Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Layla prefers first drafting & I prefer editing...can two oppositely-inclined writers help each other?

A bit of background:
So, one night on twitter, my pal Layla Messner (@LaylaMessner on twitter) and I had an interesting exchange on revising/editing and drafting. It turns out that Layla enjoys first drafts far more than editing. And for me, first drafting can be like cutting open a vein, and revising and editing is an enchanting and fun cakewalk. We were curious about each other’s approach and we wanted to delve into the subject beyond what you can do on twitter. Isn’t that what blogs are for? 

Carolyn: Hey Layla! I’m so glad we’re doing this. Partly for selfish reasons: I want to be more into first drafting. Like you! So, questions: What do you enjoy about first drafting?

Layla: As I was reading your intro the phrase, “first drafting can be like cutting open a vein” jumped out at me. You might be thinking that since I love first drafting, I must be about to say that first drafting is nothing like that for me. But guess what? It totally is. Not all the time, but often. And I love that feeling.

I was not going to start with that aspect of first drafting, but since you brought it up, why not go right for the challenge. Yes, first drafting can be a warm and fuzzy flow of creativity for me, but that’s easy to love. What’s harder to love is that bleeding-onto-the-page-feeling. So, I’m going to try to describe what I love about that…

It’s a very raw feeling. Like telling uncomfortable secrets. But I think what I love about it is that there’s nobody here but me, no one to see it. I don’t have to worry about what anyone else will think. I can tell the absolute truth, to myself, no matter how dark it may be. I can put it to words, and see it in front of me. Nothing hidden.

Carolyn: Wow, so you’re thinking uncensored truth. This is already giving me insights. Here’s what I think is interesting: we even have different definitions of the phrase “cutting open a vein” when applied to drafting. When I wrote it, I meant it more like an unpleasant thing, and also a kind of drudgery, but worse, whereas you saw it as getting some truth down, messy as it might be.

On a first draft, my thinking is always, get this thing down, and then the fun can start. I think it’s natural for first drafts to be pretty bad, and I like muscling them into shape, but not building them from the ground up. The more refined things get, the more fun I have. Help! What do you say to a person like me? 

Layla: You say, “My thinking is always, get this thing down, and then the fun can start.” I’m picturing the first draft as a huge hill in front of you, and if you can just climb it, it’s a nice downhill from there?

Carolyn: That hill metaphor is perfect, though I don’t worry about not getting a thing done, it’s more about impatience, and I don’t like wasting a bunch of time, or going down wrong paths, and most of all, I can’t see over the top. I can’t SEE the thing to work on it until I have a draft down.  Clearly I’m not valuing or enjoying the journey of the first draft! 

It sounds like for you, first drafting is a high trust/high faith experience, and revising is an experience characterized by less trust and faith, or, maybe more worry. Whereas for me, drafting is a low trust/low faith experience, but once I have that draft, I feel confident I can make it work.

Layla: That sounds right on.

Carolyn: What’s interesting is that, the only times I DO enjoy first drafting is when I’m discovering things as I write, getting to some unexpected truth. But, mostly I think I get to the truth in a piece through rewriting and refining—the more I work on it, the more it comes into view and the more I see where it needs to go, and the more fun and exciting it is.

I approach a first draft a little like an engineer, arranging scenes I’ve imagined and getting their rudiments in, so that the fun and real work can begin. But, maybe you have a point. Maybe I’m not comfortable with something that’s too “in process.” I have a sense of the first draft as something to be gotten under control.

Layla: Right away reading this, I notice that it is the editing process that I approach like an engineer—arranging the scenes—and it is exactly the part of editing that doesn’t sing for me. The editing that I do enjoy is polishing the text itself, which I find to be more creative. I think that with first drafting especially, but also with text editing, I drop into right brain/alpha brainwaves much more easily than during structural editing. I wonder if it’s the methodical “left-brained” approach that we both find drains some of the joy from the process?

