Writing Alchemy Puts an End to Those %$#$(@ First Drafts

by Kendra Bonnett on June 21, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #53 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

My post on She Writes today is inspired by Anne Lamott. Her writing craft book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is one of about six books that I reread about once a year. I reread it because her writing is filled with inspiration and so many great metaphors for understanding how to use detail well. Here are a just three examples:

“Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.”

“…we need to align ourselves with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious, of memory and sensibility, of our characters’ lives, which can then pour through us, the straw.”

“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader.”

I Have Just One Quibble with Lamott

Anne Lamott, like many writers, believes that first drafts are (and probably meant to be) “shitty.” That’s her word. And she’s not alone. Many talented writers pour their thoughts onto paper with wild, reckless abandon almost as if they will lose their ideas and inspiration if they slow down for even a second.

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you adhere to the same philosophy, and may even find comfort in Lamott’s belief that the “shitty” first draft leads to the “good” second draft and the “terrific” third draft.

I also understand the logic in her premise. As writers, we don’t want anything to come between us and our good ideas…not sentence structure…or grammar…or vocabulary. I agree so completely that I have to ask, Then why go to the trouble of writing at all? Why not put all your effort into the ideas?

Getting deep into our ideas and detail is the goal with the prewriting or Deconstruction techniques we explain in Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep. This will put you in control of your descriptive writing, encourage you to plumb the depths of your imagination, emotions, memories and thoughts to first find a wealth of detail and then select only the best options…all before you need to think about words, sentences and paragraphs.

I write this because of a comment left for me on She Writes yesterday. Lara told me about a frustrating personal journey to turn a short story into a novella and how she spent six months on the project only to decide that the story didn’t work in that form. “Depressing” is her word to describe her process.

I wrote back and encouraged her to come over to Women’s Memoirs and read my post: Writing Alchemy: Deconstruction Helps You Pluck, Prune and Cut the Word Weeds with Impunity. Matilda and I believe that you need to put your heart and soul into the elements of the story early in the process. But don’t write. Deconstruct your characters, emotions, dialogue, sensory detail and time/place. Find the best elements of each. Assess your ideas. And when you believe that you have a story you can tell, write your first draft. I can almost guarantee it won’t be “shitty.”

5 Tips for Find Your Own Descriptive Detail

There is no right or wrong way to find your descriptive detail. In Writing Alchemy Matilda and I introduce the tools and techniques of the social scientists. Here are links to five more resources:

  1. Want to add funny details? Take some advice from comedy writer Emily McGregor
  2. Incorporate detail into the action of your story says writer Anne Marble.
  3. In her brief video, author K.M. Weiland explains how the perfect “telling detail” can replace pages of descriptive detail–to great effect.
  4. Amy Lynn Hess gives us three ways to think and write about the descriptive detail we want to add to our story.
  5. Digidave gives us seven tips for writing with descriptive detail. I like this list because it’s short and to the point.

memoir, memoir tips, memoir writing prompts, Storytelling

Writing Alchemy memoir book, memoir writing book, how to write a memoir, memoir edition of writing book, how to tell a storyWe’ll post more articles about Writing Alchemy in the coming months. Have you placed your pre-order yet? Until June 25, you can save $10 by clicking here.

Writing Alchemy:How to Write Fast and Deep begins shipping soon. Be sure to take advantage of our special pre-order price today.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matilda Butler June 21, 2012 at

Kendra: Thanks for this post. You’ve nailed the distinction between pre-writing and re-writing. The first can be (almost) fun so time can be devoted to that phase and the second is arduous and much less time in needed in re-writing when the pre-writing is done thoroughly.

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