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Editing, Featured, Writing, Writing Style

When Women Writers Get Together

June 19, 2017

A week-long writers workshop began with a reunion of half a dozen kindred souls, all writers who had attended the workshop for several years, as had I. We filled the first hours with catching up on the families and other personal activities. Then, we began talking about our writing. And that’s when the conversation turned serious. Really serious.

Each of us expected the other writers to have finished a chapbook of poems, much of a new novel, a series of essays or short stories. What we learned is that to a one, we had been oddly blocked. We knew what we wanted to write, but the writing-ness of writing was more than difficult. For a couple, it had been impossible. Some of us were stress starvers who don’t each much; others were stress eaters who put on weight. At least fifteen pounds.

This felt different from generic writer’s block. Its origin was in the cosmic angst, not in the person herself. The more we talked, the more we were able to identify the point when we stopped feeling like writing. (Not to say, many of us continued, but the joy was gone.) For a couple of writers, the date was early in November; for others, it was in January. Those who waited until January hid behind the holidays. Once January ended, their mental paralysis was in full bloom. They sat. They spun. They thought but could find little to write down.

Several started writing about happier times in their lives. I didn’t realize it, but I was one who went back to an earlier time, to a story I started on a lark about a place where I felt safe and joyous. I revisited the story, fleshed it out, wrote outlines for six additional stories, and decided I would write a novel in stories about an extended family and some of their friends. Good things and bad happen to the family, but they always have one place of solace they call home. I felt excitement growing. I felt a release.

The more the women talked, the more we realized we had allowed outside events overwhelm us. We spent too much time on social media. We allowed people we love to interrupt our writing. One woman’s daughter texted her constantly when she was writing, growing shriller and shriller until she stopped and responded. Concentration shattered. Might as well go onto Facebook and Twitter and see what was going on.

We pretended we were doing research when we followed trails all over the Internet. One woman wanted to validate a point in her novel, only to find herself an hour later still following links down all sorts of side paths. She had entered the “oh, look, a chicken” mindset. She vowed to turn off her phone, keep only the story live on her screen, and let the world find its own way without her for a while. Sounds good to me.

I too let myself get distracted because I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings if I don’t interact then instant they get online. I played into their games, leaving myself vulnerable to losing my train of thought. I let them control our relationship, because I didn’t want to get into any lengthy discussions about why what I was doing was more important than looking at their stickers.

We women left the week-long workshop rejuvenated. We promised to help each other if we found ourselves straying. We agreed that our position might not be all that popular, but if you want books from us, you must, absolutely must, understand that we will take the space we need. No matter how many times you text me, how many emojis/videos/stickers you send, I will be online when I’m finished with my work at the end of the day. I may take breaks in the middle of the day for a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean I’m inviting anyone to try and engage in lengthy conversations. I ask you to understand. This is not open for debate. I have two books that must be finished in short order. And they will be.

Featured, Writing, Writing Style

From My Spam Folder

April 10, 2017

Sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, I actually look at what’s in my spam folder. I was gone for a few days last week to the practice rounds at The Masters. When I finally plowed through my spam, I found this delectable post.

Headline: YOUR SILENT IS A CLEAR PROOF THAT YOU ARE REAL DEAD.

Who can resist that hook? I couldn’t. I had to find out if I was real dead. After the “Dear Valued Customer,” address, the message commenced with:

“I need to confirm that this is realy truth before we release your total funds to this gentle man. This office was contacted by Mr. Richards Thomas who claimed to be your brother. He promised to pay the needed fee and claim the package as your next of kin.”

Other than there are a few typos in this opening, it’s wrong in one big area: I’m an only child, ergo, no brother.

Next, the writer continued. “He said that you were involved in a car accident last week and died. We need to confirm that your are truly dead…We believed that you are dead, but as a federal office [he signs the note with his title Director of (IMF)] we need a proof for record purposes…If this is true!!! May your gentle soul rest in perfect peace. But if its not true then get back to us immediately you receive this message to enable us to proceed…”

Well, now, if I’m truly dead, I can’t confirm I’m dead. If I’m not dead, then I could, but the director of (IMF) wants too much personal information. I had to make a hard decision. If I followed his last instruction, “And also reconfirm your full delivery information wile geting back ok,” I’m not sure what he wanted. I mean, I could send a pic with today’s paper to prove I’m alive. Or I could delete the message.

I chose to delete this man’s sincere concern about my health. I hope my brother, Mr. Richards Thomas, enjoys the $250,000,000US he will claim shortly.