Carolyn:  Yes! Well, I think we have made a mini-discovery - we both dislike the part that for us, is the least creative; you feel like an engineer in the revision mode, I feel like an engineer during drafting. That little tidbit is really kind of golden, I think. I need to think about that. So, you see most of the real creative work as being in the first draft.

Layla:  Yes. The biggest impediment to my creativity is my inner censor, which tries to convince me that editors/critics/parents (I write YA) will take objection to my subject matter. I keep this voice quiet in the first draft by reminding myself that no one else has to see it. Because my first draft is produced in this atmosphere of trust, I imagine it is pretty close to the truth of the story. But once I switching to editing mode, the censor comes back full force and the process starts to feel less like fun creativity and more like an exam. To make matters worse, the closer I get to the finished version the more terrified I become that censor will win and I will ruin the book, destroy its soul in an attempt to be marketable, conventional (i.e. conform to conventions), and tight. Help!

Carolyn: Oh, so you have a bit of an editor/judge on your shoulder during revision? That can be hampering. If I think of people at all, I’m thinking mostly of my critique partners, and sometimes of supportive readers. I never envision harsh editors or frowning readers.

My mindset is like, there is a hidden perfect story in there and I am hard at work finding it, and the drudge work is done, and I’m getting closer and closer. And I have this feeling that they will be excited for what is working and they will tell me what isn’t, and that will help me get closer to my goal.

But I know that “onstage” feeling. Is there a way you can shift your mindset about your audience in the editing process? Maybe think more about your creative allies?

Layla: I love the idea of imagining a world of allies, rather than critics. I’m going to have to cultivate that. After all, at this stage the audience is all in my imagination—why not imagine a supportive one, right?

Can you take me through a “day of editing with Carolyn”? What’s your process like? And how does that compare with first drafting?

Carolyn: I do my editing on the computer, and my work time is in the morning, if I can arrange it, so generally, I just have my black tea and breakfast, and I sit down and read my email, and do some social media things while my mind is waking up, and then I open my document.

Usually I’ve highlighted an area in red where I’ve left off, so I undo that red and just start reading. And things just pop out at me. And if something doesn’t feel right, I change it and rearrange things until it’s right. I have a vision I’m pushing the story toward, but I sometimes discover opportunities. Though sometimes there are specific things, like, make sure a character is wearing a hat in this scene, or, I need a certain thing said. A lot of times, I’ll back up and take another pass over what I just revised and re-polish. I can get lost in the editing and do it for hours. Unlike first drafting.

My editing feeling is that of relaxation and puzzle-y, polish-y fun, as opposed to first drafting, which can be a bit more white knuckled.

 What is your mindset as you sit down to write? What is your process?

Layla: You want to know about first drafting, right? I try to write every weekday, and I usually set aside time. But even so, a lot of the time when I end up working on my first draft, it’s in addition to that time. In other words, I’ve just gotten an idea. I sit down to grab it while it’s there and the next thing I know I’ve written a whole scene.

A little while ago, I was reading the Deadline Dames blog ( and one of the dames – I apologize for not remembering which one – was talking about the fact that she can’t tell the difference between the stuff she wrote in a moment of inspiration and the stuff she made herself sit down and plod through. I wish I could say that is the case for me, but the scenes I write in moments of inspiration seem to be the major building blocks, and the language is almost always more alive and often requires less editing than scenes written when I forced myself to work. But I still sit down and work even when I’m not inspired because it works to move the project along. I feel happier when I write, and inspiration can and often does come halfway through a writing session.

So, assuming it’s a “scheduled” writing time and not a blinding flash of inspiration, I sit down, pick up where I left off on my last writing day, or wherever I feel like working. And I just start writing whatever comes to mind.

If I don’t have an idea, I will start reading/tweaking a few paragraphs back and that will get the juices flowing. I read a quote by an author (again, I can’t remember who) who said always stop for the day when you know what comes next. I try to do that. At the end of my writing day, I’ll make a note in brackets [like this] of what’s coming next, so I have somewhere to start.

