books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, February 23, 2014

From Pathetic to Professional: 8 Ways to Beat the First Draft Blues

by Ruth Harris

You’re happy, even delirious. You’ve finished your first draft!

Then you read it.

OMG, you think, did I write that?

Yes, you did. :-)

It stinks. It sucks. It’s so rancid it threatens to warp the time-space continuum.

Think you’re alone? Here’s Hugh Howey in a blog post: “I suck at writing. Watching a rough draft emerge from my fingertips in realtime would induce nausea.”

So remember, it’s not just you.

The first draft is just that—a first step.

As a long-time editor and author, I’ve found 8 strategies that can help you shape, refine and improve your draft. (Actually it’s called editing and, yes, you can do quite a bit of it yourself.)


1. Embrace the power of the delete button.


Elmore Leonard advised taking out all the unnecessary words. Cutting almost always makes a book better, more readable, more exciting.

Specifically, that means delete all the spongy, weasely, namby-pamby words—the ones that aren’t crisp and precise, the ones that drag out a scene or a description without adding anything except length.

Get rid of the windy digressions, the pointless descriptions, the info dumps, the meandering philosophical musings.

Duplicate your document before you begin in case you get too enthusiastic but, with a safe back-up on hand, go ahead and hack away. Take out everything that doesn’t advance your story or define your characters. See if the resulting clarity doesn’t vastly improve the pace of your book.

Don’t just kill your darlings. Kill everything that doesn’t move the story forward. Save your gems in a “future” file and use them in another book where they pull their weight.

2. Sharpen dialogue.


Just as you leave out the um’s and ah’s of real life, leave out chitchat about the weather, the local gossip, the “warming up” before you get to the point.

 Condense long speeches that have nothing to do with your story or characters. Ernest Hemingway wrote narrative in long hand but used the typewriter for dialogue—the rat-tat-tat, he thought, was similar to speed of talk.

Dialogue should be short, sharp and speedy. A scene with dialogue should have lots of white space. Allow your characters to speechify at your own peril!

FREE dialogue tips from Nanowrimo here. More dialogue tips here.


3. Spot and solve plot problems.


Plot problems in a first draft?

I’m shocked, I tell you. Shocked.

A powerful technique called reverse outlining will help ferret them out. A reverse outline will also help you track character arcs and/or rein in wandering POV dilemmas.

Reverse outlining—basically a list plus some first-grade arithmetic—can also bail you out of glitches and blocks, aka those dreaded now-what-happens? moments.

The difference between an outline and a reverse outline is that you compose your reverse outline after you finish your first draft (or as you’re in the process of writing it). Even pantsers like me find the reverse outline invaluable.

You will find FREE directions and demonstrations of the power of reverse outlining here, here, here, and here.

4. Naming names.


Names are powerful—Hannibal Lector, Miss Marple, Mr. Darcy, Scarlett O’Hara, Rosa Kleb—and can even define character. Choose names carefully in order to make things easy for the reader.

Example: The hero is Kevin Barnett. The heroine is Kathy Blanchard. The villain is Keith Barron. The names are similar and the initials are identical.

Do you really want to drive your reader crazy, as s/he tries to remember which of the K’s are OK and which aren’t?

Make a list of all the character names in your book and see to it they are individual, even memorable, and, if possible, convey something about the character. Change names and initials that are too bland, too similar or easily confusable. Use a name generator if you run out of ideas or need ethnically or genre-correct names.

Scrivener, the go-to app for many writers offers a generous FREE trial and comes with a name generator. Find it in the edit > writing tools menu.

There’s a FREE standalone name generator offering everything from Finnish and Maori names to Biblical, witch, and rapper names here.

5. Cliffhanging.


The cliffhanger is the professional writer’s secret. Pros use the cliffhanger to compel the reader to turn the page so they end every chapter on a note of anxiety, suspense or irresolution.

The reader, dying to know what happens next, will turn the page, stay up till three AM to finish your book and the next day tell her/his friends “you have to read it!”

The cliffhanger worked for Shakespeare and probably back in the days when writers lived in caves and used chisels and clay tablets to tell their stories. It worked in soap operas, on sitcoms, and in commercial bestsellers. The cliffhanger is eternal: right now, today, tonight, you will find the little buggers on every show right before the commercial break.

Embrace the cliffhanger.

Respect its power.

Learn to use it.

6. Crutch words.


Many writers have them. Anne fesses up to “just.” Mine is “begin.”

Example: “She began to run for the bus” becomes “She ran for the bus.”

Simpler, more direct and more powerful and yet another example of the power of the delete button.

