How Do You Solve a Problem Like a First Draft?

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

You’ve reached the “end” of your manuscript’s first draft. You look back over your shoulder at the smoldering wreckage of your plot, malformed narratives writhing about in a primordial soup of creativity. It’s a formless maelstrom of scenes and moments, but somewhere in all the chaos you can see the pieces for a coherent story coming together.

You smile wistfully, ready to take hold of those few shimmering pieces of plot stability and staring pulling this thing together.

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Now you’re ready to bring order to this book!

That’s about where I am right now, sifting through the first draft of my latest manuscript, THE BREWMANCER. I’m trying to find the best pieces of plot foundation to start laying down and building up the brick and mortar, wood and plaster to make a structurally sound story.

I don’t know about all of you, but I’m a pantser when I write. I basically just go with a barebones outline of the major plot points and kinda fill it in from there. That tactic, for me at least, leads to somewhat barebones first drafts that need to be beefed up in future drafts. For THE BREWMANCER, I envision the final product being about 90,000 words, and the first draft ended up at about 80,000.

That’s quite a bit more beef.

In the first draft, I did leave some scenes and chapters completely unwritten, either because they required some significant research or were difficult to write for some other reason. Fight scenes are tough for me, so on the first go I just sketch out a quick blow-by-blow of how the fight would go, then fill in the details later. A bunch of characters, places and fantastical things were left with just placeholder names, too.

Details.

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In first drafts, I usually keep details to a minimum. Details of what things looks like, details of what the characters are doing. I pretty much lay down basic settings and actions to move the plot along. I consider dialogue one of my strong points, so I try to get most of that stuff written in the first draft. I do worry too much of the plot is conveyed through dialogue, so I’ll pare some of the back in subsequent drafts and replace it with more descriptions or backstory. At the same time, I try to keep the info dumps to a minimum in each draft, but sometimes in the second or third drafts I’ll feel pressured to hit the final word count, go overboard with with backstory.

So basically first draft with too little stuff, second and third drafts with too much stuff.

The hope is to find that special sweet spot in drafts four and five.

I like to keep my drafts under five before sending it off to beta readers, and then a draft or two will come of out that feedback.

I feel like this is a strange way to draft, most people have a large and unwieldy first drafts, then pare it back – cutting scenes, side plot, or even full character POVs (I’ve done that once and it was BRUTAL)  But I’ve done my first drafts this way for my last couple of manuscripts to reasonable success. Like I said, I have the fear when I’m finished with one of these skeleton drafts I won’t be able to find enough words to get to the optimal word count, but I usually end up getting there without any superfluous plot additions and weird tangents.

Part of the reason I opt for the small structural first draft is because my first manuscript was so bloated. 180,000 words that wasn’t even really a complete story, even with that many words. I also edited each chapter as I finished it, which is something I’ll never do again. Cutting that book back by 60,000 words and still having it a gigantic mess, trying to make that first book into something remotely publishable took months just wasn’t worth it. It was good lesson because I obviously didn’t know what the hell I was doing when writing that first draft, but it also put the fear of overdrafting into me.

Now, I still have have a bunch of work to do after a first draft, but by adding in stuff I skipped over, I still feel like I’m making progress, instead of going backward. Sure, I’ll end up cutting a bunch of scenes and subplots and I’ve already had to rewrite the first few chapters because they no longer match up with the direction the story ultimately took, but it feels like progress.

It’s going to be another few more months of editing, but I think I’m in a good place with it right now.

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Welp. Better get back to work.

But before I go – how do all of you create your first drafts? Over or under draft? Edit as you go? Let me know!

 

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Crutch words – Self editing

Crutch words, or phrases, plague all writers. It doesn’t matter how many books you write, you will always have words or phrases you abuse.The key to being a good writer is not being perfect, but recognizing your weaknesses and trying to fix them. And always remember, that is what editing is for.

I have published some 20+ titles between my two names and I’m still falling into the trap of crutches, so, I thought I would share a few with you. Maybe you’ll recognize some of these issues in your own writing and they’ll help.

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There are a couple that new writers will always fall into. One that’s very popular with beginner writers is having your characters releasing breaths they didn’t know they were holding. Yeah, we all hold our breath in a tense moment but it’s amazing how many fictional characters aren’t aware they’re doing it. I mean, you’d think a few would faint once in a while. An easy fix? “I released the breath I was holding.” Boom. No need to pretend you didn’t know that you weren’t breathing.

Another common crutch for new writers is “suddenly.” Suddenly often becomes redundant. “She suddenly screamed.” Right, as opposed to gradually screaming? “He suddenly burst into the room.” When is bursting ever not sudden? See how you can eliminate the word without hurting the action? Slice and dice that word from your MS.

