Writing Tips: What’s in a zero draft?

A lot of you have probably heard the term “zero drafting” thrown around. So, what’s a zero draft? 

A zero draft is like the rough draft of a first draft. It’s stream of consciousness, whatever comes into your head writing. You don’t stop to edit. Not even for typos and run ons. You don’t even have to write full sentences if you don’t want to. You can write bullet points, notes for yourself. You can skip all the detail and just write dialogue. 

Why zero draft? 

The idea is just to get words out onto the page as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you’re like me and you fear that blank page, it’s a way of breaking past the fear and getting out something, anything. Perfectionism can prevent you from finishing anything. If you edit as you go, you may find yourself stuck trying to make a paragraph perfect–but then you never actually get to the next paragraph and finish the story! 

Okay, but what does it actually look like? 

If you’re curious what that looks like for me, here is the zero draft vs final draft of the opening for THE WANDERING DOLLS 

Zero draft 

In ten days, the world will end.

This is what Daga’s mother had told her, as she had been told by her mother, as she had been told by her mother. This was the truth upon which the festival was born. 

And it all started with the Autumn Pageant.

The Pageant was tomorrow, and Daga was effervescent with excitement. For today was the Choosing. One girl among those in their seventeenth year would be chosen to play the Maiden in the Autumn Pageant, the most important ritual of the year. She would be the center of attention for the whole Autumn Festival. She would have the best place at the feast. All of the best young people would want to dance with her. She would be crowned and celebrated throughout the whole festival. [[add more detail here]] 


“Daga! Dagmara! You’re letting the hem trail.”

Daga broke out of her reverie at the sound of Jadzia, her best friend. “Oh no!” Indeed, the white pageant gown in her hands had dragged in the dirt, muddying the hem. She would have to wash the whole thing again.

“Daydreaming again?”

“I can’t help it! How can you think of anything else right now?” 

Final product 

The Carnival Koniec Swiata is in town! Come one, come all, come everybody in between! See the dazzling acrobatics, the fire eater and the Goblin tamer, the women who do not laugh and the men who do not die. Dance with the denizens of another world. Lose yourself and find yourself again.

But hurry, hurry, do not delay, for the Carnival comes but once a year.

Once a year, at the end of the world.


In ten days, the world will end.

This is what Daga’s mother had told her, as she had been told by her mother, as she had been told by her mother, and on and on for centuries. The world would end after the Autumn festival, to be reborn in the Spring.

And it all started today.

Today was the Choosing, and Daga was effervescent with excitement. One girl in her seventeenth year would be chosen to play the Pageant’s Maiden. The Maiden would be the center of attention for the whole Autumn Festival. She would have the best place at the feast. All of the best young people would want to dance with her. She would be crowned and celebrated and admired. If that were not inducement enough, everybody knew that being chosen as the Maiden was almost a guarantee that you would be married by the next year. To be secure of a lover by your eighteenth year—Daga could scarcely even laugh for giddiness. She was a hopeless romantic, always full of quixotic notions and swooning stories. To find her true love—that would be everything.

“Daga! Dagmara! You’re letting the hem trail. Pay attention.” Jadzia’s voice pierced through Daga’s reverie.

“Oh no!” She sighed exasperatedly. Indeed, the white pageant gown in her hands had dragged in the dirt, muddying the hem. She would have to wash the whole thing again. Clicking her tongue, she dumped it back into the wash bucket. Pay attention, Daga. It was an exhortation always being tossed her way. Attend to what you’re doing. Don’t dawdle. She wished she could be frolicking in the fields right now, and leave the washing to people like Jadzia and Poldek who actually enjoyed the work.

“Daydreaming again?” Jadzia teased lightly.

“I can’t help it!” Daga balled up the dress and dunked it into the washtub. Daga, Jadzia, and Poldek were doing their chores all together; their parents didn’t mind, as long as the chores got done. “How can you think of anything else right now?” 

Wandering Dolls: Chapter 1

Here, have a scene from my newest WIP! To learn more about it, check out the Books section of the site.

In ten days, the world will end. 

