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!

The Sneaky Snake

Before the post, a little news. Some of you may have wondered: I’m restarting my summer workshop this year. For writers from ten through high school age who live not impossibly far from Brewster, New York, it will run on Wednesdays from 1:30 to 3:00 for six weeks starting on July 6th. Interested writers need to commit for the whole time, although if you miss a week the world won’t end. It’s free, my gift to budding writers! If you’re interested, you should call the Brewster library to sign up. You know I’d love to have you.

On December 4, 2015, Nessa wrote, Congratulations to everyone who finished NaNoWriMo! My sister and my best friend’s brother encouraged me to do it this year, and I said I’d try, but it was really only a half-hearted attempt. I ended up with a measly 2,900 words instead of 50,000. :/ I think my biggest problem (besides schoolwork, and all the time-destroying other things I have to get done) is that I’m a perfectionist. I don’t really have an “inner critic,” exactly–I’ve read some less-than-stellar books before, and I figure if people like them, they’ll like mine–but whenever I write something, I always think, “It doesn’t sound quite right,” so I re-phrase it… and re-phrase it… and rephrase it. Getting 350 words in a day is basically a miracle. Anyone have any tips on how I can handle my debilitating writing perfectionism? (Seriously, it took me about an hour just to write this comment…)

Lots of you chimed in.

NPennyworth: I think the only way to do this is remembering that nobody can manage to churn out a 50K word story perfectly on the first try. You may need to take a step back and remind yourself that you can fix it later, but you can’t fix the story if you haven’t written enough of it.

Melissa Mead: I can’t remember where I saw this, who told me, but one writer said that rough drafts are basically putting clay on a wheel. You just pile clay/words on. It’s SUPPOSED to be a big messy lump. Then, when you get to an ending, you shape it into something beautiful.

Kitty: I feel you. I had the exact same problem until I discovered the various word crawls on the NaNo forums. They are super fun and addicting, and I found myself sprinting a couple thousand words a day and enjoying it. My fav is the Harry Potter one: (, but there are plenty of others, from pirate themed to NaNo themed, to Mean Girls themed. The full list of those, and other activities, is here: ( Maybe try one of those next year, or even just whenever you want to write. When you’re focusing on getting words down so that you can progress to the next “level” of the game, you’ll find yourself focusing less on the quality of the words, and instead on the quantity, which is essentially what NaNo is about. Also, the timed word sprints really help get your pulse and mind racing, so that you’re thinking less and writing more. Especially the fifty-headed-hydra. You won’t have time to even think for that one. They are incredibly fun and addicting, and got me out of a rather large word count hole that I dug for myself after the second week.

That being said, just because you didn’t meet the official word count goal and “win” doesn’t mean that you aren’t a winner. You wrote 2,900 words, which is 2,900 words more than you had at the beginning of the month. You developed a consistent habit of writing, and that’s something you should be very, very proud of. This pep talk ( and this blog post ( say so themselves. So celebrate! You’ve still accomplished a remarkable feat, and you should be extremely proud of yourself.

One more tip: If you’re under 16 right now, and if you decide to do this next year, you might want to consider joining the Young Writers Program ( instead of the normal NaNoWriMo. It lets you set your word count goal instead of the default 50,000. That might help you finish and officially “win” a bit easier if you’re super busy.

Ann: I have this exact problem, so I tried handwriting for a bit instead of typing on a computer. It’s so easy to go back and fix things on word processing, I think it magnifies the problem somewhat. It didn’t work out for the long term for me, and I think of it as a temporary fix, but as an exercise in not ending up reworking the same page over and over, it really helped me. (Try it in pen if you’re feeling brave).

These are great and encouraging! I particularly like the word-sprint and switching-to-pen ideas, which focus us away from feeling bad about being perfectionists and toward action. I tend to get too much into revising, too, when I’m in first-draft stage. I may try NPennyworth’s and Ann’s suggestions to bypass my bad proclivities, or I may start typing with my nose or gripping a pen with my toes. Any words I get out that way will be good enough!

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: I once read a description of a book–I don’t remember the source, so I can’t quote it exactly–as a long document that has something wrong with it. There are no perfect novels, probably no perfect essays or perfect poems. My next novel, after The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, is going to be set in Ella’s world, so recently I reread Ella Enchanted, which was my first published book, and I’ve learned a few things since then. I’d revise quite a bit if I were starting over. For example, I’ve learned about the placement of the word only. Here’s an example that makes me grind my teeth: Ogres weren’t only dangerous because of their size and their cruelty. It should be: Ogres weren’t dangerous only because of their size and their cruelty. The difference is trivial, but the second is more precise than the first.

The only mistake I learned about from HarperCollins’ copy edits on some manuscript or other. I often see it in the work of wonderful writers, who have less gifted copy editors, but I don’t like to see it in moi! Getting deep into the weeds, I don’t think it’s a mistake when it shows up in dialogue, which reflects how people actually speak–generally with misplaced onlys, but in narration, I like to get it right.

Here’s another foolish move I constantly make as I write a first draft: I fix sentences I’m going to wind up cutting. I don’t know that at the time, but I do know that my most frequent action when I revise is to snip. Perfect sentences on the cutting room floor are useless.

Having said that, though, this may be a necessary part of my process, even a comforting one. I start every writing session by rereading a few of my latest pages, and when I reread, inevitably, I revise. Since I love to revise, since it’s my favorite part of writing, by the time I start on fresh work, I’m in the groove.

For those of you who struggle with this along with me and who are high school age at least, a good antidote may be to read a mystery by Elmore Leonard, whose writing is a marvel of simplicity. I don’t know how much he revised to get there, but he goes for a thing plainly said.

In her comment, Nessa says she doesn’t have an inner critic exactly. I beg to differ. When her thought slithers into her brain: It doesn’t sound quite right, who else is whispering but that reptilian inner critic? And once we recognize him, we can talk back or stuff a sock in his mouth. We can say, You may be right, but let me keep writing and after I type or pen The End, I want to know all about the problems. We can even flatter him by pointing out that he’ll be even more helpful once he knows the whole arc of our story.

Also, by the time we get to the end, he may be so pleased with us (since he is us), that he couches his criticism in an encouraging way.

As many of us have said many times, no two writers write alike. Some of us soldier through a first draft uncritically, without ever coming up for air. Some of us are compulsive nitpickers. We may learn to rein ourselves in, but we may never entirely eliminate our three-steps-forward-two-steps-back methodology. And we should respect that. And let me add that Nessa’s question, even though she took an hour to frame it, was clear enough and poignant enough to elicit the help she got. I say, Good work!

Looking for a title for this post, I googled quotations about perfectionism and found this link: I didn’t find my title, but there are lots of gems. I already knew this quote from Oscar Wilde: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’ll try a sprint prompt. If I understand right, there needs to be a reward for success. My reward would be a game of Free Cell solitaire, so pick some time sucking pastime you usually feel guilty about and indulge guilt free for up to half an hour. Here’s the challenge: Write an argument between two friends. You can come up with your own starter line, or use this phrase: Your first mistake was… Write for fifteen minutes without stopping or fixing anything.

∙ Write a page about your WIP as if you were describing it to an admiring friend in conversation. There is nothing to correct, because you’re just talking on the page.

∙ Write the next page of your WIP with your eyes closed. I can type with my eyes closed, although the temptation to look is very strong. Don’t give in to it! If you can’t type with closed eyes, write longhand on paper. If your eyes are closed, you can’t correct. When you’re finished, don’t go back to fix it. Just keep going, eyes open or closed.

Have fun, and save what you write!