Down With The Tribunal!

On July 8, 2021, FantasyFan101 wrote, Whenever I start a WIP, I make the first chapters as perfect as I can, the way I’d like to see them when they’re published. I constantly go over the first chapters for flaws instead of moving on. I feel like I should start with drafts, but that’s not really the way I write. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do, but I’m not quite sure exactly how to go about it. Do I make a quick list of scenes, then write out the actions a little, then slowly expand more and more, or just write a quick and, if I may, crappy rough draft?

A conversation broke out.

Erica: It just depends on what you want to do. Every writer writes differently. There are a lot of posts on outlining vs pantsing you can check out if you want to.

On a slightly more helpful note, if you keep wanting to try and perfect the first chapter, don’t break up your WIP into chapters until you’ve finished the first draft. You could also try making yourself write a certain amount of new story before you can go back and edit.

For me, going back and revising an earlier part of the story means I’m stuck on something and I’m trying to get unstuck. Keep an eye on what makes you want to stop writing, and then you can figure out how to get past that.

Katie W.: If you have a pretty good idea of what you want to do, the first step I would recommend would be writing out the idea as fully as you can, to give you a better idea of what exactly this story is going to look like. Once you have that, though, it’s every writer for themselves trying to figure out how to develop the thing. I’m helping with a project someone did where they wrote out a list of scenes and then expanded them, but I myself am the kind of writer who HAS to write a story straight through from beginning to end, because I keep coming up with things that send the story into a completely different direction. My advice would be to try super-detailed outlining first, and then decrease the complexity as you need to until you find a level of planning that works for you. But it’s really just experimenting until you find the system that works for you.

Christie V Powell: You might try the NaNoWriMo style, just as an exercise. You set yourself a goal number of words (the official NaNo in November is 50k words in a month, but you can set something else), and then throw words down.

Editing is not allowed. Instead, I write myself notes about things I would like to change, and then keep going, usually with a hashtag so I can find it easily later (“Her large eyes studied her brother’s family with an expression Indra couldn’t read. #end scene with focus on Indra”).

Sometimes I stop and stream-of-conscious brainstorm right on the page (“This isn’t working. How can I try something new?”). Other times, I’ll write a paragraph about what I want the next chapter to do before I write it (“Indra speaks with Marenna, who frets that she could have helped, but does not admit her special ability yet”). Even those words count toward the goal.

I don’t know if this ends up being your go-to method, but it might be worth a try.

I agree with all of these!

Christie V Powell’s suggestion of writing NaNoWriMo style is likely to be freeing. An even more drastic idea is to tape paper across your screen so you can’t see what you have written and can concentrate only on what you are writing this second. If the stress rises, you can crack your knuckles, stare out your window, walk around your room—and then get back to it, still without looking.

The beginning is probably the ficklest, most changeable part in our story. Even if we write detailed outlines before we commit a word to a first draft, we are highly likely to revise our first chapter in the course of a final draft. I could be wrong about this, but I would bet fairly good money that one of the most famous first lines in literature was revised before it appeared in print. I’d go further and bet slightly less good money that the sentence was unrecognizable or not there at all in the first draft. I’m thinking of Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Unless he was a different and higher species than the one I belong to, he couldn’t have known how to characterize the times until he’d developed his story. However, someone in the blogosphere may know the truth about Dickens’ process. If you do, please enlighten me.

It isn’t only that we don’t know our story and our characters well enough, we also can’t yet see the best way to introduce them.

To not worry about beginnings is one of the first lessons I learned in the writing class that most fundamentally shaped me as a writer, where I was one of the few newbie fish in a school of seasoned pros. My classmates said that we often put in our first chapter background information that only we need to know and the reader doesn’t—or we plunge our poor readers into story water so deep that they drown before they can figure out what’s going on. These are problems we can’t fix until we’ve gotten to the end.

I also love Erica’s sly suggestion to make our whole first draft one continuous chapter so we don’t feel the urge to perfect it until we’re done.

