I don’t know about you, but, as I’ve said on this blog before, drafting is the hardest part of writing for me.
In this stage, there is so much opportunity for doubt and second-guessing, for getting sidetracked, for fear. The goal is to finish, which seems a simple enough task at first, but can quickly become daunting and even crippling. Revisions, while they can also seem daunting, are often split into many smaller and more concrete tasks — clarify this character’s motivations during this scene, refine your word choice here, let’s spice up this action scene. Revisions are basically items on a checklist.
But drafting? Quite frankly, OY. There are days when finishing a book, when wringing this screaming, bursting, wild creation out of the nethers of the universe, can seem as completely insurmountable a task as, “Hey, list all of the ways in which Nathan Fillion, dreamy international superstar, is, like, totally the dreamiest.”
Ryan Gosling? No thanks.
Many writers in this situation — including myself, at times — seem to cope with the enormity of drafting by resorting to some pretty bad habits. We call our workspace “the drafting cave” or some other such term. We talk about binging on junk food, not getting enough sleep, falling out of touch with friends and family, forgetting what sunlight looks like (hint: it’s that bright thing that makes vampires sparkle), forgetting to shower, forgetting everything but our word count goal, and the next chapter, and the next. We tout this as something to be proud of, something to inspire awe, to emulate, to cheer about, as some kind of unspoken contest that proves us to be badasses or real writers or something.
No. WRONG. We do not need to sacrifice ourselves to “the drafting cave” in order to write a book. We do not need to forsake all other tasks, responsibilities, and non-fictional people to the abyss until we type the words “the end.” Yes, some sacrifice is necessary, of the flesh, mind, heart, and social life. Without sacrifice of some kind, there can be no true success, no learning, no art.
But, people, we don’t have to sacrifice our sanity and health to write a book. We in fact should not do such a thing, for the sake of ourselves and also for the sake of our writing. We write better when we live better, when we take care of ourselves. We need all those little brain trees functioning and firing at optimum capacity, after all, to fully realize the genius wordsmiths hacking their way out from within.
I therefore present to you 15 easy ways to survive drafting (with your sanity intact):
1. Stock your kitchen with healthy snacks. The evil, eeeevil evolutionary instinct to binge on Twizzlers and Chex Mix and JUMBO CHIPZ is never stronger than when camped out writing a book. But, friends, we must resist this urge for the sake of our brains (and our thighs). Snack on healthy items instead — fresh fruits and vegetables, hundred-calorie popcorn bags, nuts, cheese (but in moderation, and in small portions like string cheese, or with apples or something, not in the disgustingly gluttonous way I often have to resist scarfing down all the cheese in sight). Some of my favorite writing snacks: baby carrots, bell pepper strips, granny smith apples, bananas, pretzel sticks, and THIS AMAZING ORGANIC POPCORN FROM THE FAIRWAY MARKET (which I originally typed as FAIRYWAY MARKET, which is pretty accurate; the place is magical). These foods satisfy my urge to munch while keeping my brain sharp and my body from turning into mush.
2. DO allow yourself treats, though. Every now and then, have some Chex Mix. Have some Twizzlers. Get a big ol’ slice of pizza after a hard day torturing your characters into bad decisions and existential crises. It’s important for morale. But the key here, as with normal eating habits, is moderation. Too much junk slows down your brain, and can make those long hours at the computer even deadlier for your body.
3. Take breaks to exercise. Whether this is taking a walk around the block, going for a hardcore run, or just doing some stretches and crunches in your living room, taking the time between bouts of writing to move your body, get the blood circulating, and breathe some fresh air can do wonders. You are not a Tibetan monk, achieving enlightenment by sitting still and meditating on
the wonder that is life the wonder that is your soon-to-be bestseller. You’re a normal human being going for the mental equivalent of running a marathon, so pace yourself. Work that body, baby.
4. Read while you write. Don’t read books that are so similar to what you’re writing that plot details from that book start to bleed into your own. But books that achieve the sort of emotion, complexity, and tone that you want to achieve with yours? Books that inspire you and remind you how much you love writing? Books that make you want to climb to your roof and bare-breastedly shout out their virtues to the entire world? Yes, read those books while drafting. If — no, when — we encounter stumbling blocks in our writing, few things can push us through them more effectively than reading something that makes us think, “Yes. This. THIS is what I want to achieve. I can do this. I CAN DO THIS. BARE BREASTS*.”
5. Don’t let that shiny new idea distract you. We’ve all been there: we’re slaving away on our draft, and it’s getting to that point where all the words are blurring together, and we’re tired of this, and it’s hard, conflabbit, and then . . . oh, then we’re sudsing in the shower and inspiration hits, the tricksy hobbit. It says, “Forget that story you’re working on now. It’s lame. You’re wasting your time with it. But I’m exciting and awesome, and I’ll be the next big thing. Promise. Let me be your Hunger Games.” RESIST THIS HOBBIT, Y’ALL. Don’t get distracted. If a shiny new idea comes to you, great! Welcome it with open arms and a big, happy smile — and then slam it down in your idea file and don’t look at it again until you’re done with your current draft. Otherwise you’ll keep getting distracted by every new idea that pops into your head, and you’ll never finish the current one, and you’re not a raccoon, okay? (If you are a raccoon, and you can read this, shoot me an email, because UNICORN would like a playmate.)
