Take a First Draft and Make it Better

I recently finished the first draft of a novella I’ve been working on for far too long already. It’s been a bit of a slog getting it done, let me tell you. There were numerous times I was tempted to give up. But after much sweating of blood and ignoring the gnawing feeling of ‘THIS IS THE WORST STORY I HAVE EVER WRITTEN’, I finally produced a completed first draft.

It was still the worst story I had ever written. But that didn’t matter. It was a completed draft; a full blown story with a beginning, a middle and an end which more or less made sense. The difficult bit was now at hand: writing a redraft.

After the initial excitement of finishing the first draft wore off, I quickly found myself less than enthusiastic about the second draft. It can feel a little bit like you’re starting from scratch with something you’ve already spent weeks on. However, you’ll find it a whole lot more rewarding and enjoyable to do if you remember that the point of a redraft is to make your story better. In other words, it’s about taking a little time to identify and fix the problems with the first draft, rather than starting all over again (though you should do it as a complete redraft).

If you followed my advice from last week, you’ll probably have realised that this is a lot easier to do now than it would have been if you tried to edit as you went along. The bare bones of the story are already there: beginning, middle and end. So the best thing to do now is print off your draft and sit down with a pen or a few highlighters (or whatever floats your boat) and mark what you have done. Personally, I find it a lot easier to wait a day or two before I do this so that I can look at it with a fresh and hopefully objective perspective. Then I read through the whole manuscript, scribbling notes in the margins and highlighting relevant parts which need to be improved in some way. The idea at this stage is to identify what it is about your first draft that needs to be changed, improved or removed (be ruthless with this; if it doesn’t work, get rid of it no matter how much you like it). Perhaps your dialogue is too rigid and unconvincing; perhaps there are a few loose ends in the plot or things that don’t quite make sense; perhaps you rabbit on too much about the back story before getting down to the actual action. Whatever it is that made your first draft suck, try to specifically identify it. Don’t settle for simply saying ‘It’s boring’ or ‘It’s not very good’. That’s too vague. Why is it boring? What makes it not very good? That’s what you want to figure out just now.

Once you’ve done that, it should be fairly straight-forward to redraft your story. If the main problem with your first draft was something as simple as unconvincing dialogue or sloppy grammar, this shouldn’t be too difficult. If you’re a human being, however, you’ll probably find your first draft has a lot more wrong with it, especially if you didn’t plan it out in too much detail before you started. That’s okay, as long as you can identify and fix these problems.

The biggest problem I found in my first draft was my vague back story. Fortunately, I was also a couple of hundred words shy of the word count I was aiming for, so all in all I consider those two problems to be quite complimentary. However, I soon realised that I couldn’t simply sit down with my old manuscript and change the odd line here and there. When you start tinkering with something as fundamental as the back story, you soon find that your main plot develops a few problems too.

So, do we give up now? We most certainly do not! We persevere, just like we did last week.

Having identified where I went wrong in the first draft, I grabbed a nice clean notebook and sat out in the back garden with an ice lolly (summer happened on the 21st of April in Scotland this year) and began to address these problems. The process I used is very simple; all it requires is patience and perseverance. I began by writing down my basic story in no more than a paragraph or two. Then I wrote down all the problems I had identified with it in the form of questions. For example, one of the first questions I came up with was, ‘Why would a pirate be an expert in Ren-Zyti antiquity?’ (yes, I’m writing a space fantasy about magic space pirates).

Now this question (along with the various others I came up with) demands an answer, because it pertains to something in my plot which does not make sense. So I came up with an answer: ‘He used to be a lecturer in Ren-Zyti antiquities before his home-world was destroyed’.

Great! However, doing this raised a few new questions that also had to be answered. As I said, it is a process which requires patience and perseverance but by the end of it, I had a back story which really worked. Not only did it work (without really changing the bare bones of my plot too much), it had also added new depths to my characters and to my fantasy universe almost accidentally. To be certain it worked, I again summed up my story from start to finish in a few sentences, again picking out any remaining questions or problems and fixing them.

Then and only then was I truly equipped to sit down and write up a redraft which I could be sure would be better than the first one. Even if you’re not much of a planner (I know I’m not!), you will find it pays dividends at this stage to take a little time to really pick out all the specific problems with your first draft and decide how you are going to fix them before you write up the second draft. That’s the whole point of a redraft; to transform your silly little story into a good story.

