After the First Draft

So you’ve finished the first draft for your novel. You’ve worked evening after evening (assuming, like most writers, you have a day job as opposed to being a poverty-ridden Bohemian living on friends’ couches and writing on soiled paper with a stubby pencil) for a year, or two years, or more. Your friends have stopped inviting you to parties because they know you’re going to say something absurd like, “Sorry, gotta write.” Your significant other has long been someone else’s other and you can’t even remember their name. At work, people talk about television shows that you’ve never heard of, excluding you from the circle of those in the know. You’ve become a coffee-addicted outsider.

But that’s alright; you have the first draft for a novel and now you can have a life again. For a while.

What you have now is several hundred pages of really bad writing. That is, if you’ve been doing the right thing…writing as quickly as possible (saving revisions and rewriting till the first draft is finished) so that you don’t lose the story and your enthusiasm for it. Now it’s time to let go for a few months. Just put the manuscript aside and forget about it. This is going to be difficult. I mean, the sooner you send it off to a publisher, the sooner you’ll see it on the best-seller lists, sell the movie rights and move into that 50 bedroom mansion in Tuscany you’ve always wanted, right?

Right. So, you don’t have to read the posting any further. Just call someone at Random House and tell them you’ve finished your novel and you’re ready to talk advances,

On the other hand, you might want to improve your chances of an agent talking to someone at Random House (they don’t talk to writers, just agents). Before you send off that novel (to an agent if you’re aiming for the Big Six publishers, or an editor if you’re scaling down to indie publishers), you need to look at it objectively. You need to rise above the mire of details and “known truths” in which you’ve been immersed for so long that you’re the last person on earth who can really judge the quality of what you’ve written.

In short, your first draft is something you shouldn’t even let your friends (if you still have any) see. You’re going to have spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, incoherent descriptions, inconsistent information, poorly constructed sentences, indecipherable paragraphs, boringly long dialog that goes nowhere, adverbs and adjectives that are the exact opposite of what they supposedly describe. What you have is what you’re supposed to have…dough, ready for the oven. But you need to get away from it for a while before you’re ready to see it for what it is: just…dough.

Besides, you need a break from the writing regimen, some time to read a book or two, call the former significant other and wish him or her all the best in their new relationship, or just say, “I wrote a novel. What’ve you done lately?” You need time to drink beer, catch up on television, spend some time in the shower, do that laundry you’ve been putting off since last Spring.

I generally take three to six months. I try not to think about the manuscript calling out from my computer and Google Mail (Yep, Google Mail. Each night, after I’ve finished writing, I mail the manuscript to myself. This gives me a daily update stored outside my computer…a handy thing for someone whose computers crash as often as mine do…and also gives you proof of copyright, dated on a daily basis by a third party.) If I come up with ideas that I’d like to incorporate, or suddenly realize that I wrote something the wrong way, or re-consider the role of a character, I make notes in a document called “Revisions,” but I don’t touch the manuscript. Instead, I drink beer (or wine), play some pool, go canoeing with Nanook of the Nashwaak, relax. Sometimes, just to keep the flow of words in my life going, I work on a short story or two, but not intensively…more like some gentle stretching or a leisurely run.

It seems strange at first…suddenly having time to do things, fun things, things without schedule. But I get used to it. And then, of course, by the time I get used to it, it’s time to dig back in and start the real work of writing: re-writing.

I tell my students in my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop that no novel is ever written; novels are re-written. And then re-written again. And again. Until they’re finished. This process could take a few weeks. It could take a few months. It could take a year or more. I know writers who came close to having nervous breakdowns during the re-writing process (and a couple who nearly lost it after their books were accepted for publication and they had to do yet another re-write under the yoke of merciless editors). No book is finished until it’s on a bookstore shelf or posted on Amazon or another online bookseller.

For the most part, writing the first draft isn’t all that stressful. In fact, it should be relaxing. Your mind should be open to new directions, tapped into the subconscious and excited about the work. Getting to your place of writing (coffee shops for me) should be something to which you look forward, eager to push the story just a little further towards the end, eager to see how that argument between Tina and Turner is going to transpire before Tina stabs Turner, eager to find out exactly how Ray gets out of the burning factory (where you left him tied up in chains in the basement yesterday). Each time you sit down to write, you have a rough idea where you’re going next, but it’s when you do the actual writing that you find out how to get there. It should be relaxing, exploratory, fun.

Not so with re-writing. The fun part is over. The work part begins: thinking with your left brain, making hard decisions, deciding what stays and what goes, what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s like going to classes and taking notes…and then writing the exam. This is where everything you do counts because it’s time to commit. You can change your mind off the cuff while you’re writing because you’re still in the process of creation, of filling the unknown void with the suddenly known. But in re-writing, you have to take the already known and make it convincing, accurate, readable, satisfying and publishable.

