Writing News and Part 4 of Advice on First Drafts

Cuppa Pulp color wash logo  Writing News

September 5, 2013–Best writer’s inspiration this month comes from a video.  Poet Neil Hilborn offered “OCD” as a finalist in the 2013 Rustbelt Poetry Slam, delivering a punch-to-the-gut love story that is also a wrenching portrait of human psychological illness. Do that in 1000 words or less, and you have created living art.

Congratulations to local author Max Ellendale for Glyph’s appearance on Amazon’s Erotic Horror bestseller list!

Last but not least, Team Cuppa Pulp is looking for some bada** writers and generous souls to support us in the 8th Annual NY Writers Coalition Write-a-Thon, benefitting writing programs for the underprivileged. You can read Donna’s plea here. Join us by registering or donating at our FirstGiving page for the Writers Coalition. Writers reach out to sponsors and show up to write from 10-6 on September 21! If we have enough team members, we will have two groups, one at Cuppa Pulp and one in NYC at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Library,  20 West 44th St., NYC, NY. Thank you in advance for supporting the NYWC through Team Cuppa Pulp!

Writing Advice: First Drafts, Part 4

Be Unstoppable

Donna Lee Miele

Max Ellendale is no stranger to finishing difficult projects. She holds a graduate degree in mental health counseling, completed her MFA in 2013, and has written short stories since the age of 12. The second book in the Glyph series was recently published, and the third is well-underway. But she almost abandoned Glyph in the first year of her MFA program.

“At the time, most people were not clued in to the booming sci-fi/fantasy genre. I felt like an outcast. What I was writing wasn’t good enough, because it wasn’t memoir or literary fiction. It dampened my spirit. ‘What are you writing that for? That has no value.’ I butchered Glyph and changed it to attempt to meet the needs of others, breaking Kurt Vonnegut’s rule of writing fiction: ‘Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.’”

The turning point came when, against all her own expectations, Max mastered a “worthwhile” writing assignment: a literary memoir. “I struggled the entire semester because of my ‘sci-fi/fantasy handicap,’” she says. “[And] I tore a nonfiction piece from somewhere inside me. During our final reading, I made people laugh, and sad at the same time. The look on my teacher’s face, and the pat on the back she gave me when I finished, said to me, ‘You can do this, you can write.’”

With the confidence gained from this small success, Max went back to writing what she really enjoyed. She learned to listen critically to critics. A literary critique of genre fiction “is like going to a podiatrist for a dental consult,” she says, “though the flipside is also true. You might learn about metaphor and symbolism from a poet, or you might get some political insight from a blogger. Take what feels right and leave the rest.”

Max also found an audience through online networking. Industry wisdom counsels against putting your drafts on your own website or blog, if your goal is publication in a literary journal or press. Many publishers want work that has never been published before, in any format. But Max had already submitted to numerous agents without success, and felt that it was time to try communicating with readers another way.

“I posted a few tidbits on my blog that started to get some attention. My now-editor read chapters 1 and 2 and contacted me via Facebook. She urged me to submit to the small press that she works for, which publishes in my genre. I was able to find value in my work.”

The Authors’ Extra Mojo:

So does Max celebrate upon finishing a first draft? “I celebrate by moving on to the next project,” she says.

For most writers, the “next project” is revision.

James King does not celebrate either. “I get started as quickly as possible on the second draft,” he says.

Emmy Laybourne takes a time out—sort of. “When I get to the end of a first draft, I type ‘The End,’ and then I lie down on the floor and go to sleep! That’s happened twice, now. I get to take a nap, in the middle of the day.”

Stephen King recommends stepping away from a piece completely, for longer than one afternoon. “My advice to you is that you take a couple of days off—go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle—and then work on something else. Something shorter, preferably… you’re not ready to go back to the old project until you’ve gotten so involved in a new one (or re-involved in your day-to-day life) that you’ve almost forgotten the unreal estate that took up three hours of every morning or afternoon for a period of three or five or seven months.”

If you’re not a strict outliner, you’ll know you’re done with a first draft when “you feel you’ve done what you set out to do, or you’ve come as close as you are capable,” says Joanna Clapps Herman. “By the time I’ve gone down my initial ‘grocery list’ and said what I have to say about each item I have a rough first draft, and I know more or less what work is ahead of me to write this piece fully.”

Joanna, who has experienced the full spectrum of the writing process many times, understands that when you finish your first draft, you are really just beginning. Now is the time to call on craft—“All the stuff that everyone works so hard to learn, and that is so well outlined in so many how-to books,” Joanna says. Your work has found its voice, but that is intermediary, at best, to a complete book. You must enflesh your story’s bones. You’re about to start all over again.

Coming Next Time: Part 5, Begin Again

References: 

Except where noted below, quoted material from James King (Bill Warrington’s Last Chance, New York: Viking, 2010), Emmy Laybourne (Monument 14: Sky on Fire, New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2013), Max Ellendale (Glyph, Breathless Press, 2012), and Joanna Clapps Herman (The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011) are from personal interviews and emails with the author, March-June, 2012.

Quoted material from Lauren Groff (Arcadia, New York: Voice, 2012) is from the author’s transcript of Ms. Groff’s seminar at the New York Writer’s Institute, State University of New York at Albany, March 27, 2012. “Lauren Groff on Writing and Arcadia”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010, pages 211-212.

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