So, for now, I wish him well.

I think I’ll have fried Spam for dinner. Seems fittin’ after this communique.

Hope you enjoy the giggle. I love these semi-literate spam-o-grams, don’t you?

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Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.

Editing, Featured, Proofreading, Writing, Writing Style

Close-Ups

March 27, 2017

Have you noticed how cat selfies are taking over social media? Most bloggers know that if we want more people reading our blogs, we throw in cat photos or videos. So, in a blatant attempt to engage a host of readers in this blog post, I’m leading off with a close-up of my kitty, Smokin’ Mocha Java. Gotta admit, I’m prejudiced, but then again, I’m her human.

Mocha is here for a reason. It’s to introduce a mundane, nerdy post about one of the things writers HATE to do. It might be the most hated task in writing and producing a book. That final read-through, when you’re as sick of the manuscript as you can be, when you couldn’t see a grammo or typo if it scratched you on the hand, when you know that every word is perfect–until you get the galleys back from the publisher. Every error screams, “What were you thinking? Are you nuts? You think this is ready for the public? Sheesh!”

That’s right, final edits and proofreading are the bugaboos of most writers, me included. I call this “close-up reading.” Let me share my routine, if you will. If you are bored, I’m down with that. Thanks for stopping by. Catch you later.

What, you’re still here? You want to share my pain? Terrific. Here’s what I do for the last polishing of the manuscript before it goes to print.

  • I read the manuscript through from beginning to end with no pen in hand. This let’s me escape into the story and characters. It also allows me to ignore said typos and grammos.
  • Next, I read every word, every sentence, to see if it belongs, to see if it advances the plot, to see if it develops the character. I look for words I overuse, like like, just, very, anything ending with ly. All get the knife.
  • I listen to the dreadful computer voice read the book to me. Windows Narrator lets you choose a lot of options, but it still. sounds. like. a. robot. Mr. Robot also points all missing your brain know are there. Oh, wait, that should read “all missing words your brain knows are there.”
  • I read from the last page to the first, from the last sentence on the bottom of the page to the top of the page, and right to left. Are you still with me? I cut a mask that exposes a single line of text, which forces me to look at every word OUT OF CONTEXT. By looking at each word in its own right, I produce the best copy I can.

Even with all this, typos slip in. I think they sneak into the manuscript between sending it to my publisher and my publisher sending it to the printer. No amount of pest control strips or sprays prevents at least on typo from living through to the printed page. No matter how closely writers edit, there’s always something that gets through the close-up review. It’s so mortifying.

Mocha wants the last word: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

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 Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.
Editing, Featured, Writing, Writing Challenge, Writing Style

Entering the Death Throes of Editing

February 27, 2017

For the next month I will be heads down editing a manuscript to send to my publisher. If you’ve never been in my shoes, er, chair, er, sitting on my ball at my desk, you might not know what death throes of editing  means.

It starts with a complete read of the manuscript. I print it out first and read it from start to finish. Somewhere along the way, I pick up a red pen and begin marking sections that need work. Or words that need changing. Or chapters that were once brilliant and now have no home in the book. This is what I think of as the first rough cut, the first time I start at page one and read straight through to “the end.” This read can lead to a flip flop from despair to elation. “It’s junk.” “It’s great.” Usually, it’s somewhere in between.

I find places where I need to fix the story line. I may have glitches in hair color, time line, characters’ names. Yes, I have goofed on characters’ names, going from Eric to Alec, from Beth to Annie. No matter how many tables I have of the characters’ names and what they look like, overeager writing can create chaos. This continuity fix takes time, but it’s the most fun, because it’s where I finally polish the story line.

Okay, now that I’ve fixed the continuity problems, I need to read for word choice.  That is the tedious read. Does every sentence fit? Is every word the right one to convey the sense I want conveyed? What do I need to change to maintain the voice of the narrator? Every word has to be as perfect as I can make it. This is the director’s cut, where everything I think should be in the book will survive.

Finally, I pull out the Chicago Manual of Style and make sure that my grammar conforms to the norm. I read for missing words. I read for missing, or, too, many, commas. I look at punctuation! because? hey…We all #need; punctuation.

When that is done, I read from the last page to the first, right to left, bottom of the page to the top. Line by line, word by word, gray hair by gray hair I work through the manuscript. And lastly, I use Microsoft Narrator and listen to the book. This is the final cut, the best I can do.