Yes, publishable. When you’re writing the first draft, you’re writing for yourself. It’s your story and you’re telling it. In the re-writing, you’re writing for an editor who’s going to look at it through the eyes of people who are going to buy (or not buy) your story. Loose, open-ended writing has no place in re-writing. Everything now comes under scrutiny, judgement, evaluation, second thoughts, the guillotine of the Delete button.

It’s a big, long process and it can be done the right way or the wrong way. The worst way is to just start at page one and make micro changes to spelling and sentence structure and all the other little revisions to make the writing perfect page after page.

Here’s my process:

Step 1 (Relax): Drink beer and party my ass off for three to six months.

Step 2 (Refresher): Read through the whole manuscript, but don’t make any changes, just make notes in the margins (if you’re reading a printed copy) or notes in the text, highlighted in yellow (if you’re using a computer) or use Word’s track changes feature. This isn’t the time to get caught up in details. You’re looking at the big picture. How does the story flow? Does it slow down where it should speed up or vise versa? Are all the characters really essential? Is this scene essential to the story, or does it just confuse things or draw the story out in a boring manner? Big things.

You’re going to notice things like spelling errors, clumsy sentences, paragraphs that should be cut in half or reversed, repetition, inaccuracies…and on into the wee hours of the night. But you have to resist making changes. The idea is to read at close to the same pace as you would a published novel. You’ve been away from it for several months and now it’s time to get back into it with fresh eyes and a bit more objectivity. Maybe that paragraph about the cat in the graveyard isn’t quite as mesmerizing as you thought it was while you were writing it. Cooling your creative heels for a while takes some of the fog off your eyes.

Step 3 (Second Draft): So…ready to make changes to spelling and grammar? Good. But not yet. This is where you make the big changes. Remember in Step 2 where we mentioned non-essential scenes? This is where you look at the note for Scene 3, Chapter 4 that says: Is this really necessary? Consider dropping this. Can you imagine how heart-wrenching this would be if you’d spent, say, an entire evening or two re-writing this scene to make it perfect and then realize that it just slows the story down and doesn’t do anything to advance the plot? Now’s the time to drop it, before you’ve wasted any more energy and time on it.

In my last novel, The Reality Wars, Notice how I put in a plug for my book? We’ll get into this when I do a posting sometime in the future about how to market your book after you find a publisher.) I had over 180,000 words in the first draft. In the second draft, I cut over 35,000, mostly because I dropped two characters who didn’t do anything to advance the plot and may even have caused some reader confusion. This meant tracking down every passage where they were mentioned and any passages that may have been affected by them, and deleting or re-writing those passages so that the characters were gone, but everything still made sense.

In this draft, you’ll also be looking for things like scene juxtaposition. You may have a scene in which Jake is wondering why his father killed himself, but it comes before the scene in which his father actually commits suicide, and the reader’s wondering what the hell’s going on. It’s not hard to make mistakes like this in the first draft because you’re focussing so much on the just getting the story out of your head.

You might find inconsistencies, like Cassie wearing a blue coat while she’s talking to her mother, but you come back to this scene later and she’s suddenly wearing a red coat. Or Dave might have blue eyes in Chapter 1, but have green eyes in Chapter 3. These things happen. There may be inconsistencies in timelines.

I posted a novella at the Zoetrope Writer’s Community several years ago. (It was a community of fiction writers who read and critiqued each other’s work. I think it’s defunct now, and replaced by the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, devoted to filmmakers.) The story took place over a period of several thousand years. One of the community members sent me a two page list of timelines that were skewed, inaccurate and otherwise just plain wrong. I spent a week implementing his changes. But this is the kind of thing that happens in the first draft.

Another thing to look for is modulation…the rhythm of your story. This is something you might have in mind when you’re writing your first draft. You might have short scenes for fast action and long scenes for slow action, but you’re unlikely to have a sense of how those really work until you’ve finished your novel. When you read over the first draft, you might find that you have one slow scene in a section of the story that just doesn’t’ fit; it slows things down where the action should be continuous. This is the time to decide whether the scene gets dropped or relocated.

Mood and atmosphere can be so easily buggered up in the first draft. For instance, you have a section in an old house where people are disappearing and the remaining people who were stupid enough to go into the house with the curse on it in the first place are seriously creeped out. But you get into the thoughts of one of the characters as she thinks about the pool party she attended few days earlier and this scene goes on for a page or two…and totally breaks the mood of fear and eeriness you’ve been building for the last fifty pages. If you’ve been away from the manuscript for a few months, this disruption of mood with blare out. Now’s the time to delete or relocate.

Look for things like conversations that drag on and on and on…and go nowhere. I’ve noticed this in a lot of novice writers. They get some pretty cool dialog going and the accents are perfect, the tones are right on, the language flows beautifully and the diction fits the character to a tee. But the conversation goes on for three pages and does nothing to advance the plot or reveal parts of the characters that haven’t already been revealed. This is what I call elevator talk, and it should be enthusiastically slashed and burned. Ask yourself: Would the whole meaning and usefulness of this conversation be improved if it were just a page or less? Put all your conversations under the microscope.

