Caught in the Draft

Like many writers, I crave praise.

I want someone to read my writing—whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire story—and just LOVE it. ‘Cause it feels…well, awesome.

Except when they don’t. And that feels…well, crappy.

By Girlnamedjim (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Girlnamedjim (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Keeping Your Toy Shiny and New

While serving on jury duty recently, I was able to finish Stephen King’s On Writing. As many of you know, the book is chock full of awesome writerly advice. What really struck home with me was how King handles a first draft. Famously, he says to “write with the door closed; edit with the door open.” (I don’t have the book in front of me, so forgive me any errors with the quote, but you get the gist.)

King doesn’t show any piece of his current WIP to a living soul until the first draft is done. Then he goes back and does a bit of self-editing. And then, and only then, when he’s happy with the “first” draft, does it go out to beta readers.

His reasoning makes a lot of sense to me. Basically, you have this kick-ass idea you’re all jazzed about and then you show off that shiny, new toy to some pals and they start picking it apart…. That shiny, new toy no longer feels so shiny. You’re not so jazzed about the story anymore. And your pace begins to slow as the self-doubt creeps in.

Yep. Been there. Done that. Have the frequent customer card to prove it.

Down and Dirty First Draft

stamp One of my favorite authors, Josh Lanyon, recently shared with his Goodreads group what his first draft looks like. Lanyon is one of the premiere male/male romance authors, and his writing is poetic and beautiful and funny. Layered with nuance and humor and heat. I’m a fan, in case you hadn’t guessed.

Anyway, the sample pages he posted of his first draft were an eye opener. It had some funny lines of dialogue, some of the major plot action, “kiss here” for sex scenes, and other quick notes to himself for later. Not a lot to go on, reader-wise, but it all made sense to him. Obviously, his goal is to get the story down as quickly as possible and fill in the rest on the second pass.

Pushing Forward

I’m knee-deep in the first draft of a contemporary series I’m working on, so all of this is particularly relevant. My goal has always been a “readable” first draft—that the humor, heat, and story be there in the first pass. I write fast, and I do try to self-edit a few pages from the previous day every time I sit down to bang out some words. But life has thrown me a couple of curves this spring. I’m not able to keep up a steady writing schedule. And the story is getting lost.

My new toy is looking pretty rusty and sad at this point.

So let’s hear how you tackle a first draft. Do you take your time? Do you rush through it just to get it all down and then go back over it? What works for you?

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39 Comments

  1. This is a great post! My first *and second and third* drafts are usually total crap!:)

    Reply
    • Ha! This made me laugh. I guess it’s ain’t right until it’s right! There can’t really be a time limit.

      Thanks for stopping by! I needed the laugh. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Joanna, I write first drafts much like you. I’m a panster and the story pretty comes to me complete as I write it. Of course, there is much tweaking to be done on revisions, but if I just wrote, “kiss here” I’d freeze up and not be able to move on. Interesting how we writers have our own way of getting the story on paper.

    Funny story. When I was writing my first book, I was also reading King’s book, On Writing. Somewhere in there he said a good word count was around 180,000. Who was I to know any different? So, I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. At around 147,000 words I couldn’t think of another thing to say. Although I worried it wasn’t long enough, I started submitting to agents. Of course, the rejections poured in. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Jessica Alvarez at Bookends, though. She took the time to write me that I’d never sell the book unless it came in around 100,000 words or less.

    Anyway, congratulations on your Golden Heart final and see you in Atlanta!

    Reply
    • Hi Sandra,

      Thanks for this. It made me chuckle. You poor thing…you were trying SO hard to reach that magic number! But they always say it’s better to write too much than too little.

      Congrats on your final as well. Looking forward to hanging out in ATL!

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  3. What seems to work for me is doing a rough outline of my story and characters. Then I sit down and pants the scenes, always heading in the general direction of the turning points I’d already figured out.

    I agree with Stephen King on writing that first draft with the door closed. I think it helps keep the magic alive!

    Great post!

    Reply
    • Hi India,

      Thanks for coming by. I think we write in a very similar fashion because that’s fairly close to what I do, too. But I do tend to send my work out to critique partners and friends too soon…mainly because I’m just so eager to share it with the world. Definitely going to rethink that idea in the future.

