Throwback Thursday: Take a First Draft and Make it Better

Originally published 24/04/2016

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.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Persevere With Your Idea

Originally published 17/04/2016

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!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: What’s Your Story About?

Originally published 06/03/2016

Some would have you believe that there are two kinds of writers in this world: those who plan their whole story out in advance and those who make it up as they go along. To some extent that’s undoubtedly true. In fact, I personally identify far more with the latter. In fact, I haven’t planned this very post out in too much detail at all. But there is one thing I am sure of: what this post is actually about.

There’s a particular quotation we non-planning writers like to throw around to justify ourselves sometimes:

E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.

(Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

Personally, I think this needs a little refining (I will admit I have taken it slightly out of context but I suspect a lot of non-planning writers have done the same!). Here’s my version:

‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way if you know where it is you hope to end up!’

Think about it: suppose you’re a successful author who lives in Glasgow and you want to go to a book shop in York to autograph copies of your book (dream big, guys!). You might well be able to successfully get there using only your wits and following the road signs. Even if you get lost, you could probably still find your way again if you keep your head. But what if all you knew was that you were attending a book shop somewhere in the British Isles, with a vague notion that it might possibly be somewhere in the north of England? You’d be driving forever, that’s what! It doesn’t how many people you ask for directions, how many maps you buy or what you punch into your sat-nav; you will never find the place you’re looking for in a month of Sundays.

One of the biggest dangers we non-planning writers face is that you can easily end up writing screeds and screeds of excellent work, only to realise you can’t finish because you don’t know what it is you’re actually hoping to accomplish by writing. This is a recipe for another unfinished manuscript. So, before you write forty odd chapters and suddenly hit an insurmountable wall, ask yourself this question: What is my story about?

You can probably get away without drawing up a detailed plan of what is going to happen in each chapter and all of the other stuff we non-planning writers like to do to convince ourselves we’re writing when we’re really just wasting time but if you can’t answer that simple question, I doubt very much that you will ever finish your story.

My advice would be to refine your answer to that question to make it as simple as possible. Albert Einstein once said, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. Granted, he wasn’t talking about writing a story but I think the basic principle can still be applied here. If you can’t come up with a simple answer straight away, then it’s probably a good idea to start off with a working synopsis (it doesn’t matter if you need to change it later; that’s just how we non-planning types roll) but ideally, you should be able to whittle this down to one or two short sentences which form the backbone of your story. If you’re struggling to do this, ask yourself a few key questions like these:

  • What is the protagonist trying to accomplish?
  • Why is s/he trying to do this?
  • What’s stopping him/her?
  • You might also find it useful at this stage to ask who the protagonist is, but if you’re a hardcore non-planner you might prefer to just see who pops up when you start writing.

Once you have the answers, you should find it a fairly simple task to summarise what you are trying to write about in a single sentence, or  two at the most. For example, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is a very lengthy and involved narrative, I’m sure you’ll agree!) can be reduced to something like: ‘A young hobbit must make the dangerous journey to Mordor to destroy a magical ring’.

I think you’ll agree that this little micro-synopsis (as I hereby define it) gives only the meanest description of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is the backbone of the plot and nothing more. That’s a good thing! It allows the non-planning writer to have a clear idea of what s/he is trying to accomplish without having to restrict their inner artistic flare. If you were trying to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which would be plagiarism by the way, so don’t do it!) using this as your only “plan”, you would probably produce something very different from the original Tolkien narrative. If we continue our driving metaphor, your micro-synopsis ideally should not be a map or even a list of directions; it should be an old scrap of paper with the address of the place you’re trying to get to written on it. But how you get there is entirely up to you. The more simple it is, the less restrictive your Muse will find it when you’re writing.

Once you’ve got your micro-synopsis, write it down and keep it close at hand while you’re writing. If you find yourself getting lost as you make your treacherous midnight journey towards Completed Manuscript Land, refer back to your micro-synopsis and ask yourself if you’re still going in the right direction. Like I said, we non-planning types frequently get lost. That’s okay. If you keep in mind where you’re trying to end up, you’ll soon find your way again.

So… what’s your story about?

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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Monday Motivation

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

30 Character Epiphanies

Well, we have finally come to the end of my impromptu series of lists of motives, goals, conflicts and epiphanies for your character, and so it wouldn’t take a genius to work out that today’s little list is all about epiphanies.

An epiphany is that key lesson which your character learns as a result of everything that has happened to him or her throughout the story which will change them forever. I don’t suppose it’s strictly necessary for your character to have one, and they certainly don’t need to be anything overly complicated, but they feel like a pretty natural way to bring a character arc to a satisfying ending when your character has finally rested from all their struggling and is now at peace.

In general, I think a good idea is to base your character’s epiphany on their motive. For instance, if your character been motivated by a lust for revenge, they might learn at the end of the story that revenge is not nearly as sweet as they imagined it to be, and so they learn to forgive. The story can end here leaving the audience feeling satisfied that the protagonist is now at peace, irrespective of whether or not he actually had his revenge.

The list I’ve prepared this week is by no means exhaustive and is loosely based on the list of motives I came up with a while ago (those of you who are paying attention will notice the list of motives was much longer than the list of epiphanies) but hopefully it will give you a few ideas. Perhaps even a few epiphanies.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Different Seasons (Book Review)

Originally published 21/02/2016 under the title ‘Different Seasons’

SPOILER ALERT:

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Different Seasons by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’ve never been a fan of horror stories (but power to you if you like them) and for that reason, I’ve avoided the work of Stephen King for far longer than is healthy for someone who claims to love a good story. However, on my birthday at the end of last year, I unwrapped not one but two Stephen King books: Different Seasons and The Green Mile (I also unwrapped Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck and a 9 book collection of Poirot novels by Agatha Christie, but that’s not important just now). I haven’t got around to reading The Green Mile yet but if it’s half as good as Different Seasons then I might have just become a Stephen King fan. It’s a fantastic book.