 

Persevere With Your Idea

I never started writing with a bad idea. In fact, I’m not even entirely convinced there is such a thing as bad story ideas or good story ideas. There are just ideas, some of which are well executed, some of which are badly executed and some of which are never executed because the would-be writer cannot decide the best way to do it, or is unwilling to try (though I feel that in the interests of public safety, I should point out that this only applies to story ideas; other kinds of ideas, like deciding to use Tabasco sauce as an eye-drop, really are bad ideas).

So, why do the marvellous ideas we start with so quickly turn into half-finished manuscripts that we are unable to finish and are ashamed to have even begun?

I’m beginning to learn that it comes down to perseverance (or a lack thereof) and perfectionism. We are discouraged because our super fantastic brilliant idea doesn’t instantly sprout into the super fantastic brilliant story we hoped it would and so we give up. It’s a rubbish story. I was stupid to think it was a good idea but the next one will be better.

This is actually nonsense when you think about it. The problem is probably not your idea; the problem is your lack of willingness to persevere with your idea. Most ideas, when boiled down to their basic elements, are not too dissimilar. Someone is trying to do something; something hinders them; someone overcomes or fails to overcome what hinders them; someone hopefully grows in some way.

Perfectionism is the enemy of the author. It causes you to freeze up and stop writing the moment you start noticing all the difficulties and outright flaws in your idea but if you let this stop you, you’ll never finish anything. So the first and most important rule is this:

Quitting is NOT an option!

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your story to be perfect. Who wants to write a second-rate story? But it will never be perfect if you aren’t able to finish it so don’t give up on a story you’ve begun, no matter how badly you feel it is going. You must finish your story before you can truly make it perfect. This boils down simple motivation; ignoring the urge to quit when you see a bad story appearing and pressing on towards the end, knowing you can make it perfect afterwards.

I find deadlines and daily word counts to be invaluable to this end. Anyone who has ever written an essay for school or university will be able to testify that when you’ve got no choice but to finish your essay, you always can. It doesn’t matter how hard it is, how little you’re enjoying writing it or even how much you deplore everything you have said; if you are determined to get that essay handed in on time, you can jolly well do it. It might mean deleting some words, paragraphs or even whole chapters that you felt were very good. It might even mean handing in something that doesn’t meet your impossibly high standards if you haven’t made enough time to edit your work. But it gets finished and the same is absolutely true of story writing.

Deadlines force you to persevere, because you haven’t got time to start from scratch whenever you get stuck or to spend months inspecting the minutiae of your idea before you even begin writing. I’m certain this is why NaNoWriMo is so popular. If you have been commissioned by a publisher then you will almost certainly have a deadline (usually a very tight one!) but if not, it’s a good idea to set one for yourself. Promise to treat yourself to something you enjoy if you reach your goal. Better still, get a friend to hold you accountable to the deadline you set. Make sure you have got a completed draft to show them for the date and time you have agreed, come hell or high water.

If you’re writing a very long project like a novel (and you don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck), you may find it difficult to judge when a realistic deadline should be, especially if it’s your first novel. In that case, a daily word count (say, 1,000 words per day, or whatever you can realistically manage) or even setting yourself deadlines per chapter is a good way to persevere. And remember, you are not allowed to quit under any circumstances. Stick to the story you are on until it’s finished. No matter how awful the story you are producing is turning out to be, keep producing it. You can fix it later.

‘But what if I can’t fix it later?!’ I hear you cry. ‘What if it’s so very terrible that it is beyond redemption?!’

You can fix it. If you are dog-with-a-bone stubborn and refuse to abandon your story until it’s done to your satisfaction, you will fix it, even if it means a complete redraft. You have only failed to fix it when you give up.

This is all very well and good if you’re not working to a deadline set by a publisher or for a competition. Under these circumstances, a little time management is obviously advised. You will need to allow yourself time to edit. The more time you make for editing and redrafting, the more likely you are to submit a good story. But there is one thing you must not allow: do not allow yourself to just miss the deadline. Make sure you have a completed manuscript by the deadline and hand it in. Maybe it will get rejected; maybe it won’t. You might be pleasantly surprised. But one thing is for sure: nothing you write will ever be accepted, critiqued or even read by anyone unless you finish what you started.

And what is the point of writing anything unless someone eventually gets to read your finished work? Persevere and win!

To Catch a Killer (A Little Too Easily)

SPOILER ALERT

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen the ITV television-movie Maigret or read the Georges Simenon novel Maigret Sets a Trap is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m normally quite fussy about reading the original of any story before I watch the film/TV adaptation. It’s not that I favour one over the other; I just like to get a feel for the original author’s unique angle on his/her story before sampling other people’s homages to it. That being said, when I heard that Rowan Atkinson was going to be starring as the main character in ITV’s television adaptation of Georges Simenon’s detective novel Maigret Sets a Trap, my curiosity got the better of me.