This is what Daga’s mother had told her, as she had been told by her mother, as she had been told by her mother, and on and on for centuries. The world would end after the Autumn festival, to be reborn in the Spring. 

And it all started with the Pageant, the most important ritual of the year. 

Daga was effervescent with excitement, because today was the Choosing. One girl in her seventeenth year would be chosen to play the Pageant’s Maiden. The Maiden would be the center of attention for the whole Autumn Festival. She would have the best place at the feast. All of the best young people would want to dance with her. She would be crowned and celebrated and admired. If that were not inducement enough, everybody knew that being chosen as the Maiden was almost a guarantee that you would be married by the next year. To be secure of a lover by your eighteenth year—Daga could scarcely even laugh for giddiness. She was a hopeless romantic, always full of quixotic notions and swooning stories. To find her true love—that would be everything. 

“Daga! Dagmara! You’re letting the hem trail.” Jadzia’s voice pierced through Daga’s reverie. 

“Oh no!” Her stomach sank. Indeed, the white pageant gown in her hands had dragged in the dirt, muddying the hem. She would have to wash the whole thing again. 

“Daydreaming again?” Jadzia teased lightly. 

“I can’t help it!” Daga balled up the dress and dunked it into the washtub. “How can you think of anything else right now?” 

“Because there’s work to be done. We can’t have a festival in dirty clothes.” Daga knew that Jadzia was also excited, but her joys had always been more tempered and measured than Daga’s free-floating, spiraling emotions. She shared her enthusiasm in quiet smiles and hidden twinkles of her eye. 

On the other side of the washtub, Poldek snorted. “All you think of is the festival. Festival this, festival that.” 

“You’re just jealous because boys can’t be chosen.” Daga stuck out her tongue at him. “You only get to play the gods.” 

Playing Zerno and Belo in the Pageant were both honors afforded to someone of any gender, but only those who identified as female could be chosen as Maiden. 

“No one will be chosen if you don’t hurry.” He checked his pocket watch. “The ceremony starts in twenty minutes.” 

Jadzia gasped and looked ashamed of herself. “Oh no! I should have been more watchful of the time. Let’s hurry.” 

Daga would have been happy to abandon the washing, but too-good Jadzia and Poldek would never allow them to shirk their work, even for something so important as the Choosing. Still, that didn’t keep Daga from rushing through her scrubbing and haphazardly pinning clothes to the line like frantic butterflies. 

Pulling up her skirt, Daga raced with her friends to the square outside of the town council hall, where already most of the villagers were gathered. Pieklo was large enough that there were people whose names she didn’t know, but small enough that their number wasn’t many. She scanned the faces, wondering who among them would be Maiden. 

The ceremony had already started by the time they found their places at the back of the crowd. Cezary Krzeszewska, mayor and head of the elders council, stood at the front podium, arms spread wide. He wore the traditional stroje ludowe in celebration of the festival season. The costume consisted of a white linen shirt, a bright blue embroidered vest shaking with tassels, and striped trousers. His krakuska hat with its red felt and peacock feather sat proudly atop his salt-and-pepper hair. He was of a middling age, younger than the youngest of the elders, and Daga admired him deeply, although Jadzia often reminded her that he was of an age with her own father. “It’s mere respect,” Daga would say, blushing. 

Cezary’s trademark broad smile seemed to glow especially for Daga today as he proclaimed, “People of Pieklo! Today marks the beginning of the end of the world!” 

A raucous cheer roared from the crowd. Daga whooped along with them; excitement like ale bubbled up from her stomach into her throat until she was almost dizzy with it.  

Cezary basked for a moment in the applause, then he shushed the crowd, who obediently fell to a low murmur. “To ensure the rebirth of the world in the spring, today we choose a Maiden from among our girls who have come of age this year.” 

Daga shivered with excitement and looked around at the faces of girls she recognized. Any female people in their seventeenth year were eligible. It was a carefully guarded secret every year, who would be chosen and how exactly the decision was made. There were no common threads among the choices as far as wealth, popularity, or appearance. Every girl was eligible, and every girl was equally possible. Daga surveyed the girls around her and dreamed. Would it be Ksenia, mild and brown-skinned and sedately beautiful? Or Szarlota, freckled and pale and independent and loud? Or perhaps Kazimiera, with her striking dark hair and olive skin and easy smiles? 

