Posts Tagged first draft

You know what your book means… but does the reader? Tackle it with two mindsets

5752324972_702a69b272_bHave you ever had this type of comment in feedback?

‘You’re grasping for a strong thematic purpose. The characters’ actions and the plot are full of significance. Somewhere there’s a strong message. But it’s too abstract or muddied to come through.’

If so, this concept might help. It’s borrowed from writing instructor Lynn Steger Strong, and described in this article in Catapult. Think of your work in two phases – the writer phase and the reader phase.

What might that mean and how might it be useful?

First, an interpretation.

The writer phase

This is the dreaming draft, the phase where you splurge everything you have, go exploring, invent your socks off, have dinner with your characters, test their mettle, immerse in your settings and themes, storm your brains. You figure out what you mean, what you’ll have happen, what you understand.
The reader phase
This second half is where you sell it to the reader. If the first phase took place behind closed doors, here’s where you think about all those eyes and brains seeking a connection with you and your work. For this, you need to make a mental shift. Get ruthless and assess every moment of the story on its own terms. For you, the text is already thrumming with meaning and richness. But will the reader get it?

In the reader phase, that is your quest.

Again, how might it be useful?

You need both phases. Why? Because you can’t explore and refine at the same time. If you do, you’ll shortchange the book. You won’t mine its full potential because you’ll be thinking with your critical hat, wondering what a reader would make of it. And if you don’t switch the other way and ask yourself, am I making sense, you might have a muddled mess. One mode is the accelerator and one is the brake. And we all know not to press both at the same time.

So that means there are a few crucial differences in how you approach the two halves.

Mindset for writer phase

Be fearlessly inventive. Every idea is precious, rich and worth exploring.

Don’t invite critical feedback except on isolated points. Eg to solve specific plot problems, or to find story models that suggest useful structures or character functions. For instance, if you want a downbeat ending, you might want to look for other books that made it work. Meanwhile, keep the bulk of the book to yourself. Lock the doors and simmer.

Mindset for reader phase

Playtime is over. You have a duty to your audience. In phase 1 you were fearlessly inventive. Now you must be fearlessly adapatable. The more you question what serves the reader, the better your book will be. Do you have enough context? Often a manuscript is obscure because the writer hasn’t let us understand why certain plot events are important.

Here’s another essential of the reader phase. You must be prepared to make drastic change. Think like a vandal. The lines you gave to one character might be much better if said by another. A scene might be better in another point of view, or later in the book, or used as back story.

This means a lot of precious material might have to die, and you’ll find yourself resisting. If so, examine why. There are usually two reasons-

  1. You’ll steer the book wrong, perhaps with a tone you don’t want or an issue you’re not interested in. (This is a good reason to reject a change.)
  2. The change will cause a lot of difficult unpicking, or stop you using other fascinating bits. Ahem. In the reader phase, nothing is sacred. All is material.

This is the stage where you seek critical feedback. Indeed, if you’ve successfully switched to the reader mindset, you’ll welcome every glitch they find – because it supports your mission to find everything that doesn’t work. And here’s the real strength of this approach – switching to the reader mindset makes revision much more positive.

The writer’s journey and the reader’s journey

Lynn Steger Strong talks about the length of a journey. The writer takes a long journey to create the book. We’re inventing, looking for sense, patterns, resonance, pivot moments, grace and charm. The reader, though, needs to get there instantly. Taking them there is the challenge.

Thanks for the pic Joao Trindade

n1 2Psst …. I talk about different mindsets for writing and revision in this little book …

Let’s discuss! Do you find your mind works differently when writing and revising? Have you received feedback that said your book was too muddled or obscure? How did you tackle it?


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Nail NaNoWriMo – start now! 3 old hands share their tips

November is National Novel-Writing Month, when writers everywhere will handcuff themselves
to their keyboards and aim to get a 50,000-word draft finished in 30 days. Apart from clearing the diary and creating a big Do Not Disturb sign, what can you do to prepare?
And is it even possible?

This is a repost of a piece I ran a couple of years ago, but with NaNo rising as a buzzword again in the writerly ether, I thought it might be helpful. Tomorrow I’ll post some tips for getting your story into good shape before you start.

First of all, do established writers do this or is it just a game?

Certainly NaNoWriMo is not just an exercise. Many established writers use it to get their first drafts done.  Novelist Sara Gruen wrote her New York Times #1 bestseller Water For Elephants one NaNoWriMo. What you start in NaNo can go on to great things – here’s a list of all the NaNo novels that have made it into print.

How do you do it?

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because other projects have got in the way, but I have written a lot of novels to tight deadlines – 50,000 words in two months. And not just first draft, but revised and ready for a publisher to see. It was effectively two NaNoWriMos back to back, which I did several times.