Do you abuse adverbs? A search for ly will ferret them out.

Scrivener provides an easy way to nail those crutch words. Go to Project > text statistics > word frequency and Scriv turns up a list (with numbers + bar chart!) of how many times you used a word in that particular project. Now that you have the evidence, go into hunt-and-kill mode and mow them down!

ID your own crutch words and be on the lookout for better, more expressive ways to convey what you want to describe.


7. Know your genre.


No football team is going to draft you as a receiver if you didn’t know how to run a route. Ditto, genre. Romance, thrillers, horror, romcom—all have conventions and readers expect those conventions to be honored.

Study the genre(s) you work in. Read widely. Keep up with shifts and changes in the genre. Be aware of what your readers are looking for and, when you revise that first draft, be sure you are giving your readers exactly what they are looking for.

Focus on thrills in a thriller, sexual tension in a romance, scares in horror. Make sure those scenes deliver the goods or you will lose your reader.

Find FREE expert advice on genre at the following sites:

  • Romance writers lecture three times a week at Romance University.
  • Mystery writers share tricks of their trade at Crime Fiction Collective.
  • David Morrell discusses writing thrillers here and Lee Child talks about how he breaks rules here. A few more tips about thrillers here.
  • Chuck Wendig discusses 25 things you need to know about writing horror here. Stephen King on the craft of writing horror here.


8. Once is enough.


A common first-draft problem and not always a quick or easy one to fix because it involves actual thinking. Sorry about that, guys—but be on the lookout for places where you convey the same thought two (or more) times in different words.

Usually, this kind of repetition means the writer—that would be you—hasn’t quite thought through what he/she is trying to say. If you find yourself falling into this trap, you need to do the hard work of clarifying your thoughts and then conveying them clearly.

Decide exactly what you want to say and then say it. Do it right once and you don’t have to do it again.

Now you are ready to expose your book to your editor, crit group, beta readers.

If you show your work before you address the glitches and flaws you perceive, you risk getting stepped on and deflated. It’s not worth it.

Don’t ask me how I know.

What about you, scriveners? Do you edit before you show your work to other people? Have you learned to do that the hard way? What other self-editing tricks can you add?


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BOOKS OF THE WEEK 

ZURI--the word means "beautiful" in Swahili--is an inspirational, romantic story of grief, healing, and second chances (contains no sex or cursing and is appropriate for adult and young adult readers.)

Available at Amazon US. Amazon UK, NOOK




Lanky, dark-haired Renny Kudrow, Director of the Kihali Animal Orphanage in Kenya, is a brilliant scientist, a noted television personality, and an expert in animal communication. But human communication? Not so much, thinks Starlite Higgins, the talented young vet he has hired over the objection of others. He is prickly, remote, critical, and Starlite, anxious to please and accustomed to success, is unable to win his approval.

When Renny and Starlite set out on a dangerous mission, they rescue a severely injured baby rhino whose mother has been killed by poachers. Upon their return to Kihali, they must work together to save the little orphan, now named Zuri. Zuri's courage and determination and the idyllic beauty of Kihali, gradually break down Renny's and Starlite's emotional walls. Little by little, they each confront their own painful, invisible wounds.

But how can Starlite know the secret Renny guards is as shocking as the past she conceals?

***

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46 comments:

  1. Reverse outlining - I am going to try that!
    Crutch words and repetition. Been there, done that. Actually, still doing that. Working on it!
    Since my first book, I've worked hard to keep names different. I'll even start crossing letters out of the alphabet so there is only one character with a name starting with that character.

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  2. The biggest tip for me is to never, ever leave it for later. If it doesn't get into the first draft and right, it will be a big pain to fix later on. Sometimes writers say they leave out the description in the first draft and fill it in later. If I did that, I would have years of revision trying to get it into the story. It has to go in as I'm writing the scene.

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  3. This post was like a visit to a counselor, except better. I finished my first draft and then I read it... Seriously depressing.

    Would it help to put it aside for a while and come back to it later to do the editing?

    Thank you for the encouragement and all the editing tips, Ruth.

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  4. Thanks for another great post, Ruth & Anne,
    I'm a pantser, too, & these are all great ways to address that first draft (though because I writer/edit somewhat recursively, but the time I've got a "1st draft" I've probably read every word in it a couple dozen times). I learned another great trick from children's writer Darcy Pattison. She prints out the whole book in 7 or 8 point type, single spaced (no kidding), so the entire MS can be laid out on the floor of one room. Before laying it out, though, the author color codes elements like dialogue, appearance of characters, presence of important images. The visual "spread" of the MS really helps tighten things up.