If we’re all like me and love polishing best of all, we will have more delight if we leave it to the end. We can remind ourselves of that as we soldier on.

In her marvelous book on writing, Bird by Bird (high school and up), Anne Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” She is the champion of lousy first drafts, without which she (me too!) believes one cannot achieve successful final drafts.

Every night, my husband and I cuddle and play e-solitaire collaboratively. When the game sends us hard game after hard game, I say that The Tribunal is punishing us. When we waste moves, I say the members of The Tribunal are laughing at us. There can be an imaginary Tribunal because the version of solitaire we use is opaque. Nowhere is the best achievable score for a game revealed—so we could really find out if The Tribunal has reason to laugh. We can’t discover how the game rotation works, either, to know if The Tribunal actually is sending us a string of tough challenges.

The Tribunal is a funny idea when applied to solitaire. It’s no fun at all if it sits judgment on our writing. There’s more to this analogy: measures of writing quality are as unknown as solitaire’s metrics. No one agrees about what a perfect story or a perfect sentence or even a perfect word in a sentence is. It is a crippling strategy to invent The Tribunal to judge our work, spectrally gathered around us while we’re calling forth our fragile, creative selves.

The For Fun! sign I suggested in an earlier post may be useful here. We can tape it all over—because The Tribunal never brings fun to the party. There are other saying we can make up and write in in colored markers or embroider into our pillowcases. We can make a list:

  • Shakespeare loved lousy first drafts, and he got it from Chaucer.
  • No one will ever see this unless I say so.
  • Revision is the cherry on top of a finished story.
  • Evil judge, if you’re peering over my shoulder, come out where I can see you.

First prompt: Write three more sayings.

Here are two more prompts:

  • Write a day in the life of a member of The Tribunal.
  • Write a day in the life of a resident of the city ruled by The Tribunal, where punishments for lawbreaking are harsh and no one knows what the laws are.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Miss Maddox says:

    I love the idea of The Tribunal, the prompts to go with it! That’s a really fun way to think about this.

  2. ReaderandWriter says:

    According to Webster’s Dictionary a tribunal is a “Court or forum of justice” or it is “Something that decides or determines.”

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I made up this tribunal: anonymous, faceless beings who pass judgment on our solitaire performance and decide which challenges to present us with. Kindness is not among their virtues!

  3. ReaderandWriter says:

    Mrs. Levine, when did you start writing? I mean, did your interest of writing begin when you were a kid or an adult? And what was your first ever published work?

  4. There’s so much excellent advice here, but I wanted to add my favorite: “The first draft is you telling yourself the story”. I wish I could remember who said this originally, but it is hands down the best writing advice about first drafts I ever got. It’s what finally broke me out of that stage of endlessly editing the first three chapters and never moving on to the rest of the story.

  5. I feel so embarrassed reading this because I recognize myself in it! I find that outlining helps curb the need for things to be “perfect,” because it really does get you much closer to “perfect” on that first draft (at least, in terms of needing later plot edits). I use NaNo, which gets me out of the editing-as-I-go headspace (& which, combined with a good outline, means I rarely get stuck in plot-confusion quagmires), and what I’ve done recently is force myself ONLY to address plot edits on my current go-round with my novel draft. Ignore everything but glaring typos which would mess up my concentration.

    Just fix the scene so that whoever needs to say whatever says it (who cares if it’s out of character!), whoever needs to do whatever does it (who cares if the description is bad!), and you get to the next one (who CARES if the transition is the worst you’ve ever seen!). That’s been helping me for now.

  6. 100% agree with “revision is the cherry on top of a finished story.” Put me in front of my story and I could revise all day! But to prevent myself from obsessing over perfection, I often write down comments for myself at the beginnings of each chapter — the things I know I need to edit but should do later. I find this helpful in forcing myself to just continue the story, instead of trying to perfect tiny sections for “The Tribunal.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.