Sunday 6 November 2011

If only I'd known this when I wrote my first draft

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, see Links) has made me think about when I wrote the first draft of the novel 'The Grandson' in around eight weeks. When I'd finished, it still needed a great deal of work.  I enrolled in creative writing classes, read piles of 'how to' books and analysed plots in books, films and plays.  I've almost finished editing the final draft and plan to post a submission to an agent this month.  If I'd known the following when writing my first draft, it would have saved me some time.  An advantage about writing the first draft quickly is that the story writes itself.  If you think too much about the following, it may slow you down and stifle creativity.  It's worth bearing these points in mind as you write and looking at them in more detail when you've finished. 'The Grandson' is contemporary women's fiction so not all of these points may apply if you're writing in a different genre.
As soon as you know what genre you're writing - ie. romance, thriller, sci-fi, think about other books you've read in that genre.  How does the plot work? What tense and person are these books written in? (see my previous post on first person present tense) Do these books have more narrative or dialogue or a mixture of both? How long are the scenes?
What does the main character (the protagonist) want?
The story needs to be about the main character's journey. What does this person want at the beginning of the story? Do they get what they want at the end? - eg. yes with a romance.  If the main character does get what they want, there needs to be conflict (internal and/or external) and they need to overcome several obstacles first.
The main character needs to drive the plot forwards by the decisions he or she makes.  It's all right to have the odd coincidence, eg. heroine bumping into the hero in a cafe, but sometimes it might work better if eg. the heroine is in the cafe because she knows the hero will be there.
The main character needs to change (internally or externally)
I always think of Melanie Griffiths' character in Working girl.  At the beginning of the film, she has long hair, lacks confidence and she lets her boyfriend tell her what to do.  Then she gets a haircut, pretends to be her boss while her boss is away ski-ing and oozes confidence by the end of the film. Internal transformations work as well.  The heroine may be insecure at the beginning of the story or be struggling to come to terms with something that has happened. By the end of the story, she may have overcome this hurdle.
Work out the main plot using Aristotle's Incline
Link attached.
Write in scenes using Aristotle's Incline (the key scenes are the framework of the novel)
Think of your book as though it's a film. Use favourite films of the same genre as your book to help you. I've plotted 'The Grandson' using an excel spreadsheet.  Each scene is on there and the plots and subplots are marked in different colours.
Once you have decided who your main characters are, you need an antagonist (you can have a few but one needs to do most of the work).  The antagonist needs to try and stop the main character from getting what they want.  It is useful if the main character has a confidante.  This confidante can be used to help the main character get what they want. Also the main character can have conversations with the confidante about what they are thinking/ feeling.  This saves having to put all of this info into narrative
What is the main character thinking?
When I first had my writing critiqued in classes, the comments were always 'I want to know what Jessica is thinking'.  (Jessica is my main character) Although I knew what she was thinking, I wasn't making it clear to the reader.  It's easy enough to put these thoughts between bits of dialogue or in a paragraph at the beginning of a scene.
Include reactions
If the heroine is the main character and there's a scene where eg. the hero and heroine fall out, the scene which follows need to show the heroine's reaction.
Dialogue/ Narrative balance
Too much dialogue or too much narrative can make it difficult for the reader to enjoy the story. The dialogue takes you into the scene.  The narrative slows it down.
Dialogue - a way to write it
1. When writing dialogue, it works well if you put it in the following order: reaction, action, dialogue. (you don't always need reaction and action) 
2. It's a good idea to put what the character is doing now and again in between the dialogue so the scene can be pictured.
3. It's an opportunity to put in backstory information (ie. what happened before the beginning of the novel)
4. See my previous post re using dialect and other languages in dialogue.

Eg.       ‘This would never have happened if you hadn’t have taken her to Italy,’ Mary said.
[Mother lifted the cosy off the teapot, which Mary had left there earlier to brew and poured herself a cup of tea through the strainer.] what character is doing- action
‘I took her to Italy because you wouldn’t come,’ Mother said.
 [Everything had changed since Sergio Benedetti turned up at the farm that day.  Mary wished it had never have happened.] reaction/ backstory [She picked up a tea towel and dried the plates in the washing up rack.] action
‘You could have found someone else to go with,’ Mary said.
‘She needed to get out of this village,’ Mother said.

5.         He said, she said or he asked, she asked, work well with dialogue.  There is no need to      say: he said quietly, he whispered, he shouted.  It should be clear from the dialogue      that this is what the character is doing.        
Point of View
Two to three points of view work well in a novel.  Any more may be too much. Omniscient isn't used much these days and it's best to write in the point of view of the main character and one or two other characters. One point of view per scene works best too. When writing from the point of view of a character, only write what they would see, feel or say. If they wouldn't use a fancy word to describe the sunset, it can't be used when writing in their point of view.
Show don't tell - but don't show too much
Emma Darwin explains this perfectly in her blog post attached.
Use 'Cut to' (like in films)- recommended in The Weekend Novelist Redrafts the novel  by Robert J. Ray
If there's a six month gap in the story between the hero and heroine seeing each other for example, you don't need to write a long explanation about what happened in that time.  You can just cut to a scene six months later and feed in relevant information about what has happened during that time.
Overwriting and repetition
Don't overwrite, ie use flowery words which you wouldn't normally use.  Try not to say the same thing twice.  Don't use too many adjectives and adverbs. Find the right verb rather than use an adverb.  Ie. He ran quickly could be he raced.
There is plenty more.  This is just a summary of the most important points in my opinion, learnt from classes, books etc. Below are a handful of useful books to look at when it comes to knocking the first draft into shape.  There are more but these are the ones I've used most. Some of the books on this list have different methods of working from each other.  I've taken from them what I think works for my novel.
The Weekend Novelist Redrafts the novel (The Weekend Novelist may be a useful reference for first draft too) by Robert J. Ray
Novel Writing 16 Steps to Success by Evan Marshall
Solutions for Novelists, Secrets of a Master Editor by Sol Stein
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Do you have anything to add to the above and can you recommend any other useful books? I'd be interested to read your comments.


  1. There is some great advice here. I think I am going to take some time and re-think where I am going with my current NaNo effort, which had been my plan anyway. To have a skeletal draft (perhaps not even 50K) but heading towards a potential book worthy of publishing...

  2. I learn from every draft I write, thankfully. Hopefully, one day I'll remember to make use of everything in one book and not forget some vital element.