Friday, April 12, 2013

Write or Die

I first posted a version of this post on my blog about a year and a half ago. In re-reading it, I find myself so grateful for the paradigm shift it describes--and I wonder if that shift might benefit some of my fellow writers. Here it is.
A couple of months ago, after my initial excitement over my new work-in-progress (WIP) wore off, I suffered a crisis of extreme self-doubt. I have been down this road before. The landmarks are thus:
  • I will never be able do to this story justice.
  • I should just mail the idea to Audrey Niffenegger or Margaret Atwood or A.S. Byatt.
  • This concept is way cooler than my writing will ever be.
  • Why can't I write what I see in my head?
  • Why does everything I write seem boring/derivative/hackneyed/awful?
  • My writing stinks.
  • My life stinks.
  • I stink.
Yes, I know these ugly landmarks because I encounter them with every book. Each and every time, the pattern is the same.  I realize that I'm talking nonsense to myself, and I try to ignore it and muscle my way through this nasty form of Resistance (now that I know what its name is). And I eventually get there. It just takes me a while, and there is a fair amount of agony involved.

In Ann LaMott's Bird by Bird (which I sincerely hope you have all read), her strong and wise advice is to give yourself permission to write a Bad First Draft. ("Bad" is not the modifier she uses, by the way. :) )

Why bother to write a Bad First Draft? Because, she writes, bad first draft is infinitely easier to revise--and thus make good--than a nonexistent first draft. 

That makes sense to me. I have counseled other writers to do this. I have tried many times to take her advice myself, but secretly? I haven't ever gotten very far with it. Here's why. Up until recently, my daily (or not-so-daily) writing process went like this:

1) Conquer Resistance for the day.
2) Re-read what I wrote the day before, tinkering and tweaking slightly as I get into the rhythm of the narrative.
3) Write new words very slowly and carefully, considering each phrase and punctuation mark, ensuring that I don't use the same word too often, watching the frequency of my semi-colons, reading the sentences over to myself to make sure they flow properly--all the while completely enslaved to the stern taskmaster that is my Inner Perfectionist.  Fret that my writing isn't conveying what I want it to convey. Fume that I am not better at this after all these years. Doggedly keep at it. Sometimes find satisfaction in how something has turned out.
4) Quit for the day hours later, somewhat pleased, but mentally exhausted.

I have written three novels (and parts of several others) in this manner. Many successful writers do exactly this.

The upside is that my first drafts read pretty well. Many experienced professionals have characterized my first drafts as "clean" and "well-crafted." In my experience, that's not so common.
But there is significant downside. I find that Resistance takes this form: "You don't have four hours to write today, and you can't get much done in the one hour you DO have. You didn't get enough sleep last night to have the stamina to sit and create lovely (or even decent) prose for 60 or 120 or 240 minutes. You shouldn't even try." Sometimes I get past that Resistance and write, but many times, I do not.

When I started my current exercise routine, it was such a revelation. I had been resigned to the old workout schedule, had made it work. But as I found how well my body responded to an hour of yoga every morning at 5:00 a.m.--as I discovered how much day I had at my disposal when I accomplished exercise and scripture study and laundry very early each morning--I decided to re-think other parts of my life that were giving me fits. Like my writing process.

I prayed to know how I could become a better, more consistent, less Resistance-prone writer. And I got the answer to my prayer in two parts. The first was that I read this post by Seth Godin. (I love it when God answers my prayers through other people's blog posts.) The second was that I found this website.

That's right, Write or Die, authored by none other than the dorkily-named Dr. Wicked.  It's a simple computer program in which the writer a) enters the amount of time she would like to spend writing; b) enters her word count goal for that time period; and c) clicks the Start! button. There are three modes: Gentle, Normal, and Kamikaze--these modes govern how fast you have to write before you start getting warnings. And there are three consequence levels: Forgiving, Strict, and Kamikaze. With Kamikaze, apparently, if you stop typing for too long, your words start unwriting themselves. Yikes.

Write or die. Snort. How unspeakably cheesy, I thought. (And how had I never heard of it before, despite all my dabblings with NaNoWriMo? I now know that it is a staple for NaNo veterans.)