Or, perhaps, could it be Daga herself? Clumsy, red-headed, and plain? She crossed her fingers against the evil eye and prayed to Belo. Choose me. Choose me. Her fingertips fizzed with electric anticipation. 

Cezary’s eyes twinkled as he surveyed the group of young women clustered at the front of the crowd. Daga eased forward onto her toes, straining towards him as though if only he could see her, he would choose her. 

“Our Autumn festival maiden this year is . . .” The silence lengthened into a vibrating, living thing. The crowd thrummed like the plucked string of a lute. “Jadwiga Grzybowska!” 

Daga’s insides froze. Of course. Of course they would choose Jadzia. Jadzia, lithe and fair, her blond braid with never a strand out of place. Not like Daga’s wild red locks always windblown and tangled with leaves from lying in the grass, dreaming of other worlds. Jadzia, mild-mannered and obedient. Not Daga, who frequently forgot to collect the goats from grazing because she was reading a story of romantic adventure in the ruined castle. 

Happy cheers and whoops boiled up from the crowd. The other young women clapped politely, although many a disappointed air contoured their well-bred smiles.  

Moisture threatened to glass up Daga’s eyes and betray her feelings to Jadzia, who looked as flabbergasted as though she had just been sentenced to death. Daga clenched her fists and plastered a smile onto her lips. Jadzia was the last person to believe in her own merits; Daga always had to do that for her. She couldn’t hurt her friend by betraying her envy. “Jadzia, I’m so happy for you!” 

Jadzia relaxed, although only a little. “It should have been you, Daga.” 

Yes, it should have, said Daga’s traitorous mind. But she shook her head extra fiercely, because she knew that Jadzia absolutely meant it. “No, it should be you. You deserve it.” And Daga meant that too, even though the other half of her was clutching and cold in its envy. 

Poldek beamed and threaded his fingers shyly through his blond hair. “Go, Jadzia, they’re waiting for you! Congratulations!” 

“Oh! Right!” Jadzia blushed deeply. The crowd parted and strained to catch a glimpse of her face. With small, uncertain steps, she walked through the gauntlet towards Cezary and the town council on the stage. 

Daga watched Poldek watch her go. A moony expression slackened his mouth and dusted his eyes with starlight. He had been in love with Jadzia for years, and everybody knew it—except for Jadzia. Another hot claw of jealousy closed around Daga’s heart. Not because she was in love with Jadzia or Poldek—Jadzia was too much her sister to think of romantically and Poldek was Poldek. But because Jadzia, always unsuspicious of anything that distinguished her, would eventually realize that Poldek loved her, and that she could love him. They would marry, and Daga would be alone. 

Daga shook her head and some of the darkness cleared. No, no, she couldn’t think like that. Her prince or princess would come for her, just like in the stories. She just had to wait. For now, she was happy with her family and her friends. Her wonderful best friend had just attained the highest honor that Pieklo could gift to a young woman. And what would follow this ceremony was ten days of dancing, revelry, and merriment. 

A genuine smile settled onto Daga’s lips, and with it true delight eased the sting from her heart. It was not in her nature to be melancholy; she could never sustain a negative mood for long. 

Ten days of merriment, and her best friend as Maiden. It was perfect. It was glorious. 

It would be an Autumn festival she would never forget. 

Come Sweetly – Poem

What happens when you spend the better part of your day writing a paper on Alfred Lord Tennyson? You procrastinate by writing Tennyson-inspired poems, that’s what. Yet again, this is only a first draft.  It was a delightful procrastination tool, and I thought I’d share it here.  As with the others, newer versions will follow as I edit them.  Prepare yourselves for more of these.  We’re not out of the frying pan yet. 


Come sweetly, soft, and do tread lightly, dear.