Related to superfluous dialog is superfluous description. A writer friend of mine, Beth Powning, spent years and much traveling researching her novel, The Sea Captain’s Wife. Her descriptions of clothing in the 19th Century were accurate and absorbing. However, she had to cut over a hundred pages of description from the first draft. This especially happens when you’ve done a lot research and you want to use as much of it as possible. You might over-describe a house, someone’s facial features, a setting, a legal procedure or a character’s feelings about someone they love or hate. Modern audiences seem to respond to writing that goes light on description and lets the reader fill in most of the details. Ask yourself, “Does this two page description of the meadow behind the house really need the part about the robin feeding worms to her young in the nest clinging to the large branch with veins like those of a champion weight lifter after a three hour workout in a hot gym with…?”

Probably not. Minimalist is the way to go, unless details in the description advance the plot or will be needed as clues to solve a crime if you’re writing a mystery.

Step 4 (Third Draft): OK…you’ve re-structured, ruthlessly deleted superfluous material, relocated scenes, corrected inconsistencies and done some re-writing. Now you have things pretty much the way they’re going to stay for the duration. You have a stable script and unless you get a mind-altering brainstorm that causes your head to melt, what you have is ready for the small stuff, the micro editing.

This is the fine tuning part, where you correct spelling and grammar. (Although you might have already corrected the spelling in the previous draft since it’s not really that big a deal when you have things like spell check.)

This is where you look at each sentence, paragraph and page and make some really serious decisions. That sentence you thought was so beautifully worded in the first draft and maybe even through the following drafts is suddenly under a microscope with a scalpel attached to the lens. Here’s an example:

Ted thought that he was the only one in the group of young men, who were all members of the same soccer team, who had any really realistic ideas about where their little enterprise was going and what they should be doing, as a team, to make some lasting changes at the outset of their venture, rather than wait until their mistakes were so entrenched as to be impossible, or unnecessarily difficult, to change way down the road.

According to the MS word count, that’s 78 words. That’s a lot of words for one sentence, especially when this is part of a scene that’s packed with fast action and intense thrills (You did get that, didn’t you?). But, when I wrote this, I was almost in tears at the majesty of the diction, the depth of thought, the magical flow of images spilling across the screen, and I’m sure that you share these feelings. But…maybe we can improve on this perfection. How about this?

Ted felt alienated from the others by his insistence on proceeding cautiously with their venture so that mistakes made now wouldn’t be compounded in the future.

Twenty-six words. And it says pretty much the same thing, except it gives a more precise insight into how Ted feels: alienated. And this sentence could have been re-written thousands of ways…all of them better.

Most of your re-writing won’t be this drastic though. Mostly it’ll be dropping a word or two. For instance, the “pretty much” in the last paragraph could be dropped and have no effect on the meaning of the sentence. I`m leaving it in because it`s the way I talk. Editors, though, want `tight` writing. They want the writing pared down to the essentials. Anything that doesn`t reveal character, advance the plot or compel the reader to keep reading gets tossed.

Before you begin this step, may I suggest that you read The Elements of Style from cover to cover. You only have to do this for your first novel. After that, use the online version for specific edits and things you might have forgotten.

Step 5 (More Relaxation): After that last draft, you can relax for a few weeks. But that’s all. Any more than three weeks and you will disintegrate. You need this time to get away from the details. I mean, you did some pretty close editing. So now…drink some more beer. Call friends who may have forgotten your name. Call the ex. Tell her or him that you’re OK with their choices, like, if you’d rather have hamburger than steak…I’m OK with that. This is the time to have some fun.

But just for a few weeks.

Step 6 (Fifth Draft): This one’s not so bad. You just read through the entire manuscript and make notes where you might have missed something. When you’ve finished reading, make the changes in the notes. By this time, it shouldn’t be a lot. If it is, you might want to considerea career in busking. The good thing now is that you’re ready to share your manuscript.

Stop 7 (Feedback): If you have any friends left (or relations who still speak to you), give them a copy of the manuscript and ask them what they think about it. You’ll likely get just two or three who’ll give you feedback, but that’s OK. They’re the ones you want the feedback from. Their feedback will likely lead to a few more changes.

Sometimes, getting feedback on just a few things is helpful across the whole book. When I was doing the editorial changes for my third novel, The War Bug, the editor told me to delete every instance of “And then.”. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I used it and how distracting and unnecessary it was

Step 8 (One Last Read Through): By now, probably the last thing you want to do is read this manuscript that’s sucked the life out of you for so long, but you should., because now you’re going to send your manuscript (well, the first thirty or so pages) to a publisher or agent, or maybe you’re going to self-publish.

I always do one last read-through…just for peace of mind. And generally, I’ll find some stupid little error here, another there, spelling mistakes, places where I’ve accidentally deleted half a sentence. It happens.

