Revisions and Editing aka The Fun Part

Revisions and editing are to me, the fun part of writing. As giddy as I am writing my first draft, not caring if it will meld together at the end, I am even more stoked to start revisions. Revisions are the time to sort all the things that were unclear in the draft, find ways to shine up the prose so it reflects and shows what you want to communicate.

For folks who edit as they write this list and post will most likely not make sense or will seem unnecessary or redundant. However, if you are like me and start your writing process with a fast rough as hell draft, this will post will provide insight on to how to organize the revision and editing process. As someone who struggles with executive function having a list and guidelines helps me to stay on task and not overlook important items.

In my workflow revisions and editing are different mindsets. Revisions are when I take a hard look at story structure, pacing, character arcs, story continuity, and attending to genre conventions, i.e.  Is the crime solved? Is the bad person caught before the bad thing happens? Does the romance hit its beats? etc. During revisions I also attend to all of the notes I made to myself while drafting about items that required research. Revisions are the heart of creating the story, it is the opportunity to focus on telling the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it.

Editing is when I correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, review  language, word choice, replace overused words, repetitive phrases and refine my prose. Editing is also when I examine dialogue, scene descriptions, character descriptions, and continuity. Did you see that continuity is in there twice? That is because it is so easy to miss.

 To recap the process, I use to get my rough as hell draft to a finished product to send to an editor, publisher, or out on submission is:

  1. Round1: Revisions: structure, pacing, character arcs, genre conventions, continuity, and sorting items that require research.
  2. Round 2: Language: word choice, refining prose, pacing, dialogue, scene descriptions, character descriptions, continuity.
  3. Round 3: Proofing: Grammar, spelling, punctuation, copy edits, line edits formatting for submission or publication. Copy edits, line edits.
  4. Round 4: Final proofing read through before submission or publishing.

This is the routine I follow for every novel, novella, and short story I have ever written for submission and publication in order to increase my chances of being accepted for publication and in the case of indie publishing having a product I am proud to put my name on. Taking the time to ensure that your work is edited to the best of your ability is key to increasing your chances of your work being read and accepted. A poorly edited work will be an auto rejection. It won’t matter if you have written an outstanding novel if it is riddled with errors and misspellings. This goes for indie published folks too. I have stopped reading more than one promising story because the writer could not be bothered to attend to grammar and spelling. No manuscript is without errors, but taking the time to strive for as error free as possible is not a waste of your time.

At this point you may be wondering where editors and beta readers fit into this process.  Developmental editors vary in what services they provide. Jane Friedman has a great article on hiring a developmental editor here (https://janefriedman.com/before-you-hire-a-developmental-editor-what-you-need-to-know/) Her newsletter is one of my favorites and always contains helpful information and links. The definitions for what is expected of copy editors, line editors, and proof-readers are for the most part straightforward.  Copyeditors focus on formatting, spelling, punctuation, grammar. Line editors are concerned flow, meaning, sentence structure, and rhythm of language. Proofreaders are tasked with catching any formatting and errors in the final copy before the work is published.

My process with beta readers is to send them the draft after revisions and language edits, and right before copy edits.  Why? Because for me that is when I would be able to fix any problems I overlooked in Rounds 1 and 2 without tearing the book apart.  I also want them to have something that most resembles a proper book. I know other folks who send their beta readers  first drafts, and those who work with beta readers while drafting. As with most things in writing, you will find what works for you. It should also be clear to you that having beta readers is not required. Many folks work without beta readers.

I don’t always work with beta readers. If I am submitting to a publisher I most often do not work with a beta reader. For my indie published work I always work with beta readers.  Some people work with them on every story, some people never work with them. The decision to work with beta readers is a personal one, as is finding a beta reader you trust to give you honest feedback. I treasure the beta readers I work with, I appreciate their generous surrender of their time and energy to help me with book production.

Finally, I know that some of you are looking at the list of rounds of editing above and freaking out. It is a lot. I get it. But it is not impossible, You can to learn how to do be mindful of all the things that go in to producing a novel. Do not be discouraged. There are tons of books and sources to help you learn how to self-edit, including the next series of article on this blog. Over the next six months or there will be posts that will focus on different aspects of revisions and editing before we get back to the book writing process as a whole. I’ll offer my best insights for how to organize each step and will include book recommendation and resources.

Until next time,

Happy writing!

First draft what it is and what it Isn’t

 

Welcome to step four of writing a book. If you missed the other posts in the series you can find the beginning here https://blog.writingwhiledistracted.com/?p=2263 .

Your first draft is just that, it is a draft. It is not a final product. It is not something you want to show everybody. It’s not anything more than you telling yourself the story you have had in your head for the first time.

As it is a first draft it is allowed to be messy, to be absolutely ridiculous and poorly worded. Maybe it does not flow. Maybe it does not make sense. Maybe your dialogue is stilted. Maybe you feel like a kid with a crayon could do a lot better. And it is okay because the entire point of a first draft is to get your hot mess of a story onto paper or into your computer or wherever you do your first draft.

