For Beginning Writers – Should I Show Anyone My Writing?

The answer is yes, absolutely. In order to progress in your craft you will have to ask others for feedback. But be picky. (Of course you can show your writing to your mom and your spouse but these aren’t likely your sources of expert constructive feedback.)

There are two types of people you’ll want to share your writing with: readers and writers. 

Select three people who are readers, people who read A LOT, preferably in your genre. Now find three writers. Ideally, you’re already part of a writers’ group. If so, focus on them. If not, look for local authors with a few publishing credits. Take their classes at the local writers’ center. Read their books, reach out to them. Most of them would be happy to take a look at a reader’s work and provide some hard-earned advice.

Share your work with folks from these two groups, a few at a time. Ask them for specifics on your work. What you’ll have in the end is expert reader and experienced writer advice on your work, constructive criticism you can use to continue to propel your drafts forward.

For Beginning Writers – My Writing is Awful!

Of course it is. So is mine. This might be a great time to purchase a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird and read her third chapter about terrible first drafts. And then read the rest of the book.

All writing starts with junk, stuff no one will ever see. No matter how accomplished a writer is, their early drafts are awful. We have to write the junk to get to the good stuff. This is the only way good writing occurs. Quality comes of quantity. 

Learning to write is just like learning to play the piano or learning French. You don’t play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23 in your first six months of lessons. And you don’t read Les Miserables in the original language in the first few weeks. What you’re perceiving as failure is actually great news. You have a bunch of bad writing! This is iron-clad evidence of progress!

For Beginning Writers – How to Keep Writing

You’ve written every day for two weeks, 30 minutes each day. You’re on a roll. You’ve moved from your notebook to your laptop. You’ve also moved from writing miscellany toward the idea you had in the beginning. You’ll find your own way, but here’s how I manage the work.

  1. Write as much as you can of the story, personal essay, poem. Write your ideas about the piece. This is called metawriting. Write all your thoughts––interesting and boring alike. Get them all down on that screen.
  2. Once you’ve written all you can, print what you have.
  3. Take your pencil and hand-edit the printout. Sit with it, read it, mark it up with new ideas or thoughts that come of what you see. Take your time. Go over it a half-dozen times. Carry it with you for a few days.
  4. Sit back down at your device and start over. Rekey the piece from scratch. You’ll find that soon you’ll not be looking at what you’re rekeying. A new idea will have come and you’ll be running with that. Then you’ll return and continue rekeying your hand-edited draft.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4. Now you have multiple, progressively more developed drafts of your piece.

This process sounds inefficient but it’s actually highly efficient. It moves a piece forward.

For Beginning Writers – How to Start?

You desire to write. You have a story to tell. How do you start? 

I’ll tell you how I started.

  1. Go get a notebook and a pencil. I like a pencil because I can hear the words hitting the page. This is gratifying. 
  2. Sit down in a place void of distractions. You know what this looks like for you.
  3. Set a timer for thirty minutes. There’s a timer on your phone. Or ask Alexa to set one. Or use your grandmother’s old Sunbeam wind-up timer. 
  4. Write. It doesn’t matter what you write. The goal is not productivity but habit. Write your grocery list, the contents of your closet, the colors in a 64-count box of Crayolas. Or write that story your uncle used to tell at every family picnic, the one about the guy who got in a car crash, was thrown from his car and landed on his feet.
  5. When the timer sounds, stop. Put down your pencil.

Go about your day. You’ve written. The goal has been accomplished––to begin the habit of writing every day. Tomorrow you will do the same thing. And you will find, if you do this each day, you’ll have no shortage of things to write about. You’ll spend the time developing what you wrote the day before or starting something new. The ideas will flow. Your job is to simply show up.

Solely for the Writer’s Use

Earlier this week I was working on the second draft of a chapter of a manuscript. As I wrote I inserted bits right into the text [THAT LOOKED LIKE THIS. NOTES ABOUT THE DRAFT FOR RESEARCH OR FOR THE NEXT DRAFT].

This has been a long-standing habit for me in early drafts, but this time, as I did it, I had a realization. An aspect of the writing process crystalized for me, as it occasionally does.

Our tendency is to think early and often of the reader and to try to make a piece take shape as soon as possible, to take a form that will entice a reader. While noble, I think this is an error and a risk to the process.

The first three drafts of any piece of writing are strictly for the writer. Solely for the writer’s use. These early drafts teach the writer what the piece needs, what form it is to become, what elements need to be included––and what elements need to be excluded.

It is not until the fourth or fifth draft that the writer should begin to consider the contract with a reader. Not until this point, as these later drafts are created, is the piece starting to stand on its own. Only then is it capable of withstanding the scrutiny necessary to bring it before a reader. Only then does the writer understand it well enough to invite the reader to collaborate.

