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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Revising, editing, and all the rough drafts.

As I sit down to work on yet another rough draft, I thought it might be interesting to read about how I revise and edit a new book. Because I also offer manuscript critique services, I see a lot of books before they’re ready from new writers. It’s always hard to know when a book is done and it’s time to let it go out into the world and flourish or die by its own merit, but you do need to spend a significant amount of time on it before that happens.

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First, I outline the story. I like to do this long hand, with a pen and a legal pad. I use the longer legal pads and, usually, one page = one chapter. It’s lame and mundane and in a bullet point list, just so I know what’s happening and how in each chapter. The magic happens when I’m actually writing. When I was a new writer, I didn’t outline because I lost the urgency to tell the story, so if you’re not an outliner, don’t freak out; everyone is different and things change from book to book.

Once the outline is done, I fast draft the book. This means I write daily, usually taking 1-2 days off a week so I don’t burn out, until it’s done. There are some days where I might just get 500 words or 1,000 words, but my goal is 2-4k words a day. But, again, every book is different. As long as I make some progress, I’m happy.

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Then, when that first draft is done, I back up my work in 2-3 different places. I like to email myself the document every day so I don’t ever lose any work. But when I finish, I email myself again the completed document. I also save it to a memory stick. This way, if something happens to my computer, my book is safely stored in two places that can’t also be damaged by whatever killed my computer. When I was writing my fourth book, Fire, my hard-drive crashed and I lost about 20k words because I wasn’t in the habit of emailing myself on the daily, just at the end of a draft. It was devastating. Never again!

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Then I walk away. I close the file on the computer and I don’t look at it again for at least a week, sometimes as much as six months. Again, it depends on the book (and deadlines). But I get away from it and do other things. I clean the house, I read other people’s books, I relax. I do things that have nothing to do with the book I was writing. I may even start writing (and finish) another book before I ever come back to it. There’s a few reasons for this but the main reason is so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes.

You just spent a couple of months to the better part of a year focused on this one story, it’s been loud in your head, the characters alive and and controlling. If you come back too soon, you’ll remember everything and you won’t see mistakes, you won’t find the plot holes, you won’t pick up on the weaknesses or the thin characters. You need to read your rough draft as though you weren’t the one who wrote it.

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I like to print out a copy of the MS to go over it the first time. This way I’m not working on it in the same medium that I wrote it. I am familiar with it on the computer screen, so my eyes and mind might trick me into reading it the way I wanted it to be, not the way it is. By printing it, it becomes a new book and I can take a bright red pen to it and make corrections and notes to transcribe back on the computer. That’s the second draft.

Now, depending on the book, this is the right time to give it to beta readers to go over. I like to have at least two readers, but three is ideal. You want readers who will give it back to you in 2-4 weeks. This gives you another break away from the book, but also ensures your readers focus on your book so they don’t forget what they read in the first half because they took so long to finish it.

Wait to make any changes to your MS until you hear back from all betas. This gives you the chance to see if critiques are just personal preference or if you really missed something because they all mentioned the same thing(s).

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Now I go over the book again, this time on the computer, comparing beta notes, seeing if I agree or not. If I agree with a change, I have to make sure I thread it through the whole book. That’s the third draft.

Now I put it on a tablet to read it as an ebook. You may need another break or you may be ready to just dive in. So, again, I’m reading it in a different medium and more like any reader who bought it would read it. I use the highlight and note function to keep track of issues and changes I want to make. Once I make those changes, I’ve got a fourth draft.

Only on the 3rd or 4th draft does my editor get the book. Because I self-publish, I pay my editor for her services, so why in the world would I send her a book before it’s ready? I wouldn’t, and neither should you. I often get MSs that are not ready and people are paying me a fee to go over the book and 90% of the time, most of my notes could have been caught by the author or by a beta reader to be addressed for free.

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Once I get my MS back from my editor and implement the line-edits and content-edits, I am up to the fifth draft. Guess what? It goes back for a proof-reader to comb to make sure we didn’t miss any tiny mistakes.

So, in the end, I’m publishing the 5th or 6th draft. I don’t always use beta readers because sometimes I’m up to the 5th, 6th, or 7th book in a series and I can’t expect friends to do that much work for me. But the first book in a series? A stand alone? A trilogy? Yes, I use beta readers for all of those.