Many people get stuck and never finish writing their book because they try to edit their first draft WHILE THEY ARE WRITING IT and never progress beyond the first twenty pages. I know people who have edited their first chapter at least two hundred thirty times. They’re the same people who have been writing the same book for the last fifteen years and not progressed beyond the first chapter. They have not written a book but they have a hella of a first chapter, never arriving at a finished project. They are also often the people who get a request from an agent based on their first chapter for a full manuscript and then are unable to take advantage of the agents request and lose out on a chance at representation.

 This is makes me sad. Their book, their marvelous book they have in their head is in limbo because they’re stopping themselves. They have this idea they have to get the first chapter perfect before they can move on and they end up stuck in an endless loop.

For some people, editing as you write is how they’re wired and that may apply to you. You may think I don’t know what I’m talking about or, or you might be saying ‘oh yeah sure that’s fine for you, but I could never move on until I know the chapter/scene/paragraph is perfect’.  It is my observation that people who say ‘I could never’ often ‘I could never’ themselves into never finishing a book. Do not ‘I could never’ yourself into a hellscape of trying to perfect something that is not complete. See the manuscript as a whole, otherwise it is like trying to frost a half baked cake.

If you get in your own way trying to make your work perfect as you go along you will never finish. Now are some folks are able to make a book perfect as they go along. They finish their manuscripts. They are rare and not the typical writer. Most professional writers I know or have known, the people who have written multiple books, the ones who have had careers that lasted until they decided they were done with writing or died whichever came first, those people do not try to make their writing perfect in their first draft. 

Some folks, as part of their writing practice start by editing and tightening up the last couple of paragraphs from the previous work session before they move on. If you decide to do this, be aware how you are spending your writing time. For many people tightening up the last couple of paragraphs turns into an all-day editing session. Revisions and editing are not drafting. Revision and editing are different skill set and brain activity than the creativity involved in writing a first draft.

If you are struggling to write a book, or finish a book, and finish is the keyword here, you have to let go of perfection. You have to be satisfied with having written your project warts and all, as a draft and be confident you can fix it later. As the very famous bit of advice attributed to Nora Roberts goes, you cannot edit a blank page. You cannot expect yourself to turn out perfect prose the first time you create a story. It is why schools teach you to write a first draft and then go back and revise it. All those language arts teachers and professors weren’t talking out their asses. It was actually good advice.

FINISH YOUR DRAFT. CELEBRATE. Seriously, celebrate your accomplishment. Set your draft aside for a week, or two weeks, or six weeks, while you start work on another project or take a vacation or whatever, just make sure you give the draft time to mellow and yourself time to come back to it with a new perspective. Steven King says his magic number for letting a draft mellow is six weeks. I typically wait about two or three weeks to start revisions because if I wait longer I lose the energy/spirit/feelings I had when I wrote the book. Start with what feels right for you.

Now we have discussed the philosophical/psychological part of writing a first draft, it is time for the nuts and bolts. My advice is to start with your first scene card, or the first scene in your outline. If you haven’t done your scene cards and if you haven’t created some sort of your outline, please go back and read this blog post about outlining for the outline impaired.  https://blog.writingwhiledistracted.com/?p=2274 . The point of outlining and prewriting is to decrease the amount of decision making while writing so you can tell your story and to hopefully prevent you from writing yourself into a corner.

To start writing, pick up the first card, go to your document or open your notebook and write. If you finish the scene, move on to the next one until you are out of time or words. I use Scrivener so I’m able to divide my scenes into folders for each chapter. You could do the same thing with Microsoft Word. There are writers who set up their projects that way. I am not a Microsoft Word expert so I can’t tell you how to do it but if you are more comfortable writing in Word, set yourself up with files, documents, folders, chapter folders however the hell you want to do it. If you just want to write it like one giant ass document that is fine too. Do whatever works for you. If you are pencil/pen and paper person get your notepads or notebook out, sharpen your pencils and get started.

A question I’m asked is “How much do you have to write each day to write a book? Often followed by “How often much do you write each day to produce as many books as you do in a year?” My answer varies because my life varies. I have children at home. I have older parents who I often times need to care for. There are seasons in life. When my kids are off school in the summertime I want to go have fun and play. I love to be in my garden. I don’t want to stay inside. How much you have to write to a write book is going to depend on three things

1. Where you are in your life?

2. How much time do you have to dedicate to writing?

3. How long is your project is projected to be?

 I write about a thousand words a day. It ends up being about four pages double spaced with 12-point typeface. Sometimes I write more, sometimes I write less but it averages out to about 1000 words five days a week. I don’t work on the weekends because my brain needs to cool off and I want to spend time with my family. when I come back to the page on Monday I’m fresh and ready to work. The key to production is consistency. When I am drafting those one thousand words are a nonnegotiable task. No matter what else is going on, I get my words in.

There are those folks who write every day and it is awesome for them. Some people write all day on Saturdays and Sundays because during the week they work fulltime jobs with long hours and they’re not able to write on days they work. When I worked twelve-hour hospital shifts and had an hour drive on either end, there was no way in hell I was going to come home and write anything. I wrote on my days off and wrote as much as I could on those days.