After that last read, you’re ready for the riches, adulation, fame and glory that I know you’re going to receive because, after all this, you deserve it. And please don’t forget us little people.

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Personal Demons Up at Saatchi this Weekend

About to post 57 of the 105 Personal Demons at Saatchi Online over the weekend. This was a six month project in 2011 – 2012. It started with my writing workshops, teaching a technique I call mindless writing. The idea with mindless writing is to clear your head of all rational thought and let stuff pour out of your subconscious in any way it wants. It works great for breaking through writer’s block, finding your writing voice and a plethora of other things. (Gee willys, I got to use the word plethora today. Brings back memories of Three Amigos). (Unfortunately, I used the term Gee Willys.)

One typical Saturday evening, I was at home watching water boil and feeling sorry for myself when it suddenly occurred to me that mindless writing didn’t have to be just a writer’s tool. Maybe it could be applied to visual arts. I immediately grabbed my camera. No…first…I turned the stove off, being safety conscious and all. On my way out the door, it occurred to me that maybe the camera wasn’t the most original way to express mindlessness. Like, I’ve seen so many pictures on Facebook that distinctly show little or no presence of rational thought.

I put my camera back in my case and decided to spend the rest of the evening under my bed with a bottle of wine (one of my all-time favorite pastimes, especially on Saturday nights when the feeling sorry for yourself juices are really running). But on my way to the bedroom I passed a drawing on my hall wall that I’d done years ago. It was a black ink drawing with a lot of fancy swirls and stuff. I used to do them all the time and almost had an exhibition of them in the late 70s (but the gallery went bankrupt just before the opening of the exhibit).

In a moment of ecstatic revelation, I thought, “The drawings! The drawings!” (Notice how I’m punctuating differently here than in previous posts. Go ahead Strunk and White. Strike me down for inconsistency.)

The only paper I had on hand in my home office was the long business-size paper that causes so much confusion for shared printers in offices when someone uses it and print jobs for the rest of the day are sent to the wrong tray and producing cryptic error messages and nobody understands.

I grabbed a piece of the paper and one of the new pens I’d just bought an entire box of because I like the way the ink flows through them and onto the paper. They have a really cyber name: SONiX Gel.

I placed the pen onto the paper and waited. And waited. Nothing was happening. Not a damn thing.

Now, some people might argue that, if you’re set on doing something mindless and nothing happens, you’re probably doing the right thing. But that’s not the point of mindless writing. All you’re doing is turning of the judge and letting the thoughts flow randomly. The same thing should happen with mindless drawing. So, I did the unthinkable…I started thinking. Oddly, the first thing that came into my mind was a dream I used to have about going back to school (I dropped out in Grade 10, but went back later and even went on to college) in which I’m in the hall but have no idea where my locker is and I don’t recognize any of the people as they rush past on their way to classes. Suddenly, I’m the only one in the hall, but I’ve found my locker. It’s open and there are books and scribblers in it, but I have no idea what class I’m supposed to be in or where it is. A cold horror washes over my dream self for about a hundred dream years before I’m suddenly at my desk in French class and realize that I haven’t been in class for ages and final exams are in a few days. Somewhere around the height of horror if occurs to me that I have a university degree and don’t need to finish high school (which I didn’t in real life, being one credit short, but I passed the college entrance exams). At this point I wake up.

I thought I’d resolved this personal demon a few years earlier by writing a short story about it for one of the Twisted Tails anthologies (School Dayzed). But, obviously, it was still in there, deep in my subconscious, waiting to pounce…somewhere. And that’s when the pen started to move across the paper. It started off with a long arc and then began drawing intricate patterns, all within the confines of the paper. It took about an hour before a switch in my head clicked off, and the drawing was done. It was a weird-looking shape with a definite organic-life form. It was a personal demon. I grabbed another piece of paper and thought about another bad moment in my life. Another organic thing spread over the surface of the paper, directing its own lines, shaping its own manifestation.

This went on for six months, at home, during lunch at work, in coffee shops, in the park, at the studio and once when I was waiting for doctor’s appointment. In each instance, I thought for a few minutes about some regret, mistake, nightmare, wrong-doing or other nasty experience in my life and then released it through the pen and onto the paper. At first, I tried to keep them all in order and even considered giving them titles, but I decided against this. Some of those demons were pretty damn person and, though I didn’t mind people knowing about them, I figured knowing what they looked like was going a little beyond my comfort zone. So they’re all scrambled to the extent that even I don’t know which is which (except, of course, for the back to school nightmare).

Here’re a few of them…

Demon 1_1 Demon 2 Demon 5 Demon 8_1 Demon 10 Demon 36_1 Demon 43_1 Demon 44 Demon 55Demon 47_1_1

The project ended when I tried for demon 106 and nothing came after days of trying. Seemed I had exactly 105 personal demons. Time, now, to get out there and work up some more demons.

