Wednesday, July 18, 2012

To Blazes With the Formula

So far this year I've critiqued four complete novels, dozens of chapters and a boatload of short stories.  I've also had my own novel critiqued by others in addition to it receiving a thorough inspection by a professional developmental (content) editor.  I think I've learned something through all this.

Forget the formula!  At least during the first draft.

(Yeah, that advice is worth exactly what you paid for it, but I'm almost sold on itBesides, that advice isn't aimed at seasoned, professional authors steadily pumping out a book or three a year.)

Is a formula needed to tell a good story?  I don't think so.  But a formula is needed to tell a story well.

So why forget it?  Because the purpose of the first draft is not to write a best seller.  The purpose of the first draft (for me at least) is to tell the story that I might one day be able to sell.

I wrote The Bonding with little thought to a three act structure beyond knowing I needed a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  But face it, little thought was required.  All stories have a beginning, middle and end.  My first draft would have suffered immensely had I focused on formula over story.  My first draft was never destined for Amazon's KDP, nor were its first three chapters queued up in my email's outbox.  

Once you've got your multiple book contract or you're writing to meet deadlines imposed upon you by your publisher, you've probably got the knack of storytelling down fairly well.  That means you probably already write to formula without the formula sitting in the forefront of your mind--where your muse should be sitting.

If, while penning or typing that initial draft, you're concentrating on the three steps of this or the seven points of that, you're not concentrating on what matters.  You can't just stop the creative juices and yell, "Oh crap! I forgot my faux resolution!"  Most of us who entertain a muse know a muse doesn't like to be stopped on a technicality.  Technicalities are for later, for rewrites and revisions--not first drafts.

I'm not advocating that you banish the time-honored building blocks of crafting a story, I'm saying craft the story.  I've never met an author who writes a perfect first draft.  Get the story out.  Let it flow.  Let it grow.  Let it be all it can be.  Once done, then examine its structure.  Mold it.  Massage it.  Perform surgery on it, whether it be a nip and tuck or an amputation or a transplant.

Give some thought to structure and formula while you plot and outline.  Weigh the draft once it's finished and see if it balances the equation.  Measure it against the markers of accepted storytelling practices once the muse has quieted and smiles in satisfaction.  Only then can it be fully and properly evaluated.

There is wisdom in choosing the right tool for the right job, but there is also wisdom in choosing the right time to do the job.

22 comments:

  1. Great advice! I get so frustrated with myself because I expect too much from my first draft. I need to remember that first drafts are supposed to be rubbish!

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    1. Thanks! I abhor writing a messy first draft, but I keep reminding myself that premature editing stifles creativity and productivity. It takes me longer to learn some lessons than others.

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  2. My girlfriend has been writing for years so when I wrote my own novel a year ago she kept telling me the same thing="Just write!".

    My problem is that I can go back over and over and improve it until I'm blue in the face. The feedback I got from others was positive in the end but I think I need an editor.

    Great topic!

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    1. Thanks, Michael! I think we all need an editor, but we need to edit a complete draft, I think. It sounds to me like your girlfriend figured out all this stuff a good while back.

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  3. I do consider the fifteen beats from Blake's Save the Cat when creating the outline, but that first draft is just to get the story down on paper.

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    1. Yes, Alex, the purpose of outlining, drafting and editing are all different. I should probably pay more attention to screenwriting articles.

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  4. Thanks, Jeff. I needed to hear this day. :)

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    1. You're quite welcome, Linda. I just hope I haven't led you (or anyone else) down a dark, dangerous path. The advice is arguably more applicable to some and not others.

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  5. I'm glad I inspired you to post this. It worked better than Prozac. I think I'll take it easy from now on. You also made me smile, again. :) Thanks!

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    1. I always like bringing smiles to people's faces. And you're always an inspiration, Al!

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  6. Thanks for this post Jeff. I've been struggling with following the formula of Evan Marshall's 'The Marshall Plan' and my story doesn't fit perfectly. I know I need to just bag the formula sometimes but your words of wisdom has helped my writing today. Out the window it goes and on with the creative flow!

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    1. You're welcome! Sometimes we need to hear that it's okay to keep going. I found that fixing flaws while drafting often created other flaws down the road--not all of which were obvious until later. Write on!

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  7. First drafts...leave much to be desired.

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    1. Thunderstorm robbed me of internet connectivity yesterday evening and repairmen still haven't arrived so here I sit replying from the doctor's office awaiting my annual physical and using their guest wifi. Sigh. But yes, first drafts do indeed leave much to be desired.

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  8. I completely agree with this. You can't revise a blank page, after all, but that's what a writer will be left with if concentrating too much on the technicalities during a first draft. Better to just get the words out and clean up the mess later!

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    1. Welcome, Heather. I have far too often ended a day of writing with little to nothing written due to worry over things completely unrelated to the story itself. Cleaning up the mess may not be the most enjoyable task, but it sure beats staring at an empty page.

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  9. I remember how freeing it was when I learned to forget the formula while writing the first draft. I was far too focused on trying to be perfect in every aspect and didn’t realize how negatively that impacted my creative process.

    You said it perfectly here, Jeff: “Get the story out. Let it flow. Let it grow. Let it be all it can be. Once done, then examine its structure. Mold it. Massage it. Perform surgery on it, whether it be a nip and tuck or an amputation or a transplant.” Exactly! Great post! :D

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    1. Yes, when I first began writing my novel, I did so happily ignorant of every single rule and formula there is. The more I discovered that there are ways things should be done, the more it stifled my creativity. And having perfectionist tendencies just made it worse.

      There comes a time when we have to yell "to blazes with the rules" and just tell the story. We have to revise and edit when we finish anyway, so we might as well go ahead and tell it the way we want the first time.

      Thanks for the compliment and for stopping by!

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  10. I've decided with my first drafts that I need to finish it all the way through before giving it to my critique group. I kept giving 1st draft chapters to them because that's what I am working on, but then I want to edit instead of just writing the rest of the draft.
    Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Karen! That's an interesting point you've raised and one that I think many of us fall into without realizing what we're doing. While drafting The Bonding, I had several chapters critiqued while writing. Among great suggestions were others that if followed would have taken me along a different course.

      I too think a full novel critique is best because the entire story can be evaluated from start to finish. Plot lines that begin strong might end weak (or the other way around) and following advice from someone who doesn't know where it's all going can't possibly provide the best feedback.

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  11. I knew nothing about story structure when I first started writing my story. Then I began reading books on the subject and realized I had to completely overall everything I'd written. The story has definitely benefitted from the rewrites.

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    1. I'm curious, Ken, do you feel like the story you've ended up with after the revisions is considerably different than the story you'd have ended up with had you obeyed the rules of structure while you were drafting? In other words, did overhauling the story you wanted to tell result in something radically different than the story you would have told had you played by the rules while you were writing it?

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