When my children were toddlers and I wrote in fifteen-minute bursts because it was all the time I had. Whatever I wrote in fifteen minutes was it. Sometimes I had a couple of those fifteen-minute sessions a day. If I managed five hundred words a day I was super excited, if I only managed one hundred words I was fine with it, because all the words add up.

Some folks do not like measuring their progress with word counts or page counts or minutes spent writing because it stresses them out. I understand increasing your stress is counterproductive to writing/creating but you do need to find a way to track your progress. If you don’t track your progress it is too easy to give up because you feel like you are not getting anywhere. It is so important to have a visual reminder of your progress. It can be so encouraging.

On those days when the words are hard  to write you can always look at what you have accomplished and let that inspire you to move the needle even it is just a tick. Every word you write gets you closer to “The End”.  I love Scrivener for a lot of reasons but seeing the progress bar move on a project keeps me coming back because I can see the end and how far I have come.

A word of warning: Do not compare your word counts/page counts/number of publications in a year to anyone else’s numbers. I have friends who crank out six thousand words a day. Some who write fifty a day. Some who write four books a year. It does not matter! The only person’s word counts/page counts/number of publications you need to worry about is your own. You do you. No one else’s situation is the same as yours, no one else’s life is the same. Work to you own capacity.

The next thing at will help you with finishing your manuscript is to follow your outline as much as you can. If something bubbles up while you are writing and you want to go in a different direction, you’re allowed to because it is your story. If you get to the middle of your book and you think ‘Oh hell this outline makes no damn sense.’ Change it. But take the time to add some scene cards and adjust your outline to handle the changes. This is so you don’t wander off on a side quest and end up not finishing your draft because you have overwhelmed yourself with changes and now you have no clue where this story is going.

It is okay to change your story in the middle of it. It is not okay to abandon a story. If you abandon a story because it gets hard to write you are never going to finish a book. It sounds harsh and maybe you think I’m a jerk to say it but if you quit when writing gets hard, you’re not going to finish a manuscript unless you figure out why the writing is hard.

Take time to examine why you want to quit the story. Is it hard because you’re writing about something really tender? Did your last book do really well and now you are afraid this book will not be as good? Did you last book get harsh reviews and you’re afraid to try again? Is your story bringing up all kinds of feelings you don’t want to deal with? Are you afraid you will make folks angry? Or hurt their feelings? Are you embarrassed by what you’re writing? Get a separate notebook out and examine your feelings. Mine your reasons for emotions, dig deep and examine your resistance to finishing your story. Use the information to break through your creative block.

If you are struggling with writer’s block, write down why you don’t want to write, why you can’t write and what’s keeping you from writing. Go back through your list of what is stopping you and solve/address them one at a time. If you are struggling with creative block, I have a free workbook for you and I’m going to leave the link for it here: https://BookHip.com/XRMANSQ .

If you’re struggling, if you’re stuck, if you have creative block, please go work through the workbook and then come back to your story. There is always a way out of block. It might take time but breaking creative block is possible if you are willing to work through what is stopping you. They can be little things, or they can be big things, but until you know what the things are, you can’t fix them so you can get back to our draft.

Finishing your first draft is essential. Keep going. Finish it. Don’t worry about how long it takes. Don’t worry about the quality of writing, just finish the dang thing. If you run into something you don’t know while writing, put a note to yourself in brackets and just keep writing. For example, if you can’t remember the character’s dog’s name, or if you don’t know if matches existed during the time period in your story, or you haven’t sorted your magic system just put a placeholder there and come back to it.

Do not interrupt your flow to look something up. Flow is a magical state, stay in it as much as you can. You will have time to sort all the thing when you do revisions and edits. For each instance of brackets, you will be able to make a list of everything you need to research and decide but for right now get your story out of your head and into some format so you can edit it.

The only way forward is to finish your draft. It is the biggest stumbling block to writing a book. There are people who can outline for days, there are people who can come up with millions of ideas and they have notebooks filled with ideas and outlines, wonderful, detailed outlines. They have acres of research. And they get stuck trying to write their first draft because they don’t know what to do. They are freaked out by the blank page, the blank screen and the blinking cursor and they freeze.

Much like a jump into cold water there is no easing into a first draft. You have to jump in with both feet. Write the first few words, no matter how much your inner critic tells you your writing is awful and keep going. Don’t look back just keep writing. If it is too hard to start with the first scene start with the second scene. Jump in anywhere you want. You can go back and write the first scene on a different day.

Some writers always write out of order. They can skip around and write different scenes depending on their mood or time that they have to devote to a scene. I can’t flit around to different scenes. My structure falls apart if I don’t follow my scene card list. I get bogged down and it is that much harder to finish my draft.  That does not mean you have to write your scenes in order, but if you haven’t been able to complete a manuscript and your practice has been to writing scenes as they come to you, following some version of an outline may be what you need to finish your draft.