Cruel thorns will tear your brow, your feet, your hair,

Sly rocks your ankles twist; no longer near

The sun, but frozen brambles, trees stripped bare,

Mud-choked the stream where even serpents fear

To sift.  Not e’en the frown of winter wear

The mountains’ mouths, but fleshless faces’ leer

O’er changeless plains, shaved of the seasons’ hair. 

These Nature’s bones, too long less hands to rear

Too-tender seeds, the phantom portraits bear

From careless youth, when dyads danced to hear

Spring’s feet approach out Hades’ new-shut lair. 

Lay down with me where late the stern frontier

By our hand smiled, ‘til absence wrought despair

To wilt our Eden, change our bed to bier. 

Our home we scorned to tend, your fate we share!

Our glass eyes other keepers bid beware,

That untilled soil can naught but tombs prepare. 

But let them know that we were happy here.

Seek Avalon – Poem

So, taking this Brit Lit class has really benefitted my poetry, even though my fiction projects are still languishing in the face of travel, pasta, and RPG.  This poem was inspired by Tennyson’s fear of death in his “In Memoriam A.H.H.”  Like the last one, it is not completed but is a work in progress that I thought I’d share.  The final version will make it’s way here eventually, I daresay. 


If you would seek Avalon, turn back

Seek shelter in the raging storm

Your eyes may burn, your skeleton crack

But though your body grind to ash

Untried your soul won’t come to harm.

The lasting wound is not the gash

Of sword or brand, recalls offense

Once earned, concealed, where mental lashes

Find no balm, but that they burn

At every touch, destroying sense.

Gold Eden promises to turn

Mind’s ache to joy, and heal both brain

And body—if you merely spurn

Your life and limb, choose loneliness,

Embrace despair, for later gain. 

Destroy yourself, for heaven’s bliss

If sure your loss will earn your fate

For Earth’s content in vain you’ll miss

To find Forever made of glass

Where piety trades cruel real for naught,

Unconscious tomb for ivory gate.

In Sleepy Towns – Poem

Alas, so much of my writing time of late has been taken up in my detailed chronicles of my Italian adventures for my Rome blog, or else in actually having these adventures. I’ve been working on my novels some, but with very full days, most of my energy goes to my meticulous descriptions of each day. However, I did, inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Cry of the Children” as read in my Brit Lit class, pen this poem on the train to Florence. It’s just a first draft, and I’ll post a better version once it’s edited, but I will post it here. It might be interesting to see its progression.

In sleepy town on quiet streets
Are swings the wind pumps to and fro
And dirty mitts and baseball bats
Left rainwashed sunbleached in a row.
But where the ghosts to haunt these stones?
To graves indoors they steal the sounds
Of ghastly hum and dying moan.

In plastic soil they dig their trench
To practice their peculiar sin:
That in their world so taught to flinch
From stranger, ally, kith, and kin.
By tutors, taught to self-rely
And distance keep from friends who pry
They fashion perfect graves within.

Though friends they claim, or feign as such,
And lovers doting to their whim
They earn these through not smile or touch
Or playground games and jumprope rhymes
But courtship they conduct in walls
Their voice and face in well-stocked cells
To face the world on their own time.

But “face” falls short to name the life
They own; too delicate and dear
Their parents say, for earthly strife.
Much better close to keep them here
Where words on screens their bones can’t break
And failure grind their wishes weak
For safety’s price they must learn fear.

For men strike down these tender souls
With murder, rape, and notions sick
And new. Some children raze in brawls
The pure, or teach them hellions’ tricks.
With structured play, they cannot learn
The habits that will bid them burn
Or cut their spirit to the quick.

In clean white houses on white lanes
These clean white children own the world
With blinking boxes, high-def screens
They flirt and fight and safe unfold
The games and places obsolete
For what reality can compete
When packed perfection’s cheaply sold?

Who suffers if a boy of five
Can fly on screen but loathes to run?
Or girls share secrets, songs, and smiles
In type, but face-to-face speak none?
No limit on who they can be
They’ll craft themselves a self or three
Why stop pretending if it’s fun?

For friends you touch can see your worst.
Identity demands such strain.
When ten at once you can converse
Why talk in person, one friend gain?
Just try the lot. For each a new
Persona; if these friends wear through
Just shut them off and choose again.

