February 2021 archive

Writing Sprints and SFDs: Your Keys to the Kingdom

WRITING SPRINTS AND SFDS

by Tia Levings

I’LL NEVER FORGET WHERE I was the day I learned about shitty first drafts (SFDs). The phrase alone got my attention, so bold and borderline-crass in a sea of serious approaches to “craft.” I bought BIRD BY BIRD because I was familiar with Anne Lamott’s blue-jeans-and-bare-feet spirituality. She’s forgiving, likes dogs, and knows how to tame wild anxiety. To me, she is St. Anne, patron saint of nervous writers trying to find their way.

Writing sprints and SFDs changed my writing life completely. 

I’d recently decided to write my first novel, based on an idea I got from a travel ad. My two main characters came in loud and clear––travel writers who wanted to kill each other. The problem was, they were married (to each other) and had just accepted a job contract contingent on their union. 

I had a premise, characters, a fun working title…and minimal plot. Looking back, I’m not sure I even knew what the word “plot” meant yet. I wanted to write a novel and had no idea how to do it. 

So I took BIRD BY BIRD on audio out for a walk. I left my front porch and our cul-de-sac and crossed the street to get on the sidewalk. One square, two square..  “step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back,” came to mind. I was on the seventh square of the sidewalk when I heard Anne’s voice describe what she called “shitty first drafts.” Zing! Electricity. 

The SFD reminded me of Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES––the skeletal frame. Anne called it “writing without reining yourself in.” She said it’s almost like “just typing.” You can’t overthink, which is hard for anxious writers who want to get it right. But there’s no pausing for corrections in the SFD. The sentences run on. The ideas flow and wander. You’re writing down the bones of your story, and the pretty fleshy bits come later. 

An SFD is more than writing badly on purpose. It’s a flow.

If you’ve used free-writing and morning pages as techniques to become unblocked, you’re working the right muscles for a shitty first draft. These uncensored lines flow through you, mind to hand. The difference between an SFD and my morning pages is intention; I have an idea with story elements I’m working with on a draft. Otherwise, the sensation while writing is very much the same. 

If your shitty first draft is rambling, incoherent, and too-ugly-to-show-anyone, you’re doing it right. You never show anyone your SFD. Showing it off is not the point. You’re just getting the words down on paper—messy, uncramped words out of your head and onto the page. You can edit and revise later, but only if you put the words down first. 

“You can’t edit a blank page.” ––Jodie Picoult

I’m no longer a new writer. And in my experience, a gate with two locks guards the pathway to a solid working draft and the Kingdom of Completed Projects. The SFD is one key to the kingdom; the other is writing sprints

Writing sprints are timed shitty first drafts. You assign yourself a duration, set the timer, and go, much like a free-writing session. When I sprint, I go for fifty minutes, break for ten, and usually do another, sometimes changing projects. The rinse in between is long enough to grab a snack, get some fresh air, and then dive back in with my concentration renewed. 

The urgency of the clock is just enough pressure to keep my fingers flying. I’m not stopping to edit and rearrange sentences because I want that word count target. My eye is on the prize. 

I write in Scrivener, which allows me to set word count targets against a calendar date. Scrivener tells me how many words I have to write per day to hit both the word count goal and deadline. The alchemy of target, timer, and deadline is the method I use for all of my work now. 

Writing sprints are also excellent keys to unlock creative blocks. Choose a writing prompt––Jamie’s tarot prompts work great for this––and set a timer for 15-30 minutes. Just write whatever comes to mind, even if that’s “I don’t know what to write about this.” Sometimes I even type with my eyes closed. It always leads to a discovery. Most importantly, it creates movement, and when I’m done, I’m no longer blocked. 

Vocal writing sprints: try talking it out

A few of my author-friends are experimenting with speech-to-text software for their SFDs. Using microphones and dictating their first drafts, they get the words down quickly, well enough to revise and edit in a second sprint. In his book 5,000 WORDS PER HOUR, Chris Fox breaks down his method to increase word count efficiently. It’s working for genre writers I follow online, and if speed an issue for you, dictation might help you battle it out.  