      Thanks again!
      Joanna

      Reply
  4. Hi Joanna! I completely pantsed my way through the first draft of my first ms, my Golden Heart finalist Hidden Deep. That’s why I’ve been revising it, oh, forever. Then I read Save the Cat and a bazillion writerly blog posts about the glories of plotting and plotted out every scene of my next ms. Wow- what a difference! With that outline in hand, I was able to zoom through my first draft and ended up with something a whole lot closer to a finished product. I’m now going through and juicing it up with word choice and expanded scenes, but I’m a convert. I can’t see myself doing it any other way for future books. And I agree with SK and you– get it all down before sharing it with anyone else!

    Reply
    • Hi Amy,

      So glad you came by! I haven’t read “Save the Cat” yet, but it’s on my list. (Oh, the list…)

      Glad it made a huge difference for you…although you must have been doing *something* right to pants your way into a Golden Heart final!!

      Congrats again! Looking forward to hanging out in ATL.

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  5. My first draft is usually fairly quick and dirty. I get my ideas down, I make myself notes of things to remember to add on the second pass. For the story I’m writing now, I’m writing in layers. There is kind of a story within the story, so I’m getting the main one down first and then I’ll add in the other one afterwards. And for my book that came out this weekend, I actually added the kissing and sex scenes afterwards (admittedly, that was sort of by accident, but it worked).

    Reply
    • Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for chiming in. I definitely think I try too hard on the first pass. I like your method a lot, especially about the layering.

      Sex scenes were an accident?! Say it ain’t so!!! 🙂 Clearly, whatever you’re doing is working, so stick with it!

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  6. That neon sign you have there starts flashing in my head just about when I get to the middle of my first draft. I get bogged down with doubt and spend the bulk of my time forcing myself to continue through the middle. Once I reach a certain point closer to the end, the story begins to flow again, and I love it once more.

    I have to admit, I almost feel better showing it to people then. That way, if they pick it apart, I think to myself—well, it’s just a first draft.

    Reply
    • Hi Emma,

      Yes! That definitely happens with me, too, regardless of the story. It becomes serious work around 20K or 25K. Before that, it’s just a fun little idea. The slogging middle, I think it’s called. That’s where I usually try to throw in some fun twists and turns, just to keep my own brain engaged.

      Endings are hard for me because then it goes out for…critique. Gulp.

      Thanks for chiming in!

      xo,
      Joanna

      Reply
  7. Love the “I suck” sign! Don’t we all feel that way!

    I’m a total pantser and I write my first draft straight through. No editing to speak of. Sometimes when I’m stuck for a last line for a scene or chapter, I’ll type in a row of question marks and my subconscious will generally fill them in for me a few days later.

    My first drafts are pretty fully realized. I don’t like to type a sentence on the screen until it’s decent. It means I’m slow to produce the first draft and I throw out a lot. (My book coming out in September, COUNTRY ROADS, required cutting 30,000 words before I could hand it in. That was rough, but it made it a really strong story, IMO.)

    Writers have so many different ways of arriving at their stories; it fascinates me. I tried outlining once and was so bored when I started to write the book that I never came close to finishing it. I realized that I write to find out what happens just like a reader reads to find out how the characters reach their happy ending.

    It’s not efficient but it’s my process.

    Reply
    • Hi Nancy!

      Thanks for taking the time to chime in. I am also fascinated by the process of other writers. Heck, maybe one of these days some of that knowledge and wisdom will rub off on me!

      I think what you described sounds darned efficient. A fully-realized first draft is impressive, even if you have to cut a chunk. I’m in awe. Whatever you’re doing obviously works for you because your stuff is wonderful!

      xo,
      Joanna

      Reply
  8. My pantser first drafting process: I write. I angst. I pull out some hair. Profanity becomes my primary language. Hygiene gets spotty. And finally when that joyous first draft is complete…I start all over again 🙂 Good news is I’m getting marginally better at fast-drafting, (I tend to edit as I go) so that tumultuous process gets speeded up. I think. I’ll let you know after book three.

    Reply
    • Hi Darcy,

      Thanks for stopping by! I love “hygiene gets spotty.” Things must be super fun at your house during those times. 🙂

      Looking forward to meeting you in ATL, Darcy!

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  9. Hi Joanna. Before I start writing, I have a general idea of the characters, motivation, and plot. I outline a little-very high level. Then I start to write. I’ll add to the plot as I write. I do go back some and revise, but generally I just write and then go back and layer. At that time I also fill in any details or research I need to do.

