Sunday, September 2, 2012

Book Writing Strategy: First Draft, Haul Ass

The first draft of the new book is done.  I finished it Friday night, while on vacation in Oregon.  I still feel stunned, which is pretty much what happens every time I finish writing a book.  It's like being immersed in this whole world, for 9 full weeks, and then being thrown out of it.
How I feel after writing
409 pages in 9 weeks.

Of course, I'm not really thrown out of it.  The book isn't done done.  It's just first draft done.  With this book, there will be a lot of clean-up required.  I tried a new strategy with this one, which was: ignore everything that slows you down.  Just go.  Everything can be fixed later.  I'm calling this strategy "First Draft, Haul Ass," as opposed to the other books I've written, which involved painstaking research and plotting and outlines and progress that was much slower.  Let's see how this method differs:

The method:  First Draft, Haul Ass

The result:  409 pages in 9 weeks

The benefit:  It takes the pressure off getting everything right the first time, which is what used to kill my momentum (and probably some of my creativity) before.  You know it's going to be a shitty first draft, a la Anne Lamott, but once it's on the page, you have the book's skeleton.  It isn't perfect, but it's there.  You prove to yourself that you can do it before you go back and start doubting yourself during the editing phase.

A better metaphor for the benefit:  Think of your draft as the frame of a stained-glass window.  You know what the window's gonna look like.  You know what story the window has to tell.  You know it has a point at the top, arched side supports, and a flat base.  You've sketched out the background, the figure in the window, and dabbed in some of the colors.  But when you revise, you brighten the color, you shift some of the lines that didn't come out quite right in the draft form, and you paint with surer strokes because you've had time to really think about what you want where.  In other words, when it's time to paint the face of Mary or John or Joseph or whoever's in the stained-glass window, you know exactly which direction their eyes are looking.    

Top time-saving tip for using this method: If you get to a place where you need to stop and look something up (a historical fact, a state bird, a chemical element, whatever), just don't.  Write your sentence and when you get the point where you don't know what the thing is, use a couple of XXXs in a row, like this:

Emma looked at her math book.  Graph the function of XXX.  I can't do it, she thought.
In this book, my main character is a high-school junior.  I remember taking the classes she took, but I don't remember the nitty gritty details of pre-calculus or Honors chem.  So I put in a bunch of XXXs in the first draft, and now it's my job to go back through my old high-school notes (or a chemistry book found in Google books) and fill in the XXXs with something a student might struggle with.

Easy enough, right?

I didn't slow my momentum by wasting an hour looking for the answer somewhere.  I didn't get sidetracked by starting to research pre-calculus terms and then get diverted to Ancestry.com or Pinterest.  I kept going.  I moved the story forward.  And now I get to go back and re-learn a bunch of stuff from high school so I can try to be as smart as my character.

Sounds good to me.