Brilliant Prose Goes Here Later

Laura Ayo

I’m the first to admit that I can get stuck for minutes, hours, or even days, trying to come up with a clever passage of dialogue, a relatable description of a room or just the perfect detail to flesh out a scene I’m writing. It can be crippling if I let it, consuming my precious writing time with little to show for my effort at the end. So I’m a big proponent of using placeholders to keep from derailing myself as I move forward in a first draft.

If you’re not in the habit of using placeholders when you’re writing, I would encourage you to read up on the practice. The WriteOwls promoted the concept during one of our Write by Midnight Boosts last month with good reason. Placeholders give writers permission to get the story on the page with the promise of going back later to fill in the details. They don’t have to be clever. ##DESCRIBE JANE’S BODY LANGUAGE HERE or ##WHAT DOES DAD SAY NOW are all you need to keep moving forward.

But at some point, writers need to revisit those gaps and make them meaningful. Some writers complete an entire manuscript before they go back and fix their placeholders. The thought of saving all that hard work until the end makes me reach for a paper bag to breath into.

So I thought I would share some strategies I’ve been using that have made the task more manageable.

Talk it out. Since I meet weekly with the other WriteOwls, I often use our time together to brainstorm ways I can get rid of my placeholders. The easy ones, at least. What mascot should my fictitious high school have? What else should I describe in the garage besides the piles of old tires flanking the walls and the smell of motor oil? Those kinds of details that help readers connect with the characters or visualize a scene are fun to chat about. When you give other writers permission to let their imaginations run free for someone else’s work, the results are sometimes hilarious, sometimes ridiculous, but always helpful. I always rush away from those discussions ready to scribble those placeholders away.

Be held accountable by a deadline. Members of one of my writing groups also critique short scenes from my work-in-progress once a month. Because I don’t want to waste their time and because I value their opinion, I try to send them as polished a scene as possible so they can give me the most helpful and honest feedback possible. I usually pick a scene with a lot of placeholders in it and dedicate time before the submission deadline to flesh it out. The things I write during that revision process won’t necessarily stay in the story, but they often do, especially if the person critiquing my work made a positive comment about them. Those monthly deadlines give me a reason to address placeholders throughout the writing of my first draft, saving me from having to deal with a daunting task all at once.

My 30-10 rule. During the Write by Midnight challenge this year, I set a goal to write for 30 minutes each day. But in addition to my 30-minute writing sessions, I spent at least 10 additional minutes plotting and researching an idea for another novel that I want to write. At least once a week, however, I used those 10 minutes to fill in the placeholders in my current work-in-progress instead. Sometimes I was so lost in the story world that I wrote for much longer than 10 minutes. But usually 10 minutes was all I could manage, and that was fine by me because I knew those 10 minutes were well spent in getting me one step closer to a finished manuscript.

I’ve read a lot about the benefits to using placeholders in a first draft. But I haven’t come across much advice for how to break the process down to manageable chunks. So far, these three strategies have been working for me. But I would love to hear your thoughts, as well. How do you deal with placeholders during the revision process? Do you prefer to wait until the end and do it all at once? Perhaps your advice will be just what I need to reach “The End” sooner rather than later.

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