One writing practice I enjoy freewriting. (Setting a timer and writing from a prompt for 5-10 minutes. The goal is to never stop writing during that time, not even pause.) I often first draft in a similar style—just write and don’t stop.

I keep track of my daily and weekly words, and running word count on my blog, which is something I find very motivating.

I just love the experience of finding out what’s going to happen next.

When I don’t feel inspired, I’ll often edit instead. And, interestingly enough, when I edit /while/ first drafting, I really enjoy the honing process. Hmm.

Carolyn: Do you have any tips for first drafting?

Layla: The more writing advice I read, the less I want to be caught giving any, but keeping in mind that writing is different for everybody…

I often hear people saying that if you’re stuck, remind yourself that it’s just a first draft and no one else has to see it. And to just sit down and write. These work for me. Otherwise…

I think practicing freewriting could help, and thinking like that when you draft – just write whatever comes, quickly. So what is you don’t use it.

Allow yourself to be surprised.

Trust your spontaneous use of language.

Set some kind of doable goal you can reward yourself for.

Try to enjoy it, like a road trip with no set itinerary.

If all else fails, maybe tell yourself, “No, this is not my favorite part. But I have to do it to get to my favorite part, so, by golly, I am going to try to enjoy it. I’d like to write a bunch of words today so that I can have the pleasure of editing them later.” Or, “It’s okay if these words aren’t any good. I get to edit them later. I love editing, so extra bonus for me.” *grin*

Your turn.

Carolyn: My tips for editing success would be…hmm. I’d say, take yourself out of it. It’s between you and the sentences and scenes, and just flow along until you hit a snag, and then fix the snag and keep going. I mean, if you’re imagining anyone, it’s best for it to be supportive people, but ideally, you’re in the reader’s seat during editing, and I mean, you as a reader, making something you’d want to read. 

I would say, trust yourself, too. I don’t know how you cultivate that, but the person you trust to get that great first draft down is just as capable of discovering more truth and more cool stuff on the editing end.

Henry Miller once said, “don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.” I try to keep that in mind on first drafting, but it’s great editing advice. You’re not going to ruin the draft by editing. If you’re worried about it, save a version and then edit a different version, and be bold with it, and then you’ll always have that old draft if you decide you wrecked it, but you probably didn’t.

Another weird thing: you mentioned that you enjoy the honing process when you’re revising during drafting, as opposed to when you revise during revising. I’m the same way, but reversed. Often, I have to write entirely all-new scenes to stick in to a complete draft, so, that’s a type of first drafting, but I never find it as unpleasant as when I’m doing a scene on a first draft run.

So, it’s all in the mindset! I have to think about this.

Layla: Yes, it’s sounding more and more to me like an issue of things “things that interfere with the creative mindset,” or something like that—i.e. being in a rush, imagining outside critics, being “left-brained”…

Carolyn: This is so helpful. Okay, take-aways. I like to do those for myself. A few things I’m taking away here: the idea that a first draft like telling uncomfortable secrets. I love that. It appealed to me greatly when you said it. Also, the idea that it’s not the task that’s the problem, it’s my mindset about it - methodical, uncreative drudgework. Stop looking at it like it’s engineering. Enjoy it. Allow myself to be surprised, as you say. I really like that.

Layla: This discussion has been a pleasure, and so enlightening. My take-aways would definitely be, making a conscious choice about the audience I imagine (a supportive one), and “trust yourself…the person you trust to get that great first draft down is just as capable of discovering more truth and more cool stuff on the editing end.” Thanks, Carolyn! I’m going to take these to my desk with me.

On my way out, I’d like to open the discussion…What about you? Love drafting? Editing? Have some tips to share? Please chime in.

CarolynThanks so much for doing this with me, Layla! Yes, readers, let’s hear from you! 

Nb: Layla can be found on twitter (@LaylaMessner) or on her website here!


Beth Woodward said...