AND STILL I MAKE MISTAKES. STILL I MISS TYPOS. STILL I DON’T KNOW THAT THE U.S. HAVE NEVER USED CORDITE IN GUNPOWDER.

Sigh.

 

Featured, Mad Max, Uncharted Territory, Writing, Writing Style

Questions From A Book Club

February 20, 2017

I recently spoke to a local book club about writing my Mad Max series of mysteries. Their questions were so astute that I wanted to answer some of them here. Hang on.

  1. Why did you set Uncharted Territory in post-Katrina Mississippi?  Max is entering uncharted territory as a grandparent raising her grandchildren full time. I wanted a landscape that resembled the situation she was in. Post-Katrina Mississippi, especially the area along the Gulf Coast, was barren, without landmarks, much as Max’s life is. Mississippi is an objective correlative where what is going on inside Max is manifested in the land she sees around her.
  2. How did you get the idea for the home-school teacher, Stuart Duxworth-Ross? He came through a discussion with a friend who had read the first book and decided the story was about him and his son. (It wasn’t, although two scenes came from his life and divorce.) Ducks rather defined himself. I knew he’d be gay, partly because this man who thought I was writing about him was adamant about “his” son being taught by a gay man. Challenge accepted, and Ducks was born.
  3. You have more than one character with second sight, or ESP, or some other paranormal traits. Do you know anyone with those traits? Do you have them yourself? The answer to the first question is easy. Emilie (who started life as Emily, but that’s another story) is modeled after my goddaughter. A triple Pisces, she’s spookier than Emilie is. The second question is yes, but not as well developed as some.
  4. Where did your themes of human slavery, child abuse, and racism come from? I like to work social themes into my books. I want readers to think while being entertained. Human slavery came to mind when I read a small story in the newspaper about a family held hostage to be breeders for a pair of men. I modified it but kept many of the overall events. I wanted to remind readers that racism isn’t always about black on white but can be on black on Hispanic or white on Hispanic. Most of all, it’s “them versus us,” when traditional ways of life are threatened.
  5. What about child abuse? That is very personal. I could not have written the rape sequence had my mother still been alive. I was abused by a stepfather. I told my mother who couldn’t handle it. It took years to forgive her for putting me in peril.
  6. Did you really stab your stepfather in the ass? No, but I wish I had. That’s the only part of the scene where I giggled. Actually, in all honesty, the entire rape sequence made me so ill that I couldn’t write for a few days after I finished it.
  7. Are you writing another Mad Max novel? Yes. Unsafe Haven is nearly done. Max, her boyfriend Johnny, and Alex are featured. I don’t know when it will come out, but it should be out before the end of the year.

Those readers were so interested in my books. I can’t thank them enough.

Featured, Lake Writers, Lifestyle, Point of View, POV, Sally Roseveare, Writing, Writing Style

Some Cliches Are True

January 9, 2017

It is said that when a writer dies, an entire library dies with her. It may be a cliche, but it is true. Take away a unique voice, and you lose all future books. Stories never told are lost forever. So when my dear friend, Sally Roseveare, lost her brief but intense battle with cancer at the end of 2016, I was heartbroken.

When my husband and I moved to Smith Mountain Lake, we knew no one. Not long after we settled into our new home, my husband found a notice in the local weekly for something called “Lake Writers” and a phone number. I called, spoke with the nicest man, Jim Morrison, and learned all about this club. Where it met. Who was welcome to join. How it functioned. I had just finished a draft of my first Mad Max novel, so I decided this would be a good group to join.

Sally was my first friend in the group, although we couldn’t have been more opposite. She was the quintessential Southern lady, soft-spoken, gentle manners, measured speech and a sensitivity that caused her to weep and laugh, sometimes at the same time. I was a free spirit from Southern California with a strong overlay of New York City snarkiness.

Sally offered to read my draft, which in my naivete, I thought was a final draft. She was kind enough to tell me it was all right as a first draft, but there were several things she thought should be changed. She said the voices of the two narrators were neither distinct nor compelling. She couldn’t tell who was telling the story without going back to the chapter heading to see whose point of view I was using. Really? Point of view? Well, maybe. Then she said I didn’t have a good hook at the beginning. I knew what a hook was, so I reread the opening chapter. She was right. No solid hook. Further, she didn’t like the way I presented the conflict. After all, this was the story of a marriage that dissolved because of the intervention of fate (an auto accident leading to traumatic brain injury) and a maniacal doctor who filled the wife’s head with ideas that weren’t her own. Hmm, no conflict? What about the fights the husband and wife had? Wasn’t that conflict? Lastly, she thought that maybe I had the wrong narrators.