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  5. Thanks Ruth, a terrific set of pointers and great emotional support. Epic and heroic fantasy is a bit tougher to study, as a genre- I believe it's swung pretty far one way in recent times and could (pleaseohpleaseohplease) be swinging back soon (ohplease!).
    But for crutch-words you never knew you had, another somewhat poetic way to uncover them is to create a WordCloud- http://www.wordle.net/. After you let it loose on your full text, you can revise, of course, but you can also set the filter to take out all common articles etc. and then you've got a pretty little thing to maybe draw some attention from your readers. For me it's variations on the word "seem" and they can ALL go!
    I think I have the most trouble with the names-bit because I don't control them. But save the draft and delete, oh yeah, that can be really fun once you see the power of it.

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  6. Alex—Love your idea of crossing out letters! Anything a writer can do to help the reader is a big plus & making sure that names and initials are distinct is one of them.

    I've been "reverse outlining" for years, way before I ever knew there was a name for it! I make several as I go through a draft. I'm a pantser but even pantsers need plots and a reverse outline helps nail it down.

    Linda—I hear you! As a member in good standing of the Church of Do-It-Now, I completely understand. :-)

    The Happy Amateur—Thanks for the kind words. Isn't it astonishing that no matter how different we all are, some of the same problems plague so many of us?

    Lots of writers put the draft aside for a while & come back later with a fresh perspective. Makes a big difference! Of course, we have to beware of The Endless Revision! (glances in mirror)

    CS Perryess—Thank *you*! :-)

    Darcy P has an interesting approach, one I've never heard before. I can see how it could be very helpful.

    Trekelny—Thanks so much!

    Thanks, too, for WordCloud. Brilliant! I know I sure get into word ruts and need help to get out of them.

    So glad I'm not the only one who gets a thrill out of the delete button! :-)

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  7. I love these tips! They're perfect for the trials and tribulations of the horrendous first draft (and mine is making me bluer than a blueberry). Your comments were so funny! Thanks for the tips and the laughs! :)

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  8. Hi, Anne and Ruth.
    Ruth as always there is so much good stuff here. I am in love with the reverse outline. I think I might do something like this when going over the draft for the first time, mainly looking for transitions from chapter to chapter, checking for logical flow since my stories are mini mysteries --and I'm not the most logical person I know-- making sure character actions are consistent and believable, and rearranging chapters for a better, more sensible and readable flow. I did NaNo this past year and let the draft sit for over a month then went into three revisions, each time looking for many of the issues you brought up in your list. I'm a huge repeat offender of using the word "just." What an absolutely indispensable list for revision. Thank you again for another "can't do without it" post. Paul

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  9. (laughs) Well - I'm usually quite a bit happier with my first draft than that. But maybe I'm just more self-indulgent. When I read over Step 1, I realized much of it is "info dumps, the meandering philosophical musings". (laughs) But yeah, I do polish it up later.

    I also mostly write non-fiction so not all the other points apply. But the principles do. For me, the object of a first draft is indeed to do a muse and info dump. But then try and turn it into something clearer.
    Thanks!

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  10. Thanks Anne and Ruth, still learning the revision path so this is a huge help for me. My main crutch word is That and as :(
    I'm surprised by how much I use them, lol

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  11. Thank you both for this wonderfully helpful post. I'm a pantser with a dash of plotter thrown in the mix and I edit as I go - sort of. Your points are spot on and useful. I'd also like to SO thank you for telling us about "Zuri". I love wildlife and loved the blurb and can't wait to buy it. YAY!

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  12. Lexa—Thanks! Listen, if we can't laugh at our own g-d awful first drafts, we're sunk. And that's no joke. ;-)

    Paul—So now we have a triangle: I'm in love with the reverse outline, too. :-) It's so simple and yet so effective.

    Actually, I think revisions are the name of the game. It ain't the writing. It's the rewriting—and the revisions—that separate the pros from the amateurs.

    You and Anne should go stand in the "just" corner together!

    for now—(laughs with you) I've been-there-done-that with the info dumps & meandering philosophical musings. How do you think I knew about them????

    jbiggar—OK, now you go stand in the "that and as" corner. :-) Any other "that and as" abusers will be told to join you. I'm sure they're out there. Probably hiding right now. Or maybe "just" in denial.

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  13. Patricia—Pleased to learn that the post is helpful. I'm basically a pantser (dopey autocorrect keeps changing pantser to panther—maybe the wildlife theme sneaking in????) but I do edit as I go. Sheesh, I "edit" newspapers as I read them. Seriously. It's a curse. lol

    Thanks for your kind words about ZURI. I hope you enjoy it. It's a billionaire-free romance.

