My old friend Jay came up from Chicagoland last week, with his lady friend Harriet. We chatted over a very nice Italian dinner at a local restaurant. At some point, Harriet inquired about my quest as a would-be book author.
I told her I had the complete manuscript of a historical novel, but by submitting it to various agents and publishers I learned the story needed a complete, tooth-to-tail revision. A daunting prospect, but one I undertook bravely. The problem is that, even though the writing is a lot better in the new version, the many changes of plot and character made me fear that by the time I got to the end, the story would be an incoherent mess. But I was plugging on, regardless.
At this point, Jay made the obvious comment: “Well, at our age, you don’t have that much time left to finish this thing and get it published.”
Jay was, of course, correct in his assessment. But I shared with him this amazing secret: The older I get, the more patient I become.
It’s hard to account for. Against all rationality, I look forward to thirty or forty more years of productive life. Therefore I can afford to spend time getting my manuscript right.
Just when time is running out, I have learned patience.
The manuscript is another matter. Since the conversation with Jay and Harriet, it has become clear that I have two separate stories—a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America, and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning. I am not creative enough to make the two stories mesh.
My spouse observed long ago that I was writing two books at once. She was right.
For now, I’m laying it aside. Maybe I can sort out the separate strands of story at a later date. I have a lot of other work “in the hopper,” no end of things to write about.
One avenue of expression is these blog posts. Until getting bogged down in the rewrite project, I was posting here weekly. I now hope to resume that habit.
And I would like to pick up where I left off in what I call “the Bradbury Challenge”—writing a short story a week for a year.
And my daughter recently suggested an excellent setting for a screenplay. All it needs is a story to go with it.
So never fear, Dear Reader. I’ll keep busy. Someday, I’ll get back to the historical novel. Patience.
re•vise . . . 1 to read over carefully and correct, improve, or update where necessary [to revise a manuscript, a revised edition of a book] 2 to change or amend [to revise tax rates]
—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.
Webster’s second definition, “to change or amend,” suggests a process that may be nonchalant, whimsical, or mysterious, as when the legislature metes out taxes.
The first definition, which applies to a manuscript or a book, specifies a careful reading and only necessary corrections, improvements, or updates.
Friends, Romans, and countrymen—I am not here to raise your taxes. But I do have a manuscript to revise. (See last week’s post.)
The Varieties of Revision
Among literary lions, there are some who actually revel in the process of revision; who feel more comfortable and capable when improving a story than when thinking it up in the first place. Happily, I am one of those.
Revision, however, comes in different flavors:
There is the final polish, when you go through a solid manuscript to weed out extra spaces, an occasional poor word choice, or potentially embarrasing typos.
There is a thorough stylistic edit, where you change a lot of words, phrases, and expressions, with the aim of making the prose a joy to read.
But there is also another kind of revision. The term “structural” comes to mind. That is, a serious revision of the story itself.
My dictionary says “revise” comes from Latin re, meaning “back” plus visere, “to survey” or videre, “to see.” (“See vision,” it adds, helpfully.)
I am now embarked on what is sometimes known as a tooth-to-tail revision of Freedom’s Purchase. It’s clearly a case of re + vision.
More than simply supplying a few missing commas, it’s an attempt to supply what is missing in the story, and in the narration of the story, so that it will become a riveting read. It’s a re-working of the original vision.
What Will Change
Some characters will be lost in the shuffle. Many scenes will be redesigned or omitted entirely, and new scenes will be added. The main character will become more clearly a protagonist—the person who drives the developments in the story. Whereas the original manuscript had long sections of pastoral description or complex explanations of the historical context, my aim for the new version will be to put conflict or tension on every page.
It should be a book you’ll not want to put down, for fear you might miss something important while you’re making a sandwich.
The late Elmore Leonard had a simple explanation for his vast success in producing major novels and screenplays throughout a long career: “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
That, Gentle Reader, is what I’m trying to do, so that when you buy my book, you won’t have to skip any part of it.
The process reminds me of Michelangelo looking at a block of marble and chipping away everything that’s not a horse.
Keep me in your thoughts and prayers. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.
Or start the presses. At any rate, do something with the presses.
This week I will miss the regular Tuesday unveiling of my latest short story for your comments and critique. You’ll see the story—I hope—on Wednesday. Maybe Thursday.