Well, what did she know? Sally had only read the first fifty pages or so. The story really got rolling further along.

I continued attending Lake Writers meetings twice a month. Each time, I learned a bit more of my craft. When I was finally ready to confront my manuscript again, I realized Sally was right. No good point of view. Lousy voice. Conflict masquerading as wounded feelings without going much deeper. I needed a rewrite.

Once my main character claimed the story as her own–thank you, Mad Max, for yelling at me one night to tell the story your way–I undertook a total rewrite. Gone were the twin narrators. In was a single narrator, who had started life as a tertiary character. Gone was the conflict manifested at arguments; in came internal conflict about doing the right thing. A good starting hook.

Sally was gracious and read the rewrite, in spite of the fact that her sensitivity was challenged by my sometimes rough speech, a few f-bombs from one of the male characters, and some mildly graphic sex. She read and commented on the entire manuscript this time, questioning where I could write better, suggesting a tightening of the plot, beating me up to show the action and emotions, rather than tell them. And she was right.

And now, Sally’s great voice is silent. Her gay laughter gone, her gentle Southern accent adrift on the wind. This gentle grandmother who killed people in her cozy novels took her third novel and all her stories with her. We are left with her two novels, memories of her gentle nature, gestures of kindness that she wore like a second skin.

Rest in peace, dear friend. I will miss you always.

What do you think? Is she telling stories in Heaven, making people laugh, even as she recounts her research into the possibility of stuffing a fully-grown man’s body into a Porta-Potty? Probably.

Featured, Lifestyle, Marketing, Writing, Writing Style

Don’t Swing at a Pitch in the Dirt

January 2, 2017

This blog spawns from a series of discussions I had over the past few months with newbie writers. None had published anything; all had grand dreams of hitting that ball out of the park, a home run the first time out. I can belabor the baseball metaphor endlessly, but let us put it aside. Time to bring baseball and publishing expectations together.

What I mean by not swinging at pitches in the dirt is that the ball is out of play as soon as it gets dirty. Any player who would swing at something hoping for a hit would strike at the ball, but nothing would happen.

The same thing happens with writers. We all know we have a great book in us. We all know it will be a best seller and that we’ll enjoy fame and fortune while we whisk out our next great opus. If wishes were Porsches, Betsy would drive like a queen.

I was working with several new writers who all wanted to write the next great American novel. I hope one of them will, but it won’t be the stuff dreams are made of. (Sorry, Bogie, couldn’t resist the last line from The Maltese Falcon.) Writing, to quote my friend Brad Parks, is hard flipping work. I asked these writers what their typical writing day was in order to judge the seriousness of their hopes. Only one wrote every day. Some thought about writing every day but never found time to sit and actually write. No matter that I shared they could find twenty minutes daily to put something on paper. No matter that if they wrote 250 words a day they’d have a novel-length draft done in a year. “A year,” moaned one man. “I can’t wait a year to have a successful novel.”

And you won’t if you don’t et started, but I bit my tongue and didn’t say that. That same man wanted to know what the ROI was on writing a novel. He wanted to know what profit a book could make. If he churned out two books a year, “Could I make a minimum of $70,000?” Maybe, but not likely. Even less likely when you listen closely to “churning” out books. We’re not making butter here.

I gave a workshop with my publisher, John Koehler, at the Virginia Writers Club Symposium on what to expect when you get ready to publish. We covered getting an agent, keeping an agent, finding a publisher, self-publishing, and the dreaded public relations/marketing. We didn’t hold anything back. We tried not to be downers, but we focused on honesty. Not everyone who publishes a novel makes enough money to live on. Would that we could, but most, if not all, of us need a primary source of income while we get started. Or for our entire careers.

Publishing is not for the faint of heart. I always ask newbies what their audience is for their books. If they are honest and say “friends and family” first, then they should self-publish and promote their books accordingly. If they think their book might have commercial appeal, then they have other options. It all comes down to numbers, and these have nothing to do with royalty streams.

Before you decide whether you want to go the traditional route and seek an agent or self publish, you might try this.

  1. Take your age and add three to five years to it to learn your craft and get a decent manuscript ready.
  2. Add two or three years to find an agent.
  3. Add two or three years for your agent to sell the book.
  4. Add another one to two years once the book is sold before it is published, longer if you are seeking a print contract. In that case, add another year or two.