And outside play? Forget the thought.
It’s dirty, tiresome, tooth and nail.
Experiences can be bought
On-screen your wishes cannot fail
In half an hour traverse the globe
Don’t leave your polished room to probe
The blackened streets beyond your pale.

For caveat, think on but one,
That if these youths the world address
With Earth to hold they’ll know it none.
With thirty selves, all are repressed.
Small wonder that they lonely brood
Or raise their guns and spill their blood
When faced each day with facelessness.

More Bizarre Writing Prompts

Because six websites just aren’t enough, and because I’m supposed to be reading my Personality Psych textbook right now, I decided to scrawl down a few mind-bending prompts of my own. Take them, try them, and tell me how they went! And if you’re brave enough, send me a snippet. Seriously, I’m not that frightening.

Also, feel free to send me prompts of your own for my next compilation. I’ll be happy to include and credit you!

The Prompts

1. Write a story in which a rubber, water-filled, tomato-shaped ball is a key plot device.

2. Think of your favorite food. It just walked through that door and pulled a gun on you. What do you do?

3. The characters from your favorite novel decide to go on strike. What is their platform? Who is their leader? What are their demands?

4. A man turns into a fluffy pink bunny rabbit every time there’s a thunderstorm.

5. A millionnaire is dying and reveals to his daughter that he had a life long affair with the accountant, who is the daughter’s real mother. Write the death scene. Do not mention the millionnaire, the accountant, or the affair–and no one can speak.

6. End a story with this sentence: Even after everything he had done, she still wished that she could rub his toes just one more time.

7. A man throws himself off of the roof of his house. Write the story from the point of view of his twelve-year-old dachshund.

8. A flight attendant, twenty-five bottle rockets, fifty yards of silver chain, a Barry Manilow discography box set, a bag of superbounce balls, and a disgruntled garbage truck driver named Stacy. What’s going on here?

9. You are a superhero. Your sidekick is a painting of Elvis on black velvet. Your arch enemy just blew up the state building. How do you proceed?

10. Pick one of your favorite novels. Rewrite the plot as a rap song, a country song, a rock song, and a medieval-style ballad.

Happy writing!

Bizarre Writing Prompts

Let’s put it this way.  I’m sick of writing prompts that go along the lines of “Write a diary for your main character” or “He never realized she would come after him” or “Write a story that uses the words paper, copy machine, and lawyer.”  Seriously, people?  We’re writers.  Is that the best we can come up with?  All those cute prompts are fine if you’re blocked beyond hope, but if you’re like me, you take one look, think “Hm, that’s mildly interesting,” and twitch a little bit while your brain turns to mush.  Forget outside of the box.  I want outside the planet.  So, I scoured the web for something more unusual. Here are a few sites to stretch your brain.

1. Writing Companion // Rating: 3/5
This site is pretty hit or miss. Some of the prompts are pretty interesting, and others are just so-so. If you really need to get writing, however, they have good ideas for ways to pull great ideas from mundane sources. Type “Writing Prompt” into the search box and see if anything strikes you.

Sample Prompt: Collect random sentences from magazines, newspaper articles, stories, etc. Unify them into one story.

2. Story Spinner // Rating: 3/5
Click the wheel and you’ll get a setting, an opening line, and four words that you have to include. A little commonplace sometimes, but it’s a good way to get something started if you’re stuck, and some of the combinations are so ridiculous that you can’t fail to laugh . . . and then write all about it.

Sample Prompt: Setting for your story: During intermission / Starting phrase for your story: I remember spitting / Four words you must include in your story: Yard, Mush, Diagram, Drip

3. Easy Street Prompts // Rating: 4/5
A great list of hundreds of minimalist prompts. Some are short, evocative phrases and others are bizarre pictures (you know what they say about pictures and words) and videos. With the creepy black background that already has me thinking surreal, it’s a great place to find something that will spark an instant story in your head.

Sample Prompt: Phrase: fashionably excommunicated. Picture: a blurred out house about to be wrecking-balled.

