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Entries in shitty first drafts (4)


New year, new approach

Let me wish you all a (slightly belated) new year! 

My resolution is to write at least 5 hours a week (half an hour Monday through Friday, and two and a half hours on Sunday... Saturday's for doing nothing), and during that time, to push for 1,000 words an hour. It sounds kind of impossible, but it actually feeds into something else I've been avoiding: allowing myself to write shitty first drafts.

Per Dean Wesley Smith, whose blog I am stealing this approach from:

How to set production goals

FIRST STEP… even if you are writing pretty well already, take an inventory of all the time you spend every day for three or four sample days. Doing everything.

Every minute in fifteen minute chunks. Do a log. And be honest. And also record your mental state during the time frame. For example, up at 6:30 but too tired to think until 8:30 and two cups of coffee.

After you have the log, figure out how much writing time you have.

Add in reading time, research time, and so on.

CAUTION!!!  Writing time is only writing time, creating new words only. Rewriting, researching, reading, taking a workshop is not writing time. Be clear on that because if you start to blur those lines, you will discover your new word production has decreased.


SECOND STEP… Keep time over a number of writing sessions how many NEW words you get done in an hour. Round that to a general number per hour. For example, I write slower at the starts of stories and faster at the ends. So the general number I use for myself is around 1,000 words per hour. I tend to be comfortable with that and many professional writers I know are in that range.

Find your own range and be clear on it and don’t tell us. This is for you to figure out for yourself.

THIRD STEP… Look at all your writing time from step one and your word count per hour from step two and figure out how much you could write in A PERFECT WEEK.

Divide that in half and that is your writing goal of new words per week.

Example: So say with your day job and kids, you can carve out ten hours per week of actual writing time. Divide that in half and if you write about 1,000 words per hour of new words, you will be producing 5,000 new words per week. (5 hours x 1,000 words = 5,000 words per week.)

Take two weeks off and you get 50 weeks x 5,000 words or 250,000 new words per year.

That’s just five hours per week.  That’s how you write a lot of words.

If you can manage to actually write ten hours per week of original fiction, just over one hour per day, you would produce a half million words of fiction in one year. (And you would be called one of the fastest writers in publishing if you worked that one-plus-hour per day for a few years. Not kidding.)

Read the rest here! (And be sure to read the other three parts in this series. Go aheadsome great Friday inspiration for the writerly soul. Dean knows his stuff.)

So I'm not setting my goal exactly as outlined (I haven't, for instance, sat down to figure out where every spare block of time is hiding in my day), but what's been working for me for the past week or so is to get up just a half-hour early every day and use that time to see if I can plop down 500 words.

That's it. Half an hour. 500 words.

The big revelation, you have probably already guessed, is that when I do this I'm finally, finally doing what you're supposed to do with a first draft: Get it down and fix it later. I've known since I first read Bird by Bird (probably 10 years ago now) that you can't let yourself worry about perfection when the creative brain is engaged, and yet I've continued to do precisely thatI'm forever tweaking what I write as I write it. 

BUT! With this approach, this speed challenge if you will, I really have no choice but to push past imperfection. The critical half of my thinky thing just doesn't have time to engage. Naturally, I'm still worried that what I'm writing is irredeemable crap, but this fear is steadily abating, to be replaced by wonder at the sheer number of words this seemingly endless story has now amassed: as I write this, 5566 words. And I'm guessing another 1000 before the first draft is actually done.

Is it good? Not the point. Maybe it will be great. Maybe it'll be... um... a learning experience. The point is that I actually have no idea whatsoever if this story is any good.

Not a clue. 

And that's pretty liberating.


Writing advice from David Rakhoff

Speaking of rough drafts...

Recently deceased This American Life contributor David Rakoff on the dubious joys of the first draft:

Writing—I can really only speak to writing here—always, always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.

(From his latest book Half Empty, which I have just requested from the library.)


Week Seven: Rough draft completed!

You heard it here first.

For me, squeezing out that first rough draft is an ongoing struggle wherein I promise myself over and over that I'll go back and revise all the suck out of it, if I can just please oh please relax and write the damn thing.

And then, later, I'll find that I don't have anything too major to revise, because the rough draft wasn't actually so horrible after all.

Is it that the writerly skills I've honed over the years are all in my arsenal even when I'm giving myself permission to write poo (and so the poo does not stink quite so much as it might have, say, ten years ago), or it is more that the words on the page have a permanence or inevitability to them now that they're real, and to throw them out feels like wanton destruction?

Maybe both? Discuss.


Rejected, blocked, published

[...A writing-centric prequel to Eat, Pray, Love?]

From a fantastic blog post about rejection and writer's block by Kamala Nair—author of the lyrical debut novel The Girl in the Garden (and a friend of mine):

“But I don’t want to ruin the magic of the childhood story,” I said.

“Forget about the magic,” she shot back. “Who do you want Rakhee to be as an adult?”

“I want her to be a strong woman who overcame adversity but is still struggling with her pain.”

“So put that in there,” my friend advised. “Just write ‘I am strong and struggling with pain.’ Meaning for the first few drafts just free-associate and write all the things that you want her to be in a very direct way…just accept that the first ten drafts will be shitty.”

Receiving that permission to write a stack of shitty drafts was freeing. I took my friend’s advice and within a matter of days, everything became perfectly clear, and I was able to write, the words gushing forth, without getting in my own way.

“I think you’ve got it this time,” my agent said when I sent her the final product. She was right. Within a few days, she found a loving home for my novel, and I was on my way.

Read more here.

As big an advocate I am of Anne Lamott and her inspirational yet addictive (I've read it probably five times) Bird by Bird, I still have a really hard time putting pen to paper and telling my critical mind to go screw. But clearly it works, and Kamala's eventual triumph is proof.