The terror of the blank page… ah, yes. All that white space.
Who else has heard advice like, "just vomit it out," or "get it down fast, you can fix it later," or what have you. Uh huh. If that works for you. Doesn't for me. I get stuck. Often. And I'm not a "pantser" anyway, never have been. I need at the very least Michael Hauge's 5-point outline, with the inciting incident, first and second turning points, point of no return, and climax. After writing ten plus books and novellas, I need more before I sit down to write something new.
Sure, we’ve seen quotes from famous authors about first drafts. “The first draft of anything is sh**.” (Ernest Hemingway) “I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sand castles.” (Shannon Hale) “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” (Terry Pratchett)
I like the last one best, but even in telling myself the story, I falter. Um… hmm. Hoo boy. I know A-B-C-D, but what about the points in between? The gaps in my outline. The little details about my characters that never made it into my sketches when I first started preparations. And I spend a good month preparing before every book, especially now that I’m writing a series. Ever hear of a "book bible"? Yeah, you need one. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, or you'll find characters with the same first or last name, or switching identities faster than models on a runway. If you don't know your characters, readers will get confused. So will you. "Uh, who's Bill? Oh, wait... he's Jim."
You also need to know your characters' backgrounds, from birthdate to family to home life to education to friends, married or single, kids or not wanting them, attitudes toward parents, religion, morals, etc., etc., etc. There are lots of charts you can fill out, or make up your own. Protagonists, minor characters, and don't forget your villains. They need motives for what they do. If you don’t know your characters well enough, they may end up worse than flat soda.
They’ll also stop talking to you. Like wayward, snotty kids holding back secrets. Yeah. They’re brutal that way. You're typing along, feeling smug, pushing to the halfway point, and then WHAM. Your hero or heroine does something stupid. And you're sitting there, wondering why.
Or like a bad actor, they go hide in their trailer and refuse to come out. Until you beg them, bribe them, or figure out what is going on. And you'd better, or that deadline's gonna hit you right in the nose.
SO I'm finally getting around to the point. What does work (for me) is a process I call “chewing the cud.” Sounds gross, doesn’t it. The humble cow, or goat, alpaca, sheep, and antelope, cannot digest one time through, so they repeat the process. Rumination: “chewing the cud.” Also, “a deep or considered thought about something.”
So when I sit with my laptop, taking snippets of my outline and pasting them into the next chapter, pushing out the words, halting every so often until they run out... Sound familiar? I take a break. Get up, walk around, do the dishes (Agatha Christie swore by such chores), vacuum (you'd be surprised how the noise helps your brain ponder, almost as good as listening to music), take a shower, a walk, a box of cookies out of the fridge – er, no, I can’t do that anymore. Dang. Who can stop at one anyway...
Maybe those cattle ponder things while chewing. They do look fairly peaceful out in the pastures.
I’m flummoxed by writers who can churn out thousands of words day after day. Yeah, everyone has a different process. Mine is more of an “ocean wave” where the tide comes in and goes out, a little farther each time… but dang. Some days the tide stops. So I give my brain (and subconscious) a little break, time to ruminate, swallow, chew again. Taking a break (like right now, writing this blog post) can refresh the well, fill the cistern, drink from the stream of ... well, you get the idea. Every writer needs a few breaks to prevent burnout. Take a nap. Do yoga. READ A BOOK.
Reading is especially good, especially if it's something outside of the genre you're writing. Anything but, in fact, as far from normal as possible, like a zombie horror, or a biography (I'm tackling the one about Alexander Hamilton), a classic, whatever strikes your fancy. And read like a writer while you're at it. Nuances of character, a fresh descriptive phrase, or a vocabulary word the author uses in a unique way. File it in the back of your mind.
I almost always come up with something to plug in that works earlier in the draft, or where I stopped. Often what comes is something important that I’d never planned on – a happy accident, as the painter Bob Ross would call it. Sometimes it’s just a small detail. Whatever, I welcome it.
Chew on that. It might help your first draft.
Meg Mims is currently writing the "Shamelessly Adorable" teddy bear cozy mystery series - Bearly Departed will debut in June for Kensington, and she's working on Bear Witness to Murder now. Meg won a 2012 Best First Novel Spur Award for Double Crossing, a western mystery, and is also one half of the writing team D.E. Ireland for the Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins mysteries - with two finalist berths in 2014 and 2016 for the Agatha Award Best Historical Mystery. Meg is chafing to write another western, if she can squeeze more calendar days into the year.