Now, here are a few from my current WIP that I, and a few of my writing friends, all admit to using.

  • Just.

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This is an actual note from my editor after she line-edited this book. 350+ uses of “just”?! DUDE. The book isn’t even 350 pages in Word. Let’s just put one here, and just there. Okay, just one more. No, not just one more because I just need another. BAH! You pretty much never need this damn word. Slice and dice!

  • Stating the obvious, especially when describing actions.

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Yes, my character crumpled the paper in her hand. As opposed to crumpling it in her feet? You’ll find yourself “nodding heads” or “waving hands”. We know how the body works and how actions work. You can just nod. Or just wave. Look for these, again, it’s being redundant with action.

  • Still and not being concise.

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Here is a double-whammy edit. “Still” is another one of those “just” words. You very often don’t need it. See how the sentence works as well as it does with or without “still” in there? And the end of the sentence, see my editor’s change? Obviously they both work, but you do need to be aware of the economy of words, especially when writing an action scene. If you’re building tension you want to make sure you’re not dragging things out.

  • Adverbs.

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New or old-hat, we all love adverbs. Again, they are almost never helpful. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but if you have an abundance of adverbs you’ll need to take a critical eye to them and really decide which ones help and which ones are fluff. This one? Quickly? It’s fluff.

  • That.

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Oh, that. Just, still, that. That is a tough word because we do need it a lot in the English language but you’d be amazed how often we use it. When you’re editing, be mindful of “that”. If you’re not sure if you should slice and dice, read the sentence out loud, does it work with or without “that”? Then delete.

There are so many more crutches we need to be aware of, but sometimes they’re very specific to the writer. One that was mentioned to me was relying on metaphors. I remember the first time I wrote “his cheekbones were so sharp, I could cut my wrists on them.” Oof, I loved that line. I loved it so much I used it three or four more times in different books with different characters. Yep. Crutch. If you use the same metaphor more than once that first awesome impact gets muddied and loses its impact. Don’t fall victim to this.

Don’t fall victim to any of these!

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Have you come to recognize your crutches? Share them in the comments, you might just help out your fellow writers who are still looking for crutches to kill like ants on the page.

An Open Letter to the New York Times Book Review

I’m popping in for an unscheduled post to share this because I feel very passionate about it and wanted the audience of this blog to see it too. This originally appeared on my blog on Monday.
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Last week, the New York Times Book Review announced they are eliminating several of their bestseller lists. Here’s the original article from Publisher’s Weekly. This will have profound effects on many authors, especially indie and genre writers. I emailed the following letter to the editors this morning [January 30]. It not only expresses my opinions on this issue, but also voices my (possibly far-fetched) hope that they will someday add coverage of indie authors to their pages. 

As both a long-time reader of the New York Times Book Review and an author, I have to say I am dismayed at the recent move of the NYT Book Review to remove many of the bestseller lists, especially the ebook lists. As an indie author who, due to the nature of my mode of publishing, is not carried in big name book stores, that is my only hope for ever hitting your lists. And I do plan to be on them. I still hold the moniker of New York Times Bestselling Author in high regard.

Whether you mean to or not, this move alienates a lot of authors, both indie and traditionally published, who rely on ebook and mass market lists to “earn our letters.” You are hurting traditionally published authors who are in digital-first or digital-only contracts, an increasingly common practice at major publishers, especially in the romance and other genre markets. In the traditional publishing world, foreign rights, bonuses, movie rights, and the money an author can demand on his/her next contract are often determined by making your lists. By eliminating many options, you are hobbling the very people you should be supporting.

In addition, readers are increasingly choosing ebooks over hardbacks/trade paperbacks for convenience and cost reasons, so you are essentially saying their buying choices don’t matter. Not to mention that eliminating the ebook and mass market paperback lists smacks of elitism and of a digging in/siding with the old guard traditional publishing industry in an era when prestigious publications like the NYT should be opening up to new modes of publishing.

Here’s the thing. Indie publishing isn’t the free-for-all mess it used to be. I, and many other indie authors like me, apply the same levels of rigor and professionalism to the production of our books as traditional houses – at least in part due to the hopes of selling enough to make your lists. We spend thousands of dollars of our own money on professional proofreading, editing, cover design and marketing. Yes, there are still those who slap their books on Createspace/Amazon without a second thought, but there are also low quality books produced by traditional houses. There will always be outliers.

We are no longer the authors who “couldn’t make it” in the traditional industry. Many indie authors are former traditionally published authors who have grown frustrated with increasingly anti-author contract terms and/or the antiquated slowness of the industry in an age of print on demand. Some are “hybrid authors” who publish some things traditionally, and some independently. Others, like me, have never been traditionally published and made the choice to go indie in order to control our work – our covers, our editing, our marketing, how/where our books are published – so that we are free to write the books we choose, rather than struggle with an editorial/publishing house agenda or idea of what will sell.

