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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Build First, Decorate Later

A lot of people ask me how do I write, and I’m not sure what they mean. I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s become second nature. I sometimes catch myself talking the way I write, and vise versa. I don’t know, asking writers how they write is like asking a singer how they hit a certain note. A part of it is just plain talent and the rest comes from training and discipline.


As far as the mechanics of the craft, I follow a daily writing regimen called Speed Writing. I’ve been doing it since freshmen year in college. My English Composition teacher made us write in a notebook for 10 minutes, never lifting the pen from the paper until the timer sounded. Most of it was crap, random thoughts and rants on how much the class sucked and how I wished I was somewhere else. But then, without fail, an idea pattern would form at the seventh minute. I start zipping across the paper like crazy, and just when it started to get good, “Time’s Up! Pencils down; notebooks closed, please.”

Albeit the ultimate tease, the lesson was profound. Now, many centuries later, I still apply the practice, but for a longer period of time. With the aid of an egg timer, I do about 60 minutes in the morning and 60 in the evening; never stopping until the hour is up. And then I WALK AWAY, typos and run-on sentences galore, but the idea is preserved, raw, and perfect under the gibberish. With each day, it builds and after a week or so, I look back and assess my progress.

This exercise isn’t for everyone, but some level of consistency has to develop in order to establish growth. It’s like building a house. The details can wait, lay down the foundation first, that rough but finished draft. Why obsess over the curtains and drapes when you have no walls or windows? Why nit-pick over light fixtures and wall paper when you have no roof? People get so caught up in the smaller aspects of writing they lose sight of what really matters, and they wonder why they get frustrated mid story or never complete a manuscript.

If I could give anyone advice on writing, it would be this: WRITE!! Break loose; go wild! It may be ugly, but it’s only a first draft, so no one is going to see it but you. Don’t make writer’s block your long term excuse. Take a short break then write again. There is no going around writer’s block; you can only go THROUGH it. Train yourself to plow forward, don’t care how it sounds, how it’s spelled. That’s what editing is for. You will spend most of your time editing anyway, so why employ that contractor ahead of schedule.

Talent is good to have but it doesn’t mean jack shit if you’re not disciplined. Follow a strict “write first, ask questions later” policy that can take you much further in your work than agonizing over each chapter. FINISH IT. Build your house THEN decorate accordingly.

12 comments:

  1. Great post! I really need to follow this advice, but I can't seem to shut up my internal editor. I think I may try that 60 minute writing activity this weekend though. I'll have to cut off my Internet connection, though, because I'm easily distracted. :)

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  2. Thanks for hitting me up the side of the head. I need to get an ending on my fourth manuscript ... and this may be the plan.

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  3. Write is the best advice ever. I've done the speed writing thing with my students a few times. They always have a hard time at first, but they learn to enjoy it :)

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  4. Thank's Jemi!

    yeah, it takes a good 10 mins before the brain relaxes during speed writing, and Then, all sorts of ideas pop up.

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  5. Great post, Jaime. Thanks for reminding me of how I used to write, back when I was more productive.

    Time to get back in the groove.

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  6. I love your writing posts, and this one offers such a good advice. I tend to edit too much as I go, but you're right: writing and finishing is what matters, first. I am definitely trying this out to see if it works for me!

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  7. I also practice "kitchen timer writing." For some reason having the timer going makes me stay focused, which helps me to write more. Even if writing seems hard, I tell myself, "it is just for one hour. You can do one hour." Then I get going and all sorts of great ideas appear.

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  8. Jaime I wish I was like you. Man .... you have no idea how much I really, really wish I could grab my internal editor, drag him to the corner of my room and chain him there. Kick his ass a bit so he doesn't disturb me! I'm so, soooooooo slow at writing! I'll probably be done with my WIP in 2020 :(

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  9. love your last paragraph - I've currently only been writing about 1.5 hours per week, and not shockingly, I'm not getting very far. Got put my BIC and get motivated. Thanks for the reminder!

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  10. This is a great post. I also had a professor who did this in the beginning of each class. Great stuff. I tend to write first drafts like that also. I just throw it all out there, and edit it later.

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  11. Yes, what a good reminder that those "speed writes" and free writes can really help zone in on where you want to go--to the heart of your theme or character, or whatever it may be. Even if they only produce a few good lines, they may be the lines that end up enriching a novel. I find that they are essential to do when I'm just beginning a project, or whenever I'm stuck. I make myself do a timed write in the character's voice who is most obscure, or muddy, in order to clarify. Works almost every time!

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