Saturday, December 31, 2011

Letting Go of Perfect: The Skinny on Writing a Rough Draft and Finishing It

A few years ago I was working at a TV station. One day another employee stopped me in the hallway and the following conversation ensued.

DUDE: Hey. I saw you the other day while you were at a red light. I waved and yelled at you but you didn't answer.

ME: Really? Where?

DUDE: Down on Main Street. By the Mexican food place.

ME: Oh. Sorry. When I'm driving I tend to be... ignorant.

Needless to say, that was not the word I was looking for. I meant oblivious. So, I just turned red and hurried off to do something else as soon as I realized I sounded like an idiot. (Ignorant, indeed.) That's the problem with talking to people – you only get one chance to find the right word.

When you're writing, it's a whole different story. And here's where we get to the point of today's post.

Rough drafts or, as some prefer to call them, first drafts are no good at all if you don't finish them. I can't tell you how many unfinished first drafts I have lodge in my virtual trunk. (Actually a computer folder labeled “Shyte”.) There they sit, lovely beginnings that serve me no purpose because in order to do anything further they must first be FINISHED.

Learning to finish a draft is hard. Here's how I handle the ingrained writer's instinct to make every word perfect the first time through. (An admirable goal, I might add, but usually counter-productive.)

First, I recite the following mantra.

Some words are better than no words.
A bad word is better than no words.
A simple word is better than an incorrect fancy word.
Poorly structured words are better than no words.

Then I write.
When I find myself searching for an obscure synonym for “black” I repeat line three of the mantra, type in “black” and keep going.
When I start analyzing whether I really want to use a gerund or should I change the sentence structure to improve flow I repeat line four of the mantra, type my gerund riddled sentence and keep going.
When I start wondering if I've gotten any email/if there's fresh coffee/whether this story sucks, I repeat line one, turn off the internet connection, promise myself a cup of coffee after I reach the end, clonk my inner critic over the head and keep going. (Are you seeing a pattern here, yet?)
When I write “he ran” and realize that's totally not the right word for the situation, I repeat line two of the mantra, tell myself “I'll fix it in post” and keep going.

What about plot holes?” you say. “What if I decide I want my story to take place in Rwanda instead of Scotland? What if I don't know the scientific term for iron?”

I have a nifty system for that too.
For anything plot related I use these [ ] brackets. [I write a note, right in the middle of the story with a summary of a scene I'm not ready to write yet, a note to move the location of the story, or even just a note that says FIX THIS LATER! and put the square brackets around it for easy reference.] (One writer I know changes the font color on sections he thinks need work as he's writing to make them easy to spot during editing.)
For anything research related I use these < > brackets. Usually things like <Insert proper scientific term here> or <Find street name>.
Then I keep going.

It is a difficult skill to learn, letting your mistakes lie there until it's time to edit. But in the end, one of the most common differences between “aspiring” authors and published authors is the ability to FINISH A STORY.

When you write a rough draft it is okay for it to be utter crap. That's why we call them “rough” drafts. They can be awkward and have pieces missing and subplots dangling and poorly researched settings. Because all of that can be fixed during editing. But if the story ain't done, you won't have anything to edit.

So, repeat after me.

Some words are better than no words.
A bad word is better than no words.
A simple word is better than an incorrect fancy word.
Poorly structured words are better than no words.

Now. What have you written today?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Basics: Story Structure - Beginning

You may have heard that a novel is not subject to the guidelines of the three act structure because “it isn't a play”. I could go into a long explanation about the development of three act structure prior to the printing press and if books had been in mass production at the time it might be called something different. But I think it's best to keep it simple.

The foundation of three act structure is this: every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. In fact, if any story that doesn't have a beginning, middle and end is probably not a story at all but a different type of prose I like to call “unfinished”. That, I think, should be an argument for another day.

Much of the confusion surrounding three act structure comes from a lack of understanding about what exactly a “beginning”, “middle” or “end” looks like. So, lets break it down, starting with: The Beginning.

It is easy to assume that the beginning of a story is also the beginning of the main character's life. Or, at the very least, the moment they wake up on the day you decide to start chronicling his/her life. In a few cases this might be true.

More accurately, the beginning of a story is the point at which (or immediately before) the main character encounters a challenge that cannot be ignored but must be resolved – either through overcoming the challenge or succumbing to it. This is commonly termed the “inciting incident”. Some stories require you to provide context for the inciting incident, but in general you want to start as close to the moment the MC's life changes forever as you possibly can.

In some cases the “challenge” may be presented as a goal which the MC must achieve by overcoming obstacles. It must still be something that cannot be ignored. In other words, the challenge or goal must be something that has a direct impact on the MC's life.

A few common inciting incidents:
Boy meets girl/girl meets boy and falls in love but the girl/boy is out of his/her league or engaged to someone else or going out of the country the following day.
Something goes terribly wrong – this covers just about any story about alien invasions, horror, mystery, natural disaster.
An average Joe stumbles onto a conspiracy/learns that magic is real/learns the world isn't real/etc.
Someone is killed as payback and the Main Character swears revenge.

Notice how most inciting incidents also give us an idea of where the plot leads? Remember, a good inciting incident is a challenge that cannot be ignored but must be resolved. It is a goal that drives the story. (And yes, this is still true even for character driven stories.)

In general, the beginning of the story should present the reader with your Main Character. It should give us some insight into his/her current circumstance. It should introduce a challenge or goal for him/her to overcome/achieve.

If your beginning includes those basic elements, you are well on your way to finishing a good story.

So, what have you written today?