Even if you’re not writing fiction like I am, chances are you sometimes write. First drafts are the toughest part of the writing process for a lot of people. They require starting from nothing and creating something only slightly better than nothing. At least, that’s how my first drafts feel to me. For those of you who are writing yourselves, here are a few tips on writing first drafts:
1. Make an outline. Then be willing to leave it behind. Writing an outline forces me to think through some big questions before I begin. But I follow it the way I travel with my husband sans kids: “Hey, Honey, look at this weird little mountain on the map. Wanna check it out?”
2. Think of your first draft as the clay, not the finished pot. Imagine that what you are doing is digging up clay, just a hunk of stuff from which you’ll create something later. Much of it will be messy and unrefined, but that’s not your problem now. Your job is simply to get from the beginning to the end. Keep digging! When it’s time to write a second draft, you will have your raw material.
3. Don’t let a lack of research slow you down. I do a lot of research, but only a little bit to get started. When I began drafting A Violet Season, I needed to know that violets were grown in the Hudson Valley beginning in the early 1890s, and that wet nurses had become somewhat obsolete by the turn of the century, when infant formula was invented. Researching the details might have prevented me from ever finishing that first draft. Instead, I use CAPS in my first drafts to indicate where details need to be filled in later.
A version of this advice originally appeared as a post in Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog.
Photo credit: RockandWasp/Bigstock.com
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Living research: my pinhole camera
One of the best ways to write authentically is to try something yourself, which is why this past summer I took up pinhole photography.
The protagonist of my next novel (still in progress, more details to come!) is a photographer whose career goes through several incarnations over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. I took a couple of photography classes in high school and college, so I had some idea of what I was doing, but last year I took a refresher with local photographer Jessica Somers
. Then I bought a book on pinhole photography
and got to work.
It’s easier than you might think to build a camera. All you need is a dark box with a hole in it to let in light. I snagged an empty cocoa box with a plastic lid from the recycling bin. The lens of my camera is made from a piece of a disposable aluminum baking pan, and the actual hole was punched with a needle, then sanded. The shutter is made of a couple of pieces cut from an old file folder. That’s it!
Turns out my camera takes a pretty nice, focused picture with good “depth of field” because the hole is really tiny. That means the exposure time has to be really long in order to let in enough light: 60 seconds. No action shots for this camera! In fact, I tried a shot of my husband and daughter running down a path, just to see what it would look like. They didn’t even register on the negative. Here are two of my best pinhole camera negatives…
In order to develop my pinhole pictures, I also had to build a little portable darkroom in my bathroom. My darkroom supplies mostly came from B & H Photo
, including some chemicals (which come as powder and are mixed with water), three plastic trays, and a red safelight. I cover the window and door with black tarp and push pins to keep it light-tight. The bathroom fan keeps the room ventilated.
Pinhole cameras have their limitations. You can't focus them or control the depth of field. Mine only makes negatives on a piece of photographic paper, so the positives—the photographs themselves—have to be contact prints, the same size as the negative. But it's the process that's the point for me, not the product.
So, how has all of this helped me as a writer? I remember now what the darkroom smells like, what it feels like to stand in utter darkness, the way time reinvents itself there, the never-ending thrill of watching an image emerge on white paper. A pinhole camera strips photography down to its basics: the size of the aperture, the length of the exposure, the reading of light and dark. In order to tell a photographer’s story with credibility and detail and my senses, I had to do it again, and not just with the digital point-and-shoot that I’ve been using for the past decade. Part of the point of telling my character’s story is to bring readers back to a profession that, while not lost, is now considered an “alternative process,” something only the purists practice with chemicals and paper and water in a pan rather than a keyboard and a monitor and images on a screen. When it comes to telling a great story, there’s just nothing like getting your hands dirty.
Want to see some truly incredible pinhole images? Click here
I just read. . .
Don DeLillo’s utterly unique White Noise
. The novel, first published in 1985 and the winner that year of the National Book Award, reads now like a time capsule of the eighties. White Noise seems at first quite realistic and ordinary, even though its protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a college professor in the “Hitler Studies” department and his son appears to be named for Heinrich Himmler (though Jack denies this). Otherwise, at first, we seem to be eavesdropping on a fairly ordinary blended American family: Jack, his second wife Babette, and their children from previous marriages. Gladney’s voice (the narrative is in the first person) is amusing, and the details are familiar: junk food, parking lots, television. But strange things begin to happen. There’s a mysterious poison inside the kids’ school. Babette is forgetting things. A chemical cloud pollutes the town, and people experience strange symptoms, including déjà vu. This family and this town appear to be suffering from Biblical-style plagues and pestilences. The novel is a chronicle of eighties anxieties: technology (especially the kinds we can’t see, like “waves and radiation”), pharmaceuticals, guns, corporate recklessness, chemical warfare, drugs, death—existential concerns that serve to magnify today’s very similar but even more global fears. Substitute “Internet” for “TV” and DeLillo’s “modern obsessions” are not only relevant today, but heightened. This sounds like a downer, but I often laughed out loud while reading White Noise. DeLillo’s rendering of parents and preteens is nothing short of perfect. We return over and over again to the supermarket as the primary site of our living, and the family sits in the car to eat takeout chicken as if it were a deeply pleasurable ritual. What may be most stunning about White Noise is how profoundly it resonates thirty years after its publication. Déjà vu indeed.