The Death Scene

I’ve been at a couple of deathbeds over the years, visiting family, attempting to comfort or joining in small talk to provide an emotional and mental break. But I’d never been present at the moment of death. This changed on February 21, 2019. Early that evening my wife and I watched my mother take her last breath. We watched as she slipped away—her life, her color––gone within moments.

This week I found myself working on an early draft of the first death scene I’ve written since. This fictional scene is the death of a patriarch, his wife and children all gathered around the bed. The eldest child, a son, arrives last. Conversation, the last words, the last moment.

Yet again, difficult life experience proves valuable when writing fiction. 

Abandon Comparison

It is our nature to compare. It’s undeniably human. We compare everything. We compare restaurants, movies, cars, and jobs. We compare this weekend to last, this vacation to that one. All experience is deemed relative. Such comparison can be helpful. It allows us to make decisions, to rank, and in many contexts to improve. But in our personal lives it’s usually destructive. It can hold us back, cause us to miss opportunities, cause us to settle and sometimes give up. 

In creative work, this default of comparison is downright destructive. Every poem, painting, film, song, and sculpture is different. Each piece of work has a unique set of challenges and needs. Each lives a life of its own. The job of the artist is to simply facilitate that life.

As I work on my second manuscript, this tendency to compare is great. The drive to compare the experience, process, and outcome of The Confessions of Adam to my next manuscript feels as natural as walking. Perhaps even helpful, a guiding light. But it’s not. It’s a dead end. In order to allow this second project to develop on its own terms, to find and realize its latent potential, there can be no effort on my part to hold up the first book as a metric. The second project will excel differently and fail uniquely. It’s foolish to think that a comparison to my first book can somehow illuminate or anticipate these idiosyncrasies. Comparison is a species of procrastination. A very sneaky sort of distraction from the work that must be done. It’s a hunt for short-cuts, an effort to grasp stolen insights. Comparison must be given no space in the toolbox.

Writing in the Storm

Writing is very difficult for me right now. More difficult than normal. It’s hard to focus, to give writing the priority, the time, the energy. It feels impossible to push the uncertainty of the future out far enough to create room, build a scaffold, and hold it at bey.

You’re not my therapist and this isn’t a bad Facebook post, so I won’t go into all that’s happening. Suffice it to say that times are tough for me and those I hold dear and writing seems like the smallest, most insignificant preoccupation in the world.

But is it?

Maybe now is the best time to write, to create, to make. Perhaps now, when life seems to be sprouting only weeds and no grain, is the time to allow creative work its space. After all, writing is a constant. Circumstances change, difficulties rise and successes fall, the stew of hope, fear, want, and wish simmers and steams, yet writing has been at my elbow for half my life, and welcomes me back each day.

So, here’s not to better days. Instead, here’s to staying the course and learning along the way.

To What Might We Compare the Writing of a First Draft?

Verily, Verily, I say unto you, the writing of a first draft is like hacking a path through a previously undiscovered forest. One observes and responds to the rise and fall of the ground at his feet, while at the same time devising a plan for how the path might one day be converted into a super highway with restaurants lining the exits.

Again, the making of a first draft is like picking a splinter from one’s palm. The pain and frustration of the effort far outweigh the progress and it seems gaining leverage on the source of the concern inches further away with each attempt.

Or put another way, the making of a first draft is akin to a starving man who feeds himself, not by stealing bread, but by planting a field of wheat. His patience and focus must displace his hunger.

Once more, the making of a first draft may be compared to a man who, upon digging in a place that has captured his wonder, finds much rock and dirt. Yet upon breaking the clods and splitting the boulders he discovers traces of precious metal. At this he gains a vision for the smelting of goblets and platters––an entire table-setting gleaming—and as he digs he imagines those who might dine, their conversation, laughter, the ruffle of their collars and cuffs.

With This First Glimpse

Shooing a pair of goats and a hen out of the first stall, I bend and gather a pile of hay for her. She sinks into it like a sack of grain. She shivers, her forehead moist with sweat. I cover her with my cloak and give her a drink of water from a trough the innkeeper pointed out as we entered. She arches her back in pain and cries out, louder than she has yet. I am thankful for this simple shelter.

“It is time?”

She nods to me and though I’ve never done so I prepare to receive the Child. 

“Just bear down as Elizabeth told you to.” I repeat what I’ve heard, an attempt to be of some help.

And then I bend close. And I see––my Son, the cap of His skull, like black hair on eggshell. I cannot speak. With this first glimpse of Him my anxiety is swept away like sawdust. I reach out and feel the wet warmth of His neck and back as He slides into my hand and up my wrist. His cries echo through the timbers overhead.