There are a couple of reasons I was so keen to see it but what really piqued my curiosity and what caused me to break with my usual tradition of reading the book first was the fact that the main character (a fairly sour-faced French detective called Jules Maigret), was being portrayed by Rowan Atkinson; a British actor best known for playing fairly silly comedy roles such as Mr Bean, Johnny English and Edmund Blackadder.

I will admit that it took a couple of minutes to get used to Atkinson’s face being so serious. His features are very striking and he has made a career out of comical facial expressions, not least of all in Mr Bean, where he has made an art of telling jokes without uttering a word. My disorientation only lasted a minute however. Atkinson’s acting and the general mood of the film were more than adequate to create the serious and mysterious ambiance needed for a good, solid detective story.

I do love a good detective story. I think secretly we all do. Mystery is very compelling. It’s what makes a detective story so captivating; something puzzling has happened and we simply can’t go to bed until we’ve had all our questions answered! That means, of course, that it is important that the reader/viewer of a detective story never knows for certain who committed the crime until the last moment (that was always my biggest objection to Columbo!). Those unanswered questions are what keep us on the edge of our seat. Without them, there’s no mystery and no story worth telling. Those detailed conversations you have with your family during the ad-breaks about who you think the killer might be and why are half the fun of watching a detective drama in my book.

And that, dear reader, is the main thing that ruined this first episode of Maigret for me.

The episode opens midway through an investigation conducted by Jules Maigret into four similarly styled murders. The victims have nothing in common except the colour of their hair and Maigret is, frankly, utterly failing to catch the perpetrator. And so he sets a trap, using female police officers as bait. At first, this seems to have all the makings of a good TV detective story; a compelling hard-nosed detective; pressure being applied to remove the detective from the case because of his failure to solve it; a series of mysterious murders that cause my wife and I to exchange numerous increasingly wild theories about ‘who dunnit’; the looming threat of more deaths; a dangerous plan to force the killer to reveal himself…

But then the plan goes ahead fairly early in the story, nobody gets killed as a result of Maigret’s risky move and someone is arrested against whom a truck-load of evidence is immediately forthcoming.

‘It can’t be him.’ I say to my wife. ‘It definitely, definitely, definitely can’t be him. It’s too obvious. It’s never the first guy they arrest, especially not when they find so much evidence against him so easily.’

So we carry on watching it for another half hour or so, quietly confident in our individual theories about who the real killer is while Maigret continues to hold and interrogate someone who we assume is an innocent man…

Only it turns out it was him after all and the person who I thought maybe was the killer is actually never actually seen again. Oh sure, they try to throw us off the scent by having another murder committed while the killer is in jail but by that point it’s painfully obvious that it was the killer’s wife who committed this last murder just to protect her husband and so we are not fooled and neither is Maigret.

I was prepared for the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to take Rowan Atkinson seriously as a serious detective and was pleasantly surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. If I was giving out prizes for acting or creating the right ambiance, I would have nothing but praise for Maigret but when it comes to that all important story, I must admit to feeling like I had been robbed of a good mystery and I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the second episode (due to be aired later in the UK later this year) as I was about the first.

My most sincere congratulations to Rowan Atkinson (and indeed, all the cast!) on a very good and very non-comical performance. Hopefully the plot for the next episode, Maigret’s Dead Man, will do greater justice to the acting and ambiance of the first episode.

A Beginners’ Guide to Making Up Fantasy Names

How do you go about naming characters in your story? If you’re writing a sci-fi or fantasy story, you are certain to come up against this question, not only for your characters but also fantasy organisations, races, religions, philosophies, nations, planets, galaxies and just about anything else you invent!

After all, it’s no small job creating a world!

Well, for what it’s worth I’ve decided to share with you a little bit about how I like to go about naming fantasy things in this handy-dandy beginners’ guide to naming fantasy things. Obviously I can’t cover every possible fantasy thing you might invent, so I have narrowed it down to cover the three things I personally have struggled with the most: naming characters, naming places and naming concepts.

Let’s start with characters. If your characters are human beings from the actual planet Earth then there’s really no reason you couldn’t use a normal every day name like John or Mary, as long as they are suitable for that character. Indeed, if I’m writing a fantasy set in another world which humans nevertheless are a part of (for example, there are Men inhabiting Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings), I often like to stick to recognisable human names anyway, because they’re far easier to remember. You need to weigh up carefully whether or not that’s appropriate for your story. A good way to worm your way out of this is to simply change one or two letters of a real name to create something new which is still recognisable. For example, the name Jonathan could be Jolothan; Sarah could because Saral and so forth.

