Abandoning Standards


I’ve got a book due very soon and not a lot of it written. In fact, as I’m writing this about a month or so before it will post, I’m really really hoping that a lot more of it will be written by today when you read this. But I did have something of an epiphany last night and I thought I’d share it with you.

I have a sign by my computer that says “Abandon All Standards and Write Fast.” I try to follow that motto when drafting because frankly, I revise well. But I can’t revise what’s not on the page and so I try to dump out the story as quickly as I can so that I capture it. This also has the bonus of letting my lizard brain really play. It also has the bonus of allowing me to keep most of the story in my head all at once so that I don’t forget things. Additionally, having something actually all written makes me feel productive and also cuts the deadline panic factor down.

So all that sounds very good, except for the fact that the doing of it is much harder than it sounds. In actuality, abandoning standards isn’t so easy. Because I write something and for whatever reason, I know it doesn’t fit, or I know it doesn’t satisfy me entirely, and I want to put in what’s missing or fix it. now in particular, and this brings me to my epiphany, is that one of the things that I’ve been struggling with is making sure that this book has the emotional depth and characterization that I want it to have. That part is critical. So as I’ve been writing, I’ve been slowing down in order to layer in the emotional and the characterizations.

Here’s the epiphany–ready for it?

I shouldn’t do that. I should just write the action.

Now on the one hand, that seems like an atrocious idea. I mean, without character depth, the book will be crap. Except. I can and WILL expand on character reactions and thoughts once I have the action laid out. Right now, I want to capture the world and the ambience and of course there will be characterization in there. But the fact is that by worrying too much about how people are feeling or reacting or etc., I’m not actually writing. I’m staring at the screen and overthinking. So I’m about to head out and write. Right now.

So that’s what I’ve hopefully been doing between when I’m actually writing this and when this actually posts. I’ll do my best to slip in here and post a report on what I’ve accomplished. At the point of writing this, I have only a chapter and a half written. That’s a horrible confession. Especially given that this is due in January. So by the time this posts, I hope to have it least half written, if not more. I will let you know.

And once last bit of Shameless Self Promotion. My book, Shadow City, is coming out at the end of the month. It’s the third in my Horngate Witches series, which is totally fabulous and exciting (would I lie?). You can read chapters from all of them at my website and I’m hoping (begging really) that you think about them for your Christmas shopping pleasure.


13 comments to Abandoning Standards

  • Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!

    This is exactly how I write, and I’ve always felt kind of vaguely like I was doing something “wrong” by writing in mostly just action in my zero drafts. *I* know how my characters are going to react, but I know the old adage: “If it’s not on the page…!!” It always seemed more important to get cause and effect on the page FIRST. Yet I somehow felt less of a writer because of that, and that was holding me back from doing a lot of things I could have been otherwise. No wonder doing NaNoWriMo always got me more excited than my “every day” writing!

    I know we’re supposed to write however things get written for us. I thought I understood that message (especially from reading MW so long!) It wasn’t until this post, though, that I even realized most of my self doubt was stemming from THIS.

    I could kiss you. But as you don’t know me, I will do the writer-ly equivalent and rush out and buy lots of your books instead. 😉

  • Julia

    Diana, thanks for sharing this! I hope that you’ve had great success with your WIP. 🙂

    I’m thinking about applying aspects of this method when I start work on a new project. I find plot and action the hardest thing to write — I gravitate to emotional depth and internal (or interpersonal) character development. I’m wondering what would happen if I switched things up, so I made myself sketch out the arc of the plot before getting into all the character stuff.

  • Another one of those “No right way to do this” moments: We’ve talked a lot about writing fast on MW in recent months, and I certainly can understand why. I am writing faster, and doing more and more of my best work in revision. But I can’t change my process so completely that I’m just focusing on action and coming back to character work later. It just doesn’t work for me. In a way, I wish it would, because yes, I do spend time just staring at the screen, thinking, working things out. But to me, that’s part of the process, and I wouldn’t want to give it up. That’s just me. Glad this works for you, Di. And I hope you’re well into your book at this point. Best of luck with it.

  • Great post, Di. I’m sort of between you and David on this. Lately I’ve found that powering through the story qua story is really helpful (and fast), and then track the characters emotional and intellectual journeys afterwards. That way I can layer in the crucial thematic stuff and the character depth when I’m clear what the book is. That said, I wouldn’t deliberately avoid the character stuff in the first draft because so much fo teh action proceeds from character. So, as I say, middle ground, as usual 🙂

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting this Diana,

    I have a really, really hard time just letting it all pour out onto the page. I’ll write something and, a few words later, my brain will say, “Hey, that’s close to what you wanted to say, but not quite. Try this…” and if I fall into that trap (it happens more than I would like, but not as much as it used to, thankfully), I will spend lots of time looking at that line and thinking about it. And thinking… And thinking…and NOT listening to what my characters are trying to tell me.

    I know that most folks have run into the same sorts of things, but it’s nice (not to mention helpful) to hear about how they go about working through it.

