The creator, well, creates. Stories grow and bloom and take on life. The editor and her red pen prunes and cuts and shapes. But there's a reason why I'm a writer, not a farmer, so let's lose the gardening analogy and think of this another way: think green light and red light.
Green light, go—the words flow. Red light—stop. Stop and fix, stop and think, stop and just plain stop.
And stopping isn't going to help you get your first draft done.
First drafts need to be green light, all the way. Any time your word flow hesitates, it's an opportunity for the editor to take over. You'll re-read those last lines and tweak them. You'll pause, mentally discarding phrase after phrase because they're just not good enough. The writing stops. The cursor blinks, wondering if you got up and left. Red light.
But you don't have to live at the mercy of a red light. The writer controls the signal. Like every other element of writing, it's a piece of craft to be learned.
Pro-level Green Light
One way to bask in the glow of the green light is to attain a level of competency that lets you self-edit on the fly. In this article, Sean D'Souza discusses how writing competency leads to writing fluency, where editing happens so quickly we don't even know we're doing it. The red light is only the briefest of flickers in a stream of green.
How does a writer become competent? You write. And you write. You make the mistakes that come with learning a craft. You learn from those mistakes and you get better. Each mistake and its subsequent lesson is one step closer to competency.
But learning a craft takes a long time. In the meantime, we still set word count goals and deadlines, long before we attain this nirvana called fluency. How do we keep ourselves writing forward instead of deleting backwards...or stalling because you can't get past a sentence just because you can't get it down right?
Do everything you can to keep the red light from coming on.
I have a few tricks I use during first draft writing and each one contributes to green light streaming in its own way.
1). Go Analog
Notepads don't have delete keys. Plain and simple.
Writing longhand gives me a change to simply write. My handwriting is smooth enough that it all blends in my periphery--I tend not to look back over the last lines as I write. If I do need to change something, I strike it through. Unlike deleting, the original word is there so I don't obsess that I made a mistake by erasing one.
Plus, I love the flow of ink. I'm a very visible-art kind of person so writing with an ink pen is akin to painting words. Best of all, I get to choose the ink color that inspires me. When I was younger, my pen of choice was a purple Pilot ballpoint. Today, I'm partial to blue ink. So much of what I read is in black and white so the mere sight of blue taps into my creative side.
Blue is also my ideal color for meditation. Calming, serene blue. Did you know that writing is, in itself, a form of meditation? Google it sometime—when you're not supposed to be writing, of course. Which leads me to another red light reducer:
2). Remove distractions
Distractions create pauses. If you are not actively submerging in the creative flow, typing out words, focused on the story, then your brain will flip the switch to editor mode.
I have a lot of cool junk on my desk. There's a lovely collection of ravens and skulls (thanks to my endless devotion to Edgar Allan Poe) and a bunch of Dr. Who and Sherlock and Supernatural collectables (because I will go down with that 'ship) and a bunch of other nifty writer things. In fact, my desk is the reason why I don't write at my desk. Ever. Too much to play with... and if I'm playing, I'm not writing.
If I look up from the page, I might toy with a sonic screwdriver. My brain might then toy with something I'd already written. The red light comes on and the editor comes out. And that's not what I want when I'm trying to get that first draft written.
Take the time to make a list of your worst distractions. Internet. The telephone. Your hair, if you're a twister-tugger-fidgeter like me. Identify those distractions and do what you can to limit them. The less you look up from the page, the less likely you are to staunch that green light flow.
3). Plan Ahead by Plotting
Some writers love the freedom of watching a story bloom and unfold right before their eyes, with each sentence taking them further along a path toward a new undiscovered word. That's a beautiful thing, that quicksilver taste of creativity—and it's the reason many of us enjoy writing as much as we do.
But how many of us actually sit down in from of a blank screen without at least thinking where the book is going to go? Precious few, I'd wager. At the very least, we have an idea. A hook. An anecdote. Something.
But if that something isn't big enough for a pantser to go on, it's easy to bang heads with writer's block. (Pantser? Writer's block? If that's the main problem for you, read this.)
So, plan ahead. One easy way to do that is to create your plot outline.
Seems like contrary advice coming from a pantser like me but just hear me out. If you know where the story is going, you can write more freely than if you have to come up with each and every element as you go. A little planning goes a long way in illuminating the path ahead so you don't go bumbling in the dark.
4). Allow Necessary Roughness
A first draft is often called the rough draft. However, writers forget that they are allowed to be rough when writing them. Sometimes, we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and our writing and feel pressured to make the first draft the only draft.
When I was in college, my freshman lit professor told me she loved my first drafts. I wasn't a budding writer or an English major. I had no thoughts about writing novels. I was a first year pharmacy student who felt more at home in the humanities department and I simply loved my reading and writing assignments. Lit classes were a brief escape from chem labs and white coats.
These days, I still haven't escaped the white coats, but I do still try to put out competent first drafts. It's a weird way to pay homage to my old mentors back in Philly—the pharmacist who writes as if her freshman lit teacher was watching. But these days, there is a big difference.
I'm not going for a grade. I've given myself a lot of breathing room. I allow myself to write imperfectly. I permit roughness in my drafts.
For instance: I use brackets (like this article describes.) If an element makes me stumble, I close it off, skip over it, and keep going.
Skipping the unwritable parts keep the green light going. You can go back and write those spots later, after you've had time to work them out. (That's what second drafts are for, right?)
In fact, I love skipping things. In my current WIP, one chapter has only three words: SOMETHING BAD HAPPENS. The next chapter picks up the narrative once more, with actual scenes and sequences. I'm able to pull this off because of the previous tip about plotting. I know where the story is going so it doesn't matter if I have trouble somewhere.
I just gun the gas and speed past it, blasting through that potential red light. Skipping stuff can be such a rush.
5). Avoid Criticism
It's not enough to allow myself to write roughly in a first draft. I know what I'm writing is not the final product. I know it's going to get better, and deeper, and less riddled with thinly-developed ideas.
But would someone else know that?
Beta readers and critique partners are a writer's best friends. Seriously. We all need a set of impartial eyes on our stories to see the flaws we can't. But a first draft is no place for that kind of critique.
Not only is the story not yet at a place to be properly critiqued—neither are we. A first draft is a place of discovery and experimentation, a place where creativity needs to flow unimpeded. Criticism, at this point, slams the writing light to full red. It forces us to rethink our work, to go back and change. It intentionally switches us to editor mode.
It also does something to our confidence. Even when the critique is gentle and constructive, it makes us doubt ourselves and where we thought our story was going. You might think a critique is necessary at the beginning, that it will save us unnecessary work down the road. I think that's premature. I think that there's a bigger risk of squelching a good idea before it has a chance to be fully developed. That's the worst kind of editing—it's censoring.
That's why I keep my first drafts to myself. I might give a sneak peek of a scene to one of my inner-sanctum betas, just for a taste of what I'm writing. But I never give enough to inspire criticism and I never hand a red pen over with it.
Green Light... Go!
The next time you find yourself stuck in first draft traffic, don't despair. The writer in you has the power to switch that signal and turn that red light green again. You don't need a miracle. You just need to learn how to take back that control.
The switch is all yours. Learn to use it to your advantage.
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