That’s 8 to 10 years before you have your book in print, maybe longer. AND THEN YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO DO MUCH OF THE MARKETING AND PROMOTING YOURSELF. Sorry to shout, but this is the kicker most writers hate. Publishers don’t spend much on promoting debut authors. If you don’t hit a home run immediately, they lose interest and there goes your next deal.

Even with this, writers continue to take chances and write because they can’t stop writing. More power to you. Knowing that the on deck circle is the only place you can dream of that game-winning homer, you go back to your keyboard and try again. I’m proud of you for sticking to your dream.

I hope I haven’t punctured your dream too much. Know what will be expected of you. Know what to expect of yourself. And put that butt in your chair, fingers on your keyboard, and get out of the way of your story. Who knows, you may be the next National Book Award winner in fiction. Go for the dream. Just don’t swing at pitches in the dirt.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Writing as Catharsis

September 5, 2016

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had many conversations with readers about where writers find their ideas. Do we write about ourselves? Do we write about people we know? Do we dig deep into our selves to find the emotions we need for a difficult scene?

The answer is “yes” to all of the above.

The questions led me to thinking about how often I write parts of myself into my characters. I’ve never created a whole character that is me. I’ve plucked some of my traits, my worldview, even some of my mannerisms, but when it comes down to publishing a work, I’m just not that interesting in and of myself. No writer is. I mean, we take the best or worst of ourselves and plop it into a character, enhance it or mutate it. I’m almost positive that Ian Fleming wasn’t 007, but parts of Ian Fleming informed 007’s ethics. Many of you know that I am polishing a book about a serial killer. I can attest to the fact that while some people have pissed me off, I’ve never wanted to harm them except on the page.

When I created Whip Pugh, Mad Max’s son-in-law, I lifted a couple of events from a friend’s life. Yes, his wife fell under the mesmerizing control of a doctor, who wasn’t a serial killer or anything of the sort. The only thing the doctor killed was my friend’s marriage. I picked a couple of incidents and gave them to Whip. The physical characteristics are so not my friend. Neither are Whip’s ethics those of my friend. And yet, my friend saw himself through Whip’s lens and said how happy he was that I’d brought out his essence. I didn’t have the heart to puncture the bubble.

When it comes to emotions it’s more difficult for writer to step aside. In the second Mad Max book, I wrote a scene that was wrought with tension from an event in my own life. I was ill for nearly a month while I worked to get the scene right. I had to dig deep inside me to confront feelings of loss and abandonment to be able to put them on the page. In the first draft, I overwrote the scene until it was maudlin and full of purple prose. I didn’t care, because I knew none of that would make it into the final version. It didn’t. It ended when I remembered that the Delete key was my friend. But confronting ghosts from the past can be painful. For me, I had to recall feelings of betrayal, of having no one to turn to. I had to remember how hard it was to look in the mirror and convince myself that I hadn’t done anything wrong, that I could survive and come out on the other side a better person than when I went in. I work shopped the two chapters that made up the scene and listened to the advice of peer writers and a wonderful writing teacher, Dan Mueller. He helped me balance the emotions so that they weren’t over the top.

It’s not only bad emotions that can overwhelm a writer. Happy emotions can as well. I recently read a book that had many happy emotions in it. No, not one of mine, but one highly recommended. Friends assured me that I would find the story uplifting. Um, I didn’t. I also didn’t review the book, because I felt the emotions were banal. The writer tried too hard to tell me how happy she was. I longed for a small scene, just a few sentences would do, that showed me her happiness. Was she smiling, dancing around, sitting and being quiet? No, the writer kept saying she was happy, she was excited, she was on “pins and needles.” Her phrase, not mine.

Life is messy. Emotions snarl and wrap themselves up in knots. I can honestly say that writing can be cathartic, especially when we let the walls drop and look honestly at ourselves. Otherwise, I find I’m writing falsehoods. I hate that. Even if I have to feel ill for awhile to get it right, I’m willing to do that. Otherwise, I’m lying to myself and to anyone who chooses to read my words. My promise to each of you, I will remain true to the emotions I write.

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Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and NobleI’m really excited that the trade paper edition of Uncharted Territory was released this week. Please follow me on my website, on TwitterFacebook and Goodreads.

Featured, Writing, Writing Style

Ampersands, A Happy Symbol

August 8, 2016

We’ve all seen the tee-shirt: “Let’s eat Grandma. Let’s eat, Grandma. Commas save lives.” And every writer is familiar with the bugaboo of the Oxford comma. To “Oxford” or not. Have you ever really looked at some of our punctuation symbols? Some are really funny.