6. Don’t pay attention to other writers. I don’t mean shun your writer friends until you’re done with your draft, and I certainly don’t mean forsake all writerly social media in favor of breeding your darlings. What I mean is, don’t focus on who’s getting what deal and for how much, and how many words per day this person is writing, and that person’s drama, and all the noise that generates from thousands upon thousands of writers all clamoring for attention and understanding and publicity in a forum where anything goes (read: the Internet). A person can only take so much, and you’re already taking on more than your allotted amount simply by writing a book. So turn off the noise and ignore what everyone else is doing. They don’t matter; your book matters.
7. DO pay attention to the non-writers in your life. Having this external focus, this perspective on life that is much grander and more important than your main character’s love triangle, will keep your brain focused and clear, and therefore result in a clearer and more focused draft. It’s very easy for us writers to get stuck in our heads; what makes us better writers, though, is balancing the internal with the external, craft with experience, thinking with doing. And it’s refreshing to spend an evening ragging on celebrities with your roommate, or chatting about decorating ideas with your mom, or exchanging recipes with the guy who sits on the corner in his lawn chair. You’ll come back to your draft refreshed and emptied out of all the braingook that builds up when the only thing to consume it is fictional characters, aka, braingookians.
8. Make sure your writing area is your own. Some of us write in the same place, at the same time, and for the same duration every single day. Some of us write whenever and wherever we can grab a spare minute, whether that’s a desk at home or a coffee shop on our lunch hour. Wherever it is, take a minute or two at the start of your writing session to make sure your space is your own — you have your coffee mug, your water bottle, your (healthy!) snack reserve; you have your necessary research materials, your headphones, your lucky pen. You are ready to go, and you won’t have to get up for anything once you begin.
9. Don’t go back and re-read earlier parts of the draft. Other than the bare minimum we have to read sometimes to check plot details or character consistency from earlier portions of our drafts, we really shouldn’t go back and re-read stuff we’ve already written until we’re completely done with the draft. We can’t know the true state of our story until it’s finished and we can step back and look at it all at once, from beginning to end. Drafting is for getting the words down; revisions and re-writes come later.
10. Write offline as much as possible. This is kind of a no-brainer, but seriously — it blows my mind how much more productive I am, not only in word count but in quality of words, when I close everything — my email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even sometimes my entire browser — and focus solely on my words. Sometimes we have to do research while we’re writing, but I maintain that most nitty-gritty research should be done in the planning or revision stages, not while drafting. That’s what outlining, brackets, and again, revisions, are for. Write where there is no wi-fi. Use a program like Freedom to force you offline, or just simply have the willpower to stay offline yourself. “But I have to network and stuff!” our inner promoters shout. Yes, we do. But not while we’re writing.
11. GET GOOD SLEEP. There is nothing romantic or impressive about the sleepless writer slaving away, kept awake only by insanity and all that caffeine the grocery store once had. Lack of sleep does bad things, very bad things, to our brains, and therefore to our writing. Also, it’s bad for our skin. Truth! Sometimes there will be those long nights when we’re on a deadline or when inspiration strikes, but all those other times? Really, we should just suck it up and go to bed when it’s time to go to bed. We’ll feel better in the morning, and our words will show it.
12. Establish good, frequent, and healthy rewards for yourself. “When I finish this chapter, I’m going to chat with my boyfriend!” “One more scene, and then it’s candy cane shopping time!” “After I type 1,000 more words, I’m going to blast some Madonna and get jiggy wit’ it! Or some other reference that is not so heinously outdated!” These are healthy, and I think we would all agree awesome, rewards for working hard. Positive reinforcement: it’s a powerful thing.
13. Don’t be afraid to jump around. I don’t mean like physically jump around the room, although that could be fun, too! Especially if you look like this. What I mean is, if you hit a stumbling block mid-draft, don’t be afraid to jump to a different part of the draft to get the juices going again. No one said we have to draft our stories in order from beginning to end.
14. Read passages aloud. Okay, so I know I said don’t go back and re-read earlier portions of your story, and I still mean that. But reading aloud a passage that you’re currently working on, or reading aloud a bit of what you wrote yesterday before beginning today’s writing, is a great way to 1) refresh yourself about what you need to write next, 2) work through a tough scene, and 3) have fun. When you read aloud, do all your characters’ voices! Especially if there are people around, because it can be fun to freak out passersby. Pretend like you’re reading for an audience who has never heard the story before. Nothing illuminates odd word choices or logical fallacies like hearing the material read aloud.
15. Don’t stop until you’re done. Ignore your doubts and fears and just barrel through. As I said before, you can’t possibly know the true state of your draft until it’s done, until you’ve set it aside for a few days and come back to it with a clear head. And if you stop before you’re finished, you might lose all your momentum; you might lose focus or inspiration. A rolling stone gathers no moss, and a writing writer doesn’t have time or brainspace to freak out. A writing writer is writing, and that’s it; and a writing writer will soon have a finished draft, which is cause for celebratory cheese, and isn’t that
what this is all about? a nice way to cap off a job well done?
*Please don’t go out on your roof and yell things bare-breastedly. Just, don’t. I cannot be held responsible for your tomfoolery.