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Writing Hurts Like Hell

It started with me teaching a science fiction workshop at the Maritime Writer’s Workshop in 2006. Only one student dropped out over the course of the week, and only because she saw a naked man roaming the halls of the Lady Beaverbrook Residence late at night. She quickly returned to Nova Scotia. Apparently, the other students liked the workshop, so the folks at the UNB College of Extended Learning asked if I would teach a writing workshop on a regular basis.

It was supposed to be a workshop on how to start and finish a novel, but it was a tremendous flop. I mean, I started off with a class of about 10 people and, as the weeks passed (arduously…go ahead, Strunk and White, punish me for that) the class dwindled as the content became increasingly boring and the students lost interest faster than the instructor lost interest. By the last week, no one wanted to be there. No one wanted to look at characterization, no one wanted to examine the intricacies of rhetorical speech, no one wanted to explore the variegated facets of diction.

God, what was I thinking?

It was a plodder. The whole thing was a gargantuan waste of my time, the students’ time and the time of the space for the wastage of time that was allotted to waste the time. (OK, Strunk and White…figure that one out.) I tried again in the Winter term, but the same thing happened and I determined never to teach another writing workshop again.

I drank a lot beer and wine the following summer. I did a lot of thinking (thus, the beer and wine to lessen the pain of thinking). It occurred to me that I can`t teach people how to write. No one can teach people how to write. You learn how to write by writing, re-writing and re-writing again. And again.

Given that, why teach writing workshops at all? This question pickled my head through many a summertime drunken stupor as I staggered down dark, lonely streets and crawled through the muck of ditches and lost cat graveyards searching for the answer. I woke up one morning in a ditch with cat bones in my teeth. This inspired a story called Sleeping In Ditches, but it also reminded me of how miserable the life of a writer can be, and that’s when it hit me like a ton of horse manure dropping on my head: I can’t teach folks how to write, but I can teach them how to be as miserable as I am. I can teach them how to become writers!

The idea of spreading my misery excited me to the point of sobriety. Ideas rushed into my head with the force of a stampeding cow funeral (ask my friend Nanook of the Nashwaak about this). I asked myself questions: Biff, how do you go about doing this? I answered: Biff, you do it step-by-step. And remember…no grammar. Don’t ruin their lives with grammar. Ruin their lives with storytelling.

I created a whole new syllabus. (Did I just use the word “syllabus?” I meant plan. I drew up a plan.) I asked myself: What is the fundamental characteristic of a writer? And the answer settled over my head like the strands of a spider web shroud: A writer writes.

I had my first class. It was devoted exclusively to mindless writing. This would get them writing every day. Next step…I asked myself: What kind of stuff does a writer do besides writing? I answered: All kinds of stuff…like spying on people, asking people personal questions, looking at bugs flying around a street light, licking trees and power outlets…the stuff was endless.

But no grammar, I promised myself. No grammar.

By the time September rolled around, I had the workshop completed and I had a new name for it: Writing Hurts Like Hell. I figured that if someone was crazy enough to take a workshop with that title, then they were likely crazy enough to become a writer.

I included lots of stuff that writers do (like how to look at the world as a writer) and lots of stuff that writers need to know (like the first draft of anything being impure garbage). I included fun stuff like how to write sex scenes, how to fill your characters’ mouths with foul language (appropriately), how write about violence, how to write humor, how to figure out if that novel you’ve always been thinking about is really what you want to write.

I included stuff on how to put together all the thoughts, feelings, information, influences, observations and ideas that go into the foundation of writing a novel. I included stuff like story boarding, visual plotting, researching, finding a place to write and keeping the steam up, and lots (and lots) of discussion. But no grammar.

In that first Fall workshop, no one dropped out and no one appeared to be bored (including the instructor). There was plenty of lively discussion. Some folks actually seemed animated, excited, into it. I think this had a lot to do with the no grammar part.

One of the key features to keep things interesting was location. Instead of meeting in a classroom on the campus class-after-class, we ranged out into the city, meeting in malls, bars, studios, radio stations, coffee shops, homes, restaurants, parks…we even had one class in a hot tub. This also brought us into that so very important element of a writer’s life: the world.

I’m thinking about having a class at night in a dark alley. I’ll have to check on how many of my students will have black belts in Karate and give this some serious thought.

Here’s the syll…er…plan for the first class:

Writing Hurts Like Hell: Session 1 – Introduction to Mindless Writing

Why Most People Hate Writing

Welcome to Writing Hurts Like Hell. Why the name? Because most people hate writing, and most people hate writing because we’re taught to hate it in school. The weapon that schools use to make us hate writing is called grammar. Grammar is an endless outpouring of constantly changing rules that have nothing to do with telling a good story. Nobody needs to know what a split infinitive is to write a spell-binding tale. Troubadours in ancient times traveled from town to town fascinating listeners with their stories and songs without the slightest clue what a split infinitive was.