SFDs and writing sprints help me overcome creative paralysis and perfectionism. The point, which is a draft that can be cleaned, edited, and improved, makes sound metaphorical and practical sense to me. I still turn to BIRD BY BIRD when I get stuck. St. Anne suggests short assignments, one-inch squares, and making messes. We’ve got to break these enormous tasks into bites we can handle, as the title suggests. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” 

* * *

Writing coach

Tia Levings hired me as her writing coach in 2017. Since then, she completed her memoir, co-authored a book on the craft of writing, and started a podcast for writers. I’m delighted to have Tia as a colleague, co-writer, and client. And I’m so glad that she’s sharing some of her writing experience with us, here. Thanks, Tia! 

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

An Interview on Writing Coaches: The Working Writer Podcast

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I got to discuss both writing coaches and the role of critical feedback in a writer’s life for The Working Writer Podcast with my client and good friend Tia Levings. Tia and I started working together in 2017, when she came to me looking for feedback on her current work in progress and for writing coaching, in general. Like a lot of writers, Tia was juggling too many ideas and didn’t know how to get her books done. 

Although she was a prolific writer (yay!), just writing a lot wasn’t enough. At that point, Tia really needed an objective eye to help her see what was going wrong. 

A writing coach is a trusted story confidante

Offering quality feedback is a big part of my job. Good writing doesn’t happen in an echo chamber. You know how it goes–-you work hard on a piece and feel like it’s done until that edge of doubt creeps in. “Is it really any good?” “Am I missing something?” “Who can I ask to read it?” 

As challenging as it is to find a critique partner, feedback is important. After all, you’ve been staring at those words for so long your eyes now skip right past your errors. You are, as they say, too close to the forest to see the trees. But not all feedback is helpful and not every opinion shared will be useful. How can you know? 

There are criteria that separate good feedback from the bad. Some of this comes down to the feeling generated by that feedback. If the suggestions are personal attacks on you as a writer, then they are not constructive suggestions to make your piece stronger. A critique that rips your writing to shreds without practical ideas on how to adjust what isn’t working maybe overly negative and as such, would be of more value discarded and ignored than taken seriously. 

And what about the poor newer writer, who finds themselves on the receiving end of that?! They’ve mustered up the courage to have their work scrutinized and bam! I can’t blame them if a bad critique experience makes them want to just quit. 

Good writing coaches don’t offer feedback as a personal attack

Ironically—and unfortunately—it’s fear of this very situation that causes some writers to skip the feedback step entirely. Instead, they just put their work out there, sending it to agents or self-publishing it online, without ever having a thoughtful manuscript review. Nah, nah, nah, nah … I can’t hear you, they think, with their hands over the ears. And then when their queries go unanswered, their books don’t sell, and their reviews sit silent, they wonder why. 

When Tia invited me to be on her podcast, she focused our discussion on a writer’s need for good feedback and the role coaches play in that process. Tia describes a “working writer” as one who takes their craft and effort seriously. While hobbies are great, her show draws a distinction between writing as an occasional interest and writing as a serious pursuit. 

I bet there are as many ways to be a working writer as there are writers. Tia has an exciting line up of guests planned, including agents, professors, novelists, editors, and yours truly, her writing coach. 

Writing coaches are part editor, part cheerleader

As I mentioned, Tia came to me as a client three years ago—after a Google search and an emotionally difficult experience with another coach before me. Like a lot of writers, she’d been working hard but in circles, not knowing what she didn’t know. 

Her previous foray into working with a coach resulted in red-pen words and tears––so not my style. As I wrote in this post about writing coaches, a coach is always on a writer’s side. A great coach will have the chops, knowledge, and experience to effectively help a writer get their books done. Part editor, part cheerleader, part story confidante, a coach is your smart, effective writing friend. 

Kudos to Tia for trying again—because once we identified where the issues were in her process, she was able to fix them and move forward with her writing career. She now has a completed memoir nearing publication, has co-authored a book on the writing craft, and has several viable fiction projects in progress. 

Tia started The Working Writer Podcast in 2020, and every episode pairs with a Companion Guide––a short ebook that further explores the topic of that week’s show. My episode airs on February 10. 

Tia’s also written a series of blog posts on the writing life. You’ll see them posted here throughout the coming months. 

In the meantime, you can listen to the podcast on Anchor and Itunes, as well as anywhere else you access podcasts. It’s also in video format on YouTube. The Companion Guide for my episode is called Get Feedback on Your Writing, and is available on Amazon.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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