Ready, set, write. It sounds incredibly easy to do. You sit down at your keyboard or a notebook, and get to work. But most writers hear the nagging voice of their internal editor from the first sentence. That voice says you’ve started at the wrong spot. Or it insists your opening sentence is boring. Maybe you should start with a different scene. Are you sure that’s the correct point of view? Your internal editor pokes and whines and insinuates as you write, growing louder with every paragraph. It makes you doubt yourself, and slows your progress.
Silencing Your Internal Editor
Writers everywhere have their own methods for silencing the nagging voice in their heads. The one that tells them they’re doing it all wrong. Here are a few things to keep in mind when working on your first draft. Post your favorites over your desk or tape them to the edge of your monitor. Maybe create a mantra or two.
- It’s just a shitty first draft. No one writes a beautiful or perfect first draft. It’s supposed to be a brain dump. Plenty of time to make it pretty when you start to revise.
- I’m figuring out who the characters are. First drafts help you flesh out your protagonist and the rest of your cast. Get to know them, determine what they want, and how they’re likely to behave while getting it.
- Only reread the previous day’s output. When you sit down to write, don’t allow yourself to read anything older than what you wrote in your previous session. Out of sight, out of mind. And again, you have plenty of time to revise once you’re done with draft #1.
- I don’t have to know everything yet. First drafts are for fleshing out the plot just as much as the characters. If you don’t know what happens next, skip ahead to where you do have an idea. Put brackets and come back later to fill in the details.
- Everything is relative. Remember that the things you write start to build on each other. You may reach a juncture at page 50 or 150 or 250 that gives you wonderful ideas for shoring up earlier scenes. Sometimes you need to build the castle before the foundation.
- You cannot edit a blank page. There’s no point in trying to perfect what you haven’t written. Write first, edit later. By this I mean the entire book. Editing a single sentence in a void is almost as bad as trying to write one perfect sentence from the start.
If your internal editor becomes particularly persistent, try some other ways of distracting yourself. Put on instrumental music to fill your head with some other sound. Scroll down the page so your screen is blank (or turn to the next page in your notebook), then take a short break to walk around; when you come back, start writing without looking at what you’d been picking over before you left. Change the font color of the last section to white so it’s invisible, then keep writing. Go for a run or hit the gym to get your blood flowing — you’ll feel more creatively inspired.
Every writer must face their internal editor, but only you can determine how much power you’ll give to your nagging voice. Whether you’re piling up words for NaNoWriMo or fighting to meet a contract deadline, there will be days when reaching your writing goal feels impossible. Remember that the internal editor is you — you at your most critical and insecure. Remind yourself that you are not alone in your efforts, and the only way to reach the end is to keep pushing through. Good luck, and happy writing.
Remember that post about writing a fast-and-furious, no-apologies-needed first draft? NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is the perfect time to exercise your edit-free, crappy first draft rights. For the uninitiated, the idea behind NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel between November 1st and November 30th. You start and finish all within the confines of a single month, pounding out words every day — or possibly in marathon weekend sessions where you forget to sleep and subsist primarily on coffee and junk food. (For the record, I don’t recommend that last strategy.) Participants range from published writers attempting to get a jump on a new project, to first-time writers looking to turn off their inner editors, to complete newbies who just think it might be a fun thing to try and are hoping for a really hilarious end product. But for the more serious-minded writers among you, NaNo can be a wonderful way to churn out that first draft (or at least a good chunk of one, since 50,000 words is a bit short for an actual novel) because there really is no time to worry if it’s any good.
So with those thoughts in mind, I’m offering up a few ideas for how to prepare for NaNoWriMo:
- Decide what you want to write. I’m not saying you have to outline ahead, but it will make your life markedly easier if you have some direction each time you sit down at your keyboard to pound out your daily word count. Create a few characters ahead, figure out your conflict, and if possible make a list of a dozen or so scenes you know you want to write. They may get cut in your second draft or your fifth draft, but for the purposes of that fast first draft, everything goes in.
- Stock up on some healthy munchies. Coffee and leftover Halloween candy will only get you so far. Make sure you’ve got some nice crunchy veggies and dip, fresh fruit, nuts, etc. to grab when you’re running low on mental energy. Also, some easy-to-prepare dinners are great, too, for those nights you’re loathe to step away from the computer. Pick up the fixings for a couple of crock-pot meals, or make a few batches of soup or chili ahead and freeze in individual portions for easy nuking.
- Check out the NaNo site and see if there are write-ins local to your area. If you’re the type to do well with a bit of cheerleading, these gatherings for group writing sessions will be right up your alley. You also might meet some new writing friends or pick up a potential critique partner in the process.
- Tell people what you’re planning to do. Even if your friends and family are used to you mumbling to yourself about your characters, they might find you vastly different under the pressures of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Let them know you’re signing up for NaNo and that you will likely be pretty busy during November, so they should not count on you for casual cocktails after work or lengthy Sunday brunches.
- Do some research ahead. Have you picked some fun settings for your characters? Given them intriguing careers? Hit the library and gather information that will let you flesh out your descriptions and bring your characters’ experiences to life while you write.
- Turn off that editorial brain. Try not to polish any projects those last few days of October leading into NaNo. Get yourself used to just writing full speed ahead. Maybe hang a little sign over your computer or in your writing space to remind you not to edit, and especially not to delete. Plenty of time for that come December.
I see a lot of struggling writers. I mean that literally. Living in the Los Angeles area means I cannot walk into a coffee shop without tripping over a half-dozen or so aspiring writers pounding away at their keyboards or, more often, staring into space with a slightly pained expression on their face. Many of them are writing screenplays, but a good number are working on novels or short stories or some sort of nonfiction project. They all, however, share that general aura of one who suffers.
No one said writing was easy. This is not an industry that promises overnight success and a hefty bank balance. However, it’s also not digging ditches or lugging heavy platters of food out to grumpy diners or scraping gum off the bottom of chairs at the local elementary school. It is not strenuous manual labor, nor does anyone’s life depend upon it. On the overall career spectrum, this definitely lands closer to the fun end of things.
Writing allows you to mine your creativity, delve deep into your imagination, research intriguing and sometimes bizarre subjects, talk to interesting people, and visit new places, if only in your head. So while you certainly want to take your writing seriously, assuming you’re either aiming for publication or already have a deadline looming, you also want to enjoy yourself.
Take the pressure off that first draft and just write. Get it down however it flows from your mind. Write quickly. Let your fingers fly over the keyboard or scribble with your favorite pen. No one’s first draft is gold; no one’s first effort comes out perfectly worded. Allow yourself to suck. You’ll be in excellent company. And remember that a first draft is just that — a draft. It’s a mind dump. A way for you to figure out what you might be talking about, who your characters are, what the deal is. There’s plenty of time to revise later, to move things around and add and delete, to ramp up the tension, to make the prose sing. Later. Second draft, third, fourth. Don’t worry about those yet.
First draft. Fast and furious. Just write. And smile while you’re doing it. The other writers will wonder what you’ve figured out…