seventh talk: finishing a first draft


At this point in the course, you are moving toward finishing the first draft of your story. This is a crucial moment in any writer’s life, and rather than talking about “Meaning and Western Union” – a terribly interesting discussion that I had planned for this week – I will give you some suggestions about how to get to the end of a draft. I’m rendering these suggestions as bullet points with subheadings so that you can glance at them, even in your terror of completion.

Shitty First Drafts: You have to be willing to write poorly. Most people make the strategic mistake of thinking that accomplishment as a writer is about writing well. It is not. Accomplishment as a writer is about being willing to write like shit. People who aren’t willing to write like shit are not writers, they are editors. Be willing to suck big time is just about the best advice I can give you. One day you may “not suck,” and, as we all know, that’s the pinnacle of accomplishment for any writer. I myself had a day last week when I didn’t suck.

Rule 62: Don’t take yourself so damn seriously. This is another way of saying what I just said.

Desire and Obstacles: When in doubt, ask yourself what your protagonist wants and how much she’s willing to do to get it. Then throw up a big obstacle in her path. The world is ending. They don’t make pistachio ice cream anymore. The inn is full. Structure is your friend.

Handcuff Yourself to the Desk: Push through to the end of the dramatic arc no matter what. “Dramatic arc” is a fancy way of saying “beginning, middle, and end.” Make something crazy happen. Be wild.

Suggestions for Wildness #1, The Terrorist Solution: This is not as weird as it used to be, but have some terrorists enter the room and hold everyone hostage. Your story is a tender coming of age story that takes place in an Iowa farmhouse? I don’t care. Terrorists can’t hold hostages in Iowa? Often, just the idea of a wild solution will break open the story. If you’re not willing to go to the Nth degree of what’s possible, you’re thinking too small, anyway.

Suggestions for Wildness #2, The Alien Invasion Solution: Writing a story about a young man questioning his sexuality in a small liberal arts college in Minnesota? What if he opens the window and the Mother Ship has landed on the Lacrosse field? I wonder what they will have to say about his dilemma? Actually, wait, that’s a pretty good story. I think I’m going to write that one.

That’s a Really Dumb Idea: The stupidest thing you can think of is another version of the alien invasion scenario. When I get into a pinch, I try to imagine the stupidest thing I can introduce into the story. Try to think of “what couldn’t possibly happen,” and that’s often a good clue. Stories are often about what can’t possibly happen. Make a list of things, maybe, that will insure that the workshop laughs at you and thinks you’re an idiot. He announces he’s been on speed since he was eight, and it’s made him psychic. He pokes a pencil in his brother’s back. She announces that, no, she’s not kidding, she’s running for student council. He announces that, on purpose, he fed everyone cat food omelets yesterday morning. You don’t necessarily have to keep these things in your story, but I guarantee they will have a more powerful effect than a lot of things you could do.

Death: Remember that you’re going to die someday – why are you holding anything back? The moment before God takes you up in His loving arms, do you really think you’ll say, “Whew! I’m so grateful that I didn’t make a fool of myself in Dan Barden’s online fiction course!”

Copy Someone Else’s Paper: An approach to writing which has become increasingly important to me is what I call “modeling.” There are lots of books around your desk. If you’re stuck, pick one of them up and see how that person ended her story. Better yet, lay that ending on your own story. Even better still: just steal that ending. Sometimes, too, it helps me when I’m stuck to “imitate” the good writing of another writer.

Use the piece as a template for their own words: that is, where there’s an image, write an image. Where there’s a verb, use a verb. Where there’s a colorful adjective, write a colorful adjective.

As an example, the first sentence of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye,

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers,

might become:

The last trip I took with my friend Jasper Jones he was happier with his new Kawasaki road bike than I’ve ever seen a man before or since.

Cut to the chase: Try starting in the middle. Just at – or right before – the point of highest conflict. Starting in the middle of things will help you to understand what the conflict actually is. I’m not a big fan of “preparing” the reader or “setting up.” Readers enjoy confusion if the story is vivid and engaging, but they never enjoy being bored. Give your audience the pleasure of catching up with something they are really interested in. Give them the opportunity to want to catch up.

Dan’s Writing Tricks: I will post a set of tricks (in course documents) that will make your writing life more productive in general. Please take a look these suggestions, which are even more quaint than this list. I thought I had done this at the start of the class, but, apparently, not (killing your babies, by the way, is something that we will cover in the next lecture on revision: it refers to the very important process of cutting your BEST writing if it gets in the way of the structure of the piece).

Finishing is Everything: This is the whole deal, finishing. I know many brilliant writers who have never finished anything. How can they be brilliant writers, you ask, if they never finish? This is my point. If a book is not written in the forest, will anyone read it? The answer is less obvious than you would think – how many people consider themselves writers who have never completed a draft? Finishing, even poorly, is everything. Finish poorly, I say, and you have a chance of finishing well. Actually, just finish. “Well” is a false issue. Most of us don’t even know the difference between poorly and well until someone tells us, anyway.

Leave a Reply