Staying True to Yourself

iStock_000003474379XSmallNormally, I have ridiculous levels of patience. You have to possess or at least cultivate this quality if you want to be a working writer and keep most of your sanity intact. But I’ve been uncharacteristically rushing lately. Maybe because I’m conscious of making the best use of my writing time while various things are being done to ready Sliding Past Vertical for publication in September. Maybe because, even though the manuscript I spent months with earlier this year went wheels-up, I’d hoped to at least complete the first draft of New Manuscript by the end of 2013 and meet part of my writing goal for the year.

But in all this rushing, I realized something about myself. Unless I’m on deadline or tackling a challenge like NaNoWriMo, I don’t like rushing first drafts. My characters get pissy. I trip over my own thoughts. There’s a reason that both my high school and college track coaches steered me away from sprinting and put me on the one- and two-mile events. I’m a slow runner, true, but I had the most even splits they’d ever seen.

And I’d forgotten, in my haste, in my excitement of having a new idea, that I perform best when I can set my own timetable and go at my own, steady pace. When I can slow down and focus long enough to see the small details of a scene: the disapproving uncle sliding a finger through the dust on a bookshelf. The shadow that falls over a nephew’s face when he hears the name of a lost loved one.

When I finally realized what I was doing to myself, I let Anne LaMott reel me back in. Bird by Bird, her exquisitely wise and compact book about writing, sits on my shelf, and when I’m in the weeds, I grab for it. The bit about the lousy first drafts, I get. I live to make lousy first drafts, because that’s where you have to start. You’ll make them better later. But you can’t make them better if you’re so uptight about perfection on the first go that you never get anything done.

What helped me this time was her concept of the one-inch frame. I’d been making myself crazy seeing the entire scope of what might be a trilogy—having never done one before—at the expense of examining the details of the scene unfolding before me.

So with LaMott’s device, I stopped staring at the entire family portrait and focused on, say, the little girl in the corner looking uncomfortable and itchy in her brand-new dress. Her smile is clearly forced; a lock of hair escapes from otherwise tidy braids. She didn’t want to be in this picture. She’d rather be outside, hanging upside-down from a tree branch and showing the boys her Wonder Woman Underoos. Now, there’s a scene. There’s a place to start.

13 thoughts on “Staying True to Yourself

  1. Stefan Bolz says:

    Thanks, Laurie! I’m a little stuck right now in the-first-draft-isn’t-good-enough-to-continue-writing mode. I will get Bird by Bird. Sounds helpful, thanks! Sometimes I hear my characters say, “Just tell my story and don’t worry about the details. We’ll do that later.” When I trust them, we’re all good. When I don’t, everything stops. Good luck!!

  2. Susan in TX says:

    I’ve just unstuck myself from a what-am-I-thinking writing funk. For me it was giving myself permission to go back and fix a part of the first draft, understanding one character better. I know this is a first draft no-no, but I knew it was going to slow me down until I did it. And now I’m back to just-getting-it-on-the-page. Thanks for your wisdom and insight.

    • laurieboris says:

      You’re welcome, Susan, and thank you for your comment. I just had to do that recently with a character. I try not to break the forward-momentum of the first draft, but I wasn’t getting the connection from one of my protagonists. So I stopped and asked him some questions. I know I’ll have a lot to go back and fix later, but going forward, I feel I know him a little better. Good that you knew what you needed to do and got out of your funk.

    • acflory says:

      Yes! I’m the same Susan. No-no or not, some of us have to get things clear in our heads, even at first draft stage, before we can go on. You’re not alone. 🙂

  3. acflory says:

    You are so right about staying true to yourself. We all have different ways of working. Sometimes [as with nano] it’s good to step outside our comfort zones and try/do something different, but in a sense that’s like taking a creative holiday. When we get back home, the old rules apply again. I love the rush of nano, and the heightened creativity it gives me, but I’ve learned to view my nano writing with an element of… caution. It captures a moment really well, but at the expense of the big picture. My normal working pace is far better at seeing the story as a whole.

      • acflory says:

        Last year was the first time I’d done nano in almost 10 years and I really noticed the difference. I set myself the goal of just having fun, and trying my hand at a romance of sorts, something I’ve never done before. The result needs a lot of work but I was surprised at how good it felt to write to a wordcount instead of to some ideal standard. 🙂

  4. Samantha Ramirez says:

    I have a problem: I rush through the first draft to get all the story and thoughts on a piece of paper but when I go back through it, I have yet to figure out what needs more detail. That’s a weakness for me. I’m still waiting for the ‘self edit’ process to kick in!

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