Kat: Back2Basics I: Cheyenne’s Story

womenThere’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?


12 thoughts on “Kat: Back2Basics I: Cheyenne’s Story

  1. The best advice I’ve ignored is, “If you think writing is hard, wait until you start editing.”

    I really thought I could turn around my book in a matter of a couple months. Here I am, SEVERAL months later, and the editing part is killing me. Well, not really, because I think the changes I’m making really ARE improving my story and how it’s being told, but editing takes a lot of energy, brain work, and it’s exhausting. I remember (back when I was writing my first draft) spinning out several thousand words a day — sometimes in a matter of hours. It was fun and exhilarating, and it drove me from one scene to the next.

    But editing? I look at each scene and groan. In fact, I’ve been working on the same scene all week. It’s a new one I wrote about a week ago, and the first draft came together quickly, but the editing? To borrow Jeanne’s comment from long ago…it’s like extruding concrete. Just painful. I have to finish it, though, and by tomorrow night, because we’re going on a family vacation Saturday and I don’t want to stress over it while I’m gone.

    So I’ll do my best. It’ll probably need to go through another round when my mind isn’t preoccupied with thoughts of what we need to pack and what I can’t forget to bring with us (Disney World tickets!!).

    Keep having fun with the first draft, Kat, because when it comes to trying to perfect it, it may not be as much fun anymore.

    • I am so the opposite of this! Maybe because I’m an editor in my professional life. But I love editing. It’s the time when I look at what I’ve got and see how I can improve it. For me the hard part is writing it the first time, because while I don’t think it has to be perfect, I want a sense of direction, I want the conflict, the character development, all that. I want the bones. If I go off the rails, I can fix it in the edit. I find that very comforting, too.

      And really, it’s never too late. I’ve mentioned that I’m doing an edit of a book I finished and published two years ago, and I’ve cut about 10% of the manuscript. It’s so much better now, all the empty scenes are gone, and I’m really happy about it. And before I put out the second edition, I’m doing another edit pass. Maybe I’ll find another 2% I can cut or improve. Yay!

      • I’m like that, too. Unlike Justine, I love to edit (that’s why I’ve been focusing on it for the past year!) I’d much rather have the words on the page (new words are tough!) and fix them, rather than try to come up with new words.

    • I’m so envious that the new words flowed like that for you, Justine. For me, the revision process (I know this because I jumped ahead and have been doing it for months) is the fun stuff. I guess we’re destined to have pain somewhere in the process — new words are tough for some, revisions for others.

      Sounds like you need the break. Enjoy! Then come back, hunker down, and finish that sucker! As always, I’m happy to read if you need help.

  2. “Follow the Girls.” I’m always ignoring that, to my peril.

    I’m going back to my basics, too, next month. I’m writing a first draft, so I can do that. I’m going to write in first person POV (as long as it works), not third. I’m not going to force the first conflict/initiating event that I think of into the story — I’m going to stumble into one, and edit the backstory and “wasted words” later. I’m not going to second guess the stories, or if something pops into my head “out of time”. I’m going to write what the Girls want on paper, and spend some time each day playing with the story, reading stuff from the period, collaging and even making YouTube playlists.

    Every time I make a pass at a new novel, I feel I’ve learned something new. It’s good practice.
    (-: And that’s my pep talk to myself for the day. I give myself permission to play until the end of November, then I’ll take a look at the results and decide what needs to be done next.

  3. I think the best piece of advice that I continue to ignore is knowing the turning points of the story before I begin. I haven’t started a new manuscript since class, so I’m not sure what’ll happen when I do—if I’ll try to find the turning points or not, and if I do write them down, if I’ll keep them once I get there. But for the manuscript I’d started before class (and hadn’t gotten far with) and then used as my project for class—I wrote turning points as my class exercises, but I scrapped them when class was over and I got around to finishing the book. What I have now is much stronger. I just couldn’t visualize where my characters would be at the beginning.

    For me, it’s imperative to have a rough road map. I have to know where the story starts and what the end is before I begin. But that middle—so far—is all about discovery.

    • Ugh. I forgot about turning points (in the story too 🙂 I’ll have to discover them as I go, too.

      TP’s always gave me trouble at McD — figuring out what constitutes one. Not sure why that’s so damn hard.

  4. The best piece of advice that I continue to ignore is to plan out my scenes before I write them. These days, I do at least know the scene protagonist and antagonist, what they’re trying to achieve, and who wins, but usually I have to work out all the details, including the beats, as I go along. It’s not efficient – means every scene is a discovery draft, uneven, too much talk and no oomph. Then when I have the building blocks in place I have to re-work the whole damn thing. I’ve tried pre-planning more, but if I over-plan it, I get a big, dry pile of dust and the only way forward is to hit the ‘delete’ key 😦

    • Yep, that’s what’s happening in my scenes, too, but I’ll just keep following the girls. I have some good stuff on paper (though not presented as it needs to be), and my story fundamentals are solid (I know my primary characters’ backstory, goals, motivation etc.). Now it’s time to let it fly.

    • I swear by the form I use before I write each scene. It makes it so much easier to write. I basically draft out a Cliff Notes version of the scene, and I identify the characters, POV, setting, conflict, beginning stakes, ending stakes, and a few key senses I want to touch on. I think it’s why the writing part comes so easy to me.

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