Here’s me chatting to Matt Brown over on his WordMonkeys Podcast this week — discussing writing Cogheart, Postman Pat, Children’s TV shows, and how I get mistaken for another 72YO Peter Bunzl — and if you like that, there are lots of previous episodes featuring Matt’s writer chats with the likes of Piers Torday, Holly Bourne, Robin Stephens, SF Said etc.
A month ago I wrote a post called 7 tips to help you write your first draft. Since then I have been working on a second draft of Cogheart Book 2. A draft that I hoped would be good enough to send to my editor and agent for editorial comments. And so I thought I would write something about how that process of revising my first draft went.
If you finished your first draft since the last post – good work! Eat some cake, drink some wine, guzzle some chocs, dance, or do whatever your celebratory thing is. But I would suggest not showing your pages to anyone just yet. Not until you’ve had time to read through, revise what you’ve written, and get it to a second draft that you feel happy with. So here, because I couldn’t quite squeeze them into seven, are nine tips to help you get to that point…
1. Print out your first draft and read it through.
You might find a few story gaps. Don’t worry about those at this stage. You will end up rewriting again… and again… and again… until you’ve fixed them. Yay!
For now, just keep reading.
People often call the first draft ‘the Random draft’, ‘the Zero Draft’, or ‘the Vomit Draft’. That’s because as you read you’ll find LOADS wrong with it. There are plots that don’t conclude, characters who seem flat, and random scenes that don’t quite make sense. But don’t despair, because you can save your story. And you will. There will even be ACE bits that you love and are worth keeping.
2. Write a note for each mistake.
Scribble things all over the manuscript with a pencil, even if you think the scene you’re editing won’t make it into the next draft.
I find it helpful to add potential corrections for all the problems, big or small. Writing notes is as much about thinking aloud, and turning things over in your mind, as it is about fixing them. Remember to leave big ticks and contunuity notes for scenes that are great but just need moving.
3. Uh-oh, big problems!
If you’re anything like me here are a few of the big problems you might find as you read through your first draft:
The protagonist has no single, strong, overarching external goal.
Or even an internal goal.
The protagonist takes no action, solves no problems and barely emotes.
There are too few clues or mystery elements.
The villain isn’t villainous enough.
A character in Chapter One mouths off about the whole plot, revealing all kinds of secrets better discovered by the readers and protagonist in tiny, hard-earned, incremental pieces.
These are head-scratchers, but keep reading and if you come up with answers scribble them in a notebook or on paper. If you can’t find a solution frame the problem as a question to start your brain turning over.
4. Put the Manuscript aside for a few more days.
So you’ve read through and made SO MANY notes, but there are still problems to solve, or things that don’t quite sit right. Put the manuscipt aside again for a few days to give yourself time to percolate and juggle the characters and scenes around in your head some more.
I find if I try and do this at my desk answers might not appear. So I go out and do something else. Perhaps answers still don’t arrive… You sweat and worry and they still don’t make themselves known… Finally… last thing at night, or first thing in the morning, or in the bath, or on the train, or wherever, a solution to your most pressing story problem flashes into your brain, it’s much better than the previous idea you came up with and you rush to write it down…
5. Write a one line pitch.
Now you’ve written pages and pages of notes, you might start to have a feel of what the story’s actually about. Who the lead really is, and what the backbone of it will become. At this point it might be useful to write a one line pitch.
A one line pitch is 30-60 words about your protagonist and main plot. Something like:
When Jack and Jill set out to fetch a pail water, they find the Big Bad has bought the well and plans to keep it all for himself. Jack and Jill try to steal back the water, but Jack falls down and breaks his crown. Now Jill must save him and the precious pail, before the Big Bad catches up with them both.
This is too long, but you get the idea. Take your (much better-than-this) one line pitch and stick it above your computer monitor so you can see it when you do your re-write.
6. Write the WANTS and NEEDS of characters.
As the Rolling Stones said: ‘You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need…’ WANT VS NEED is more to do with the interior of a character. I find it useful to write a little post it of what the character’s wants at the start of the story, and what they need to get to feel fulfilled at the end. These two thing are often completely different. Sometimes you won’t hit them both in the early drafts but they are good to bear in mind.
7. Rewrite your synopsis for structure.
Normally at this point, when I have SO MANY notes, I sit down with pen and paper and rewrite my synopsis/outline/map document. The aim is to fix the macro plot and include all my new stuff.
If you have some good structure books it might be worth having a quick flick through them before you do this. Personally, I try to write more of chapter outline this time. If, in refining a plot point in chapter ten, I suddenly realise I need to set something up in chapter five, I write a post it for that and stick it on the relevant page of the outline to remind myself to add it in later. My new chapter outline comes out about 10-15 pages. But, whatever your map was for the first draft you might rather revise that.
8. Complete re-write, or patch-up job?
One last decision: can you rewrite sections and tweak the first draft manuscript, or is it better to start from scratch and incorporate bits of the original when and where you need them?
