To the Far West: By Any Means Necessary

Last time, I talked about outlining the story. From there, I started on my shitty first draft. (Note: Get used to the word “shitty.” It comes up a lot.)

To be clear, I intentionally call this a shitty first draft. That first draft is paralyzing — the act of pure creation is terrifying, and many potential writers have crumbled under the gaze of that empty screen or that blank paper. For a while, I called it a “zero draft” so I wouldn’t even think about it as a draft, but I think that discounts the work that goes into it. Rather, I embrace the shitty first draft, because I have one goal and one goal only with this draft.

Finish it, by any means necessary.

There are lots and lots (and lots) of strategies for finishing that draft, and not only are they often unique to the writer, but they can be unique to the project as well. I generally find that I need a wordcount budget — some figure that I tell myself I will hit to qualify as success. In the past, I have used weekly budgets that I can allocate as time permits, but it had been a while since I hammered on a project with a timeline, so I decided that I needed a small but daily goal: 500 words a day.

This is where the vague, bullet-point list works well for me. With just 500 words, I don’t really have room to mess around. If I want to keep interested in what I’m working on, I have to feel a sense of progression. With the bullet-point outline, though, the small units work in my favor. It’s easy to go “Today, I’m going to write to this bullet-point in the story.” Since I’ve done the outline, I don’t have to worry too much about how it all hangs together or how this part connects to that part — I only have one point of focus. Get to the next signpost. Write to the next stopping point. Get 500 words down.

Finish it, by any means necessary.

If it’s a rough day, that’s all I need. But on days when it’s going well, I sometimes do a bit more, and that’s okay. Over the weekend, in fact, I pounded out over 2,000 words, because I was in the flow and wanted to get to the end. But the flow is also a trap, because I’ll find myself thinking about the story and wanting to make changes. A few times I wrote something in a later section of the story that changed or improved on something earlier, and I was convinced that I needed to go back and correct the earlier material.

But this is wrong. This is not forward progress. Instead, I left notes for myself in the draft in square brackets and all caps — something I can’t easily miss, and which will irritate the hell out of me when I go back to read it again. Here’s an example (which I’m sure makes no sense without context):

[WHAT DOES FLASH POWDER SMELL LIKE? ADD OTHER SENSES. ALSO MOVE THIS TO CORPSE SCENE (OR REPEAT IT THERE), TO ESTABLISH THAT SHE DOES THIS TO DOCUMENT EVIDENCE.]

Some writers point out that if you outline, there’s no surprise in the writing. Personally, I consider it more accurate to say that there’s no problem to solve in the writing, which sometimes makes it boring, but the point is much the same. However, a thin outline leaves a lot of room for problem-solving during the draft. In this story, I had no idea what the murder method was — only who was killed, by whom, and why. I actually had the victim hanged for half the story before I decided to have him shot instead (one of the many things I have to go back and rewrite). A couple of times I intentionally wrote myself into a cliffhanger, so when I picked it up the next day I would be ready to solve the problem before me. Each day meant I had something to think about, as well as a goal to accomplish.

Now I have a shitty first draft. The hard part — finishing it — is over. Now comes the fun part — tearing it all apart and putting it back together again.

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