Tales of a First-Draft Survivor
On Saturday, May 10, the Writers’ Community of Durham Region welcomed historical fiction author Barbara Kyle as our guest speaker. Kyle is the author of the acclaimed “Thornleigh Saga” novels, which follow a middle-class English family’s rise through three tumultuous Tudor reigns, and of the contemporary thrillers The Experiment and Entrapped (a B.R.A.G. Medallion honouree). With 18 years of writing experience and nine books to her name, Kyle knows what it’s like to struggle with the terror of the blank page—and conquer it.
Barbara Kyle – photo courtesy of Kevin Craig
“I am a veteran of the great war of being an author,” Kyle began. “In order to create a book that is both compelling and marketable, we writers need all the help we can get.” So, Kyle offered ten tips to surviving the first draft, while reminding RoundTable attendees to remember that “every writer works differently.”
- Get Dressed:
“When I sit down to write,” Kyle said, “I don’t do it in a ratty old dressing gown and slippers. I get dressed as if I’m going into the world to work.” She explained that getting dressed affects the way you approach your work.
- Rely on Routine:
Part of the pressure of writing comes from the fact that we work alone, Kyle said. “We don’t have the benefit of that collaborative vigor that energizes actors, dancers, and musicians.” But for Kyle, “the good news was finding out that I wasn’t really alone: routine and ritual are my friends.” Ritual and routine can help keep you calm through the stresses of writing. Kyle’s day-to-day writing begins at 8 a.m., “invitations to lunch already declined, phone set to go to voicemail.” For two hours, she works on business: answering emails, tending her social media, etc. At 10 a.m., she begins editing what she wrote the previous day, but cuts herself off from that around noon. From noon until four, she spends time writing new material, before heading out for a walk at 4 p.m. “I have figured out so many problems with plotting and characters while I’m walking,” she confessed. “I should give special acknowledgments in my novel to Bruce Trail.” Every day, she strives to write five pages, though the average is between three and four.
- Be Serious:
“Never apologize for taking your work seriously,” Kyle urged. “You can make [your writing] very, very good indeed, but only if you don’t underestimate the work involved.” There is “an inherent tension” in the phrase “work of art.” Kyle points out that “our culture tends to elevate art almost to a mythical level: the author touched by genius; work is denigrated, as if a real artist shouldn’t have to work if they have talent. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Rather than focusing on “art” or “work,” Kyle suggested writers focus on the word “process:” “Sit down, write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite. There’s no other way for us to master our craft.”
- Don’t Beat Yourself Up:
It’s been said that you should try to write a little every day. Kyle suggested that, instead of trying to squeeze in 15 minutes here, or 15 minutes there, “Whenever you can write, make it count: step inside an invisible circle of quality and,” when you have time to write, “do only your best work.”
- Read the Good and the Bad:
Kyle pointed out that “when you read a really good book, it’s impossible to see how the author did it because it’s so seamless and you’re so drawn in that the writing and the craft become invisible.” So, Kyle said, read bad books, too. “Ask why bad books are bad. Why are they boring? Try to deconstruct as you read.”
- Take the Time to Think:
“When I’m daydreaming, I’m at work,” Kyle announced. Daydreaming lets you figure out how to bring your inciting incident forward, how to structure the climax so your protagonist and antagonist come into direct confrontation. This time of reflection is not a waste of time: you’re working. Most importantly, Kyle reminded writers not to “censor your thinking—explore everything that comes to you … and keep lots of notes.”
- Don’t Expect Your Family to Understand:
After a pause for understanding laughter, Kyle said, “My mother would never dream of calling my brothers at the office to chat, but she’ll call me, because I’m ‘not working.’” Friends and family don’t understand the concentration or the time required to work on your writing, but “if you take your work seriously, it has a subtle affect on your friends and family. They will start to respect it—they might grumble about it, but they’ll start to respect it.”
- Understand the Purpose of Drafts:
Don’t try to do everything on the first draft. Most professional authors, Kyle confessed, write at least three drafts. The first is for getting the facts of the story—for making sure you have a story that “sticks together from inciting incident to climax.” If you’re worried about clichés—clichéd characters, descriptions, actions—Kyle suggested putting them in bold, so you can find and replace them more easily during a later draft. During the first draft, “especially do not obsess over words. Banish the thesaurus from your desk for the first draft.” The second draft is for deepening and enriching character relationship. “Never forget that stories are about people,” Kyle said. “That’s what readers want; readers stay with a book not because of style, but because of the characters.” You can also enrich setting—and especially weather—and sharpen dialogue in the second draft. The third draft is, quite simply, a polishing draft. “This is where you can obsess about words; this is where you can bring back the thesaurus.”
