creativity

How (and Why) to Write Your First Draft Fast

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Writing a book can feel like such a daunting task that you may feel paralyzed before you even begin. Once you talk yourself down off the ledge and actually start writing, the grind can feel slow and painful. It might be such a huge lift that you abandon the project when you hit a rough patch or reach the inevitable messy middle. You run out of steam before you get a first full draft. 

This can leave you feeling inadequate and frustrated, as if you’re a failure for not finishing what you started. Then that tiny voice of doubt in your mind becomes a nonstop scream fest. It can become so loud that getting back to writing can feel too difficult. 

Then as if on cue, other ideas for other books start to enter your mind, and they start to look like a much better use of your time. Before you know it, you have files of half-started books and not a single finished manuscript. 

Sound familiar?

We’ve all been there. Truly. Every writer has half-finished work sitting on their laptop and in notebooks to get to “someday”. And that’s frustrating for all of us. 

Maybe you’re like me and truly dislike first drafts. I can’t stand them. I want to get them done as fast as possible so I can get to editing, refining, adding in details, and making that first awful draft (yes, all first drafts by all writers, even the greatest luminaries, are awful) shine brighter and brighter with every turn. 

Now that I’m writing my third book in the Emerson Page series, I’ve finally figured out how to get first drafts done quickly so I can get on with the editing and re-writing I love: I dumped the idea of getting to any specific word count on any day, for any scene, and for the book as a whole. 

What? How can I possibly forget about word count when I’m writing a book? 

Here’s how—the first draft is about one thing and one thing only: getting from the start of my story to the end, and getting to the end as fast as possible. 

Here’s my process for getting a first draft done fast:

First, I’m a cartographer:
Outlines are like roadmaps. They tell me where to go next to reach my final destination. They’re functional, not aesthetically pleasing. I write mine first on index cards—one scene per card—and then move them around to create the order of my story. This is my map for my journey.  

Second, I’m a painter:
Then when I’m happy with the flow on my index cards, I put all of the scenes into Scrivener (the software I use to write my first draft) with some additional details I’ve found in my research. I make notes about who’s in each scene, what the action is, why the scene matters to the story, and what the reader will learn by the end of the chapter that will make them want to turn the page. 

A painter starts by sketching on a blank canvas. That’s what I’m doing as a writer when I create this more detailed outline. 

Third, I’m a mason:
Now I’m ready to write. Once I have the detailed outline sketched out, I start to lay down the foundation of the story, scene by scene, brick by brick. I make tons of notes along the way, highlighted in my manuscript, of more details I eventually want to add. 

But those details aren’t my concern right now. I’m just trying to get the most basic text down so I can get to the end of the first draft. I make a note of the details I want to add and then I keep going. 

My first draft doesn’t look like much to celebrate except it absolutely is. I turned my outline and notes into prose. I got from the beginning of my story to the end. I got some dialogue down. I wrote the action sequences. Now I have something to work with. Huzzah—time to party!

Now I take a break
What? Take a break? Shouldn’t I crank away day after day until my book is a masterpiece? No. 

I write the first draft and put it away until I forget what I wrote. For me, that’s about a month. This way I come back to it with fresh eyes, ready to edit, rewrite, and get to the detail work I love. In that time, I may work on another project. Or I might take a break from writing altogether. 

Now, I’m a sculptor
With that first draft, now I’m ready to add in all those details I love. I’m ready to make that dialogue sing and make it believable. Now is the time for poetry. Now I’m really getting into my craft, and all because I’ve got something functional to work with. The edit and the rewrite (many times over in my case) is where I fix everything and make it better. 

I spend the vast majority of my writing time re-writing, and that’s exactly how I like it. I love to take something from awful to something I’m proud of. I love the detail. I love the refinement. I love incorporating all the research I’ve done, and I do plenty more research in the edit. It’s my happy place. But I can’t do any of that if I don’t have a first draft to work with so my goal is to go from idea to draft a fast as I possibly can. Let it be the stinkiest, ugliest, messiest thing I’ve ever created. I don’t care. It just has to exist. 

No one has ever read a first draft of my work. And no one ever will. The first draft is for me and only me. And there’s a freedom in that. It took me years to really get this and act on it. It’s really only now, with this third Emerson book, that I’m embracing the hideous first draft and reveling in its creation. 

And all those partially finished first drafts I have? Well, after this third Emerson book is done, I’m going to pick up each partially written first draft and get it over the line. They’ll all be the worst thing I’ve ever written, at first, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

creativity

How I found the main setting for my third Emerson Page novel

The Fitzwilliam Museum entrance

For me, the setting of a novel is a character. It sets the stage for the action and houses the many revelations of a story. Right now I’m outlining and crafting the story of my third Emerson Page novel. I’ve had some ideas of what will happen but I was struggling with where to place this action. I wanted a spectacular, magical setting. Frustrated that I couldn’t find it, I put it away and focused on something else.