But then I thought about what Anne LaMott had been trying to tell me for years: Bad First Draft. And I added in what Seth Godin had just told me: Write Poorly, Write A Lot. And it occurred to me that if I had to write very fast, as with Write or Die, I wouldn't have time to do anything OTHER than write a Bad First Draft.

So, back in the first week of October, I decided to try it. Talk about a revelation. Ka-BAM.

On my very best writing days in the past--one day per week on which I pay a babysitter a considerable amount of cash so that I can sit by myself for hours on end--I could maybe get in 3,000 words. But those days were rare, indeed. In my very best writing sessions with no babysitter--just a napping toddler--I could get in 1200 or so words.

Using Write or Die for the first time, I wrote 3,716 words in a FRACTION of the time I normally spend writing. It was a babysitting day, so I had tons of time left over to go to a restaurant and read while I ate lunch, and plenty more time to listen to our son's first college radio show. I did all this while recovering from a concussion. But it gets better.

The next day was Friday. I wrote another 1,600 words or so. Saturday was the same. So were Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. (I don't write on Sundays.)

And the day after that? A day I would normally be pouting and throwing up my hands in dramatic despair, since I spent my precious babysat hours taking Tess to a doctor's appointment in  Manhattan instead of writing?

That day I wrote 1200 words before 9am and another 976 after lunch when I got home. Over 2,000 words on a day when I was out of the house for hours on end.

In all my life, I have RARELY had a week in which I have written almost 14,000 words.

I have RARELY had a week in which I wrote every single day except for Sunday.

I have NEVER had such a stress-free experience writing. 
Oh, and if I need to research something, like a name of a new character or a medical procedure or a facet of 19th-century life? I don't stop and do the research right then. Oh, no. I type "***" to remind myself later that I need to look something up, and I KEEP A-GOING. 
As I drove to Manhattan that day with Tess, I was agog. It was 9:00 in the morning. I had already done an hour of yoga; prepared breakfast for my family; studied several chapters of Mosiah; done the breakfast dishes and two loads of laundry; showered, dressed, and done hair and makeup; and written 1200 words. And it was only 9am! And I wasn't even tired!

Do you even get my wonder at this? I had accomplished more in four hours than I have in many, many whole DAYS in the past. With this new routine, I have time to spend with my kids, time to fulfill my church callings, time to try new recipes and read and knit and visit with friends--ALL without the freaking Sword of Damocles that used to be my writing hanging over my head.
And my rates have steadily improved in the weeks since. Most days I write about 2,000 words. Yesterday--a babysitting day--I wrote over 5,000 words and still had time for a leisurely pedicure, lunch out, good reading time, and excellent hang-out sessions with my kids.

Now, I know the words I'm writing are not the quality that I am used to writing. But I am not allowing myself to go back and re-read them, either--I am going to keep that Inner Perfectionist firmly turned OFF until I finish this draft.

HOWEVER, I know that these words are not half bad--even though I'm typing as fast as I can and taking almost no thought as to what is coming out of me. I am feeling the rhythm of my story--partly because it is so fresh in my mind due to an almost total LACK of any interfering RESISTANCE.

I do take a minute to look at my outline before I start writing, just to remind myself what I'm trying to achieve that day. But then I plunge in and GET IT DONE. IT'S SO EASY.

Can you join me in a hearty holler of exuberance and elation? LIFE IS AWESOME right now. I feel bionic.

Sorry for all the capital letters. I'm just. So. Excited.

Will a piper have to be paid once I've finished this draft and I go back and re-read it with editing in mind? Possibly. I'll let you know when I get there. But I am trusting in Anne LaMott. I know I'm an excellent editor, and I will exercise faith that my Bad First Draft will be something with which I can work. I can do this!
And now, the rest of the story, 18 months later: once I went back and revised that first draft, those words I'd gotten out so quickly and efficiently weren't nearly as bad as I had feared they would be. Yes, revision still takes work--but I will NEVER go back to my old way of drafting. I'll be using Write or Die until, well....


  1. I'm in re-writing mode so I might have to wait until I start my next novel to try it, but you've convinced me to give Write or Die a shot.

  2. Love it!!! I will use that the next time I'm being lazy!!!! Thanks for the post.