I don’t know what will work for anyone specifically, other than continuing to write until you reach the end of your draft. It does not matter if you get the words down on paper or get them into the computer, the only thing that matters is writing. Not talking about writing, not reading about writing, not dreaming about writing, you have to write to get it done.

Writers write, no matter if they write five words a day or five hundred words a day or five thousand words a day, writers write and it is what you need to do to finish your first draft. Don’t put yourself out of the running by not even starting or worse by trying to perfect your first few chapters of your draft in an endless cycle of rewrites and starts.

A first draft is a mess. It is raw. It is ugly. It is unintentionally comical. Acknowledge it and let go of perfection. A terrible first draft is better than no draft. A terrible first draft can be fixed and you will fix it. Trust yourself. Trust the messiness of the process. Do Not Quit!

When you are finished, set your draft aside and celebrate. You are amazing. You have accomplished what eighty percent of folks say they want to do and never do. Congratulate yourself. Give yourself the biggest celebration you can, go all out. I usually celebrate by making my favorite dinner and having a beverage. Can you hear me cheering for you? You can do this. I believe in you.

 I’ll talk about what to do with your first draft after you have let it mellow a bit in next month’s post “I’ve finished my first draft now what the hell do I do?”

Until next month, Happy Writing

Prewriting and outlining for the outlining impaired

I had struggling writer ask me, “How do you get all those words? I start writing and then I just fade out. The story just stops. How do I expand my story?”

The short answer is to prewrite and outline. I can hear the pantsers screaming. And I get that. I’m not an outliner by nature, but in the last ten years, and almost twenty full length books later I know the value of at least a bare bones set of notes of where the story is going before I start.

I’m not talking a full-on bullet pointed outline so detailed you only have to add conjunctions to make it a book. I am talking a list of scenes, or a few pages of notes so that when you get to the swampy middle of the book, and you will, somewhere around the twenty-five to forty-thousand-word mark depending on the length of the book, you will have a way forward.

If you are one of those folks who can just whip out eighty thousand words with no outline, look away, this post I not for you. There have been some very famous and successful writers who never outlined and could simply sit down and write their books with nary an outline in site, and that is fantastic for them. This post is for us mere mortals who need at least some direction to keep going forward in our work. But wait you say, I’ve already started my book, or hey stop, I’m twenty thousand words in and stuck how will this help me? I got you, my friend. You can go back and do this work no matter where you are in your process. If you are stuck/blocked/frustrated as hell and ready to burn this manuscript, this is a great way to get unstuck. Follow the steps using what you already have written as the basis for your answers.

Step One of Prewriting

Here is what I consider the basic list of things you need to think about before you start writing your novel, or if you are stuck what to think about/do to get unstuck.

  1. What kind of novel am I writing? Is it genre fiction, literary fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, memoir?
  2. How long is my story? Here is a link for expected lengths of novels, (https://www.masterclass.com/articles/word-count-guide# )  By sticking to these lengths/guidelines you will increase your chances of being published/finding an agent, if you are going the traditional route. If you are indie publishing you can do what you want as far as manuscript length goes, however, be aware that readers of different genres have expectations and preferences for book length, but you do you and don’t be afraid to push boundaries/try new things.
  1. Who are the characters? How many do you need to tell your story?
  2. What Point of View am I writing from? For help with point of view, I highly recommend Sandra Gerth/Jae’s book Point of View: How to use the different POV types, avoid head-hopping, and choose the best point of view for your book. You can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Point-View-different-head-hopping-Writers-ebook/dp/B01LXFITOD/ )
  3. What do your characters want? You can download my free character workbook here: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/ofxxsx32dj
  4. How do my characters change over the course of the novel?
  5. When does my story take place? This decision will inform your research.
  6. Where does my story take place? As with question seven, this decisions will inform your research.
  7. When do I want to have my first draft complete?
  8. When do I want to have my final draft ready?

Answer these questions first, in as much detail as works for you. It might take two or three days for some questions, like the ones about your characters, and their wants. After that take your time and write out very broadly the story, not in detail but the big scenes, tell it to yourself like you were explaining it to a writer friend over beverages. You wouldn’t put in all the detail but you would highlight the most important points of your story, and that is what needs to be in place for the next step.

I use pen and paper for this, usually a dollar store composition notebook.  A cheap notebook makes it feel less fraught, less precious, and lets me scribble without the pressure that comes with staring at a blank document on my computer or writing in a fancy journal stressing about *WRITING A WHOLEASS BOOK* (Feel free to insert your own personal freak out here).

Step Two of Prewriting

Index card with names of characters and highlighter colors used for them

I use this to keep track, the numbers are the number of scenes told from their point of view, the changes are where increased or decreased their scenes.