9. Sit down and write your second draft.
Whichever route you decide to go, you have your new road map documents – your notes, your characters’ wants and needs, a one liner, a synopsis, and a manuscript covered in scribbles. You’ve taken this journey once before, maybe on slightly more meandering roads, but this time you’re no longer driving in pitch black darkness and you have much more of an idea where you’re going. So sit down and write your way through this, again…
Recently I’ve been working on the first draft of a Cogheart Sequel. I find first drafts the MOST difficult part of writing. (And then the second, and third – a bit like Stanley Yelnats digging his holes). It’s scary when you visualize those empty pages and missing words, not to mention the dark plot holes you might fall into. Then there’s the anxiety of getting it all down, especially if you have a deadline. With all that to think about, it’s no wonder it’s so tough to get through, but here are my seven tips to help you with a first draft…
1. Apply butt to seat of chair and write.
Set yourself an achievable deadline to write the book. Three months, six months, nine months, or a year. Remember: the shorter the timescales the better chance you have of finishing, because if you maintain momentum, you’ll be in a the same mindset nearing the end as you were when you started. Then try to get the words on the page as quickly as possible.
2. Make a Schedule.
Work out how long the book is going to be in words: 20,000 50,000, 60,000, 100,000 – whatever. Then divide that number by the time you have to write – say a couple of hours a day, 5-6 days a week. This gives you an optimum word count per day. Aim for that, but try to find what works for you, and be realistic, if your writing goal turns out to be unachievable you’re going to have to adjust the schedule.
I have a writing diary and some stickers to put in it if I hit my daily wordcount. I aim for 1,500 words a day. On a good day it’s possible to do that in two or three hours, but sometimes, if things go badly, I sit there forever and only get a couple of hundred words down.
Don’t beat yourself up if that happens, just start in again the next day. And if you hit a big milestone target add a jazzy sticker and buy yourself a nice treat!
3. Don’t get it right. Get it written.
Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft. It’s like sculpture – first you slap the clay on the board, then you shape it, then finally, you finesse it. But, to begin with, all you have are big messy lumps of clay – vague shape. You need those vague shapes, those broad ideas as your foundations, so try and let the process happen and edit later. Remember there’s always the next draft to fix things. Basically, don’t overthink it. Write whatever comes, and try to get out of the way of the unconscious so you can hear the words.
4. Take a map.
E L Doctrow, once said: ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’
It’s an amazing quote, but my advice would be, if you’re going to go driving/novelling at night, know your rough destination and TAKE A MAP! Your map can be anything – a scribbled diagram, a one page synopsis, a treatment of three pages, or fifty. The important thing is with it, you’ve a better chance of getting where you want to go, because even a basic map will show the big landmarks. (Clue: these landmarks are the main story beats of your novel ie. act breaks, mid-point, final destination.)
5. The map is not the territory.
Some German philosopher said this. It means, a map is a schematic thing – a plan only. It doesn’t really show you what somewhere is truly like – experientially. After all, on the ground you might have a different thought – want to go a different way – and, if you do, you must feel free to take that path, see where it leads. Even if it turns out to be a dead end and you have to go back.
Because not everyone likes maps, you could be a Dirk-Gently-type-person, driving along and following every random car (or plot bunny) you pass in the hope of getting where you want to go.
6. Don’t panic and Don’t look back!
Which brings me on to the immortal words of Douglas Adams: ‘Don’t Panic!’ Especially about what’s up ahead – there’s nothing you can do about that. You have to try and be zen and write the sentence you’re writing right now, One word at a time. ‘A word after a word after a word = power.’ (I think that’s Anne Lammot.)
Keep adding words, keep moving forward. And, in the mortal words of Bob Dylan: ‘Don’t look back’. M G Leonard, who wrote the amazing Beetle Boy, likens it to Orpheus in the underworld, if you look back, all might be lost, so you’ve got to keep on going.
7. Finish it.
Get to the end of the draft no matter what, because you need to see what the whole thing looks like before you can start to revise.
Remember, before you even think about examining what you wrote, put it in a drawer and leave it for a while.
And having said all that…
When you take someone else’s advice, it’s always good to remember William Goldman’s motto: ‘Nobody knows anything.’ He was talking about writing in the movie business, but he could’ve been talking about any form of writing, or indeed life:
Nobody else can tell you how to do your thing – so you should always take their advice with a pinch of salt, use what works for you and throw the rest away!!
Next time I thought I would write 5 tips on re-writing, but perhaps I’d better wait until I’ve finished that stage to do that!
Before attending this talk I’d no idea what book packaging involved, I thought it might mean designing or typesetting books. I soon discovered how wrong I was when David Richardson of SCBWI introduced the two speakers, Benjamin Scott and Michael Ford.
Michael is an editor for Working Partners, a book packager that’s produced hundreds of successful series and sold them to publishers around the world; Benjamin is a children’s author who ghost-writes for various of those series.