Your First Idea

Every story is different, and every time I start a story, the process is a little different than it was before. As I write, though, I find that certain truths keep cropping up again and again. One I’ve been reflecting on lately is how you should almost never go with your first idea.

I’m not talking about the whole idea. Usually this first idea introduces characters, locations, a basic conflict, and once you set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), a rough outline from beginning to end. It’s this first outline that, in my experience, should almost never be kept by the time you’re finished — especially the ending.

There’s the simple reason that stories evolve as they’re written. I often find that I have ideas for what my characters are like, and then they surprise me as I write them. They tell me more about themselves and how their stories will end. More often than not, I’ll be led in the right direction. Trust yourself as an author to know when the story is spiraling and when the story is falling into place. You’ll see it as a reader, just of your own work as opposed to others’ books.

Despite what movies like Stranger Than Fiction imply, though, writing isn’t all magic where the characters come to life and tell you everything you need to know. At the end of the day, you are the writer and you’re exerting control over your narrative. And I highly suggest using this control to steer yourself away from your first idea as you start to see new ideas popping up along the way.

I dwell on this because, more often than not, our first idea is based on something we’ve read before. It’s not necessarily something that’s clichéd (though it very well might be), and sometimes, something we’ve read before can work in a new narrative we’re crafting. But something we’ve read before is very likely something that someone else has read before too. There’s comfort in familiarity, but there’s more reward in being shocked. If you surprise yourself as you write, then chances are, your readers will be surprised too.

As an author, I find great satisfaction when I give a brief synopsis of a story, and someone guesses something entirely different from how it turns out. I get even more satisfaction when they guess my first idea — one that has since been changed. It tells me that they’ll likely experience the same journey I had while writing it, one that I hope is as satisfying for them as it was for me.

I would give examples from my work … but that would spoil the ending.


Another universal truth I’ve found with each story is having to contend with sloppy writing on the first draft. It gets a little better each time, but there are still times I’ll start a draft and end up with sentence fragments, clichéd metaphors, and crappy endings. Never finish with your first idea or your first draft!

A lot of readers for Please Give thought it would end differently — not the same as my first idea, but the same as my second idea and, ultimately, the idea I didn’t go with. See if the same happens to you: the book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Thanks for reading!

Done!

The first draft of my second book is done! After six months of work, notes, and daydreams, Without Condition currently sits at 85,000 words and 304 pages.

This one took a while to get going. I got the idea right as I got Please Give back for revisions. I wrote down a lot of notes, 90% of which ended up getting tossed as I wrote the book. I wrote new notes, made new characters and scrapped a lot of others. I wrote and wrote on some days, and stared at a blinking cursor on the others. But in the end, I got it done.

I’ll share more about the plot and when I plan to publish it in the coming months. It’s currently sitting unopened and untouched in a folder, where I plan to leave it for a month before doing a readthrough from beginning to end. But for now, it’s done. The first draft of my second book in as many years is done.

It feels good. In fact, it feels a lot like this:

ahh real monsters
barry gif
celebrate chuckee cheese
pratt happy

Better to End Well

My fortune cookie last night had some good advice for life in general, but also for writers in the midst of their drafts. Drafts are often stubborn and take a while to really get going, which can be discouraging for many of us who are trying to write them. However, the words below are a good motivator to keep going:

better to end well

It’s advice I’m certainly doing my best to remember as I continue my second book. I’m at almost 70,000 words and maybe 2/3 done. I’m excited and nervous all at once, and there are days I’m poking at my draft like someone poking at a bush and ducking in fear as a snake rustles out. But it’s getting written, and it will end — and hopefully, it will end well.

I love finding fortunes that help with writing. I found this one and this one last year, and still carry them with me in my purse or my pocket every day.

I also keep calendar postings like this one and this one on my cork board at work as well as folded up in my writing notebook. It’s like having a portable vision board. At the very least, it’s nice to have quiet reminders by my side wherever I go.

Progress Report: It’s All the Same Bug

Work on my next book is still going strong. This time last year, I was almost finished with the first full draft of Please Give. I’m maybe 2/3 finished with the next book, and hope to have a finished draft by May. I set myself a deadline of May 10, but that may be a deadline that, like Douglas Adams said, I can enjoy the whooshing sound of as it goes by.

I’m in the odd stage where I’m writing and having to contend with my original ideas changing or being dropped altogether. I already changed the title and reconsidered some of the themes. I’m also finding original scenes, moments, and ideas — ones I had before I even started writing, and ones that became my first passages — dangling on the precipice of the manuscript, waiting for the fateful keystroke that will send them to my Lost Passages folder (because I never delete anything, even drafts I hope never see the light of day).

Some of these are scenes I can’t wait to revise. I actually spent the past couple days revising one scene that was awkward when I wrote it and works much better now that I’ve written more of the story. But there are others I’m afraid to go back to and press CTRL-X, because a part of me feels like I’m letting go of a piece, a moment, or an element that I held with love for a long time — perhaps longer than necessary, but they were pieces I liked; and I grew sad when I first realized they no longer fit in the story that grew from them.

So much of writing a novel is learning to let go — and most often, what we’re letting go of are the moments that formed the novel in the first place. These are the darlings that are especially hard to kill. How can I drop pieces that inspired the story?