More often than not, however, you’ll probably find that completely made-up names are far more appropriate for characters in sci-fi/fantasy. You can get away with almost anything in this but there are a few things to bear in mind.

First, you need to remember that names are usually deeply rooted in the culture and language they come from. For instance, you will often find that Scottish names begin with the prefix, ‘Mac’, which means ‘son of…’. Even if you aren’t interested in inventing a language for your story (that’s a herculean task in itself!), it is certainly worth trying to come up with a few common prefixes or suffixes to sprinkle in there and add meaning to your names. For example, you might decide to use the suffix ‘pam’, to mean ‘son of’. Therefore, the name Erpam could mean something like ‘Son of Er.’

Another thing to consider is the prevailing philosophical and religious beliefs of the character you are naming. In certain Christian traditions, for example, children are often named after various saints such as Paul, Matthew or Helen and many Hebrew names often include the letters ‘jah’ or ‘yah’, which is a reference to the Hebrew name for God. For example, the name Elijah means ‘Yahweh is [my] God’. It should be fairly straightforward for you to adapt this idea to suit whatever religion (or irreligion!) your fantasy characters practice. For instance, let’s pretend your characters all practice a form of polytheism, and believe in a god of thunder called Tom, a god of sunshine called Dick and a god of snow called Harry. If your character was born on a particularly snowy day, he might be named something like Harpam: ‘Son of Snow’.

If, however, your character is an artificial being such as a robot, he may not have a culturally derived name at all. Code-names indicating his creator’s intentions might be more appropriate (for example, in Star Trek: Voyager, the chief medical officer is a holographic doctor; his creator gave him no name except for Emergency Medical Hologram. His ship mates refer to him only as ‘Doctor’) or even a simple number such as R2-D2 (Star Wars) or Third of Five (Star Trek: TNG).

Now, let’s move on to naming places.

In some respects, naming of places works along a very similar principle to naming people. A great many places are named after important people from history or religion: for example, San Francisco is named after Saint Francis. It is also common for places to be named after people who built it or important people who visited it at one time. This is especially true of (but not restricted to) public buildings.

On the other hand, some place names are purely descriptive. For example, prefixes and suffixes such as ‘castle’, ‘kirk’, ‘church’ or ‘abbey’ will often be making reference to important landmarks in the area. Ask yourself what kind of landmarks might be important to your fictional culture. For example, your fictional town might include an army barracks and a church. If the people in this fictional world are not very religious but are fiercely proud of their armed forces, they might prefer to name their town something like Delbarrack rather than Delkirk.

Finally, you may wish to invent a new concept for your fantasy world. For the most part, you can usually get away with using every day words for this and I would strongly recommend you stick to that as far as possible, since it makes your story much easier to follow. For example, I was working on a story once in which I invented a system of government which had three ‘crowns’, each with different functions but who all exercised the supreme authority of kingship equally. Because of this, I decided not to call any of them kings, since I wanted their differences to be clear. After a great deal of changing things about, I finally designated them Imperator, Justicair and Archbishop. These are not made up words, as I’m sure you are aware. They are real words with real meanings in real life; I simply borrowed the terminology and changed their meanings ever so slightly to suit my needs.

There are, of course, some things that you just have to make up new words for. In the Harry Potter series, for example, JK Rowling coined the term ‘muggle’ for anyone who is not a wizard. Personally, I would be inclined to be very, very, very sparing in creating brand new terminology like this unless you absolutely need it. I do understand why Rowling needed a word for ‘muggle’ in the Harry Potter series, since no such word exists in real life. What I don’t understand why she felt the need to invent a special currency for wizards to use. It does not add anything to the story (which is, ultimately, still set on modern day earth; therefore, normal money would surely suffice) apart from a couple of unnecessary concepts for the reader to remember.

So, there you have it! A beginner’s guide to naming fantasy things. I will admit, that it barely scratches the surface of this topic but hopefully it’s given you a few ideas at least. Ultimately, the challenge of creating any fantasy world is to balance imagination with understandability. You can invent almost any kind of person, place or concept you wish but the reader must be able to understand it. Try to avoid overburdening your reader with a hefty lexicon of new terminology that they have to memorise; it only makes your story that much harder to follow. If you take care to make your terminology as simple, meaningful and memorable as possible, it will make it that much easier for your reader to step into the imaginary world you have created.