“So what’s such a Big Deal, New Favorite Writer, to interrupt the stream of new stories? You can’t just feed the chickadees and then leave off in the middle of a cold, dark winter, you know. We want our stories! Rumble, rumble rumble! Mutiny, mutiny, mutiny!”
I beg of you, Dear Readers, get hold of yourselves. Chill out. Keep your collective shirt on.
Though my historical novel, Freedom’s Purchase, has yet to secure a locked-in publication contract, it has come close more than once. I made the momentous decision, about two-and-a-half months ago, to decline a publishing contract that was offered, because I just didn’t feel the contract, and the business relationship which would develop around it, were a good fit.
Since then, I received another request for a full manuscript read. The publisher in question ultimately passed on my manuscript—but they gave it a chance and gave me some reasons for their pass. I set about improving it, moving from fourth major draft into fifth major draft.
Late last week I got another full manuscript request from an independent publisher. It looks like a good company to be published by, and their request was cordial and businesslike. But, yikes!—I was in the midst of the latest revision. With no time to spare in filling the publisher’s request, I had to rejigger page numbers and such, so my book would appear smooth and professional, even though it’s not yet fully revised. An editor is never pleased when she finishes Chapter 13 and immediately bumps into Chapter 15, with no Chapter 14 in between. I had to make sure there were no little oversights like that in the manuscript I sent.
The time spent responding to this new read request could not be spent working on this week’s story. That’s why I’m running behind.
The Silver Lining
I cannot predict whether the new publisher will like my book well enough to offer a contract. Only time will tell—probably a month or even two. But one thing that’s apparent is that my query materials, synopsis, etc., are becoming increasingly fine tuned. That’s why I’m getting read requests. Sooner or later, one will result in a published book.
The manuscript itself is one of the query materials. Publishers and agents want to see the first chapter or two, to help them decide whether they’d like to read further. My manuscript is stronger now than it’s ever been.
Meanwhile, I write these weekly short stories as a way to sharpen my narrative skills, which remain rudimentary. None of this comes easy. At least, not to me. I have to work at it.
Putting in the Time
Which brings up another topic: Time spent. Nothing writes itself. The only way to get it done is to sit in one’s chair and bang away on one’s keyboard. I believe my esteemed spouse thinks it foolhardy to spend as much time writing and revising as I do. And I’m positive it’s giving me a more sedentary lifestyle, which is not good. But you do have to put in the time. For me, it’s urgent that I do it now, before my literary impact becomes posthumous.
So I’ll put in the time to finish the first draft of the next story, which is about an old man and a little boy. You won’t want to miss it.
Once it’s posted, I may not have a chance to post another before Tuesday, January 13, when I am scheduled to have my hip replaced. If all goes well, that may slow me down for a few days.
But have no fear, Gentle Reader: I’ll be back. You can’t get rid of me.
Dear Reader: Last week, Your New Favorite Writer had a close encounter with Fame and Fortune.
Don’t worry, I escaped.
Here’s how it happened.
In 2016, I began to write a book, a fictional saga of Norwegian immigrants farming the Illinois prairie just before, and during, the Civil War. Two years later—after I had written “The End” at the bottom; had sought and received input from a squad of beta readers; had revised and polished my way through innumerable drafts—I titled it Freedom’s Purchase and set out to get it published.
If writing a novel is hard, it’s harder yet to get it published by a traditional contract. By that I mean an agreement where the publisher pays the author, not vice-versa.
You need a literary agent to sell your manuscript to one of the “Big Five” or their many subsidiary imprints. These publishers seldom, if ever, consider a manuscript from an unrepresented writer.
Yet it’s very difficult to get an agent. There are thousands of literary agents, but there are millions of new writers.
After querying dozens of agents, a process in which I am still engaged, I chose to focus more attention on independent publishers. These are the smaller presses—often regional or specialized—that are neither the Big Five nor their wholly-owned offshoots.
Most independent publishers will accept a query directly from a writer without an agent. Though smaller than the Big Five, they are perfectly fine, capable publishing businesses that print and sell thousands of books every year. In aggregate, millions of books.
If such a publisher could be found, one astute enough to recognize the quality of Freedom’s Purchase, it might be exactly the right match.
A Full Manuscript Request
In querying a publisher, one must follow that publisher’s submission guidelines precisely. They will want some combination of (1) a brief query letter, (2) a one-page plot synopsis, (3) an author biography, and (4) a small sample of the actual text, usually the first chapter or two.