Take the ampersand. It’s not technically a punctuation mark, rather than a symbol of something else. Small circle on top of small circle with a forward-facing tail. It’s kind of cute, in a silly sort of way. It’s oh-so-useful in corporate logos (think AT&T, BB&T Bank, etc.)  It’s monstrously useful in tweets and text, saving two spaces every time it’s used. It doesn’t work at all in a website address. URLs don’t like ampersands. It is a short cut for the word “and.”

Which brings me to the real subject of this post. &, or and, is one of the most positive pieces of punctuation you can use. Because it stands for a word, it is inclusive. John and I went to the store. It creates a sense of partnership, or a link between two people or things. &’s opposite has no particular symbol. &’s opposite is “but.” Negative, not inclusive, negative. Oh, wait, I already said “negative.”

Listen to how people speak. “I really like Jessie, but I don’t think I want to hang out with her.” A positive followed by a negative setting up a conflict of feelings. What would happen if the speaker said, “I really like Jessie, and I don’t think I want to hang out with her”? Bad example. Let’s try this: We all need to work together, but no one has a way to do that. You’d have to rephrase the second half to make it a dual positive: We all need to work together, and we need to find a way to do this. I’m more receptive to the second phrasing, because it invites me to think of a way to work together.

Our politicians, our teachers, our news anchors all seem to be in love with “but.” I wonder what would happen if those who speak to us all the time banished the word “but” from their vocabularies and kept “and” instead. Would I think they were inviting me into their circle of thinking? Would I respond more positively to the message? Would I be more willing to stand with them rather than against them? Probably, but it would never happen. (Probably, and it would never happen sounds odd.) We as humans are more likely to sound negative than we are to sound inclusive and positive. I don’t know why that is, and I wish someone could explain it to me.

I may challenge myself to write my next short story after I ban “but” from my computer. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better. It would be different. I might sound too saccharine, or I might win some people to my side. Then again, I might bore myself to death. We might not ever know, but if I try this experiment, I’ll let you know.

Happy Ampersand Day, August 8, 2016.

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Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I’m really excited that the trade paper edition of Uncharted Territory was released this week. Please follow me on my website, on TwitterFacebook and Goodreads.

Cats, Featured, Marketing, Uncharted Territory, Writing, Writing Style

Paying Homage to Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Drafts

July 25, 2016

Anne Lamott will forever by memorialized (even though she is very much alive) for coining the phrase, “shitty first draft.”  That’s the draft where you basically puke everything onto the screen, knowing that many of the words might survive ruthless editing but never the entire draft. This is where the writer doesn’t give a damn any more than Rhett Butler did in Gone with the Wind. The goal is to get through the chapters, lay out the story, name characters, figure out a bit of the conflict and hope that you have enough endurance to reach “THE END” the first time.

For me, that shitty first draft is just that:  shitty. Let me give you an example. This is the original opening for Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery:

“To Maxine Davies, our dear friend and fellow life traveler,” Eleanor intoned.

“We will miss you and think of you often,” Grace continued.

“But you understand, dear, we do not associate with. . . ,” Rose added.

“. . . trailer trash!” Raney finished the toast.

Ching, ching, ching. . . . Five well-manicured hands raised crystal glasses and clinked rims.

I laughed and sipped my pomegranate martini.

“How many times do I have to tell you, we aren’t living in trailers? They’re RVs.”

Okay, not too bad. Kinda funny, but doesn’t set up any conflict or identify the tone of the story. This actually reads like the book is more of a comedy about women who drink.

Five drafts later, I produced:

Just after dawn I eased the door open and tiptoed down three metal steps to bare earth. With coffee cup in hand, I turned three hundred sixty degrees to survey my surroundings. A strong front had blown through during the night, sweeping the humidity out to sea and leaving a crystalline sky behind.

The underlying stench of death and decay, however, remained.

Hmm. Good atmosphere. A hint that the narrator is in an unfamiliar location. Hints that the book will have dark elements, that there is danger, that all is not rosy. So not the opening of the first draft, which survived as the second chapter, if you must know. With very few edits, this second example made it into the book. A comment a reader sent me via email said, “I read the first chapter and got chills. I don’t want anything bad to happen to Mad Max.” Who could ask for any better comment?

What about you fellow writer peeps? Want to share one of your shitty first drafts?

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