After you finish your story, set it aside for a day or two. Come back to your notes. You could start writing at this point, and some folks do, but this is where if you can save yourself some time on the backend of writing your novel by getting the major parts your structure and pacing sorted before you start writing. Now transfer the scenes of your story to 3×5 cards, yes it needs to be 3×5 cards, because if you use 4X6 cards you will cram way more than needs to be on the card and defeat the purpose of distilling your story down to its bones. Use just a sentence or two of what the scene is about, who is in it, and the point of view it is written from and any other notes that you want to include. Keep it simple. Use short phrases such as “Attacked in the tavern” or “Busted making out in the car.”  If you are writing multiple points of view, use a highlighter to run a line across the top of the card to identify the point of view the scene is written from.  Give each character who has a point of view a unique color of highlighter and write it out on a card so you don’t forget and marks the wrong color on the wrong card..

When you are finished lay the cards out on a table/floor/whatever flat space will hold the cards chronologically. I tend to have about five to six scenes per chapter so organize them by chapter as well. (insert photo here). Sorting and viewing the cards this way helps with structure and pacing.  It will demonstrate gaps/plot holes in your storyline before you get there in your project. If you are working with multiple points of view in the story it also will show you who how much time each character is given to tell the tale.

Index cards laid out on floor

Here is the book sorted into chapters, with six scenes per chapter and space for two additional scenes if needed.

This visualization is helpful in sorting out if you really need to have a character tell their part of the story or if it would be better to tell it from one point of view, before you get into the project and find out you need to change in the middle of the story. Nothing is more difficult than having to rewrite a story from the beginning because you have too many or too few points of view or need to change the point of view entirely to have the story work.

I base my number of cards I use to tell the story on an average length of 1000 words per scene. Because scene lengths vary, 1000 words is a good average and will provide a rough gauge for many scenes are needed to make up the novel. If you find yourself with too many scenes, combine them or cut them. If you cut them set the card aside, don’t toss it out, as you may need to use it later if a scene you thought would work doesn’t or if you need to add more to a scene to make your story work.

Some folks will complain that they can’t use this method because they don’t know the ending of their story, or how to break things down to scenes that are just a line or two of notes. If this is you, all I am asking is for you to try this method. If you will be submitting to an agent or publisher, some require a short synopsis of your story, doing it now, even if your story changes it is a great exercise in seeing through all the trimmings to what your story is about. This goes double for folks who have dozens of half-finished manuscripts and unfinished novels littering their hard drives. Try this method to revive those works. So many people stop writing because it feels too big, too much, too confusing, or they have lost the thread of their story. Don’t let this be you.

Writing your story notes, distilling your novel down to bare bones breaks the story up into manageable chunks. Writing eighty thousand words is overwhelming, but committing to writing one scene a day or one scene a week? Not so daunting. Breaking your work up into bite size bits also helps with planning your writing time. If you are cramming your writing time in around other things in your life, having it already broken up into manageable pieces helps with consistency. Many folks also quit writing or don’t even start because they believe they have to have hours of hours and hours of interrupted writing time to write a novel. Very few folks have uninterrupted writing time, most of us, even full-time writers have lives outside of our writing caves. Writing consistently, a little bit every day, beats marathon sessions every time.

            A few caveats about this method.

  1. Genre fiction, has one feature that makes it easier to outline than other fiction, in that you know your ending based on the type of fiction you are writing, for example, if you are writing a romance, a happy ever after or happy for now is required (if there is no happy ever after you are writing a love story, and that is fine, just don’t call it a romance). If you are writing a mystery you have to solve the crime, if you are writing a thriller you have to catch the big bad/defeat the system before the big bad thing happens, and so on to meet the expectations of genre. If you are writing other types of fiction, it is still very helpful to know the ending of your story before you start writing. You don’t have to know details, but you need a destination. Why? Because you need to know what you are working toward in your writing, a marker you can see on the horizon. If you don’t know where you want to go with your story, you will wander and may never finish because your characters had no destination to work toward. It doesn’t have to a tangible destination. Your ending can and should be emotional as well, your characters need to change in some way, and this counts as part of your destination/end point of your story.
  2. Will this method work for you? I don’t know. Try it. It may work, or you may write me back and tell me I am an idiot and it was a complete waste of your time. Time learning what works for you as well as what doesn’t is time well spent. Experimentation is part of being creative person. Take what works for you and leave what doesn’t.
  3. I didn’t invent this method. I adapted it from this video of screen writer Dustin Lance Black talking about how he distills his massive amount of research using index cards and sorting them into a ninety-minute movie. It is a great video and well worth the watch time. You can find it here: ( https://youtu.be/vrvawtrRxsw?si=icdK-WtC2sSn9H0T ). I combined his method with what I learned from the book Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld. You can find it here (https://www.amazon.com/Make-Scene-Revised-Expanded-Powerful-ebook/dp/B077KGM44N/ ) or borrow it from your library. It is worth your time.  As I watched Dustin sort his cards in the video, it occurred to me I could do the same with my novel, with each card representing a scene. I base my number of cards on an average length of 1000 words per scene, so eighty-thousand-word novel equals roughly eighty scenes. Because my scene lengths vary this was a good average for me, and a good gage of how many scenes I need for a manuscript. Your mileage may vary. If you have not written enough to know your average scene length, or are just starting out, start with each card representing a 1000 words.  This method is cheap and will work with whatever word processing system you use (Word, Scrivener, Pages, etc.).