    For my current MS, I started it during JeRoWriMo, and have been on and off with it for over a year, because I’ve been going back and re-editing my first two MS. At times, I feel separated from the story because I haven’t been consistently thinking about those characters. The one thing that does help is that it’s part of a series and many of the characters are familiar to me.

    Sorry to hear your story is rusty. It’s challenging to write when life interferes. But don’t give up. When things slow down (and they will), you pick up that baby and keep on writing!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Maria! I really like to write every day to keep it fresh, and when I can’t it bums me out.

      Knowing your organization skills, I have no doubt that you’ve got the story worked through before you even start writing it! I wish I could work that way, but sadly, I don’t. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

      You and I have talked a lot about the merits of writing challenges like JeRo. Maybe I should be sharing my outlines ahead of time–instead of my first three or four chapters? That way, someone could tell me if my concept is off base.

      Anyway, one of these days I’ll figure it out! 🙂

      xo

      Reply
  10. Great post, Joanna!

    Although I’m a panster by heart, I now try to have a solid outline with major plot points done before I start my first draft. Then, I “barf out the words” as quickly as I can, leaving in notes like “DESCRIBE SETTING HERE” or “INTROSPECTION ABOUT PAST EVENT HERE” while I focus on the action and dialogue. I find it helps to get the first draft out as quickly as possible because in most cases I end up tossing out the first two chapters. In the past, I would have spent most of my time editing and polishing those first pages instead of building a better overall story. At least I hope it’s better!

    Reply
    • Hi Bonnie,

      Thanks for stopping by the Femmes! “Barf out the words” made me laugh. That’s a great phrase, and very apt for what some writers do. I like the idea of leaving notes for later. Sometimes I get bogged down trying to get a setting description just so, when really I should just fill that in later.

      Good tip! Looking forward to meeting you in ATL.

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  11. Hi Joanna,
    This is so interesting! Thanks for a great blog post. I basically bleed from the eyes until the first draft is done. More and more I’m getting my synopsis done before the book and not pantsing my way through it. Too much wasted time the other way. If I get stuck on plot points I get help from my writing friends but nobody sees a word until I have the entire thing plotted out and start polishing it. Save the Cat–great–also Alexandra Sokoloff’s e-book on plotting based on screenwriting principles (Writing Love–available on her website). You’ll never look at a movie the same way again after you read it!

    Reply
    • Hi Miranda,

      Thanks for stopping by! The idea of wasting time is what really worries me. And writing the synopsis always helps me connect the major dots, too. I did that with my last manuscript, the one that finaled in the GH, and helped me with how to wrap it all up in the end.

      Thanks for the book recommendations. I will definitely check them out.

      Looking forward to meeting in ATL!

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  12. Joanna,
    That King quote is one of my all time favorites. I definitely write my first draft with my door shut. I usually also write it really fast and dirty. I was 100% sure that was my process. Puke it out on paper than pretty it up. But of course my current WIP is making me choke and sputter around that idea and my process is rebelling. Maybe I’ll crush it into submission again. We’ll see.

    Can’t wait to meet you in Atlanta.

    Hugs,
    Sonali

    Reply
    • Hi Sonali!

      Thanks for commenting. You know I’m a big fan of your writing, so whatever you’re doing is working! I can’t wait to read your full books when they are released.

      My last WIP was a toughie (the one that finaled), so I feel your pain. I think it’s the one that made me question everything I do and whether it’s the *right* way to go. Sigh. So much self-doubt for writers!

      Looking forward to meeting you as well!

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  13. Great post, Joanna! Love reading how other writers handle these things.

    For me…I give myself permission to take my time with my first draft – to edit as I go, to go back the next day and edit. Allowing myself do this is part of the fun. I’ve found if I rush through trying to write fast (trying to get the words down without pondering them) then I end up writing crap that stays crap. But I also like to add reminders to come back and add sections like “kiss scene,” the type of clothing a character wears, etc. I need to leave some things for when the mood strikes me.

    Isn’t it great that we are all so different? That there’s a perfect way out there for each of us? The challenge is just finding it and adapting it as life changes (and throws us those curve balls). It’s a never ending process.

    Reply
    • Yes, Jacqui! So true. And I think that’s what I’m struggling with right now. What’s worked in the past, when I had free time during the mornings when I could really WRITE, is no longer possible. And writing at night is hard for me, so my first draft is suffering.

      I’m enjoying everyone’s thoughts on their process. It’s great to hear so many different points of view. Thanks for chiming in with yours.