You will get to the point where you start to hate your book because you’ve read it so many times, but that’s what it takes to polish it, to develop those characters, to make the plot compelling. This is the work that goes into a book. Getting that first draft is the easy part, making it a book is where the hard work really is.

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Writing is re-writing. This is the rule you should be living by.

And, speaking of working on a new, revised, and edited book, I just published one this week! If you’re a fan of witches and magic set in modern day, might I recommend my Matilda Kavangh Novels series. I just published the seventh book!

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I’m On To The Next One, On To The Next One

What’s next?

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That’s the question writers always have rattling around in their heads, isn’t it? Sometimes you might have half a dozen new plot ideas floating around in your brain soup and sometimes the ol’ skull bowl will have been drained bone dry. It’ll fill up again eventually, though. The stream of ideas is never truly dammed up.

One thing is a constant in the life of the diligent writer (0r any creative pursuit, really) – regardless of where you are in your current project, there’s always going to be a Next Thing. There will always be the need to make the Next Thing.

I tend to be someone who has too many Plot Bunnies frolicking through my Mind Fields at any given moment. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know that I run quite a bit. In the Not Winter months, I’ll log about 10-20 miles over the course of the week. The portion of that running time not spent on keeping myself from collapsing into a wheezing heap is devoted to plotting stuff. Plotting whatever my current WIP is, but also thinking ahead to what the Next Thing is going to be. A lot of time out on the open road has turned into wild Plot Bunnies.

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But now it’s decision time. My YA Superhero manuscript, THE MANY FOES OF AURORA OVERDARK is done and it’s being queried right now (and eternal thanks to a number of my fellow Scribes for their invaluable input into the final product). It’s time to start the Next Thing. I had three ideas I was kicking around for the OVERDARK’s successor:

Weird Western with demons and this kinda Hellfire-punk technology and stuff. The Dark Tower is one of my favorite book series, so I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing a western-themed story (really hope they don’t butcher the movie, btw).

Lady Heroes of the Multiverse – basically female trope heroes joined up to save the Universe. Multiverse hopping is a thing that’s done a lot in comics, and by golly do I love my comics. Also, I recently read Michael Underwood’s first GENRENAUTS book and that kinda got me excited to do a multiverse team thing.

Those two came up from the usual On-The-Run-Brain-Bubbling.

The third one has a bit of a story. If you’ve listened to fellow Scribe Kristin McFarland and I’s podcast The Young Podawans, you’ll know that we discuss What We’re Drinking at the beginning of each episode. One week I had a beer called the Ginga Ninja and on the side of the can was a mini story about The Brewmaster and his Ninja Wife. I said to Kristin on that episode “I want to write this book.”

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And I think I’m going to next. I’ve got a little Brexit inspired plot starting to brew (lol) around the Brewmaster and his probably not Ninja, but some kind of soldier wife and also his husband who’s also integral to their beer making / soldiery business.

So what’s the point of this post besides “look at these ideas I have and and have to pick one waaaaaah”? It’s interesting where we get our ideas from. The impetus for some of my previous books were a D&D campaign from high school, a ghost girl from a comic book, and now a story on the side of a beer can.

And not just that inspiration can come from anywhere, but that it can come at any time. Some people do their greatest thinking in the shower. Like I said before, I do a lot for my plot brainstorming during my runs, but I also have a 30 minute or so commute to and from work everyday and I find that to be a good time to mull over new ideas as well.

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I think it’s vitally important for writers to carve out not only writing time, but thinking / plotting time. The ideas for the Next Thing need a place to be cultivated, whether they’ve come from the random mundanities of everyday life, plumbed from a lifetime of stories we’ve consume, or a little bit of both.

So, I guess I’ll leave this post with a question:

When and where does everyone else do their plotting and idea brewing? We all have so many different commitments and needs pulling us away from our stories, and I’d really love  to know how people find the time in their lives and keep the stream of ideas still flowing.

 

Beauty In The Beats

The other day, my friend Amanda made a blog post about working with a beat sheet for the first time. She titled it Beating the Cat, which should give you a hint as to how well she enjoyed the process. Her exploration of the beat sheet was motivated by changes an editor requested in a novel she’d submitted. Coincidentally, I recently received a very similar request, and in part because of her example, I broke out a beat sheet, too.

