Radio Free Bard

What should I put in my first draft?

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 24, 2008


Remember that idea you had for a sex scene that you decided wouldn’t work? Write it anyway.

Remember how the story was going to branch off to deal with the father’s abusive wife but you felt it was too topical? Write it anyway.

Remember the scene that added colour to a character but had very little to do with the plot? Write it anyway.

The idea with a first draft is to build a block of granite from which you will chisel your masterpiece. A larger block of granite will allow for more creativity and more options in your final draft.

Write the scenes that come into your head. Write the characters that you might not need. Don’t start the editing process prematurely; you’re kidding yourself if you think your first draft will have any need for polish. I may have mentioned this in my post about curing writer’s block: your internal editor is only going to stop you from writing what you need to write.

A difference between a first draft and a block of granite that is worth noting is your ability to seamlessly attach parts that you had chiseled away. This may be important when it comes to your third or fourth draft. It’s much easier to rewrite something than it is to write it in the first instance. If you realise that something is missing from later revisions, it helps to know you have raw materials that, with the right type of editing, can be reintroduced to the whole seamlessly.

At least two of my favourite short fictions written by Brisbane authors were sections cropped from earlier novels and subsequently re-worked. If you want to be a writer, write then edit. If you want to be an editor, teacher, critic, proofreader, agent, unemployed, edit then write.

My first attempt at a novel became the blockwork for my first collection of short stories. The ones that were published were the ones that I hated. I still dislike them.

What should you put in your first draft? Everything.

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Curing writer’s block

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 12, 2008

There is a line that a writer crosses when they decide that they want to be a writer, not a hobbyist. The hobbyist can leave their writing for months on end and content themselves with the drudgery of their lives, never picking up a pen and never stressing at the vacuum of inspiration. When someone crosses that line into budding author, they are doomed to feel the invisible ropes of writer’s block tug them backwards from the page or the keys. They must face the hunger of the empty page without the food of inspiration.

This post is born out of writer’s block.

There are many types of writer’s block. In this post I aim to guilt you out of having them.

Symptoms: Unable to translate plan into paragraph. Can’t think of how to start the first page. Constantly crushing the page or deleting what you’ve written.

Cause: Your standards are too high and you’re trying to be Harper Lee on your first draft. Your perfectionism is killing your creativity.

Solution: Be willing to write crap. As Hemingway put it, “The first draft of everything is shit.” If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer, so write. It doesn’t matter what you write, just write it and don’t edit it until you’ve written more than you’re willing to discard. As a writer you have to have faith in what you can do. The day I knew I could become a writer was the day I realised I was supposed to edit my first draft, not publish it.

Symptoms: Constantly distracted, always finding something to do other than writing. Real life keeps getting in the way.

Cause: You’ve forgotten how easy it is to write. You’re either building it up in your mind as something horribly difficult or tedious or even worse, you just don’t care enough to hunger for it. This is made worse by poor organisational skills or thinking that being a writer is any less demanding than any other job.

Solution: Don’t tackle a big project as the first thing you do when you sit down. If you’re writing a novel, write a diary entry or a blog post first. If you don’t feel inspired by your first scheduled task, do the second. Whatever you do, write. If you’re at the point where you aren’t hungering to put down words and you haven’t written anything that day, start thinking about a nine to five job, it’ll either scare you back to your work or be preparation for when you realise you won’t cut it as a writer.

Symptoms: Don’t know what happens next in the story. Unable to ‘feel’ the story or some part of it such as characters. There is no logical next step that you can feel immediately.

Causes: Lack of emotional involvement in your work. Your mind is overloaded.

Solution: Step away from the page or keyboard, lock yourself in a room and just imagine the setting. Don’t think logically or structurally about the work, just get into a deeply mental space and let the parts of your subconscious mind that have been dwelling on this very question speak. Your subconscious knows where to go next, it knows what it wants to write. All story tellers, all writers, all artists have a part of their subconscious that will latch onto an idea and run with it whether you realise it or not. There’s a part of your subconscious for every idea you’ve ever had. Give it a chance to speak. You won’t hear it if your thinking, you’ll drown it out. Listen to some Eckhart Tolle.

Symptoms: Can’t maintain focus on a single project until completion. Started too many projects and can’t devote enough time to them. Always starting never finishing. This is a valid and crippling form of writer’s block.

Cause: Your muse is strong but you lack understanding of your muse and you lack discipline.

Solution: Get your life sorted out. Understand yourself or you’ll never understand what you are trying to say. Understanding what you are trying to say is just as important as understanding what you want to talk about. You may think you want to talk about pirates, space ships and goblins but what you really want to express is discontent at the treatment of women in the workplace. You may think you want to write a marketing blog but what you really want to express is your wonder at the human ability to socialise.