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  14. This is the routine that I have in order to work through those first draft blues. As I write and complete a few pages, I print the out. So in essence, I wind up with two copies of my story: the version stashed on the computer and one that is a had copy.

    Because it takes me forever and a day to complete something to the end, every three to four weeks, I will take that notebook with me to work or somewhere quiet, and proceed to edit and take notes like there was no tomorrow. By the time I'm done with the first draft, I'm actually ready to move on to the 2nd draft as the hardcopy 1st draft is daintily decorated with all kinds of colorful ink colors and copies notes.

    And believe it or not I repeat the procedure for the 2nd draft as well.

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  15. GBM—I believe it! :-)

    Thank you for sharing your method of dealing with the first draft blues. So many writers, so many ways of doing the job.

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  16. Fabulous post! I'm a linear pantser with a few plotting traits. I love the idea of a reverse outline. I've never tried one.

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  17. I didn't know "reverse outlining" was a thing, but I just did it for my novel-in-progress the other day. I was mentally writing a synopsis of all of the chapters I'd written so far, trying to identify the key plot points, when I realized, "Plot points? There are no plot points. Fuuudge." (Only I didn't say "fudge.")

    This is why I get so irked when people quote Heinlein's Rules and say, "You should never ever rewrite! Write it down and get it out!" I mean, I'm a fairly clever person. My elementary school put me in the "Gifted and Talented" program in which they made me dress up like a caterpillar and sing songs about the importance of reading. And yet, after years of diligent writing practice and study, I still turn out first drafts in which the plot goes nowhere between chapters 4 and 10.

    Nobody is so brilliant that the first 50,000 words they pop out are good enough to publish as-is. Nobody. Except maybe Nora Roberts. But she doesn't count.

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    Replies
    1. Tamara--I'm so glad you brought up Heinlein's Rules. I'm going to be talking about that particular brand of bullbleep next Sunday!

      I'll bet Nora Roberts has lots of elves to clean up her drafts, And Patterson has his "co-authors."

      And BTW, you're hilarious. Love the caterpillar story.

      Delete
  18. Thanks for the fab advice! I'm in draft 2 and just finished reverse-outlining my draft. It made the holes very obvious! Now I just have to fix them...;)

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  19. Agree with all of these, but love #3 and #4. I reverse outline just about every book I write. I start with a vague outline in the beginning, before I start writing, but, well, books tend to take on a mind of their own. Doing another outline after is really important and incredibly helpful during revisions. Names are very important, too. I can't stand a book full of boring names that make you wonder how boring the parents of these characters must have been to name them these names!

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  20. I'm in the middle of rewrites on a first draft myself. The manuscript is bleeding from all the cuts.

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  21. I imagined the "Did I write that?" in the voice of Steve Urkle. Remember him?

    Anyway, excellent advice, as always. I'm so guilty of crutch words (I have a long list), and saying things twice. Thanks for these amazing tips.

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  22. Always welcome advice to a first timer. Thank you.

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  24. Thanks for this great post. I feel that not knowing what to do when I finish my first draft has been holding me back with my writing. Now I have a plan and shall go forth and complete my first draft!

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  25. Ruth, this is a fabulous post! A wonderfully succinct explanation of some of the core issues. I've included the link to this post in my blog's weekly roundup of helpful links on editing http://www.romancerefined.com/2/post/2014/02/rachels-resource-roundup-no-3.html.

    And Anne, a hearty hello from a former Central Coaster (Nipomo)! *waves*

    Rachel Daven Skinner

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  26. Collette—Thank you for the kind words. A reverse outline (or your own version of it) will usually help sort out some of those first draft blues!

    Tamara—LOL Don't forget that caterpillars turn into butterflies. Maybe that's what your teacher had in mind????

    Couldn't agree more that first drafts are nowhere ready to publish. They need editing, revising, rewriting, polishing and a generous application of Good Housekeeping!

    K.B.—Yeah. Now that we know the problems, we've got to fix them. It's always something, isn't it? Good luck with your Second-soon-to-be-your-Third! :-)

    Mary Mary—Books that take on minds of their own are the books that turn out well. Lots of times, writers are the passengers. The books are the drivers/bosses.

    Susan—That manuscript has now learned what the rest of the world knows: No pain. No gain. :-)

    Julie—Glad to hear the post resonated. Not every point will apply to every writer but even if only a few do, I'm pleased to be of help!

    M. Zane—Thank *you* :-)

    Linda—So glad I was able to provide at least a road map. For a writer to have a plan is at least half the battle. It's the not knowing what to do next that's so distressing and even paralyzing. Good luck with completing that pesky first draft!

