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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


photo by voltamax

by Christine Kohler

Even though I’ve admitted to not joining in National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), this topic would help aspiring novelists to make their goal in November. I, personally, don’t like to drag out writing a first draft for a multitude of reasons. For me, it’s easier to revise words on a page than it is to get those initial ideas down on paper. For many writers, they never finish that first draft. It becomes the “novel in the drawer.” Imagine how many novels those type of writers could have completed and polished during the time they dragged out for a year (or more) writing the first draft.


I bought ART & FEAR for my daughter, but started reading it myself. I don’t usually recommend books I haven’t finished, but this is one I’m really enjoying in unexpected ways. I don’t think of myself as being fearful to create art. However, being introspective, I do some things that show fear, causing me to procrastinate before writing sessions. For one, I circle like a cat before settling down.

Examine ways that you hold yourself back from plunging into writing sessions. Are you critical of your writing? Do you compare yourself with other authors? Do you self-edit to the point of hindering moving forward? Do you get stuck easily, then delay days before writing again? Once you’ve identified the fear that holds you back, then it’s easier to face, and break those negative cycles.


I’ve confessed before that I’m a pantser, but mid-way through I reverse outline. However, if you are on a really tight deadline, outlining prior to writing the story will move you forward at a swifter and steadier pace. It doesn’t have to be a formal outline. Or a long outline. But just enough so when you begin each writing session that you know what comes next.


Figure out how many words or pages you write on average per hour. Then figure about how many words or pages you expect your novel to be. Often a certain line for different publishers pre-determines length. Or if you’re doing NANOWRIMO, you have a word goal for one month. Then do the math. Once you figure how many words or pages you need to write per day, and how long that will take, write it on the calendar. If necessary, make set appointments with yourself based on your schedule between work and family. If this seems unrealistic, keep in mind that if you do get a coveted book contract with a publisher, you will be expected to work on a tight deadline. It’s the old adage, “You make time for what is important to you.”


When you need to end a writing session, do so in the middle of a sentence. Or write the first paragraph of the next scene, or chapter. I write myself a note in brackets telling what comes next. Otherwise, if you end a session at the end of a scene or chapter, it’s harder to pick it up the next day and move forward. You may spend too much time circling the block, or from the kitchen to the bathroom to a chore, trying to figure out what comes next. Leave yourself fresh breadcrumbs in the forest of doubt.


I’ve written about recursive before in a blog article “Getting Unstuck.” Recursive writing is when you write one day, then the next day you go back and read and tweak what you wrote, then move forward. The trick is that you can’t start from the beginning after your second day of writing. Also, don’t get bogged down in heavy rewrites or you won’t be able to move forward.


Again, I recommend you read my article “Getting Unstuck.” [Articles on this Authors Guild website are easier to find by title on the Blogletter tab than they are on the Blog tab.]

Twice I’ve been in family-life situations where I could not write long hours and every day. Both times my first draft dragged out longer than usual. And in both instances, I had a harder time getting into the writing each session, and got stuck more often. What I did in both cases was this little trick. When I found myself taking excruciating long to move forward, I wrote what scene needed to happen next in brackets, then skipped writing that scene. When I told myself in writing what needed to happen next, I didn’t bother to do so in the tense or person or voice of the novel.

For example, I don’t drink or go to clubs. But I needed to write a scene where the protagonist is at drinking and dancing at a club, and discovers her stalker is present at the club with her. I must have been stuck for two weeks on not being able to write that scene. So, finally, I put what needed to happen in brackets, then moved to the next scene where my protagonist leaves the club, drives home, and is arrested for DUI. I had no problem writing that scene and rolling forward.

What happened in the cases where I skipped writing out scenes, but made notations to myself in brackets, was that in revisions I told myself, “Your only job today is to write this scene.” In some instances, it took me two days to write that scene. But when I did it was fully developed.

The main thing to keep in mind with all of these suggestions, from overcoming fear to getting unstuck, is that the first draft is like finger painting. Your job is to get the idea down on paper. It’s not a finished work of art. It’s only the line drawing, or the colors smeared around. Finger painting is messy. But have fun with it. Revision is where you flesh out the characters and scenes and strengthen the story arc and plot strands. It’s where your finger painting takes form and shape and because a recognizable picture. Tell yourself, “This is the first draft, it’s supposed to be messy.” Then just do it.  Read More 

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