- Keep Your Expectations Low and Your Standards High:
Kyle offered two guiding principles that have seen her through more than twenty years of writing. First, give yourself permission to write something bad. “That was the most liberating thing I’ve ever done,” Kyle said. “I knew I could do that.” Second, everything can be fixed, but it can’t be fixed if it hasn’t been written.
“Dare to dare. Dare to write. Dare to live.” We let life pass us by when we’re afraid, so don’t give into your fears about writing. Write. Embrace the work. And good luck.
Kyle very kindly offered all RoundTable attendees the opportunity to sign up to her webinar, “Writing Fiction That Sells,” for free. Thanks, Barbara, for your very kind gift!
President Sally Moore announced the long list for the WCDR Renaissance Anthology Contest with Sarah Selecky. The top sixteen entries are:
“Engineered Magic: A Fairy Tale” by Ann Dulhanty
“The Event” by Paige Winkle
“Closing Circle” by Deepam Wadds
“Going Fearward” by Heidi Croot
“Before and After” by Corrie Adams
“Bitter Vision” by Kate Arms-Roberts
“Seeing Signs” by Stacey Paterson
“The Soft One” by Deepam Wadds
“Boxed In” by Dorothea Helms
“Hide” by Jessica Moore
“Black as Sin” by Anne MacLachlan
“The Night Traveller” by Jennifer Sutton
“Pura Vida” by Esther Griffin
“Allergies Stéphanie” by Phil Dwyer
“The Eagle’s Vigilance” by Margaret Alexander
“The Pearl Earbob” by Gwen Tuinman
Congratulations to our long list winners! Sarah Selecky’s final decision will be announced at our annual AGM next month!
Sharon Overend announced that there are still some one-on-one sessions available with agents Sam Hiyate, Ali MacDonald, and Stacey Donaghy. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in signing up for a 50-minute session with one of the agents.
Cryssa Bazos announced that the next Words of the Season will be held at The Bear: A Firkin Pub, at Kingston Road and Liverpool in Pickering on June 16, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Spots are limited, so contact email@example.com soon if you want to read. The event will be MC’d by sports writer Bill Humber.
Dorothea Helms announced that the “cheesy trophy” for our annual July poetry slam has been ordered. Auditions will be held on July 7 at The Bear: A Firkin Pub at Kingston Road and Liverpool in Pickering. Prepare your three-minute piece, memorize it, and sign up to slam your way to $100 and a very cheesy trophy!
Sherry Loeffler was at the library table, overseeing our collection of books that members can borrow from RoundTable to RoundTable, as well as managing our Pay it Forward collection.
Our writing exercise this month, “Mining the Past: Historical Perspectives and Settings,” was led by Cryssa Bazos. Bazos’ work focusses on the seventeenth century, and emphasises everyday people and society. Her stories have appeared in Word Weaver, Canadian Tales of the Heart, and Canadian Tales of the Fantastic. Cryssa is currently working on a historical fiction novel called Highwayman.
We also had a fantastic assortment of raffle prizes, including gift certificates from Blue Heron Books donated by the WCDR; a writer’s goody bag and cookies from the Literacy table donated by Sally Moore; books by Barb Martin and Kathleen Martin; a flower arrangement donated by Dawn Riddoch; and a copy of The Queen’s Lady, the first book in Barbara Kyle’s Thornleigh Saga, donated by the WCDR.
After breakfast, Gwynn Scheltema led our mini-workshop, “Write a Winning Bio and Writer’s Profile.” By day, Gwynn is a writer and editor for the provincial government and facilitates creative writing workshops and writing retreats through writescape.ca. By night, she follows her imagination into the world of poetry and fiction. There will be no mini-workshop in June, because we’ll be holding our annual general meeting, and no mini-workshop in July because it’s the annual Summer Slam. See you again in September!
Join us next month on June 14 for our annual AGM. The short story contest winners will be announced, and our guest speaker will be non-fiction adventure author Charles Wilkins.