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For those of you who are uninitiated, a beat sheet is a plot template grounded in Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey and constructed around a three-act structure. It’s a key part of Blake Snyder’s approach in Save the Cat, one of the best books on writing I’ve ever come across and one I think every writer should read.

(The other book every writer should read is Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon, but that’s another blog post.)

So where am I going with all this? Perhaps an erudite rehash of the material found in Mr. Snyder’s book?  (Except this blog post does it so well.) Perhaps a sensitive dissection of differing plot requirements based on genre? (I’d argue there are none. A good story is a good story, whether it’s contemporary or historical or fantasy. However you dress it up, your protagonist has to start somewhere, get beat on a little, and finish up in a better place. Otherwise it’s literary fiction. Right?)

Perhaps this post should be an analysis of my own experience using the beat sheet concept?

Sure. Let’s go with that.

It’s not difficult for me to understand the bullet points on a beat sheet. The names are a little goofy, but I know there needs to be an opening image, and early on someone needs to state the theme. The protagonist needs to be confronted by a challenge, and they need to spend time dithering before finally accepting it.

All that is just fine. The hard part for me is figuring out which moments in my plot fit the bullet points on the beat sheet. For example, differentiating the bullet points leading up to the final conflict can be tricky, though I find it helps to keep in mind whether the bullet point has to do with internal or external conflict. (All Is Lost refers to the external conflict, while the Dark Night of the Soul is internal, the emotional response to events. I think.)

I’m pretty good with language, with making sure the voice of a piece is fresh and fun. I’m getting better at making sure there’s goal, motivation, and conflict built into each scene. It’s hanging it all together in a coherent narrative that gives me trouble. I mean, my plots tell a story, but they don’t always have the emotional impact they could. And that’s where the beat sheet comes in.

Last week I received a contract offer for a novella I wrote (and here’s a huge shout-out to #TeamAwesome for helping me get those words on the page). The publisher loved the characters and the setting, but felt the project needed a stronger central conflict. Now, I wrote this story as a Christmas present to myself in the end of December 2012 – beginning of January 2013, and I love it hard. I’ve actually had a couple other publishers offer me contracts for it. So why did I turn those offers down and wait for one with surgery attached?

Perhaps because, on some level, I sensed there were weaknesses, and knew that the changes suggested by the previous publishers wouldn’t address them.

Either that or because I’m essentially a masochist.

Yesterday I sat down with the editor’s comments and a blank beat sheet and got to work. Figuring out what went where, and filling in the blanks between key scenes – either by recycling existing material or creating something new – was PAINFUL. But you know what? The end result is going to be a lot stronger.

Now I just have to finish the re-write, though at least I know where I’m going.

What about you? Ever used a beat sheet? Or are you more into herding cats?

Peace,
Liv

 

 

Structure: Plot’s BFF

This blueprint of what La Belle would have loo...
This blueprint of what La Belle would have looked like was created in the 20th century, after excavation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was a born planner.

Every December, I would start planning my birthday party. I’d write out a birthday list, figure out who I would invite, tell my mum the entire deal, and then flounce back to my room to figure out the details.

My birthday? It’s in November.

Looking back at that, it’s a surprise that when I started writing novels, I did it by the seat of my pants. Maybe that’s what happens when an INFJ tries to balance the intuitive with the judger.

I wrote my first two and a half novels (well, two and two halves) without any idea of what would come next aside from a vague sort of picture and once a brief outline. None of them worked. I couldn’t figure out why it took my beta readers months and months and death threats to return any feedback to me.

Nothing really motivated them enough to read my work. I couldn’t fathom why. I thought it was good. Maybe not perfect, but good.

Then about a year ago, I heard of something called “structure.”

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Smoke (Photo credit: AMagill)

For a while, this idea of structure eluded me like trying to catch smoke in a net. All the while, I felt like a really crappy Indiana Jones searching for relics on a waitress’s budget with no passport.

Which was sort of true. Except I have a passport.

It wasn’t until I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks that something massive clicked in my head, like the giant boulder finding the perfect niche.

My first books didn’t work because they completely lacked structure. Every book, play, and screenplay follows a certain amount of rules. It’s what keeps tension going. It’s what moves the story along. At its core, it is the instinctual resonance of a narrative arc that goes back to the days where we all sat around in caves picking our teeth with splintered femurs while a clan storyteller regaled us with legends and myths and feuds about cows.