I opened up Google Maps and decided to look at the street view of my walk from Fitzwilliam College, my college at Cambridge University, to the building where I’ll be taking my classes. It’s a winding 30-minute route dotted with shops and eateries tucked into centuries-old architecture through what looks like Diagon Alley. It goes past Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge’s main museum. I looked up some images of the museum and the second I saw the entrance, I knew I’d found the main setting for the novel.

The museum is free for all, houses a spectacular collection of antiquities and rare books and manuscripts, and has a stunning library. It’s exactly what the books needs. Get ready for more museum adventures!

creativity

How writing my Emerson Page novel trilogy saved my life—my conversation with Dr. Ed Freeman on The Stakeholder Podcast

In June 2022, I had the great good fortune to speak to my professor, mentor, and dear friend, Dr. Ed Freeman from the Darden School, on The Stakeholder Podcast.  

Link to the podcast episode: https://stakeholdermedia.libsyn.com/christa-avampato

Ed and I chat about:

  • how writing my Emerson Page novel trilogy saved my life
  • my live storytelling shows, screenwriting, and passion projects
  • my love for history, being a NYC tour guide, and how I got a tattoo live on stage
  • how product development helps me as a writer, and how being a writer helped me as a product developer 
  • living through difficult times and mental health challenges through creative work
  • my multi-faceted and varied career
  • making a living through a creative life
  • business and product development
  • building a better, more sustainable world

Ed is a treasure. He’s been one of the greatest influences on my work and life. He recently won University of Virginia’s highest honor: The Thomas Jefferson Award. Ed’s pioneering work on stakeholder theory changed the way we think about business and how businesses all over the world make decisions to create value. 

If you’ve ever used the word “stakeholder,” you can tip your cap to Ed. His writing about sustainability and stakeholder theory is what put UVA’s Darden School on the map for me, why I applied, and why I was honored to attend and graduate from the school with my MBA. He changed my life in incredible ways and I’m forever grateful for him. Thanks to Ed and producer, Ben Freeman, for having me on the podcast as a guest. 

creativity

The start of summer has me thinking about travel and writing

This week was the official start of summer, and that has me thinking about travel and writing. It also has me thinking about all of the wisdom around joy and travel that writer Felicia Sabartinelli packed into The Joy of Airports episode on the JoyProject podcast. Here are some of my favorite quotes. Listen to our conversation at https://christaavampato.com/the-joy-of-airports-with-felicia-sabartinelli-june-14-2022/ and wherever you get your podcasts.

creativity

JoyProject podcast: The Joy of Airports with Felicia Sabartinelli

Felicia Sabartinelli

The latest episode of the JoyProject podcast is live—The Joy of Airports with Felicia Sabartinelli!

Think you can’t find joy in an airport? Think again! Felicia Sabartinelli is a seasoned world traveler and once you hear her wax poetic about airports, you’ll see them and experience them differently. She explains that airports are the rarest of gems that help us to discover “a state of childlike wonderment.”

At the end of the podcast, I share something that brought me joy this week. It was a stressful and frightening one for me, and I say a heartfelt and grateful thank you to the Animal Medical Center of New York doctors and staff who saved my dog’s life when I was afraid I may have to say goodbye to him too soon.

The Joy of Airports with Felicia Sabartinelli

Topics discussed in this episode:
– Felicia’s definition of joy
– The importance of finding joy during the most challenging times
– All the places to find and experience joy in an airport
– How airports are becoming a destination
– Felicia’s travels to Spain, Turkey, Iceland, Sweden, China, Alaska, Finland, Mexico, Jamaica, and Austria
– Her upcoming book, Good Girl
– Writing while traveling
– The Denver airport and the mysteries it holds
– The art of the Seattle airport
– Her upcoming Masters program in the UK
– How the joy of musicals found their footing in society after WWII

Links to resources:
– Felicia’s website – https://www.feliciasabartinelli.com
– Felicia on Instagram – @Sabartinelli
– Felicia on TikTok – @Sabartinelli
– Christa on Twitter – @christanyc
– Christa on Instagram – @christarosenyc
– Christa’s website – ChristaAvampato.com
– The Animal Medical Center of NY

A little bit about Felicia:
Felicia Sabartinelli is a fifth-generation Coloradoan whose poetry and personal essays have been published in major magazines, newspapers, and anthologies. Many of her personal essays are still in wide circulation today like, My Miscarriages Ruined My MarriageThe Invisible Hierarchy of Grief which recently won a Writer’s Digest award, and I’m So Allergic, Event Fruits and Veggies Can Kill Me.  When she is not writing, you can find her acting, painting, traveling the world, binge-watching her favorite TV shows, or speaking on the topics of creativity and self-realization.

creativity

How research helps writers get unstuck

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Have you ever been in the messy middle of a writing project? It’s the point where you’re not quite sure how to get from the middle of the narrative to the satisfying conclusion you have planned. It feels like you’re in quicksand, unable to clearly see the path forward. Your characters look to you for guidance, you look to them for guidance, and none of you have any answers so you just spin place, or worse—you abandon the project altogether. 