    Oh, and I hope you’ve gotten farther along in your WIP than you expected to be by this point 🙂

  • Diana> Totally great post and I totally buy into the “abandon standards!” idea. I write really fast, and some of it is because I don’t stop (except for typos because I can’t help myself!). I usually will do an edit immediately after I get a scene/chaper down to fix what’s still in my head. And then I’ll move on. But it is a quick edit. (And there I also catch typos I missed. Again, I can’t help myself). The interesting thing in comparison to you is that I feel like I work the other way–at least some of the time. I know the emotional reaction. Often when I imagine a scene, I start from a moment or a bit of dialogue that creates an emotional moment. (For example, in my current WIP, enough rage for a woman to beat her sil to death with a firepoker). I had to go back and put in a readable view of what happened, but the rage was there, because that was where I started. Does that make sense?

    Either way, whether it is action first and adding the emotional layers, or vice versa, abandoning the standards (or at least putting them in statsis for a bit) I think really does help.

    I think sometimes the hesistation is in fear of failure. “I’ve got to get it right!!” and so a writer will go over and over and over. But writers need to just embrace failure. Once you’ve failed, found out it won’t kill you, and gotten up again, it’s less scary. Or at least it was for me. It’s now a “oh, look. Story fail. Again. Okay.” and then I get up and do it again. Writing without standards–writing to write fast and get it down–can be a way to confront failure because it gives a writer permission to fail. Of course it will need edits, so I don’t have to worry about perfection now.

  • Mikaela

    I had a lot of problems with my current WIP at the beginning. I think one reason was the fact that it is my first story in Swedish, and since Swedish is my first language, it should be perfect… Uh. Right. To force myself to break that habit I switched to pen and paper. It didn’t take long before the words started to flow. So far I have roughly 38 000 words, and I have no idea what will happen between now, and the end. ( I passed the point were my MC were supposed to head back to Sweden 7 000 words ago) But I am having fun.

    The result will be at least two, probably 3, notebooks ( 20 000-25 000 each), filled with my scrawled handwriting.
    Then I’ll have to type it in.

  • ‘Write the action first’! *slams head onto desk* … of COURSE!!!!!

  • Kiara–glad I can be helpful! And really, in the end it’s about what works for you. And what works this book may not work next time, which can be frustrating. It’s having all the various tools in the tool chest that mean you don’t get hung up. Too much. I hope. 😀

    Julia: I tend to get bogged down in the emotional and that can hang me up. Don’t get me wrong, the emotional comes through in what I’m writing, but I know I’ll be going back to put more in. You should let us know how it works.

    David: It’s working out okay, but you know every book is different and I’m not sure what will happen next time. But yeah, having different tools in the toolbox helps me. Before this, I never would have tried this method.

  • AJ: Absolutely, I don’t avoid the character stuff. I am just trying not to sweat it if it feels thin. Since the action has to come from character, it’s important that I allow it to flow and don’t deliberately shut it down. But right now, since it’s a 4th book, I feel confident I know the characters, so I can focus more on the action. Honestly, I don’t know how well this would work if I didn’t know the characters as well.

    Ken: Oh, I know how it is. You must stomp on, strangle,annhilate and other wise destroy that inner critic while you’re working. I know, easier said than done, right? But it does help if you can do it.

    Pea_faerie: That interesting how you work backwards. But you know I have done that more frequently than I thought. I As I told AJ above, sometimes I know the character stuff so well, I know what they need to feel or what they should be feeling and making that work is about building the action. For instance, in a scene I’m working on now, Max goes into a rage, but I realized that I hadn’t made anything happen that would realistically trigger that for her. So I went back and layered that in and suddenly her rage and the consequent action makes a lot more sense.

    Mikaela: A friend of mine uses the revision called: once more through the typewriter. Literally retyping the entire manuscript and making revisions as he goes. That is very similar to what you’ll be doing. I know a lot of people for whom changing the medium of the writing will help a lot. I’m glad you’re having fun! That’s what makes it all worthwhile.

    Widdershins: LMAO

  • Diana, I have fallen into the same pattern – write the action first. And it’s working for me.

  • Interesting point. I also generally write down what I call the “bones” of the story, which is really just the action, on a first draft. My specific wrinkle of late is that every day, when I start writing, I go back two or three chapters, or to the most relevant scene (if a character is facing down a person she first met half the book ago, I go back to that initial meeting, for example), and reread it to refresh my memory and ease me back into the flow of the book. As I do that, I always find a few tweaks that improve the previous scenes, or a detail that I can tie into another spot to make things hook together more smoothly. This has obvious drawbacks, especially on a limited time schedule (fitting ten minutes of writing into a hectic day does not allow for this approach!). But it seems to be working for me at this point in time. Mostly. 🙂

    By the way, congratulations on putting up a post that finally brought me out of “external lurking” and into registering so that I can make comments…. ;p I’ve been enjoying this blog for some time. Excellent and useful posts by all. Thanks so much for all your dedication and hard work!

  • HarryMarkov

    I’m finding myself in a trap with this one. I can’t write if I have not thought things over and getting out the bones out leaves me dissatisfied with the project and unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who can and will walk away, if the first draft shows no potential. Perhaps it’s just judging myself too harshly, but I can’t get away from this. Of course, I realize that I will need to go with speed, when deadline looms.