Thursday, October 9, 2014

Aloha to Heather Ashby and First Drafts (Part 1)

The Navy's birthday celebrates its 239th birthday on Monday, October 13.  Let's get the party started with Navy veteran and Romance author Heather Ashby.   She shares advice for beginner writers ...

First Drafts Are Supposed To Be Sh**ty – Part 1

I constantly hear people say, “I want to write a book someday.” Actually 90% of people want to write a book. Someday. 10% of them will actually do it. The rest will just talk about it. What keeps them from doing it? Perfectionism. I’m a former teacher of Gifted Education and I swear that the smarter people are, the more they tend to be perfectionists. So let me help you get past that perfectionism thing and get you writing.

This is what inspired me to finally sit down and write my first book: A few years ago I heard a writer say, “I realized I didn’t want to die with my book still inside me.” Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I made a decision that I was going to figure it out and write that book. I discovered writing guru, Natalie Goldberg and the simple instructions she gives in WRITING DOWN THE BONES. When asked, “I want to be a writer; how do I begin?” Goldberg responded, “Go to the drugstore, get a spiral notebook and a pen. Start writing.” 

Start writing. It’s that simple. Give yourself permission to write the worst stuff possible. Just like “dance like no one is watching,” write like no one else is going to read it. Most people are so hung up on “Is it good enough?” or “But it’s not perfect,” that they don’t get past the first page. Goldberg mentions writing whatever comes to mind and thinking of it as a compost heap – from it something beautiful will take root and grow. I’ve come to think of first drafts as dumping sand into a sandbox. I can make sand castles later.

Here are Natalie Goldberg’s golden rules for first drafts. My comments in parentheses:

Get first thoughts down. They have energy. (If you stop to edit your raw emotions, you will lose the power.) 

Keep your hands moving. Don’t stop and re-read. You don’t need control here. (Just write. You can edit and revise later.) 

Don’t cross out/erase/edit. (You can do that later. It will slow your thinking process.) 

DO NOT worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, fact checking. (Do it at the end.) 

Lose control. (My favorite! Let the endorphins kick in!) 

Don’t think. Don’t get logical. (Just write!) 

Go for the jugular. If something comes up and it’s “not nice,” pursue it. It probably has lots of energy. 

Get those first thoughts down! When you stop to edit/revise/research while you’re writing, you lose that energy. Stephen King in ON WRITING and Anne Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD, both refer to sh**ty first drafts. They say all first drafts are sh**ty. Don’t show them to anybody. Keep in mind that nobody’s first draft was ever published. Even the bestsellers will do numerous revisions and edits before their books go to print.

There are different kinds of writers. Which kind(s) are you?

Plotters - plot out a book from beginning to end, with every single twist and turn and secondary storyline. (You are probably a plotter if you read directions in advance of trying something. You don’t have a problem turning in an outline for a project or paper because you worked from that outline.)

Pantsers – write by the seat of their pants. Although they have a general idea about their story, they write from the gut and figure out the details as they go. (You are probably a Pantser if you only read directions after your attempt to do something has failed. You cannot write a detailed outline or synopsis until you are at least ½ way through a project.)

Linear Writers – Write from beginning to end.

Puzzlers – write scenes and chapters out of order as inspiration strikes. Then they puzzle all the pieces together later (and that’s okay J)

You may have already guessed that I’m a Pantser/Puzzler by the way I’ve told you to “just write.” But many Plotter/Linear Writers know that first drafts are supposed to be sh**ty too. Natalie Goldberg’s books are awesome inspirational books to get you started writing in general. Ann Lamott & Stephen King’s have more detailed information for writing books, but they are still mostly writing inspiration books.

Q: Heather, all this background/inspiration is good and I promise to read some of them. But I want to jump right in and start writing a novel now. How do I do that?