      Looking forward to meeting you in ATL!

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  14. Ahh First drafts! – Got to love and hate them.
    I shut off my internal editor on the 1st draft, do as little research as possible when I’m pounding out words and just write. Because, the more I write, the more adept I think I am becoming.
    I actually write in about 20 min blocks. (Sometimes it’s 12 sometimes it’s 30+, but I do find 20 is probably the average.) I track this in an Excel spreadsheet. Then I go ‘off the clock’ by logging out and doing research or checking my social media sites and email. (Like right now.)
    There are chunks of yellow highlighted text in the manuscript, i.e., go back and check scent or hair color or add description of house. Even though I keep a background document open with all this info, if I’m pounding out words, I try not to stop the flow.
    And I try and stop that voice that keeps telling me my writing sucks — because I know that voice is wrong! (Nothing wrong with self-delusion — right?)
    See you in Atlanta!!

    Reply
    • Nan! My partner in commiseration! I’m so glad you stopped by to chime in.

      You are so organized. I’m impressed. I’ve heard some people use the program Write or Die to track their time. Maybe that would save you the spreadsheet hassle?

      We all need to be a little self-deluded (and crazy). Otherwise, who would ever want to do what we do??

      Looking forward to sharing a cocktail in ATL!

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  15. Joanna,

    Good lord, I understand exactly what you mean. Showing off that shiny new toy before it’s been washed and polished has backfired on me so many times.

    I like King’s advice. I typically pump out the first draft of my story as quick as I can and then I go back to edit it. That editing process usually goes five or six rounds, but you get the point. It gets done and then goes out.

    I’ve heard King’s advice a few times, but I’ve also heard that you should freewrite the entire piece, uncaring of rules or showing/telling, adverbs, etc, and get through the book. Then, you go back and edit it to fix all those problems. I haven’t tried the second option yet, but I plan to. 😉

    Nice post and I shared for friends to read.

    Happy writing!

    DC

    http://www.authordcstone.com

    Reply
    • Thanks, DC, for stopping by and chiming in. I don’t know if I could freewrite it, just throwing caution (and grammar) completely to the wind. Knowing mistakes were there and I didn’t fix them would haunt my dreams!

      Glad to hear I’m not alone in the backfiring. That is a mistake I won’t make again. What you described sounds like the way to.

      Thanks again!

      Joanna

      Reply
  16. Jenna Blue

     /  June 4, 2013

    As you know, Joanna, I’m still figuring out my process. On Writing was great, so was Save the Cat (quick read, too). I do tend to edit as I go, which slows me down, but helps me stay in the groove of what I was thinking the session previous, which unfortunately isn’t always every day like I wish it was. Wish I could spit it out faster, but sometimes, it takes TIME and WASTED WORDS (seriously i’ve prob written 150K easy on this latest) to get all the idea’s percolated and then balanced correctly overall. Sucks. I Suck. Yeah, I hear ya! Someday we’ll both get our processes down to a science–have to believe that!

    Reply
    • Amen, sister! I hate to waste time (unless of course I’m vegging out on the couch with a tub of Nutella). I wish my writing schedule could go back to its regular time, but not meant to be this year. Sigh.

      Thanks for chiming in, as always.

      xo

      Reply
  17. Great post, Joanna. So true, too, about the shiny toy losing some of its luster when the crits start coming in. I have one reader who looks at my first draft in-progress: my husband. He’s my “does this suck enough to scrap what I’ve got and start over?” sounding board. And since he’s brutally honest, this works.

    My process? Well, up until recently, I’d say with conviction that I figure out the main beats and dive in. But lately I’ve been all over the map. I wrote NO PEEKING, last year’s GH manuscript, by diving in with only half a page of notes. That was a first for me. OTOH, for this year’s GH book, WHAT’S YOURS IS MINE, I wrote an eighteen page synopsis. And that too was a first. It was awesome. But then I was in a hurry to get started with my current manuscript (a YA contemporary) so I could write much of it during NaNoWriMo (which coincided with the final month of my husband’s hiatus between jobs), so once again I dove in. And the story unfolded surprisingly easily.

    I have no single process, is what I’m saying. I have at least two. Maybe more. It’s more about what works for a given project, I guess.

    Reply
    • Hi Talia,

      Thanks for stopping by! It sounds like, whatever you’re doing, your process is working. Two GH finals in two years is impressive!