Plot and structure are lovers, and good plots have great structure. Amazing plots have exceptional structure.

Most creative people don’t stand up and cheer when someone mentions rules or rigid words like structure. But structure isn’t something with much wiggle room, and once I realised that, I found I had more creative freedom. Not less. Because learning about structure gave me what every wannabe published writer writes for: an audience.

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They love me! They really love me! Wait, why aren’t they looking at me? Audience (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

Screenplays work in three acts, but I’m now convinced that novels don’t. Novels are subject to something that I (among more notable authors) like to call the Muddle. The Muddle is what happens when you take a beginning and an end and sit on them. They get squished underneath your bum until there’s just a flat squidgy place in the middle that looks suspiciously like the rear end that indented it.

Because of the Muddle, I like to think of novel structure in quadrants.

Quadrant 1: Bring It On

In the first 20-25% of a novel, we meet the main characters. The time bomb starts ticking, an inciting incident happens, we get a feel for the antagonist, and we get a glimpse of the protagonist’s “normal” before proceeding to pick it up and smash it to bits. (Those things don’t happen in that order.) If these things aren’t present, why would any reader go on?

The inciting incident may or may not be the same as the first plot point (or the break into Act II, as they say in film), but sometimes it is. But when it happens, it must propel the protagonist into a life-altering decision and give the first real glimpse of the antagonist.

Quadrant 2: Flailing in the Waves

After the protagonist’s Big Life-Altering Decision, she starts finding out that what she thought was an inconvenient puddle is really a mire of badness. Quadrant 2 is her reacting, wading in, flailing out, and probably not having the most success. This is also a reason to love the four quadrants as opposed to one big second act — the protagonist’s flailing in Quadrant 2 leads up to the single biggest turning point in the novel: the midpoint.

Halfway through, your protagonist has another decision. This time it has to move her from reacting into being proactive. She has to learn information that forces her to move from lowly, nose-picking protagonist to chest-puffed hero.

Quadrant 3: Take the Fight

The third quadrant pushes the protagonist into fighting back against the aggressors, whether the antagonist is a specific person or many people or a fleet of rabid ants. She might not (probably won’t) always come out on top in these little skirmishes, but she has to try.

Quadrant 3 is your last chance for exposition, your last stand of the big reveals that culminates in your second plot point (or break into Act III — because big reveals after that plot point annoy readers and viewers alike. I think M. Night Shyamalan needs to read Story Engineering. A giant twist 10 pages from the end might seem snazzy, but it does nothing but confuse and cheat your readers.

Quadrant 4: Boom, Bam, Bow

After you bust the door down into this last quadrant, your story ought to be rolling down the hill like an unsupervised Violet Beauregard on an incline. It should roll smoothly toward the climactic final confrontation, and from there into a nice little meadow filled with tied-up subplots and dandelions.

That’s why I turned in my pantser card. While I had enough of a feel for structure to get turning points in the right place, they weren’t as effective because I could never verbalise what made them strong or weak. Knowing what needs to go where freed me up — especially when I started plucking books off my shelves to check up on these things. Pick up great books, and you’ll see that their quadrants all line up almost exactly.

I might not outline the entire book down to its toenails, but I will make sure I know certain things. And because I love you, here’s Emmie’s Magical Pre-Plot Checklist!

  • Who is my protagonist, what does she want, and why does she want it?
  • Who is my antagonist, what does she want, and why does she want it?
  • What is the central conflict of the story? What are three other layers of that conflict?
  • What is my first plot point? How will it show the antagonist threat for the first time and goose my character into the next quadrant?
  • What is my midpoint? What information will change my protagonist’s goals, mindset, and plan enough to propel her into proactivity?
  • What is my second plot point? What information must my protagonist have before the climax? What can shake her and still push her to be stronger? Does she need a “dark night of the soul?”
  • What is my climax? How is my protagonist going to beat my antagonist?

This is now my bare minimum for starting on page one — and I prefer to get more in-depth than that, at least when it comes to my characters if not the precise lining out of chapters. If nothing else, it helps avoid the Muddle!

How do you plot? Do you plot? Have you had to deal with the Silence of the Beta Readers? Do you actively think about the structure of your novels, or do you wing it? Does it work? Are you hating me right now? 🙂

Thanks for bearing with a long first post — I promise next time I’ll be more succinct.