That is it for this post and step three in my steps to writing a novel series. If you missed the first part of the series, start here https://blog.writingwhiledistracted.com/?p=2263 .  Please share this post and newsletter with folks you think would find it useful. I hope this post is helpful to you in some way. I know some folks are hard core digital and the idea of anything analog is not for them. I get it, but if you don’t know where to start or have not made progress in your writing projects, try this. What have you got to lose? I

 I’ll be back next month with ideas for the next step, your first draft.

Will it Novel? How to evaluate a fiction premise

       This is the second blog post in my Steps to Writing a Novel Series. You can find the introduction to the series and the list of steps to writing a novel here. For most writers coming up with an idea is the easy part. In love with their premise, convinced it is a brilliant concept they are compelled to start writing.

They fly along, the words flowing until they hit a bump, maybe at 20k into the manuscript or 30k, most often in the middle of their work. At this point many folks abandon their project and move on to the next shinny idea. This leads to piles of unfinished projects and sadness. Unfinished manuscripts are most often unfinished because time was not spent on the front end of the project to examine the novel’s idea.

         A strong premise and supporting ideas are necessary to carry the length of work. It is the number one question to answer before you start writing, particularly in genre fiction because you are working within an expected framework, i.e., in romance there is a happy ever after or a happy for now, in mystery novels you solve the crime, etc. the way you arrive at the expected outcome is the most important part. Readers know how the book ends, it is how creatively a writer arrives at the ending that draws readers to your work.

 A premise that might work wonderfully for a short story, will fall short of holding a reader’s attention in a novel length work unless it is expanded and your main characters lives are complicated by events that block their path forward. If this sounds like I am about to talk about plotting, I am.

Although I am a discovery draft writer, I always take the time to examine my idea and then work out a loose plot line based on the initial premise. For example, the idea for my novel Music from Stone came to me one night while we were sheltering in our basement due to a tornado warning. What if my main characters met because they ended up in a basement together during a storm?  From there I used the ‘what if/and then’ method, asking myself questions until I believed the idea would support a book length manuscript.

Step one in evaluating any idea is to know what length story you want to write. If you are writing genre fiction, you have to know expected lengths for your genre.

Here is a list of lengths by genre. Caveat: This is a guide, but if you are planning to submit to an agent/acquiring editor/publisher sticking to the expected length can go a long way toward getting your work read by agents, and publishers. If a publisher takes direct submissions, there will be a page with submission requirements, including expected word counts. Stay within the word counts. It will increase your chances of acceptance.

  • Mainstream women’s fiction: 90,000–100,000 words
  • Thriller: 90,000–100,000 words
  • Romance: 65,000–80,000 words
  • Mystery: 80,000 words *cozy mystery is usually a bit shorter, 70-60,000 words
  • Science fiction: 100,000–120,000 words
  • True Crime: 90,000–100,000 words
  • Historical fiction: 100,000–150,000 words
  • Memoir/Bio: 70,000–90,000 words
  • Literary fiction: 80,000–100,000 words
  • Young Adult: 70,000–80,000 words
  • Middle Grade: 40,000–50,000 words
  • Novella 17,500-40,000 words
  • Short story 1000-15,000 words

Step two is to use one of the two ways listed below to explore your idea. I have use both of them. Each has its benefits depending on how your mind makes connections and where you are in the story process. I recommend you try each of them to see what fits for you.

  1. Mind Mapping. Mind mapping is a non-linear way to capture ideas. I use often. My mind tends to go off on tangents before coming back to the central issue I am exploring and in the tangents lie the gold. To assess your premise using a mind map, start with a blank piece of paper. You can do this on your computer, but I find that the keyboard and structure of mind mapping applications slows me down and I lose my line of thinking.

To construct a mind map, write your premise/ idea in the center of a large sheet of paper. Keep it to bare bones, using one or two sentences. When I say large I mean use a poster size sheet of paper.  If you write small you can do this on a smaller sheet of paper but I find using a large sheet of paper frees me from rejecting ideas because I have run out of space. If you know the ending of your story because you are writing genre fiction write that in a far corner of the page to keep it top of mind. Once you have the page set up ask yourself the following questions. Write the answers to them around the main premise:

What do my characters do for work?

Do they love their work? Or hate it?

How old are they?

What do my characters want?

Why can’t they have it?

Who are their friends/helpers?

Who are their adversaries?

How do my main characters meet?

What will they do to get what they want?

Where are they?

What time period/setting for the story?

What do they hate?

What do they love?

Why do they want what they want?

What successes have they had?

What failures haunt them?

How deal they deal with failure/success?

What is the lie they tell themselves?

What is the lie they tell others?

*Any other questions you feel are necessary for your project, as related to your characters/story. For example, for my fantasy/paranormal stories I always include questions about magic and its costs, questions about power dynamics, and political systems.

