Friday, June 21, 2013

Writing Habits of Productive Writers

My laptop is in the hands of my computer guy. There was a problem with the monitor and after days of trying to ignore the occasional slow fade to white and gray streaks, I finally admitted I had to let it go for a day or two. However, the parting was traumatic, with pleas by me to please have it back as soon as possible. I have finally hit my stride on my new book, and although I could work on desk top computers at home or the office, I want my laptop. I want to be able to sit at my dining room table and write.

But being without a laptop will give me the opportunity this evening (Thursday) to do something I haven't done in a while -- sit at my dining room table and write on a legal pad. Sometimes changing the writing tool frees up the mind. On the other hand, pen and legal pad will certainly slow down my efforts to write a really bad first draft. Those of you who are writers know that is what we are told to do. This is advice given to both fiction and non-fiction writers. For example, Jan Allen, Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs, Cornell University Graduate School, advices students who would be productive writers to "think of writing a terrible first draft as a necessary step in producing a good manuscript."

Don't edit, don't revise, just get that first draft down on paper. I was trying to do that when my laptop began to act up. You will notice that I said I "was trying." The advice about writing a really bad first draft makes sense to me. I've said it to students and to aspiring fiction writers who tell me that they just can't get started.  I've said it because, as Dean Allen notes, sometimes fear is the obstacle to getting started. Quoting Dean Allen, "fear that what we write will be terrible". When someone seems to have that problem, it makes sense to urge him or her to "power through" that first draft and get ideas or story down on paper.

 My obstacle when it comes to taking my own advice to write fast and get my first draft done, is that I would simply rather not. I already know that I will have to revise and revise, and then revise some more. I would rather revise as I go along. It's a slow, plodding, process. At least twice, I've stop to read from the beginning before going on. I did some minor revising as I was reading, but I might have used that time to write another ten or twenty pages.

My fear about writing my first draft fast is that if I charge forward, I'll fall flat on my face. I need to get the rhythm. I need to hear the music playing in the background. That's what I do in the first draft. I write and then I begin to see and hear. Then I go back and I revise and go on. I move back and forth until I have the pacing, until I begin to see the story. I wake up in the morning and fix what wouldn't come right the day before because in the middle of the night I had an idea. I write slowly until finally the pace begins to pick up because I know where I'm headed. But I still can't plunge ahead to the end. Sometimes I have to slow down again and backtrack -- find the place where I got lost and took a wrong turn. It is an agonizingly slow process.

The part of me that would like to write a first draft fast taunts me with the reminder that I could have had this draft done by now. I hate knowing that days are passing and turning into weeks and months. But I tell myself that I have to revise a lot less in the second and third draft because my first draft isn't incredibly awful.

Today, panicked after I surrendered my laptop, I took to searching the Internet for stories about the habits of productive writers. I decided to begin with the Golden Age writers of classic detective fiction. Unfortunately, I started with Rex Stout, who told a reporter that he wrote six pages a day, preferably in the afternoon. Although he went back to read what he'd written the day before, his practice was to forge ahead. Agatha Christie offered some comfort. She admitted that she always had difficulty getting started. She was quoted as saying, "there is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off." Ms. Christie would turn to her husband, Max, in her time of self-doubt. He would assure her she had produced a publishable book before and would do it again. 

It was what husband Max had to say that gave me comfort. I've written a number of books by now. I'm never going to be able to write a fast first draft, so I may as well learn to live with that fact. Tonight I am going to sit at my dining room table with my pen and legal pad and write slow. The first draft eventually will be finished. I'll done it this way before, and it worked.

Memo to myself: Write the way you write and stop worrying about it.


Susan Elizabeth said...

Pen to paper has always been my preferred method of writing, but recently I've gradually made the switch to Scrivener. Now, when I'm away from my computer, I feel helpless and unable to write.

Julia said...

I have the same problem....I always want to begin each day reading what I've written the day before (and revise, revise, revise). However with my new novel I am absolutely forbidding myself to read it - just write, write, write! We'll see how long this lasts! LOL

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Susan Elizabeth,

I thought I was going to feel helpless without my computer, but it turns out I really enjoyed writing with pen and paper. Later in the day when I started entering that section into my computer, I was revising as I typed. I had forgotten that benefit of doing the first draft with pen to paper.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...


I'm glad to hear I'm not alone. I have officially given up trying not to go back to the day before. I need a running start :).

Good love with powering through the first draft of the new book! Maybe if you write really fast, momentum will carry you along.

Charlotte Hinger said...

I've switched to hand first drafts. They're only so much fiddling you can do with them. And you never have the excuse that you can't write because you don't have your computer with you.