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 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.]