4. Director’s Bureau // Rating: 4/5
The ultimate minimalist. The whole site is a javascript generator: three dials with random words. Click the button and the dials will spin around to give you a three-word phrase. Most of the combinations are pretty bizarre and can bring up some vivid mental images, but others fit together too well. Thankfully, generating new combos takes all of three seconds (as your time-wasting blogger knows all too well).

Sample Prompts: Do-it-yourself torture game; Inexpensive nuclear garden; Secret foam art

5. Leucrota Press // Rating: 5/5
The blog itself is a great resource for all things writing, and this short list of prompts has some of the most unusual I’ve ever seen. Though they may make you cringe, squirm, or say “What the hell?”, they’ll definitely test your imagination. But with a title like ‘Disturbing Writing Prompts,’ what would you expect?

Sample Prompt: You’re falling asleep at your desk when your nose starts itching. You sneeze, and an earthworm slips out.

6. McSweeney’s // Rating: 5/5
A little tamer than Leucrota, so you’re not as likely to screech or gag, but just as interesting. This short list ranges from the very unusual to the very tricky, forcing you to envision bizarre situations or to write about a scene without mentioning its key components.

Sample Prompt: A husband and wife are meeting in a restaurant to finalize the terms of their impending divorce. Write the scene from the point of view of a busboy snorting cocaine in the restroom.

Inspired yet? Then do what I’m supposed to be doing and go write!

P.S. Have another addition to this list? Post it here or shoot me a note. Cheers!

Da Vinci … Maybe Next Time

If there’s one thing all the great Masters have in common, it’s oil paint.  (Horrid generalization, but work with me here.)  Now, I’ve painted quite a bit.  Having a painter and former art teacher for a father kind of lends itself to that.  But let’s just say I have a whole new respect for all those old Masters.  Painting a landscape sounds really easy; then, all of the sudden, you’re half-covered in blue paint and throwing sponges across the garage because the bush you’ve been painstakingly speckling is now a green-crimson blob.  There is nothing more frustrating then getting all that perfect linework down on your canvas, only to start blending and, oh! look, you have a lovely blue-green-gray smudge.  It’s like trying to write a story in Italian and realizing that you don’t know any of the rules anymore. 

At the same time, it was amazing fun.  Having dad there to show me the tricks step-by-step didn’t hurt either.  It’s also amazingly freeing–in a way, more forgiving then acrylics, since it can take days to dry and mistakes can be rubbed away into the background or scraped off and filled in.  It’s like spending all your life writing on a typewriter and suddenly being given a computer with that magical Backspace key.  So for an obsessive-compulsive editor like me, it’s the perfect magic medium.  Next step?  Portraiture.  And maybe by the time I do my second painting, I’ll have gotten all the blue off my elbows. 

And now for something completely different.  (Oh, Monty Python, how I love you and your oddball antics!)  Third story submitted to fourth literary magazine.  Paper copy of first story still not mailed.  Butt still not in gear.  Fourth story . . . sort of kind of not really in progress. 

Hey, at least I’m thinking about it.  Cheers.

Over the Threshold

So, today I join the hundreds (thousands?) of other writers peddling their work on the good ol’ internet. Why, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t. You could already be sick of me at this stage. But let’s assume you still care.) Anyway, I guess if I want to be an actual published author some day, that means getting serious about writing. It means getting my work into the world and practicing until I get carpal tunnel.

Since so many writers seemed to have embraced this whole blog thing as a way of doing just that, I’m officially jumping on the bandwagon. And clinging to it until either I fall off and roll into a ditch or jump off into somewhere more productive than the stagnant water that is here.

So, hopefully-real readers, this is it. The beginning. (Sound dramatic, doesn’t it? I feel like I should be writing soaps.) Check back for ponderings, poetry, prompts, and . . . there’s really no way to make short stories start with a ‘p.’ Basically, whatever bits of creativity I can squeeze out of my brain on a regular basis. Enjoy the madness. Rock on.

P.S. Many thanks to “Karma Police” by Radiohead for the title of this blog, as well as Adobe Photoshop and stock photos for allowing me to create the banner. Cheers!