On Shawn’s storygrid.com this week there was such a great piece that I’m ripping it off lock-stock-and-barrel here to share with my peeps. It’s on the subject of writing a first draft.

Matt Quirk, author of "The 500" and "Cold Barrel Zero"

Matt Quirk, author of “The 500” and “Cold Barrel Zero”

Matt Quirk is a novelist (The 500, The Directive, Cold Barrel Zero) and a friend and client of Shawn’s. Here’s his secret weapon for getting through a first draft:

 

Use TK. This is the essential lubricant of the rough first draft. It’s a habit I learned from working as a reporter, but didn’t realize the novel-writing magic of it until I read this advice from Cory Doctorow. TK is an editing mark that means “to come” and is equivalent to leaving a blank or brackets in the text (It’s TK, not TC, because editorial marks are often misspelled intentionally so as not to confuse them with final copy: editors write graf and hed for paragraph and headline).

Can’t figure out a character’s name? “EvilPoliticianTK.” Need to describe the forest? “He looked out over the SpookyForestDescriptionTK.” Need that perfect emotional-physical beat to break up dialogue? “BeatTK.” Just keep writing. TK a whole chapter if you want. Those blanks are not going to make or break anything big picture. Come back for them once you’ve won a few rounds against the existential terror of “Is this whole book going to work or not?” There’s no sense filling in the details on scenes that you’re going to cut.

 

I’m onboard 100% with this trick of Matt’s. What he calls “the existential terror of ‘Is this whole book going to work or not?’”, I would call Resistance.

The enemy in a first draft, remember, is not faulty dialogue, substandard characterization, or lack of expositional detail. The enemy is Resistance.

Resistance will try to break our will by overawing us (by its voice that we hear in our heads) with the length of the project, the scale of its ambition, the hell of the interminable slog to get from CHAPTER ONE to THE END.

Our ally in this struggle is momentum.

Get rolling and keep rolling, that’s our mantra. Let nothing stop us. Don’t slow down for anything. Keep going at all costs. Get to the finish of Draft One, no matter how lousy it is or how full of holes.

That’s the genius of TK.

As Matt says, when you hit a sticking point, don’t bog down slugging it out. That’s what Resistance wants us to do. Resistance wants us to lose momentum. It wants to wear us out fighting hand-to-hand in the trenches.

Instead slap in a quick “TK” and keep rolling.

I’m working on a first draft now myself and, trust me, it is loaded with TKs. Some of my TKs are forty pages long. I’ve got one giant sequence that I’m sure will take me a month to write. Right now it’s just a big TK.

Have you read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done? It’s probably the best time management book ever written. Mr. Allen’s key concept is that he sets up a system whereby, when Something You Have To Do But Don’t Have Time For Right Now comes in, you simply slot it into a “place holder” position. In other words, a TK. Then you drop it from your mind and go back to work.

This succeeds brilliantly because, with that Something We Have To Do securely tucked into the System, we know we won’t forget it. We’ll come back to it when we have time and we’ll take care of it. What we’ve achieved by slotting it into the System is we’ve robbed it of the potential to disrupt our flow, to break our momentum.

In first drafts, remember, velocity is everything. Quality can come later. Slug in those TKs and keep motating.

[Today’s post, by the way, marks the end of our series on Theme. For the next few weeks we’re going to talk about nothing but first drafts.]

 

 

 

 

 

  • Alastair Luft

    A great concept, very similar to ‘picket and bypass’ used in the military. Using a definition from the website for Exploiting Change (https://exploitingchange.com/2011/10/03/picket-and-bypass/), picket and bypass, “refers to the fact that as you advance against the enemy, you can encounter small pockets of resistance and obstacles that are meant to slow your advance or distract you from your main purpose. The order to picket and bypass means that you leave a small element to keep a watch on the enemy (picket) and then bypass them to continue with the main mission.”

    Thanks for the insight, hadn’t thought of applying this lesson to writing, but it makes sense.

  • I once heard two types of writing: the Bricklaying and the Bulldozing. The first makes every paragraph perfect before moving on. The second ploughs to the end with tons of “TKs.” The same course told the sole problem of Bricklaying: nothing gets finished. I looked at my four half-finished books. I picked one and bulldozed it to the end, then did a chapter by chapter rewrite. I’m now looking for an agent or publisher.