I have several friends who are NaNoWriMo winners. Here are their tips. And the key to success is not just what you do in November, but what you do NOW.

Prepare your story

Zelah Meyer is a NaNoWriMo powerhouse, having consistently delivered 50,000 words for the last five years. Some years, she even lost a week because real life inconveniently got in the way, but even so, she sailed past the finish line. This year she’s hoping to finish the first draft of her trilogy.

Zelah (left) says: ‘Do a rough brainstorm beforehand of where you want to take at least the first 5,000 words or so. I call it plot scaffolding and I’ll often talk to myself on paper about what could happen and where the story could go. I find it helps to know that so that I can avoid writing myself into a corner – but everybody works differently!

‘I ask myself a lot of questions such as “Why does nobody know that he isn’t really the lost prince/company CEO/etc?” I use the ideas I have to flesh out character back story and sometimes that will give me ideas for the plot.

‘If I decide that I need to go back and add in a scene, I’ll do that – but I never rewrite one. Instead I have a second document that I keep open called Corrections. There I make notes of changes I want to make in the re-writes and then continue as if I’d already done them.

‘I also find it helps to have a third document for any names I need to keep track of. This saves me from wasting ages scanning back through thousands of words trying to find out which town the characters were heading for or what you called the hero’s aunt.’

In real life, Zelah is an improvisational performer, and her experiences on stage have strengthened her approach to storytelling. ‘I ask myself: “If I were in the audience, where would I want the action to go now?” and “Which character do I want to hear from now?” Also, everything that is said changes you – both the person saying and the person listening. Everything evokes some kind of emotional response and that colours how things happen from then on.’
Prepare your targets

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (left), another NaNoWriMo veteran, says: ‘My one tip is stick to your daily wordcount no matter what – 1,600 words a day even if you’ve been run over by a steamroller. Nothing’s more disheartening than an impossible deadline,’
Zelah’s keen on statistics too. ‘I create a spreadsheet for the 30 days of November with how many words I aim to write on each day. I give myself a contingency of around 5,000 words.’

Prepare your research

If you go and look something up on Google, do you stop there? No; an hour later you can still be happily cyber-faffing. So do all your Googling, Wiki-ing and forum fact-finding before November. Don’t burn through your writing time by looking stuff up. If necessary, put a keyword in the text like [factcheck] and start a file for queries you will Google in December.

Find support

You don’t slog through NaNoWriMo on your own. That’s one of the beauties of it. The NaNoWriMo website is, of course, essential, and you’ll find hashtag communities on Twitter, and bloggers who will be wearing NaNo badges and blogging if they have any fingers to spare.

Ann Marie Gamble, another old hand, says: ‘The single best non-official resource I used was Doyce Testerman’s day-by-day blog posts. He described exactly what he was going through so I could think, ah, everyone feels like they are choking on Day 11 – it’s not just me being pathetic. Plus he has a wife and kid, so his coping strategies are more accessible to me than those of the college students in the local NaNoWriMo groups.’

Remember it’s a first draft

NaNoWriMo is about turning off your inner editor. If your draft sucks that doesn’t matter. All first drafts suck.

It is also about a definite goal. Ann Marie says: ‘Keep your eyes on your prize. NaNoWriMo is a chance to build writing habits and experience in finishing a piece. Don’t get sidetracked by questions of quality, plausibility, readability etc. Let your pen fly during this intense month and analyse later.’

Zelah says: ‘When I’m actually working, I remind myself that I’m not striving for perfection at this stage. I have a strip of paper saying “Quantity not Quality” taped to my monitor.

The message is, prepare, prepare, prepare.

  • your story
  • your research
  • your targets
  • your support groups

And that, my friends, is why NaNoWriMo starts now.

With all that sorted, just one thing remains. Simon C Larter (left) of the blog Constant Revisions says: ‘How do I convince my wife it’s okay for me to spend so much time writing?’

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? How are you preparing? Is it your first time? If you’ve done it before, do you have any tips? And if NaNo requires you to ramp up your writing routine, how, like Simon, will you convince your nearest and dearest to indulge you?  Share in the comments

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. And tomorrow I’ll be going through a workup routine to get your story sorted before you lock the doors.

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Finishing your draft? Don’t open it again until after Christmas

On November 30th, or thereabouts, Nanowrimoers typed ‘The End’. Whether you’re a Nano or not, the next thing you must do is put the manuscript away. Close the file, stow the notebooks, do a happy dance. Unless you have a deadline that demands you thrash it into shape straight away, don’t touch it for at least a month. At least.