Carolyn & Layla: Thank you so much for doing this blog post. I'm very much a fan of first drafting over revising. As you both mentioned, it's the part of the process that feels the most creative for me. To me, first drafting is this exciting world of possibilities. All avenues are open, possibilities are endless. I don't tend to have my stories completely planned out before I start writing them. I'll have a few scenes, a few images, but even these may be subject to change. I'm imaginging the story as I'm writing it. I'm often only a few scenes ahead of myself in imagining the story as I am in writing it. Often I know where I'm going, but I have no idea how I'm getting there. It's scary, but it's also a rush. I LOVE getting those writerly epiphanies, those moments when I go "Aha!" and all of a sudden realize, "Oh, THAT'S how I can get the heroine to do ____."

Carolyn, you likened revising to doing a puzzle. I've compared it to a Jenga game. I keep pulling blocks out and putting them in different places, and I'm just waiting for the entire tower to fall down. It can also feel like a bit of a free fall, where I don't know where I'm going or what I'm doing. How should I approach it? When am I done? It's also a slower, more grueling process for me: my current work-in-progress, from start to finish, took six months to write a first draft. I'm nearly four months into revisions now, and I'm not even a third of the way done. And after that, I'm going to have to read through and then start ALL OVER AGAIN. *Sigh* It feels like I'm biting off more than I can chew.

I think your advice was good, about trying to change my mindset. I like the idea that the process of revising is about finding the perfect story. I should also probably trust myself more. I've been getting really positive feedback on my revisions from my writing group, and I need to just keep moving forward.

Thanks, guys!

Layla Messner said...

Hi Beth,
So glad you enjoyed our post :). I'm totally with you about imagining the story as I'm writing it. In fact, I may only know the building blocks of the story--inciting incident, climax, how I think it will end, a few moments along the way. Then, when I sit down to draft, images and words may flow all together, so that I don't know what's going to happen until I've typed it.

Carolyn Crane said...

Thanks for stopping by, Beth! It's cool and helpful to hear how both you and Layla enjoy the surprise aspect of the drafting. I am always surprised by surprises. I like them, but I don't expect them, and maybe I should. Maybe put out the ol' welcome mat!

It really would suck to have the harder part of writing a novel come later in the game!!! I never thought about that.

Jenga. noooo!!

Beth Woodward said...

Layla: Yes, that's exactly how it is for me! When I started my work-in-progress, I literally had ONE SCENE--the opening scene, as a matter of fact. At the time, I envisioned it as a piece of flash fiction. Then I took it to my writing group and I got peppered with all kinds of questions about the protagonist and why she acted the way she did. It got me thinking. Now it's a 95,000-word novel!

Carolyn: Much as I might vent about revision on my blog/Twitter/etc., I'm actually feeling better about it than I thought I would. As I said, I'm getting very positive feedback from my writing group, and I feel like I have a better sense now (compared to a few years ago) when to heed their advice. I trust myself more, and as you both said, that's very important.

Thanks again, guys! Really enjoyed the post!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Awesome post. Thanks for sharing your conversation. =o)

I love first drafts. For me, it's less like opening a vein than opening my head and letting the story out. Editing for me is taking all that writing I thought was wonderful when I put it on paper for the first time and seeing exactly how bad it really is (even when it isn't). Ugh.

Carolyn Crane said...

B.E. Another first drafter lover! Funny, for me, I fully expect my first draft to be just terrible. But, I know how you feel sort of, because there can be times when I've really worked over a scene and I think it's great in my mind, and I go back and it's not. lol. So glad you stopped by.

Layla Messner said...

B.E. - a first draft born from the head, like Athena. I like it. Glad you liked the post :).

Beth - I love that you wrote an entire book from knowing only one scene. Also, re: knowing when to listen to feedback - so true! I know I always want to accept feedback, and then sometimes I incorporate something I didn't really believe in and later when another reader points out that it doesn't work, I think, I /knew/ not to use that. I too am getting better at trusting myself.

Layla Messner said...

A friend just sent me a link to this post by Grant Virtue in which he identifies to "types" of first drafters "Just Right" and "Just Write." I thought it tied in here quite nicely.
Just Right of Just Write by Grant Virtue