Even most people who want to someday write a novel hate writing. So they never write their novels. Some of them start, and then they get hung up with getting the first paragraph right―grammatically right―and the same with the second and third paragraphs, unti they lose their story before the first chapter is finished.

This workshop has nothing to do with grammar. It’s about learning how to be a writer and then getting started on that novel you’ve always wanted to write, regardless of that evil predator on creativity: grammar.

(TIP: The only book you ever have read on grammar is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. It’s a small book, it’s inexpensive, and it’s not preachy. It’s also available free online at

Why Most People Never Write a Novel

They Put It Off

Everybody has a story in them, and almost everybody at one time or another has said, “I should write a book some day.”  Some day. Unfortunately, the longer they put off “some day,” the less likely it will ever happen. Part of the reason: people build up the idea for their story―along with the expectation―to the extent that they might fear starting the book because they just might not be up to what they expect. Also, they might be afraid that they don’t have a story after all.

They Don’t Have Enough Time

Some people genuinely want to stop talking about writing a novel and start writing one. Unfortunately, they might not have the time. They might have full-time jobs, families to raise, or studies to pursue.

They’re Waiting for the Words to Flow

Some people actually sit down in front of a typewriter, a computer or a notebook with every intention of writing that novel … right now. And they sit there waiting for the words to come…waiting…waiting…and then do the dishes or re-arrange their desk.

They Expect To Get It Right the First Time Around

Some people actually get the words flowing, but they’re not the right words―not the perfect words. They get the first line and then look at it. And change it. And change it again. They do the same thing with the first paragraph. And with the first page. After ten or fifteen pages of this, they lose their story, get bored, and stop writing.

Some People Are Afraid of Grammar

These people will never become writers because they’re confusing what writers do with what editors do.

DISCUSSION: Why haven’t you written your novel yet?

About This Workshop

I can’t teach you how to write. You learn that on your own, by writing, revising and reading―but mostly by writing. This workshop was developed over a three-year period in writing workshops that I taught through the UNB College of Extended Learning.

The first part of the workshop will help you to develop the tools you need to feel, smell, taste, hear and see the world around you the way a writer does. You’ll learn how to spy on people in malls, airports and coffee shops and turn them into fictionalized characters for your stories. You’ll learn how to use details that most people miss to make your stories come to life. You’ll learn how to deal with difficult topics like sex, violence and strong language.

In the second part of the workshop, you’ll learn how to capture everything you need to judge whether the novel you’re working on is worth writing, and if so, how to build on that pool of information to begin a step-by-step process to start writing your novel and keep it going until it’s finished.

You become a writer by writing: pretty much all the sessions in this workshop will require you to write, and you’ll be reading aloud.

You’ll be given exercises to do at home. These are not mandatory, but you should do as many of them as possible. They were designed to give you the kind of practice you need to develop the skills you need to write convincingly. 

Rules of the Workshop

Everybody has to write

Everybody has to read aloud what they’ve written

There will be no vicious criticism

There will be no discussion of grammar

What You’ll Need

You’ll need at least one notebook and some implements of writing OR a laptop or other electronic writing gear. You’ll need time to do the assignments, which shouldn’t take too long.

Another book that’s worth reading―in fact, it’s probably the single best book ever written on becoming a writer―is Becoming a Writer. It was written in the 1930s by Dorothea Brande. It’s a small book and it’s inexpensive.

An Introduction to the Most Useful Tool That You’ll Ever Have as a Writer―MINDLESS WRITING 

The single biggest block to getting started on the first line or paragraph of a novel is the expectation that that first line will be the greatest thing you’ve ever done and that it has to be perfect, that everything you’ll be writing will flow out of that first line or paragraph.

The truth: the longer you spend trying to make the first line perfect, the less likely it is that you’ll write your novel. You may never even finish the first sentence.

The only way to write consistently and regularly is to write without elevated expectations of yourself, without editing, and without your imagined reading audience looking over your shoulder at everything you write. Sometimes, you have to write mindlessly.

Mindless writing is exploratory and spontaneous. You relax and expect nothing of yourself other than to put words on paper for a specific period of time―you let the words flow out of your subconscious without stifling them by editorializing, evaluating or judging. Editing and reviewing can be done later.

You do this every morning for 5 to 15 minutes. You pick something to write about. It could be a dream you just had, it could be a conversation you heard, it could be something you read in the news or heard on the radio, it could be an object in your room, it could be symptoms you’re feeling from a cold. Just pick a subject and start writing.

Here’re the tricky parts―you pick a time to start writing and you stick with it, whether you have something to write about or not. You may start off by writing “I have nothing to write about” over and over until something else comes into your mind.

Once you start writing, you can’t stop. It doesn’t matter if you run out of things to say, you keep writing, putting whatever words come into your head onto the paper.

When the fifteen minutes are up, you stop writing. You’ve made a deal with your subconscious. You keep it.

DISCUSSION: Any comments or questions about mindless writing.