The wisdom and guidance you need to get out of the messy middle is research. Right now I’m working on a historical fiction novel. The main tentpoles of the plot have remained the same but I’ve brought in many new details to make the script come alive. It’s set in an Italian bakery in New York City in 1910, a dynamic and wild time in the city, country, and world. A myriad of historical events would have had an outsized impact on my characters so I have to research that time to get the details just right. It’s a heavy lift, and ultimately worth the time and attention.

I got myself out of that messy middle by digging into The New York Times archive for specific dates and events that figure prominently into the lives of my characters. In that research I found a plethora of information, and that information created the map I needed to find my way to the conclusion. 

If you’re in the messy middle now and ready to throw in the towel out of frustration, take a deep breath and go to the archives. Let history be your guide. Research your way across the channel to safely emerge on shore on the other side. It’s only a matter of time. The world needs your story.

creativity

Write every day: A few words about fees for your writing work

My heart’s pumping after hitting send on a consulting statement of work that significantly increases my client fee. It’s challenging to do that, especially for a client I love, and it’s absolutely necessary to price our work for the value it brings. Know your worth, writers, and don’t be afraid to price accordingly.

creativity

Write every day: How I’m going to write 10 new work in the next 10 years

How can I write one new work per year for the next 10 years? I tossed this idea around in my mind on the morning of September 22nd, the last day of summer, as I thought about tremendously prolific writers I admire. What separates them from other writers is their productivity and persistence. And that’s what I want to have as a writer.

Here’s the math that showed me that this wild goal is possible: write 250 words per day for 360 days. (Look I’m even giving myself 5 or 6 days off per year!) That’s 90,000 words. That’s a book. That’s almost two books! 250 words a day? I could write that while my coffee’s brewing. That’s only half a page. That’s less than the length of this post. And that got me very excited and curious. Could I actually do this?

Yes, that’s just a first draft. It needs LOADS of editing and rewriting. Yes, if you’re a planner and outliner like me, that takes time, too. Yes, there’s research. And yes, marketing is also time-consuming and extremely necessary. And you also have to pitch your own work if, like me, you don’t yet have an agent.

But in my mind the breaking down of this enormous task moves it from possible to probable. I could write a new work every year.

Always around the end of summer / beginning of fall, the new yearly inspiration for this blog strikes me. Someone says something or I read something, and the theme just clicks. I don’t worry about it anymore because it really does just happen.

So, this is my 2020 theme: I’ll be writing about the process of getting down 250 words of a new work every day. Most of the time I’ll be sharing resources, motivation, and encouragement for writers. If you’ve got questions, please ask them and I’ll do my best to either answer or find the answer for you.

Here’s to a 2020 filled with words and creativity that we can share with one another. If you’re on social media, I’ll be using the hashtag #250wordstoday to collect all of these thoughts this year.

creativity

Joy today: My favorite writing moment

The writing moment I love best: I write a scene, do research for the next scene, and find an eerie, wonderful synchronicity with secret history I uncovered in my research and never knew before. These magical moments makes me feel that the story I’m writing is meant to be written by me. It’s happened to me many times, especially in the course of writing my second Emerson Page novel. Every single time it happens, I’m amazed.

creativity

Joy today: A writing milestone

I hit a big milestone today with my latest novel and I hope it inspires all of you who are writers.

My first novel, Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters, was published two years ago after an eight year journey. For the past two years, I’ve been working bit bit on my manuscript for my second novel while working full-time and doing extra freelance work. At the end of July after a very difficult set of circumstances, I decided to strike out on my own and open up my own company with one of the main goals being to work on my some creative projects that I haven’t had the time to complete. Finishing the manuscript for my second book was my top priority, and I set what felt like an impossible goal – to finish it in the month of August.

Today I was able to hit “compile” on my manuscript writing software. (I use Scrivener if anyone is looking for a recommendation of software.) That means I feel confident enough about all the scenes and the order of them that I can now edit the entire manuscript as a single, cohesive document. I still have a lot of work to do over the next few days, but finishing it this month actually feels possible.

So here’s to setting wildly ambitious goals and then working to make them a reality! Are you writing a book? If so, I’d love to hear about it!