    I started Bricklaying the second half-finished book. Yes, it’s a form of Resistance. I will now Bulldoxe it with TKs. THANKS FOR THE HEADS UP!

  • Jean Gogolin

    I’m finding the same principle holds true for the second draft too. My tendency is to chew away at the same scenes until they’re as close to finished as I can get them, which just wastes time and prolongs the agony. I’m mending my ways. More TKs to come, as I write the 2nd and probably the 3rd drafts.

  • My important and essential point for today, TK, should come as no surprise to the pros around here.

  • R B Tuscani

    Excellent advice! I do something similar while highlighting in yellow.

  • Mary Doyle

    Great follow-up to Shawn’s post – thanks! Looking forward to “first drafts” series.

  • Robb Doucette

    Thank you. This post is most timely. I recently “finished” a first draft but felt the need to “complete” it before the heavy lifting of revision. This has left me stuck writing dialog and transition scenes that I might later cut. With placeholder notes that summarize the dialog or action, I can see the book as a collection of scenes and focus on the storytelling.

  • Thanks for sharing, Steve! It’s an honor to show up here on Writing Wednesdays. I could never have finished my first book without War of Art.

    • Matt, your piece on storygrid.com was so great! Best short wisdom ever on how to pound the keys without driving yourself crazy. Good luck on all yet stuff, Big Kahuna!

  • How a capital for Momentum and a demotion for resistance, Steve? 🙂

  • Jean Tucker

    You know what I love? Everywhere I go, and everything I read about learning to write, learning to express art, and even just doing business, I read or hear something like, “Steven Pressfield calls it Resistance,” or some other concept you have shared, most often from The War of Art.
    It’s like you are becoming, or have become, The Master of Art Expression.
    Recognized by the best of the best out there, and all of the rest of us, too!

  • Mel Jacob

    Velocity is everything! I love that. Thanks Steve. It’s what I needed to hear to keep going.

  • Steve,
    I love this, and always give a reverent bow to Shawn; and all editors out there.
    I had read this advice from Mr. Doctorow long ago and forgotten it. I didn’t realize that I had modified it by putting in ljt–my initials–whenever I need to get the thesaurus or fact check something. The only thing that comes close to it in spell check is legit, which is alright with me.
    I’m looking forward to the first draft series as well.

  • Tony levelle

    Any way to find all the “Theme posts” in one list?

    Would like to read them all but cant figure out how to find them. “Recent Posts” only lists past 4 or so (at least on my iphone). Belatedly realizing how much work I need to do on this.

    Thanks for a valuable and generous series of posts.

    • Got to Writing Wednesdays and at the very end of the list that populates there will be a tab that says “older entries” and you can go back to the time when Steve and Shawn were still using Selectric typewriters and onion skins…

      • *go

        See how that editing brain works?

        I saw the mistake as I pushed “Post.”

        I don’t think I ever could have been a writer if I was forced to use a typewriter, but I guess back then, nobody knew any better.

        • Tony levelle

          Thanks!
          Um, I began writing with a manual Olivetti. The Selectric was a huge advance.

          Later… I have to go trim the nibs of my quills and refill the inkwell before the next draft.

  • George in Quito

    I’ve missed a bunch of these posts in the last couple of months. fortuitously I caught this at a perfect time in my writing. I have several notebooks for current story lines I’m working on (plus a pile of copy and photos for a non-fiction book).

    I’ve recently started leaving blank spaces for info I needed to research. The TK fits that to a T, and I’m glad I stopped by to learn the name and explanation. Thank you for the oasis of writing sanity in this crazy world.

  • I learned about TK many years ago when working for various newspapers. I still use it constantly. Although it is an old practice that predates computers, it lends itself especially to marking things “to come” in the age of computers for English speakers because there are very, very few English words that contain a T followed by a K. That makes searching for occurrences of your marking very easy.

    A similar convention I follow is the use of square brackets, seldom used in finished copy. I put notes to myself [inside square brackets], and later I can just search for “[” to find them all.