In short:

1.      Pick time period

2.      Pick subject

3.      Write continuously, without stopping

4.      Write for the time period you agreed on


A topic will be given and everybody will write for 15 minutes on that topic without editing or putting any thought into it. Once you start writing, you don’t stop until the 15 minutes are up.



Start keeping a journal or notebook with exploratory writing exercises. Use anything that comes into your head, whatever you can remember from a dream, a snippet of remembered conversation, a detailed description of what’s currently going on in your stomach. Don’t think, just write. Write for 5 minutes, write for 15, write for 30. Do what you can. But…don’t write beyond what time you set for yourself.

And KEEP IT SECRET! Don’t let anyone else see your journal. If you think someone else may be reading it, then you’ll be writing for them―not for yourself. You’ll start editing and judging for the other person.


Next week’s session will be held at the Regent Mall. We’ll meet at Starbucks at 6:30. Bring notebooks and pens or laptops. Take a look at the character study template attached to this email.

The next Writing Hurts Like Hell starts January 27, 2014. You can enrol at:

What The Hell Is A Not-Poem?

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in the CBC Poetry Faceoff. This is a national event in which poets from each province complete locally and then nationally for literary fame and glory. But I’m not really a poet, though, I’ve written the occasional poem, and I’ve even managed to trick a few magazine and anthology editors into publishing some of them.

Where I really excel is in writing not-poems. In fact, it was my not-poetry and my status as a not-poet that attracted the attention of the folks at the Poetry Faceoff. They said, “How can this be?” and offered me money to write a not-poem and do a live not-poem reading.

Now, I’m not sure what profession you’re in, but in the arts world, money for your work is something akin to panning for gold in the Gobi Desert (having said that, gold will now be discovered in the Gobi desert…in an underground river).

Astounded by the prospect of payment for my art, I agreed and headed off to the Second Cup Coffee Shop (I also write at Reads Coffee Shop…where I’m sitting at the moment, writing) to write a not-poem on the topic of flight.

When the live reading came around, I was asked to define “not-poetry.” Unfortunately, my beer-muddled mind failed to reach into my memory to extract an intelligent, precise and clear definition. This happens to me often, and I’m beginning to suspect that people wait until my brain is beer-sodden before asking me questions. Which is fine with me. Questions invoke thought and, as we all know, thinking hurts. Beer helps to assuage the pain of thinking, albeit at the expense of clarity and accuracy. So I’m in a good place most of the time. But not now. Now, I will attempt (without the medicinal aid of beer) to define what the hell a not-poem is.

First and most important, it’s a rant. OK, I know, you’re probably thinking, “Biff Mitchell…ranting?” Especially those of you who know me through Facebook. But, yes, I sometimes rant, especially when I’m writing a not-poem. Or confronting Windows 8. Or thinking out loud about browser hijackers.

Not-poems are the ideal medium for ranting.

Consider the characteristics of a rant: angry, incoherent, irrational, boisterous, uncontrolled, et al. These just happen to be the stuff of a well-writing not-poem. However, the rant must be directed, the target of direction being the Twenty-first Century. There’s damned little poetry in the Twenty-first Century. We live in prose times.

The attitude of a not-poem is one of disillusionment, dissatisfaction, disappointment, frustration and anger over where we’ve landed ourselves as a species. I won’t comment on this, for fear of tearing off into a rant and turning this into a not-post. I’ll just get on to the next point: Not poems are written mindlessly, without planning, plot or structure. You just let your feelings burst up as a spontaneous overflow of sour emotions, like puking words onto the page. Think: Splatter. And then push everything to the right margin. You’d be surprised at how much innate order emerges when you push things to the right margin.

In terms of physical appearance, a not-poem looks at one time like poetry, and at another time like prose. The prose visual tends to be one long sentence of poor grammatical construction, similar to the poetry visual, but blockier and dense.

Here’s how a not-poem looks:

Driving to the End of the World

Disgusted with my bloodless life
I packed it into my Buick

I packed my iPad and my Kindle
I packed my 64 gig memory stick and my 5 gallon red retro microwave
I packed my 20 mega-pixel digital camera and my 1000 watt surround sound high definition home entertainment system
into the trunk of my Buick

I packed my expired library card and my Air Miles rewards card
I packed my maxed out credit cards and my noisy next-door neighbors
into the passenger seat of my Buick

I packed my holy umbrella
I packed my dirty little secrets
I packed my broken dreams and my Christmas bash list
into the glove compartment of my Buick

When my Buick was fully packed
I drove it to the end of the world

It was farther than I thought

I drove my Buick across the never-ending Plains of Extended Credit and into the Horizons of Limited Warranties and through the Valley of the Shadow of Foreclosure right where it intersects with the Avenue of 41 Market-Tested Flavors

I drove my Buick into the night
and into the day and under the Bridge of Last Warnings and into the Clear Blue Sky and into the Deep Green Sea right up Poseidon’s seaweed ass

