years.

The first goal with every book is to tell an interesting story. For biographies that means presenting the facts in a way that holds the readers’ attention. With leveled readers, there’s the added challenge of making sure the writing fits on the page the way it should. Each two-page spread needs a certain number of lines. So the manuscript will bounce back and forth between my editors, the book designer, and me several times in the next few months while we work out the details. Even so there will be days and even weeks during that time when I don’t have anything to do on that book. That means I suddenly have time on my hands.

That down time is just part of the writing-go-round, the stages I go through with each book. The only way past the letdown of a finished book is to start the process all over again with a new project. Beginning is the most delicious of the writing stages. First, there’s the excitement of a new idea. That excitement only builds with the research. As I discover fascinating details about the subject of my new book, I’m certain that it’s going to be my best book ever.

That bubble bursts when it comes to the next stage – writing the first draft. I’ve learned to accept that my first draft is going to be crap. That’s okay because I can pull it all together with the rewrite. There’s just one problem: I can’t rewrite until I actually write something and that does not come easily. My head may be overflowing with good ideas, but my brain does not allow them to tumble out in complete sentences. Fortunately, I have a couple of first draft tricks.

The first trick actually starts with the research. Sentences and sometimes complete paragraphs come to me as I research. I jot them down in a notebook that I always have nearby. That way when I start the first draft, I don’t need to be terrified of a blank computer screen. I already have a few sentences and paragraphs that I can type in to begin.

I also set a goal to write a certain number of words each day. The first few days are stressful and I make a lot of trips to the refrigerator before I reach the day’s goal. At the end of each day, I print out what I wrote. Then I begin the next day by heading out to the coffee shop. There I rewrite what I wrote the day before and begin adding to it in longhand. By the time I get home to the computer, I’ve already made some good headway towards reaching the number of words for that day. Eventually, I get into a flow with the writing, and after several days or weeks depending on the length of the project, I have a first draft.

Then I’m ready to rewrite. That’s the part I love because I can begin to see the book coming together. I call it a rewrite, but actually it’s many rewrites and can cover a long period of time. I cut sections and rearrange paragraphs. I see holes in the writing, places that need more detail, and go back to the research to get the information I need to fill those holes. I submit the manuscript to my writers’ group. They are great at pointing out places that don’t make sense. I need that input. Sometimes an idea is so clear in my head that I don’t realize I haven’t given readers enough information to understand what I’m talking about.

I also think about something a middle school teacher taught me when I spoke to her English classes many years ago. She had a checklist she gave to her students to help them with the rewriting process. One tip on that list stuck with me because it was something I had never heard. It said to look at what was good in the manuscript and think about how to make it even better. So I work on the good parts too. I read the manuscript out loud. If I stumble over the words of a sentence, I know it isn’t quite right. So I do more polishing until I like the way it sounds.

Although rewriting is fun for me, it’s also intense. I get so absorbed in the writing that I forget everything else. I guess that’s why it feels like such a loss when the book is finished. So I take a few days to adjust. I clean my much neglected house and spend time with my equally neglected friends and family. But after a few days off, I can’t wait to start all over again with the excitement of beginning a new project.

Tag Cloud