Once you have the answers to the questions completed, draw lines that connect them. From those connection lines write a list of scenes that would show those answers. Example. Your character has failed many times at starting a business. She still believes she can succeed with the right idea. You would list a scene using one or two sentences showing her in conflict with her mother when she asks to borrow money for a new venture provides an opportunity to show her optimism and her conflicted relationship with her mother in the same scene. Here is visual of a mind map with just a few of the questions listed but you can see how answering the questions in scene form allows you to see if the premise lends itself to expansion.


I structure my novels by scenes and plan them that way. As a discovery writer I don’t always know what is going to happen in a scene but I know what the point of the scene is when I sit down to write it. Most of my scenes run about 1000 words.* I am able plan the length of my work by how many scenes I need to tell the story. For a seventy thousand novel I need about seventy-five scenes. {*Your mileage may vary, everyone has different average scene lengths, once you know yours plug those numbers in for how many scenes you will need for your project.} Pro tip: It is okay to have more scenes listed than you need to tell the story, you can pare down the number of scenes once you sort them into a narrative. Learning to mind map has saved me more than once from starting a novel without enough ideas to keep the story from bogging down in the middle.

  1. Playing ‘what if’/ ‘and then’. This method can be done by hand or on the computer. At the top of your page/document write out your premise. Keep it to one or two sentences.

Ask yourself “and then” and write out your answer. If you get stuck, switch to ‘what if?’ and keep writing using a stream of conscious type flow. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation just keep moving. Stop when you have exhausted all of the ‘what ifs’ and ‘And thens’ you can think of. This exercise works well as a way to revive unfinished projects too.  Be as dramatic/silly/wild/over the top/ as you can with your writing. Once you are finished, put it aside for a day or two, when you look at it again, make a scene list/outline from your ideas. Here is a short example.

Idea: A high powered lawyer returns to a small town to settle her father’s estate and meets the woman of her dreams.

What if they meet because the woman is fostering her father’s dog?
And then they have a one-night stand?
What if the lawyer had a bad relationship with her dad?

What if his business accounts reveal missing money?

What if she goes looking for his account ledgers?

And then she finds his diaries instead and reads them.

What if they reveal he was having an affair with a married woman?
And then someone tries to kill her by burning her father’s house down.

What if the woman she had a one-night stand with offers to let her stay for free at her house? What if she falls in love?
And then loses her job?

What if another attempt is made on the lawyer’s life and the woman saves her?

I also use this method if I get bogged down in the middle of a manuscript or if I feel if the story feels flat.

There are other ways to evaluate your story ideas, but these are the two methods I have found work well for folks with non-linear thinking patterns. Both methods support and harness the creative power of individuals whose thoughts spiral out from ideas and who are tangential thinkers. As helpful as it is discussing your ideas with trusted writer friends, having a record of your plot ideas and a scenes list is essential. It is not a question of if you will get stuck at some point in your manuscript, it happens to everyone, what is important is what you do to get unstuck. When you take the time to evaluate your story idea before you begin you can save time and avoid frustration. Evaluating the idea/premise for a story is a key element for writing success and manuscript completion and is the first step in my list of 12ish steps to writing a novel. Use these methods to keep you writing until you reach those magic words THE END.  I hope you found this post helpful. I’ll be back next month with the second in the series. Until then

Happy Writing!

Shortish List of Steps for Writing A Novel.

 

This month’s blog post is going to be a little bit more nuts and bolts on how to write a book. There are numerous books that list steps for writing a novel. Many of them, while well-meaning simplify the process beyond to the point of being unrealistic.  Going forward I will post more technical blog post for steps in the fiction writing process.  Some steps will overlap with non-fiction and memoir. I’ll point out where the steps diverge and offer practical tips for those steps as well.

This is my list of steps for writing a fiction book. * Keep in mind this is my list. Your list may/will vary once you finish your first book. For most writers it is a process that they refine as they improve at the craft, the most important part of all of it is to start, keep what works for you and discard the rest. * This is a short list, but each step in the list is a project itself. Going forward I will explore each of these steps in longer blog posts with links and how-tos for each one.

  1. Idea. This is the kernel of thought that grows into a novel. It can be anything, an overhead sentence, a fragment of a song, a video clip, a person you see/meet, or a dream, anything really. The ideas I’ve found most worthwhile to investigate and expand on are the ones that stick around.  Keep a small notebook or other means of recording record these snippets of ideas, so you never run out of things to write about.
  2. Expansion of the Idea. This is where you take the time to work through the initial idea and ask what if questions. Identify/create your main characters. This is where some folks get bogged down, deciding they don’t know enough to write about their idea and spend all of their time doing research for their novel. My advice is this, novels are ultimately about people and their interactions, no matter what type of novel you are writing. Do enough research to get started, to give you a rough idea of what details you may need later in revisions but set a time limit for your research and stick to it. You can come back later and fix things during revisions.
  3. Pre-writing: Character sheets, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict sheets. Plotting/ Scene list/outline. Decide on the length of your story. Set a deadline. If you haven’t downloaded my character workbook you can get it here: (https://dl.bookfunnel.com/ofxxsx32dj)
  4. Write first draft.

             4a. Once you have completed your first draft, celebrate!