Become a stranger to your story

We all know how we can read a page over and over and somehow miss the appalling typo in the first sentence. When we’re too tangled in a novel we see what we think is there – not what is actually on the pages.

To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.

Let the flavours marinate

Your manuscript needs to marinate. Like a good wine, all that stuff you put in has to blend. A novel isn’t just characters + plot + description + setting + dialogue + cool bits + pizzazz + your undercover soundtrack, if you do that. It’s all those things working together.

Put more sensibly, your characters are not just characters. They are people in a world, with forces they are fighting, with people who embody their worst fears or their happiest hopes. The world and the plot are personal challenges to them, not just places to go and stuff for them to do.

If you look at your manuscript too soon, you’ll only see the separate ingredients. Not how they work together. You won’t see the parts where you were cleverer than you thought – or the overall patterns that you could amplify. You’ll miss the things you unconsciously wrote that echo higher themes, or create an overall symmetry to the story.

But I have things I want to fix right now

Make notes about them, but don’t do them yet. When you look at the manuscript afresh, you might have better ideas for how to tackle them.

But I was on a roll and I don’t want to stop

Nobody says that when your manuscript is resting you have to stop writing. Go and tinker with another story. If you’ve done Nanowrimo to kick-start a writing routine, use the time for reading and research. Stephen King in On Writing says to leave the manuscript for at least six entire weeks – and to work on something totally different to give yourself time to recharge.

Revise in haste, repent at leisure

If you revise too soon, you’ll only scratch the most obvious itches. You’ll miss so much more.

So close the file. Don’t touch it at least until after Christmas.

(Thanks for the pic Svadilfari)

What’s the longest you’ve left a manuscript before revising it?

nyn1 2ndI have tools for assessing manuscripts in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available here.




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2 misconceptions of new writers

People often ask me what advice I’d give new writers. Here are the two misconceptions I find myself tackling most frequently

1 Rules give you cookie-cutter books

On Facebook the other day, an indie author asked me for feedback on her back cover (bear with me, this is about writing, not covers or indie publishing). Having recently designed my own back cover I’d figured out what worked and what didn’t, so I could see quite a lot that wasn’t right about her back cover. After offering specific pointers, one of the things I recommended she did was look at books that would potentially be her shelf-mates in her genre and follow their style. She replied: ‘I feel my book shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter version of all the others… you know?’

I do indeed know. You are absolutely right that your book is not part of a set of tablemats. It is its own thing, written with heartfelt sincerity and mined from your perceptions and experiences. You have delved deep to make it individual and true to itself. It is not meant to fit in. It was written to stand out.

But if you throw all the rules away and try to reinvent what a back cover should look like, from scratch, unless you’re a genius you’re likely to end up with a mess.

And so it is with writing. This is the age-old problem for creatives everywhere. We don’t want rules. Of course we don’t. We make our books from nothing but the ideas in our very individual grey matter. We want to make something beyond rules. But many of the stories I see that don’t work because of the same generic problems.

Writing rules don’t fetter you. They are observations of what works. Think of them not as templates and strictures, but as the results of experiments, on millions of readers. Knowing the rules means you can use your material to write, more effectively, a great book.

You’ll have characters that readers care about. A story that unfolds at a pace that keeps their interest. A reason why the story has to be as long as it is, rather than a plot that seems contrived to fill pages. Surprises that are astonishing but play fair. An ending that feels satisfying and perhaps leaves the reader with a tear in the eye.

All because you did what other writers did.

2 The book is finished when you type The End

The first draft is just a first draft. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this: ‘I’m five chapters away from the end of my book, then I can send it out.’ Please: no.

Writers often think that because their sentences are careful and fluent, their novel is ready. But a novel isn’t an essay or a blog post. Under the words, there’s a whole machine that needs to run right.

So much of the valuable work on a novel can only be done once you have a full manuscript. Themes will take shape, plotlines will need to be destruction tested. Pacing and flow need to be assessed. Inconsistencies need to be sorted out, timelines unwarped. Characters may have developed their own agendas and you may need to revise the way you set them up. Motivations and developments that only revealed themselves to you in the course of the writing may now change the entire flavour of the book. When you finish the first draft, hard as that is, the real work starts. (There’s a lot more on this in my book Nail Your Novel.)

Repeat after me: your first draft is not your final draft.

Quick, but not insignificant announcement: I’m teaming up with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn to produce a webinar series starting in November. How to write a novel will be three in-depth, interactive sessions from bestselling me and bestselling her. Cost $99.  Find more details and sign up here.

And My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hop over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

Okay, back to the post. First of all, thanks Toucanradio for the pic. And here’s my question: If you’ve got a bit of writing experience under your belt, tell me – what writers’ misconceptions would you tackle?

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