But I wasn’t there yet

I had dreams on my way to the end of the world
I dreamed about waking up some day and finding everything was OK and death didn’t really take away my parents and my hamster Sunflower and I dreamed about flying upwards into the sky without wings like jumping off the Trampoline of the World and into the clouds and that was just fine with me
with the view and all
and the geese
silly-like in the wake of a jet stream and it wasn’t so safe up there after all
and I should have been wearing some special apparatus for the trip down
which began to worry me at just about the moment I started downwards and it wasn’t a helluva lotta fun anymore and it was almost like driving to the end of the world as I waved to Mom and Dad and the hamster while they smiled and waved back from behind a cloud that didn’t exist

I saw things on my way to the end of the world

Things like a man standing on a sidewalk and shaking hands with all the dogs and cats in the neighborhood and saying vote for me I’m your only hope and making promises to all the dogs and cats like
a human baby for breakfast every day
and there were shadows and shades of gray all around the man as he shook and promised and there were things like a mall the size of a quarter flattened to cover the entire world as a steady stream of people with television-heads marched into the mall with their SUVs and sedans following them and the mall’s extremities stretched and groaned and bulged with the unrelenting flow of 49 dollar a month pure bred dogs with terribly white teeth barking from the windows of every second Minivan until the building burst along the seams of another damned mall-wide buy one get one half price sale and exploded all Velcro and pre-washed into the value-added night while strange sounds drifted from the ridge of another moonlit billboard with the flames of a homeless cook fire sending Morse Code messages through the scaffolding slats straight into the hearts of passersby who
never did
and never will
give a fuck

I heard music on my way to the end of the world

It went something like hoochie coochie baby curl up and forget the world in my tootsie roll arms and legs and little smoochie shimmy shakes on the patio of my bam boom lovin’ room my ha cha cha traveler on your way to the end of the world

And I felt things I’d never felt before as I drove to the end of the world

I felt the lightness of my years evaporating into the heaviness of a thousand regrets for not having jumped into the not-knowing that time when I was young but turning into who I would be and the time I should have said hi instead of darting my eyes away from her a split second before she began to smile and the time I hung onto that fucking quarter as I walked past the old woman dressed in rags and grief and I felt the joy of the first time I buried my head between a woman’s legs and forgot about my dick for a few minutes and I felt the wonder of the time I first dove off a high dive into a pool of chlorinated water which ended up in a painful belly flop but I survived and all I really remember is the quiet air surrounding my head as I drove to the end of the world

I drove my Buick
foot to the floor to the end of the world
I drove my Buick
windows wide open to the end of the world
I drove my Buick
windshield wipers blazing and head lights glaring and horn blaring straight past the sign of no return on the way to the end of the world screaming
hallelujah I’m finally free screaming
goodbye to the complication and the veneer
screaming into the simple life at the end of the world
goodbye to all the shit in my Buick
withering into husk dust
fuck you

And that’s when my Buick turned into a magnificent chariot with fiery wings and dark horses and I throbbed in the womb of life and drove
screaming and screaming
to the end of the world

Now, you try it. Sit straight, think uptight thoughts, tense your muscles, breath erratically, blink a lot and spew onto the page.

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The Six Characteristics of a Laundromance


A friend recently signed out a copy of my first novel, Heavy Load (a laundromance), from the library and asked me if “laundromance” is just a catchy word I introduced to sell lots more copies of the book. I assured him that nothing in Creation would help me to sell lots more copies of the book, and that the book has six characteristics that make a laundromance, these being:

  • A laundromance depicts everyday, common life. The stains on your laundry are out  in the open in the laundromat. And, let’s face it…doing your laundry is one of life’s mundane rituals that can’t be escaped unless you can afford to have your laundry done by someone else, or you’re 35 and still living at home.
  • It must be narrated by the laundromat. Yep, the laundromat is sentient and can go into the minds and bodies of its customers where it visits their pasts through a liver or dimple, or goes into their brains to see what’s happening in the present. Got this idea from a book called Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin. 
  • There must be a least one laundry tip. I visited the Tide site repeatedly while I was researching for the book. I also found tips on dozens of other sites, and I asked for tips from the folks running the Paragon Laundromat in Fredericton for tips. They had a lot of tips. For instance, you never throw your clothing and soap and bleach in right off. Especially the bleach. Let the machine fill up with some water, then add soap and bleach and let it mix before putting the clothes in.
  • There must be an element of real or potential romance. I mean…it’s a laundromance.
  • None of the romantically involved characters are allowed to speak to each other. In Heavy Load, none of the three main characters involved in a three-way relationship on a Saturday morning speak to each other at any point in the story. But in the end, love blooms. Or…potentially blooms.
  • Always, the main theme is: Things get dirty, things get clean. After all, a laundromat is a place of regeneration. After a visit there, you suddenly have a whole new wardrobe, a regenerated wardrobe.

 My friend nodded knowingly and walked away without comment, obviously impressed with my deep-seated understanding of humanity and its relation to dirty clothes.

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