      My husband is also a great sounding board (although he doesn’t really “get” the romance genre), but he’s usually so busy that it’s hard to get a few spare minutes to talk about what I’m writing. He’s supportive, though, and that’s what really matters. Sounds like yours is, too.

      Looking forward to meeting you in ATL!

      Best,
      Joanna

      Reply
  18. Hi, Joanna! You make such good points, and I’ve written both ways…plotted until my fingers bled, and pantsed. I’ve found that pantsing works better for me as far as keeping me excited about the story. I always have a pretty good idea in my head as far as basic plot points, but I like the kinesis when things occur to me during the writing process…those a-ha moments when another scene pops into your head that ties some of the previous action together, or when the conflict gets a little extra zing. In my current WIP, I didn’t know when I started writing that the heroine’s ex was going to show up, but there he was, rearing his ugly head and stirring up the pot.

    JeRo taught me that pantsing helps me get the words down, too. When I try too hard to follow a predetermined plot, sometimes it sucks at me like knee-deep mud, and it’s hard to slog through that muck.

    Jaye

    Reply
    • Hi, Jaye!

      I agree about pantsing in order to stay excited about where the story is going. That’s a fun discovery process, and glad that your pantsing has paid off in your current WIP. I find that too much pantsing throws me off track, though, and then I’ve got a plot line that doesn’t make sense. Balance, thy name is writing.

      Looking forward to reading the rest of that current WIP of yours. 🙂

      xo

      Reply
  19. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  June 6, 2013

    Hi Joanna! What a great topic. I love getting a glimpse into the process of others. After many starts and stops, several manuscripts that have gone uncompleted, I believe as of now I’m a plotting pantser. I start with an idea. I see the turning points and other moments in my head. I like to put those moments/scenes on an excel spreadsheet or on note cards. Either way allows me to move them around. Sometimes messing with the order will spark an idea. At the same time I work on developing the characters, and ask myself why, how, etc. Often times, I realize I’ll need additional characters during that process. Then, I hit go and try to NaNoWriMo or JeRo my way to the end. I love the surprises that pop up along the way. Nothing is written in stone when I hit go. Just a loose idea of where I’m going. The end is a very imperfect for draft, but I’ve given myself license to write crap. What I have found works best for me during this first draft process is to talk my ideas through. I’m an auditory person. Even if the sounding board is my hubs who doesn’t have much to add or asks what appears to be completely irrelevant questions. Those irrelevant questions sometimes prompt an aha moment.

    I hear you about the change in writing schedules. Mine has grown non-existent in the past few weeks. Good luck with that and in ATLANTA!!!! WOO HOO!!!!

    Reply
    • Thanks, RoseAnn!

      My hubby is often a sounding board as well, though he doesn’t always get some of the standard romance conventions. (Why does there have to be a HEA, for example.)

      Sorry you’re not finding much writing time either. Maybe things will settle down for you when the kids are out of school? My goal is to finish my first draft by the end of July. Then maybe get it out for CPs in August.

      I never seem to have enough time!

      xo

      Reply
  20. mfundo moya

     /  July 8, 2013

    im fairly new at writing and my research is quick and can always be found in the lost-and-found (where ever that is…) but thank god for writing tools, software and you ^^, i feel awful for not reading any Stephen king (im a Spanish or classic literature boy). and i’ve been caught in the first draft so horribly i now tell people i’m writing epics when asked why I’ve been in a vacuum but as much as writing in my inner circle i like other peoples chat and concerns (almost like a reactional interface full of questions; things that actually keep us reading)
    i always tell people my shiny new half-baked toy to see their response but the wonderful thing i’ve learnt other then seeing as a writer is that its weird how extraordinary people can be when your open. i write of things I’ve only dreamed of and soon as i start yapping with excitement it seems it would be to lost ears but my mom’s friends and newly appointed friends have given me menu’s from first class Asian airlines, culinary skills and tools, told me amazing stories, and wine plots they have in Ireland and franschoek (south Africa) and dozen of things,i would not experience or visualize i listen to a wide range of genres and artists like matisyahu (jewish raggae) hatebreed (heavy metal: inspirational live-today message) Enya (new age: melodic and clean vocals and hymns) the National, sufjan stevens (folk incl. rose:french folk) and many christian understanding brought to light. stephen king is right, if it needs to be finished you have to sit and write, the more the better but im yet to experience any complete manuscript but im enjoying this wonderful double bogey dialogue hazard, masters of nothing that is written on a modern stone.

    Reply

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