I would offer one word of caution to anyone who, like me, does not usually like horror but is curious about Stephen King: Different Seasons may(!) not accurately reflect the kind of stories King normally writes. As I read through Different Seasons, I was surprised by how relatively mild the horror elements were until I got to the afterword, in which King (1982, p. 672) comments,

I write true to type … at least, most of the time. But is horror all I write? If you’ve read the foregoing stories, you know it’s not … but the elements of horror can be found in all of the tales, not just in The Breathing Method – that business with the slugs in The Body is pretty gruesome, as is much of the dream imagery in Apt Pupil. Sooner or later, my mind always seems to turn back in that direction.

It’s this little afterword which leaves me wondering exactly how King’s other novels compare to this collection. That being said, the four novellas contained in this collection (Rita Hayworth and Shawkshank Redemption; Apt Pupil; The Body; The Breathing Method) certainly have their own dark threads running through them.

I don’t really want to rabbit on about Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption too much since I’ve already raved about it in a previous post but it bears mentioning. It tells the story of a friendship which develops between two prisoners in the Shawshank Penitentiary and of the final dramatic exit of both men from that prison. It features pretty much nothing in the way of supernatural horror elements but neither is it shy about giving a gritty account of life in the Shawshank Penitentiary, where most of the story is set. There are, for example, a few brutal scenes of violence including rape, though these are not overdone in a way which would make the narrative needlessly crude. In fact, I found there to be something strangely heart-warming about the main plot and the way the story ends. What really made this story stand out for me, however, was King’s superb use of narrative voice, as mentioned previously.

Like ShawshankApt Pupil is a story that does not really contain any traditional horror elements. However, it is very dark; the darkest of the four in my opinion. It is set in the fictional Californian suburb of Santo Donato and focuses on a mutually destructive relationship between an elderly Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander (a.k.a Arthur Denker) and Todd Bowden, an ‘all American kid’ with an unhealthy fixation on the Holocaust. Unlike the other three, Apt Pupil is narrated in the third person.

The story opens with the protagonist, Todd, appearing quite uninvited on Dussander’s doorstep, having already learned of Dussander’s previous life as a Nazi and his specific role in the Holocaust. Todd begins by blackmailing Dussander, threatening to expose him unless Dussander tells him gruesome and detailed stories about the Holocaust. The relationship brings out the worst qualities in both characters, eventually leading both to actual acts of murder while their mutual fear of each other forces them to continue their toxic relationship. While this is a little darker than the type of story I would normally go for, I must say that the two main characters are a master-class in constructing complex relationships between characters. Each character is unique, memorable and serves a vital function in the story (as all characters should), yet their relationships are a complex and intricately crafted web of obsession, hatred and interdependency the like of which very few other authors could hope to equal. Despite being darker than the type of thing I would normally read, it is so well written that I would have to say that, along with ShawshankApt Pupil is probably my joint-favourite story from Different Seasons.

The Body, on the other hand, was probably my least favourite of the four. It is written from the perspective of Gordon Lachance; an author, writing about an incident in his youth when he and a group of his friends, all of whom come from dysfunctional families, learned of a dead body which one of their brothers had discovered but not reported to the authorities. Lachance and his friends set out in secret to search for this body so they can ‘discover’ it and become famous. Personally, I found the narrative a little on the slow side compared to the other three novellas and while King’s use of narrative voice in this story was very good, it doesn’t come close to Red’s narration in Shawshank. The ending was also a bit of a let down. On the plus side (if you don’t like anything too dark), it is comparatively light on the physical and psychological violence found in the previous two stories.

The Breathing Method is a story within a story and is probably the closest thing to a supernatural horror to be found in the collection, though any supernatural or fantastic aspects to this story are only hinted at. The story opens with David, the protagonist of the frame narrative, being invited along to a mysterious men’s club by his boss where the members mostly read, tell stories and play pool. The rest of the novella takes the form of another character, Edward McCarron, telling David and everyone else at the club a story about an unmarried pregnant woman he once treated who was determined to have her baby despite the social and financial difficulties this would have caused her. He also tells them about an unconventional method of controlled breathing which he teaches her to use when she goes into labour, which allows him to save the baby’s life when the woman is involved in a fatal traffic accident.

All in all, Different Seasons is an excellent collection and is probably a great place for a first time reader of Stephen King to begin, especially if you’re not wild on horror. More importantly than that, the quality of the writing in all four of these stories testifies to the fact that – no matter how famous he might be for writing horror – Stephen King is no one-trick pony. Different Seasons may be a little on the dark side at points but I would still highly recommend it to even the most avid of horror-dodgers.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Monday Motivation

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

6 Types of Conflict (With Examples)

As anyone who hangs around this blog or who even knows the slightest thing about story writing will tell you, the key to writing a good story is to create a rich cast of characters with clear motives and goals which bring them into conflict with some kind of antagonist or problem.

Last week I shared a list of possible character goals as a (rather belated) follow-up to my earlier post on character motives. And so, in keeping with this theme, I have prepared a list of possible conflicts for your story. These are the problems your protagonist will have to overcome in order to accomplish their goals.

The six main categories of conflict are already pretty well established in writerly circles:

  1. Character VS. Character
  2. Character VS. Self.
  3. Character VS. Nature
  4. Character VS. Society
  5. Character VS. Supernatural
  6. Character VS. Technology

This way of categorising conflicts works pretty well and I saw no point in deviating from it; however, to help you along, I have also included three possible examples of each. This is by no means and exhaustive list and I have tried to keep it generalised, but I hope you find it useful.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

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