I can ultimately drop them, though, because the inspiration they created remains, even if the starting point does not. I’ll often go back and look at a finished piece and think, it’s so different from where it was when I first thought of it. And it is. It always is. But in many ways it isn’t. The fundamentals are still there. The idea is still there. It’s just in the form it’s supposed to be in.

It’s a cliche to use the caterpillar-cocoon-butterfly metaphor. I’m almost embarrassed to use it — I’m making myself type this with all my strength. But it’s an apt cliche because it’s true. A story crawls into existence, wraps itself in words, and emerges as something completely different from the caterpillar it started as — but at the end of the journey, it’s still the same bug. The caterpillar didn’t disappear. It just changed. And knowing that makes it a little easier to cut away the cocoon of a first draft that I’ve wrapped the story in to get it going.

I’ll be sure to post another GIF-filled entry once I’m done with the first draft of this book. I’ll do my best to not post a bunch of caterpillars and butterflies.

You can read a better use of bugs as a book-writing metaphor in my essay, My Jar of Fireflies.

And check out my progress on the book so far under its current working title, Without Condition — the title’s already changed, and probably will again until the cover’s been drawn and I can’t go back.

Thanks for reading!

Progress Report: Heaps of Sand

I’ve been working steadily on my next book for the past week. It’s up to over 25,000 words, and the story seems to shape itself more with every day’s work (it also tends to shapeshift, but that’s all part of the process).

Despite this progress, it’s been hard to plow through because I’m reconciling with this being a first draft. Having completed a novel and several short stories, I figured I’d be familiar with the feeling of stumbling around an apartment looking for the light switch that comes with trying to write a first draft. I’ve even written about that feeling before.

Yet each day I open my document, start writing, and wonder why I can’t just magically have a complete story, one with all my questions answered and one without any bracket notes or paragraphs that basically summarize everything as opposed to narrating. It has all the things I see when I revisit my old drafts of Please Give. I know the words will eventually shape into the story I want. But my impatient self wonders, why can’t I have this now? I’ve done this before — I should be able to do this immediately.

But the truth is, I haven’t done this before — not with this story, at least. I think that’s what I forget when I get discouraged at my words feeling clunky or incomplete. It’s brand new to me, and I need to familiarize myself with the apartment and memorize its corners before I can just walk through and flick on the light.

I came across a quote on Twitter that helped put things in perspective for me, and helped me feel a little less discouraged at the state of writing my draft:

This is a perfect summary of the feeling I get when I write a first draft, that I’m tossing things haphazardly into Word and nothing’s making sense. But it will — and one can’t build the castle without piling in the sand first.

I want to close with my own interpretation of that feeling, inspired by one of my favorite TV shows, The Golden Girls:

When She Was Sloppy

All pieces start with a first draft, and with rare exception, all first drafts are bad. Aspiring writers — myself included — often forget that all great pieces came from bad first drafts, because we only get to see these pieces after they’ve gone through revisions, professional edits, and other polishes to make them less sloppy. I always appreciate it when my favorite authors share their early drafts to prove this point (though I say early, and not first, because I’m convinced that most first drafts will never see the light of day if their authors have anything to say about it).

I’ve discovered that the forgotten first draft experience can happen with my own writing. Over the past few months, I’ve engaged the most with second and third (and ninth and tenth) drafts of my pieces. The earliest drafts of Please Give ceased around New Year’s, with the first pages written getting heavily revised or completely rewritten; and any following pages being buoyed by those revisions. The new pages weren’t perfect by any means, but they were better than first drafts because I was more familiar with the story and where it was going.

Between chapters of Please Give, I worked on revising the short stories set to appear in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales — reading them, getting feedback from readers, incorporating edits from Evelyn, and reading through them again. The first drafts of these stories were even more buried than the first words of Please Give, going back to the spring and summer of 2016.

Despite writing every day in 2017, new writing — brand new stories, with no drafts whatsoever to guide them and no revisions to shape them — didn’t happen at all until May, when the full draft of Please Give was done. At last, I had the time and mental space to start the new projects that were simply ideas. I cracked my knuckles, opened a brand new Word document, and let the words flow from my fingers.

Words that, as they I typed them, landed rather sloppily on the page.

I found myself looking curiously at these drafts. Why are these sentences so clunky? Why can’t I come up with a good transition from this scene to the next? Why did I use three adverbs in one sentence? Why am I using so many parentheses, and writing asides and exclamations instead of narration?

It’s because I’m writing a first draft — and even after writing several pieces to satisfactory completion, I still felt daunted by that, stuck on the fact that the ideal sentence wasn’t what was currently on paper. No matter how much I write, and no matter how pleased I am with the final versions of my stories, I still have to contend with sloppy first drafts. There’s simply no avoiding them.

They also shouldn’t be avoided. First drafts are where all stories begin, after all. And even with some clunky stumbles on the way, practice does make better. I find myself able to write more in one sitting, and making less of the mistakes (both style and technical) that I made almost by default not one year ago. A first draft is a first draft, though; and even with all the practice in the world, first drafts will always be rough.

Still, I appreciate reminders of when I was sloppy, and I’d rather get those reminders through writing sloppy first drafts than simply remembering them (or rereading them, though that can be fun when looking for a reminder of how far a piece has come). Remembering them means I’m not writing them. And like many writers say, writing a bad first draft — which everyone does — is better than writing nothing at all.