Monday, December 20, 2010


We've talked about outlines and about brainstorming including Hot Pen, so now we're ready to talk up composing. This is the subject of BookMarc #6


We're not really writing yet. Just getting the words strung out for the first time. You can call it what ever you like, but for me it's more like composing, creating the story much like you would compose a sonata.

For those of you starting out, and those who able, I urge you to compose your story right on a computer. If you do this from the beginning, you will work with words as they are in the finished story. Printed words look different than written words. Eventually someone will have to key them in, introducing errors, a page missing or misplaced will lead to a lot of head-scratching, so why not start right out on the computer? Time spent now in a learning-curve will pay big dividends later on.

Okay, okay, some people can’t compose this way. I have a friend who uses a battered old typewriter for composing and rewriting, which makes it even harder, but she has a phobia of computers and eight published novels. I have another friend who can only compose in long hand on a yellow pad, and then has to type it in. In fact, Elmore Leonard, if memory serves, uses yellow lined paper that he has made up especially for him. I also have a friend, Cyndy Mobley–The Greyhound Chronicles--who used to dictate into a recorder and has a passel of published books. Do whatever works--but it's easier if you can go from start to finish using the computer.

Another thing about composing, I know of very few novelists who complete a salable first draft. Most beginners plan on one draft, the best they can, then wait for the publishing world to offer them big-buck contracts in a bidding war. I know I did. But very, very, very few people have publishable first drafts. By the way, 'very' is a word that really says nothing. If I were going to rewrite that sentence for my second draft, I would say: If you compare the population of No Trees, Texas, to New York City, you’d have the ratio of those first drafts that are publishable to those that are not. I’m in the not class.

So what are we trying to do with the first draft?

Just get it down.

I hate first drafts. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph is brand new. Every page and every chapter is a major decision, stepping into the unknown. You may have had an outline, but now you are working with characters that should be coming alive to you, pulling them out of the ether. You have to figure how they interact with one another. And everything has to have a story logic to it. I am always tempted to quit part way through. I have to steel myself against that, and sometimes only dogged persistence keeps me going when my inner voice is yelling--THIS IS ALL VULTURE DUNG.

Some people rewrite as they go along. I think Lawrence Block does this. And whatever works, works. Depends on how our minds are wired. But for me, just let me get down the words between the title and the closing sentence.

This is when I really make use of Hot Pen that I described in the BookMarc #5. Check it out on my web page. I also keep a journal of these stumbling blocks with dates and things, so that when things get tough I can look back and see if I’ve been there before and overcame it. Sometimes, when I'm really discouraged, I read an early chapter or two and usually decide--hey, not too bad. I can fix this.

It’s a bit like running up a hill. This first time we’re puffing and stumbling, sweating and out-of-breath, with gravity enticing us at every footfall to turn around and go back down. But if we hang in--and don’t expire on the spot--we’ll make it to the top. The next time we’ll know we did it before and have a good chance of doing it again. The running may not get any easier, but each hill we climb gives us confidence for the next.


And remember: It's always better to light a candle in your mind by reading Easy Reading Writing than to curse the darkness of rejections. To check out the first two chapters with an easy order link to B&N, simply click on:

Peter E. Abresch - BookMarc© February 13, 1998.
Author of The Faltese Malcom, Capitol Coven, If They Ask for a Hand at: and the James P. Dandy Elderhostel mysteries at:

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