Last week I posted the first part of this blog series, where I entered the age old debate of Plotting vs Pantsing – you can read that here. Today in Part II we’ll be talking about first drafts and critique partners. Here are a few more things I’ve learned – and the learning will continue, because I’m convinced you never really figure out how to write, you just keep battling the beast.
“5 Things I Learned from Writing My First Novel” Continued….
#2) Your first draft is going to suck….or, Revise, Revise, Revise.
There’s an enormous sense of accomplishment that comes upon finishing your first draft. I remember printing mine out, looking at that thick stack of pages, and thinking, wow, I’m a real writer. And then I read it over and thought, what is this dreck?! But it was only a first draft. First drafts suck. They’re supposed to. A first draft is where you explore, try things on, experiment. A lot of it will need to be cut. Almost all of it will need to be revised. A first draft is not supposed to be a readable manuscript. In fact, I strongly feel (and I’ll discuss this more in #3) that you should never show your first drafts to anyone – they are for your writer eyes only. However, you, the writer, can often be the harshest judge of your own work. Some of this stems from the perfectionism that afflicts every writer I know, but I think some of it is that, before writing our first book, we have never seen the first draft of any novel. When we read published books, we’re seeing the final draft – not all the messy revisions that went into its creation. So we’re shocked with how bad ours is, without realizing that almost all writers’ first drafts are terrible. I took an excellent writing workshop at RWA Nationals with suspense writer Roxanne St. Claire, who took a scene excerpt from one of her novels, and then, bravely, showed us the five successive drafts she’d written for that scene. It was eye opening to see how even a consummate professional, with more than thirty books under her belt, starts out with a scene that is little more than a flat outline of the characters’ actions. Then she progressively adds in more characterization, tweaks the dialogue to improve sexual tension, weaves in ‘info dumps’ of back story to set the scene, and polishes the prose to a high gloss. No one can do all this in one go. Books are not written, they’re re-written.
#3) Use Critique Partners…Wisely
After you’ve been revising your novel for months, you get to the point where you can’t see it clearly anymore. You’ve lost all perspective. You need a fresh set of eyes. This is where critique partners are invaluable. However, there are different types of critique partners, and they’re useful at different stages of the writing process. I’ll call them The Sticklers, The Big Pictures, and The Biggest Fans.
A stickler will dive into the nitty gritty of what’s not working in your story, and they will not let you get away with anything – a stilted line of dialogue, an inconsistency in the plot, an info dump, purple prose, grammatical errors – all these are ruthlessly rooted out with their red pen (or MS Word “Track Changes.”) You need this – at a certain point. But for the love of all that is good and holy, do not show your rough draft to such a critique partner. Not only will it make you never want to write anything again, it serves no purpose – your book isn’t ready for an in-depth critique till at least 2nd draft stage, when you’re rock-solid on the story you want to tell, and just want help telling it better.
The 2nd kind of critique I call “Big Picture” – you’ll often hear the term “beta reader” used. This critiquer reads the story the way someone would read a novel from the bookstore. They don’t get into the nitty gritty; but they can tell you whether or not the story is fundamentally “working” or “not working.” It’s easy to lose sight of the “big picture” of the novel when revising and re-revising each little scene, and a beta reader will help you get that reader perspective back. I find it essential for a critique partner (of the stickler variety) to be a fellow writer, but a ‘big picture’ beta reader doesn’t have to be, as long as they’re well-read in your genre.
(Where to find such critique partners and beta readers? I’m perennially on the lookout, but some of my best critique partners have come from RWA chapters. (RWA stands for “Romance Writers of America,” however, I’ve found their resources helpful for writing any genre fiction. They focus on craft and the business of writing, and are a well-run, reputable nonprofit, with local chapters in all 50 states, as well as sub-genre specific chapters (I’m a member of “FF&P” – Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal.)
Lastly, there are the “Biggest Fans.” These are the people who tell you your writing is awesome, who whistle and cheer when you read your prose aloud, who just enjoy your stories with uncritical love and enthusiasm. These are not critique partners. They are generally your friends or family, and you shouldn’t expect a detailed, nitty-gritty critique from them. You’ll need others to give you that much needed critical feedback. But you need your Biggest Fans too. Because writing a novel is hard. There will be so many times where you’ll want to give up on your story and be tempted to quit, or give up on yourself, and think, “Why do I even bother?” “Why did I think this was a good idea?” “Am I even a writer?!” And this is where your Biggest Fan says “yes,” “you ARE a writer!” “keep writing!’ “I want to find out what happens next!”
Next week, for the final post in this series, we’ll talk about #4) Why how you feel about your writing is not an accurate judgement of the quality of your writing, and lastly #5) Even if your novel truly does suck, the importance of finishing it anyway!
In the meantime, please share in the Comments section – what have you learned from writing a book? 🙂