If you need proof that indies are professionals, look to the SELF-e Select books endorsed by Library Journal as the best of independently published books, or to the Indie BRAG Medallion honorees, who are put through a rigorous quality process before being honored. (Full disclosure: all of my books are SELF-e Select and one has earned the Indie BRAG Medallion.) Groups like the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLI) and Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) promote best practices among indie authors and reward those who produce high quality work. We’re trying to make our corner of the publishing industry better. We may not have traditional gatekeepers, but we want our best work to shine at a national level and make the same lists as our traditional counterparts.

That is why I am asking you to not only reinstate the ebook and mass market lists, but to cover indie books as well as traditionally published in your pages. There is room. Readers have written in before expressing dismay with the seemingly random essay/editorial/opinion sections that don’t adhere to what this publication is about: reviewing books. And I agree. Perhaps you can replace those with an indie book section. I’m not even asking for a weekly section, though that would be ideal; it could be monthly like your column that faces the back page that covers debuts or other groupings of books.

To date, the only indie authors I have seen your publication cover are those who were later picked up by traditional publishers. I’m happy for them, but they are the exception, rather than the rule, in our community. It would send a strong message of support to ALL authors if the NYT Book Review were to recognize indie authors and show you understand the changing nature of the publishing industry by keeping lists that allow a wider range of authors to be honored for outstanding work.

Sincerely,

Nicole Evelina
St. Louis, MO

If you agree or have your own opinions on this issue, I urge you to contact the NYT Book Review at books@nytimes.com. I’d also love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

It’s My Birthday, I’ll Blog If I Want To

Happy Imbolc/Candlemas/Groundhog Day, folks! And guess what? It also happens to be the anniversary of the day I, uh, drifted peacefully into this wide, weird, wonderful world! So I thought I’d take a few minutes away from stuffing my face full of cake and screaming my head off obsessively reading the news to share a little of what’s been going on with me!

giphy1Birthdays for me are always a time of reflection, and sometimes I get moody when I think of all the things I didn’t manage to do in the past calendar year. But today, I’d like to celebrate the things I have done. It’s been a pretty full year of working and writing and reading, but I’ve also managed to squeeze in some fun trips, pursue some health and fitness goals, and even carve out some headspace when necessary. (Recently, that’s been a lot.)

One of the highlights of my year was definitely a vacation to Scotland. The husband and I rented a rustic cottage on the Isle of Mull, way out in the Inner Hebrides, just across the bay from Iona, where Dark Age monks famously protected the Book of Kells from the Vikings. The landscape was absolutely stunning, with iron-dark tors draped in purple heather and grey fog. When the sun peeked from behind clouds the ocean sparkled blue as a sapphire. We hiked and rambled, visited a few distilleries, and ate our collective weight in shortbread. Leaving was like saying goodbye to an old friend you never knew you had, and we hope to visit again as soon as we can. *rustles around in the couch cushions for spare change*

16466223_10110227003544731_104815964_oOn the writing front, in early Autumn of last year I completed the millionth final draft of my latest YA fantasy novel, AMBER & DUSK. Set in a world where the sun never sets, a young woman with a mysterious bloodline wagers for a place at court, only to be tangled in a courtly web of cunning courtiers and predatory royals. Sylvie struggles to master her magical gift while dodging cruel pranks, vicious insults, and possible disgrace. And as beautiful as the palais seems, its mirrored hallways, winter gardens, and gilded marble are nothing more than a mirage to hide a brutal past and deadly secrets.

photofunkyMy agent loved it! …And we’ve been in query hell ever since. But it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, and I really hope I’ll be able to share it with the world soon. If you’re curious to know more, I hope you’ll check out my Pinterest inspo board for a feel of the world’s aesthetic.

Since then, I’ve been working on a YA standalone romance that I’m tentatively billing as a Celtic fairytale retelling of Swan Lake. It’s pretty different from anything I’ve written before, with a moody vibe, a contemplative pace, and a very small cast. It’s been excruciating snail-like slow going these past few months, but I’m hoping to hit my stride again soon and crank out the first draft!

giphyAnd the rest is just little things! I’ve finished a few short stories, cobbled together from the odds and ends of books I never ended up writing. I’m hoping to shop them around soon. I’m contemplating a complete facelift of my main author website, Lyra Selene, but am utterly terrified since I can’t computer. If you or anyone you know is a regular programming whiz kid drop me a line…I’ll make you an offer you will probably refuse. And finally, I have some exciting–but still nascent–news I hope to share soon, so keep your eyes peeled and I promise to keep you posted…before my next birthday!