There’s a swim team poster on the wall of my Y that catches my eye each time I go into the locker room. Yet, until this week I’ve never really read it. It’s a list of tips for swim team members having difficulty with their stroke. Slow down, count, and focus on the fundamentals. In other words, go back to the basics.
After a long hard swim, I tend to zone out, particularly when a waterfall of hot water is beating down on me. My mind meanders and I blindly follow it, usually right to my story. This day was no exception, except, hmm….those swimming tips were swimming around in there, too…maybe I could apply them to writing. Not the counting part, of course (I could count words, I guess), but the slow down, step back, and focus on the basics part.
So what’s the most basic thing I learned at McD? Get words on paper. Our teacher dished out that piece of advice in a variety of ways ad nauseam:
- The first draft is the discovery draft.
- You can’t fix it if it doesn’t exist.
- It’s all fixable once you get it on paper.
- Don’t stop to edit, keep going.
No, we (I) said (whined), what I’ve got on paper is crap. It’s embarrassing. It sucks. I’ll fix it now, and then I’ll move on. She nodded wisely (more like she rolled her eyes in resignation), a touch of sympathy (disgust) in her eyes. She knew we’d ignore her advice and shoot for perfect on the first draft, probably because that’s what she did when she started out, too.
Now here I am, a year+ months past the completion of the McD program, and that basic lesson is finally sinking in. I never wrote the discovery draft because I’d gone right for perfection from the start. We learned so many (cool) new writing concepts at McD and I was eager to strut my stuff. I started reworking scenes. Made sure each one had conflict. Identified the protag and antag and their respective goals. Looked at whether the scene did more than one thing. Did it move the story forward? That’s a crapload of stuff right there and it’s the tip of the iceberg. Needless to say, I went into revision mode before I had the story–the whole story–down on paper.
Then early this week I spent almost four hours editing one scene and completely rewriting another. Four hours and no new words. Still, I was happy. The writing felt good (enjoyable!) and I’d strengthened both scenes as well as added a new dimension to my story. Plus, those scenes were practically perfect. And I was back in the saddle. Yay for me.
Except those scenes were anything but perfect (I realized the next morning). There’s a lot of gabbing going on, a lot of thoughts and feelings and narrative about what happened (off stage) in the previous scene. In other words, I had a scene that described action I never showed. And that’s not the first time I’ve done something like that (writing action scenes is hard!).
But it’s all good. It turns out that I soaked up all that great McD advice, and stored it somewhere in my head. Writing that talky scene wasn’t a waste. It got the juices going, and I now have an outline of where my story is headed. Best of all, these “talky” scenes make it obvious to me what I need to show (the action!). So I’ll rewrite that scene and those like it (after my first draft is complete) and put my reader into the action.
Here’s the best lesson of all. I now see the value of the discovery draft. I’ll get the next scene on paper, and the next, and the next. Yeah, I’m going to write a bunch stuff that might not get used in the story, but that’s fine, because those scenes are going to point the way home. I’ll know what my story is about and I’ll know how to fix it when I start revisions.
So, it’s back to the basics for me. It’s a little late (one year and counting) but I’m finally going to go into discovery draft mode as I write Act III & IV of my book. After that I’m confident that everything will fall into place.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever ignored?