A: Pantsers: You know what you like to read. You have probably read hundreds of those books. Your stories will probably have a similar style and “voice.” (Your author’s “voice” is your personality on paper. It’s embedded in the writing.) You probably love your favorite authors’ voices. I recommend jumping in and writing like them. (Beginning painters copy the Masters as they learn to find their own style.) If you have a plot and characters in mind, jot them down and start writing. Think of it as sand. You can make sand castles later, but for now you need to just write so you can find out what happens in the story. (More on this next week.) When Pantsers try to read the books recommended below for Plotters, they often feel like they’re back in high school, where they were forced to write according to certain rules. These days I write first drafts like Outback: “No rules; Just Write.”

A: Plotters: Thank you for your patience. I know you’ve been nervous through this entire blog, waiting for concrete directions of how to write that book from beginning to end with everything it needs in between. Following are several highly recommended books in the industry. (As a Pantser, I could not read and understand these books until I had written a complete novel on my own. Then they made sense to me. But I know my left-brained husband – an engineer – would read them before beginning his own book.)

TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER – Dwight V. Swain (“Provides solid instruction for persons who want to write and sell fiction, not just talk about it.”) This is known as the bible for fiction writing. If you’re a Plotter and you want to write a novel, THIS is the one book you need to read in advance of writing.

G.M.C. GOAL, MOTIVATION & CONFLICT – Debra Dixon (Give dimension to your characters and direction to your plot.) Plotters will use this book to develop their characters before writing. (Pantsers know their characters on a gut level, including their wants and needs. I use the grids in this book after I’ve gotten to know my characters, and adjust accordingly.)

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL – Donald Maass (“Take your fiction to the next level.”) I recommend reading Swain’s book first; this may for a little more advanced writer. It repeats quite a bit of Swain’s ideas, then takes to a higher level.

YOUR LIFE AS STORY – Tristine Rainer (This one is for writing your memoir as literature.) This books helps with memoir writing, by taking your factual life and giving it a story line. A memoir should have a purpose for the reader and should show growth in your protagonist – very likely YOU. This book helps you do that.

I would like to close with this advice about writing:

Discover your own unique style.
Do not get hung up on the absolute right way to write – because there is no such thing.
Most importantly, trust yourself! You are very likely a better writer than you think you are. Jump in and start writing.

Thanks for inviting me today, Kim. I hope your readers will come back next week for Part II, where I will present tips for writing sh**ty first drafts as quickly as possible for seasoned writers. And I hope all the newbies who joined us today will return next Friday, October 17 for the next lesson. 


Did you learn anything new today? I’d love to hear from you. I have a copy of FORGIVE AND FORGET, Book #1 in my “Love in the Fleet” series for a lucky commenter. (Stay tuned. Next week I’ll give away a copy of Book 2, FORGET ME NOT.) BTW, I have a Facebook contest going on right now. Stop by and LIKE my author page by midnight October 21 for a chance to win a Kindle Paperwhite at this link.


Mahalo, Heather, for sharing these writing tips!   Comments are open through Saturday, October 11, 10 pm in Baltimore. I'll post the winner on Sunday, October 12. 


Kim in Baltimore
Aloha Spirit in Charm City

Learn more about Heather and her books at



  1. Writing has always been a dream. I did begin a story once. I was in an online group that wpuld post pictures and everyone would write something. Maybe one day I'll pull it out again.

  2. Hi, LInda. Ha! That's EXACTLY what I did with FORGIVE & FORGET! I started it when my son was deployed and I was inspired by reading Suzanne Brockmann's Troubleshooters books. Then I put that first chapter away for several YEARS. When I heard that man say what he did, I scrambled to find that first chapter and the rest is history. I had NO IDEA I could REALLY write a novel!!! Suddenly I have 3 completed and nobody is more surprised than me. Write ON! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. That was so helpful, Heather! Thanks for this blog! :-)


  4. I'm glad it helps. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. What a great post! I learned a lot and have lots to think on.

    1. Yay, Debby. It's not really that hard to start writing. You just start! :-)

  6. Great post! I love the thought about the sand and turning it into sand castles. Definitely something I will remember as I work my way through a crappy first draft!

    1. Have at it, Linda! JUST WRITE! You can decorate later! Write ON!

  7. Always good to see you stopping by, bn100. Write on!

  8. Very interesting post. Love military fiction.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Helen. I hope you'll give "Love in the Fleet" a try.