Symptoms: You can’t think of a single thing to write about. No idea about what kind of project, format, style, universe or issue you wish to tackle. You have nothing that needs to be expressed.

Cause: You’ve shut yourself down due to stress.

Solution: You were once a child with a boundless imagination, either a boy with a cowboy hat and a plastic six-shooter or a girl with a box full of mummy’s old clothes with which you would play dress-up. There is no reason for a person to be completely devoid of wonder unless they’ve shut themselves down from stress or fear or pain or any number of grown-up reasons. Chances are you’d be better able to write something pained and dark during these kinds of moods, even if you aren’t aware of the effect stress is having on you.

Go scream at the top of your lungs in an empty field in the middle of nowhere.

Top 10 things to ask yourself when writing

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 11, 2008

One of the most important aspects of writing is focus. The physical act of writing requires focus to to just reach the finish line but it also requires focus of intention, purpose and style. One of the first signs that you’re not well practiced as a writer is that you lapse from one viewpoint to another too quickly or swap from 3rd to 1st person half way through.

I find that asking myself questions about what I’m doing helps keep the focus. Every time I hit a certain character or scene, I automatically ask myself the relevant questions.

10: What am I writing about?

You should be able to answer this question at all levels of specificity, from the most generalised answer to the most specific. The more generalised the answer the more it will apply to the work as a whole while specific ones to individual scenes. Answers could range from:

  • National sovereignty,
  • The struggle of Tibetans against Chinese domination,
  • The Tibetan uprising of 1859,
  • The Initial acts of the uprising,
  • A young Tibetan man attacks a Chinese Soldier.

9: Who am I writing about?

The greatest element of literature, high and vulgar, is the human element. It is important to have a clear idea of who your characters are at the outset so that their actions, motivations and idiosyncrasies remain consistent and meaningful throughout your writing. Even when writing Non-fiction about non-human subjects, keep in mind that the most important element is the reader, and that the ‘who’ about which you are writing must have human relevance.

8: What does this character want?

When I first started writing larger pieces, I consistently failed to give my characters a motivation. They were often character foils for a protagonist or, sometimes, nothing more than eye-candy. I’ve written characters motivated to escape their past and I’ve written characters whose only motivation is their next packet of cigarettes. If your character wants nothing then your reader won’t believe them.

Everyone has a motivation in real life, even if it is the motivation to do as little as possible.

7: Why would someone enjoy reading this?

How many times have you read a book or a short story and been able to honestly say “I really enjoyed that book, I have no idea why though.” Even if you’ve said it before, upon closer reflection you would have realised that it was a certain character, a certain tension, even a certain scene that struck you. If you can write something and have a clear idea of what people might enjoy about it, it helps you focus on bringing out the richness of those aspects.

6: Who would enjoy reading this?

Your work should be targeted to a certain type of audience. This is always the case and only the deluded think otherwise. If you say “I’m writing this for me, not for marketing to an audience”, that’s great, you’re writing it for yourself and other impoverished Arts students in their early to mid twenties with the wrong idea about the social function of writing.

5: Who am I alienating by writing this?

A writer’s purpose is not to worry about who they are offending when they make a point or tell a story. It is, however, important to know who might be offended so that you can either make sure your message is strong, honest and needed or come up with your apology ahead of time. You will alienate someone no matter what you write.

4: Where am I going with this?

It took me a long time to understand and accept that every part of your work needs to be going somewhere; it needs a purpose. I was often accused of dawdling in my early work by adding pointless tangents. Tangents can be useful, keep them that way. This becomes vitally important in anything short of a novella. Once you’re down to short, sudden or flash fiction, every word must count.

3: Would anyone actually do this?

Your work needs to be believable in context. Tom Clancy once said that ‘The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.’ I couldn’t agree more. The benefit that we have as fiction writers, however, is that we can make things make sense in a completely alien context. If somebody in your story goes on a decade long crusade against another person because of a single remark, make sure that the culture/situation/backstory makes that course of action believable.

2: Does this make sense?

This one still gets me. I will write a short or sudden fiction and be completely satisfied with the imagery, the characters, the dialogue and the concept. I will then have someone read it through for me. Their response: huh? When you are writing, keep in mind that you have imagined a great deal of what is going on that you have not yet written.

You need to ask yourself this one continuously through your work and you’ll still be pulled up at proofing.

1: Why shouldn’t I just go play Fallout 3?

I take this question from the viewpoint of someone walking past my work. If my book was in the front window of a bookshop, assuming the front cover accurately depicted my book’s content, would someone stop to have a look? If my short story was on StumbleUpon, would a fickle stumbler stop to read it? If I told someone a single sentence about the work, would they ask to read it?

Or would they go do something else? If you want readership, write something with worth.