    Rachel—Thanks so much for your complimentary words and for your support. I appreciate them both!

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  27. These are excellent suggestions for cleaning up a manuscript, although I rarely have anything close to a completed document that I haven't been over and over and over again. It's just the way I write. I spend some of my time composing but much of my time reviewing and revising, so by the time I'm finished I've been through everything several times.

    Of course your suggestions are just as applicable to my process. I just need to keep them in mind as I'm doing my on-going revisions.

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  28. Crowhill—Yes! "Over and over and over again." Part of my process, too. Maddening thing, though, no matter how often I go over a ms, I STILL miss typos. Aaaargh!

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  29. Thanks, Ruth. Wonderful advice. I am working on the second draft on the second book in a trilogy. I had started on the third book then realized in my editing of the second book that I had manufactured about four chapters that just did not make sense! The character motivation was nonexistent even though her actions were monumental to the story! Holy moly! How embarrassing! Needless to say, book three is on hold. I have found that the best way for me to catch typos is to email the manuscript to my Kindle. There is something about that format that makes them pop right out.

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    Replies
    1. Christine—A big secret about writing is novel is that you make a mess that then you have to clean up. I consider it part of the process. Which is not to say I always enjoy it!

      I'll trying your email to Kindle approach. Thanks for suggesting it.

      Delete
    2. Christine, that's a good idea. Reading something in a different context or on a different medium can help. It can even help to edit in a different room, or in a different font. To save time, our brains like to rush over things that they think they know. To edit well you have to trick your brain out of that trick by forcing it to pay attention.

      Delete
  30. Thanks for the Scrivener 'crutch words' tip! I have many of those ;)
    Forewarned is forearmed!

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    Replies
    1. A.D.—Thanks! It's one of the (many) nice little touches Scriv offers. Use it happily!

      Delete
  31. Dynamite post. All your suggestions are right on the mark. I axed over 10,000 words from my first draft. It took countless drafts before I got to this point. Hopefully, the next novel I tackle won't require as many drafts before it sings.

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  32. Diana—Thank you! Cutting—or "axing" as you so aptly described it—really does make a difference. Cutting is like sculpting: it really lets you see what you have. Once you do, you can then spot other areas that need work/refining: plot, character, pace.

    Good luck with the next one!

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  33. This is exactly what I needed to read today! I'm in a bit of a rut with editing my first draft. These tips are the kick in the butt I needed! Thank you!

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  34. Kathy—Thank you for the kind words. Amazing, isn't it?, how important butts are to writers. Butt In Chair. Occasional Kick. What would we do without our butts? And there's no ifs, ands, or butts about this. ;-)

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  35. Thank you Ruth Harris and will need this as I start my second book (in a duology), I am told it gets easier. Would like to hear some advice on writing an Amazon description in the future. Just spent an agonizing week paring down a verbose 450 words to 263. Your comments on editing a first draft translate mostly to this also. But if you or anne have some previous post please advise.

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    Replies
    1. Judith--Ruth will be happy to hear you found this post useful. We have a great post on how to write a great Amazon product description from bestseller Mark Edwards (who just signed a BIG deal with Amazon's Thomas and Mercer.) Here's the link http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2013/02/are-you-neglecting-this-important-book.html Also, try my "hook" formula for a logline, then expand from the logline to product description. http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2012/01/hooks-loglines-and-pitches-what-every.html BTW all this is in our book which just came out in a new edition HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE. Only $2.99 :-)

      Delete
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  37. This was so good to read since I feel like most of what I write is crap. It is discouraging and daunting but not a deal breaker. Thanks for the excellent tips. (By the way, my crutch word is "that"-- it appears over and over and yet again, over.)

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    Replies
    1. Julie--"That" was my favorite crutch word for a long time. I did battle with it and I think I'm winning, but I'm still awfully fond of "just". I think Ruth's post shows even a NYT bestseller like her thinks her own work is crap when she reads the first draft, so we're in good company!

      Delete
    2. Julie—Most of us probably feel that way! The point is that what starts out as crap doesn't end up the same way. Editing/rewriting/revising is what makes the difference—and the difference between pros and amateurs.

      Once you've ID's your crutch words, a search and destroy mission will get rid of the little pests! :-)

      Delete
  38. Is there a certain place that you prefer to write your first drafts? Your cozy office inside your home? The coffee shop down the street? The library? For you personally, do you find more benefit from being in a virtually silent environment or one with lots of activity and commotion?

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    Replies
    1. Kyle—Doesn't matter to me altho I usually work at home.

      Delete

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