              4b. Set the draft aside for one to two weeks (seriously do not look at it!).

  1. Read over first draft. make revision notes about structure, dialogue, plot, character ARCs and setting/description, also any research that needs to be done to fix things and add in details.
  2. This is where you fix all the problems from the first draft and refine your manuscript. Use your notes to fix plot holes, repetitive words, and add in or correct details from your research.

                 6a. Send draft to beta readers if using them. Work on the next project while waiting for their suggestions.

                 6b. Start the next project! Why start the next project now?  Three reasons: 1. So you don’t sit around and freak out about the what ifs surrounding your book while it is out to your beta readers or copy editor. 2. So that you can remind yourself that you are a writer and writers write. 3. Once you have your book out on submission, if the publisher, acquiring editor, or agent replies, “I like this, what else do you have?” you will be ready to take advantage of their interest.

              6c. Review beta suggestions, change things if you need/want to.

  1. Edit final draft.
  2. Read one more time. Send to your proofreader if you are using one.
  3. Format for Submission * Indie publisher this is when you format for the various vendors.
  4. Submit to editor, publisher, or agent. *Indie publisher this is when you publish.
  5. START NEW PROJECT! Not kidding here, iIf you didn’t start the next project before do it now! See the reasons under 6b for why you need to get back to writing.

This is not a definitive list but it is a place to start. Once you have written a book or two or three you will have your own list. Treat this list as a way to get started and break what is a large undertaking into manageable stages/activities/journey markers. This list focuses on the fiction writing process because most of the people who have asked for my advice or help with writing have been fiction writers and was generated for people who are considering submitting their work to an agent, publisher, or acquiring editor. I have indie published a small amount of my work and am not an expert on the process.

 Luckily for folks who want to indie publish there are many more steps that go into this list. There are websites that have a ton of free information on how to indie publish and what steps you should follow to indie publish your manuscript. Here are three that I have used and value the information they provide.

Joanna Penn’s website (https://www.thecreativepenn.com) is loaded with free information. The folks at the The Creative Academy for Writers offer many events, writing sprints, craft workshops, and helpful workshops for indie and traditional writers and you can find them here: https://creativeacademyforwriters.com .  The 20books to 50K Facebook group is also chock full of information,  https://www.facebook.com/groups/20Booksto50k/ .

Writing a book is marathon. For folks with ADD/ADHD and other mental health challenges, it can feel like scaling a mountain just to get yourself to sit down and write. My goal is to offer suggestions that will work for folks that struggle with organization, executive function, and motivation. So many folks burn themselves out treating it like a sprint or they give up before they start because their brains do not function like everyone else.

My goal in presenting these topics each month is get you to the place where you’re ready to send your polished finish manuscript off to an agent, or an editor require a publishing house or you’re ready to go enter the steps that you would take to indie publish.

These are some helpful tools/websites/books for you to explore. Full disclosure: Some of these are affiliate links and I get a small commission if you use the link, it does not affect the price you pay for the item or service.

 Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/)  I love Scrivener. It has a learning curve but it also has multiple tools that help me keep track of all my scattered thoughts and ideas that eventually become a book. It has helped my process more than anything else I have invested in since I started writing.

 Learn Scrivener Fast (https://murphy.krtra.com/t/6hyUmVf9MYlF)   The best investment I have made in my writing career. This course helps you get the most from Scrivener and Joseph’s teaching style is wonderful. Use the code on the first page for a discount.

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. (http://www.debradixon.com) Conflict is story, and Debra Dixon’s Goal Motivation and Conflict is one of the best writing books I have ever read. She offers free tools on her website that will get you started with knowing your characters on a deeper level, and crafting story arcs that will keep your readers turning pages.

Scrappy Rough Draft by Donna Baker. ( https://www.amazon.com/Scrappy-Rough-Draft-strategically-motivate-ebook/dp/B07XNK536B/ ) : This book is the one to read if you are struggling with getting yourself to start. Full of great ideas and motivation treat yourself to this book that feels like your bestie is right there beside your chair cheering you on as you write.

Build Better Characters by Eileen Cook. (https://www.amazon.com/Build-Better-Characters-psychology-backstory-ebook/dp/B07XN1VJ6T/ )  Compelling characters and their change/growth are an essential part of fiction. Elaine’s book helps you get to the nuts and bolts of why your characters do the things they do. Chock full of helpful worksheets and ideas, this book is well worth your time.

Make A Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld. (https://www.amazon.com/Make-Scene-Revised-Expanded-Powerful-ebook/dp/B077KGM44N/)  This book radically changed how I develop my storylines. A book is a collection of scenes and this book lays out how to string your scenes together to have your readers anxious to read what comes next. The best book in my opinion if you are struggling with the infamous “show don’t tell” writing advice. For those of us who are freaking out at the idea of writing an entire book (all those words!), working scene by scene helps with perspective. On those days I struggle overwhelm, I can remind myself I can move the novel forward one scene at a time.

I hope you will find some or all of these resources helpful,

 until next time

 Brenda.