Every author hopes that a publisher will respond by asking to read the whole book. A full manuscript request means your book is under serious consideration. They would not waste time reading it unless something about your initial submission hinted at a successful collaboration. Right?
Last April, I received this email from a small publishing house in the Mid-South:
Your query for Freedom’s Purchase interests us, and we would like to see more. Please send the full manuscript as a Word document, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
Music to my ears!
I sent the full manuscript and settled down to wait for “as soon as possible” to arrive.
So I found ways to pass the time. Nevertheless, my patience had gone threadbare by the time I received this message in early July:
Freedom’s Purchase showcases an interesting plot along with a realistic presentation of life in America during the 1800s. The characters are intriguing and readers can become invested in them. There are several weaknesses, some of which render the novel unpublishable.
“Unpublishable.” Oh, no!
However, at the top they had said:
Thank you for sending Freedom’s Purchase for consideration. We would like to see it again after the suggestions below have been addressed.
To sum up: My novel was unpublishable, but they’d like to see it again.
I took this as a strong buying signal. However, “the suggestions below” were terse and incoherent to the point of being bizarre.
“They’re toying with me,” I thought. So I wrote back, asking ever so tactfully for clearer instructions.
Two weeks later, the publisher sent clarifying comments. Even these were terse and slightly mystifying. But they were just specific enough that I could infer some clues on how to proceed.
After a week of marathon revising, I sent the new, improved manuscript on July 22. I included a cover email cataloging the changes, just to make sure they noticed.
The Long Wait, Part II
My re-submission must have gone to the back of the queue again.
I wrote more blog posts, added chapters to my new novel, and did all the standard Literary Lion activities—such as chewing my fingernails down to the quick.
Two weeks in, I asked how the review of my new manuscript was coming.
The original reader is still reviewing the updated manuscript. We will get back to you as soon as possible.
Okay. Sit down and shut up, Larry.
Six more weeks passed.
The Contract Offer
On September 23, the publisher sent this:
We would be happy to extend the offer to publish . . . . If you wish to move forward please send the contract back with everything filled in except the signatures. We will send the document for signatures via DocuSign. When sending the file back to us it must be all pages in one file (no individual pages) and can be scanned or emailed or it can be faxed to (XXX) XXX-XXXX. We look forward to your reply.
Oh the joy in my heart, Gracious Reader, at the words, “We would be happy to extend the offer to publish.” On that basis alone, my wife and I went out for a nice celebratory feast.
Now that the publisher had taken five months considering my manuscript, they seemed ready and eager for me to send back the signed contract right away.
I wrote back very cordially, reserving a few days to consider the six or seven pages of single-spaced boilerplate they had sent for my signature.
The Fine Print
Aside from the perishing hope of a lieutenant colonel to don the silver eagles of a “full bird” before retirement, there may be no desperation more desperate than that of an unpublished author to become a published author. It is fully abject.
One would do almost anything to be published. Therefore, caution is advised.
What one really needs is the advice of a literary attorney, but their services are expensive. However, the Authors’ Guild gives its members a free contract review by experienced literary lawyers. One of the perks of membership. Immediately I joined the Authors’ Guild and sent in the proposed contract for review.
On the second business day, I got a detailed reply, covering each section of the contract, singling out many paragraphs and sentences for particular attention.
The contract on offer was substandard in many ways. But I felt if the publisher would give way on a few essential points, I could live with the rest. Especially if they seemed to be okay people to work with.
I compiled a list of questions about the contract, and a separate list of questions about the publisher’s business practices. I then proposed a Zoom call to explore all these questions. The publisher asked me to send the questions so they could prepare their response. I did so.
About a week later, the publisher replied, in writing. The terse remarks I now recognized as characteristic. But they were more than brief; they were dismissive. The message was: We want your book. Shut up and be happy.
It is hard to turn down any offer to publish your first book. But I’m glad I did so.
The last laugh is mine, because this publisher helped me improve my book. The process also helped me polish my query letter, synopsis, and biography. The product I am selling just got better, and some other publisher will make a better offer.
It’s a big world. I’ll find the right publisher for Freedom’s Purchase if I just keep at it.
My apologies, Dear Reader, for making you wait longer to read Freedom’s Purchase, but I promise you—when published, it will have been worth the wait.
Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.
If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
In our last installment, we mentioned the importance of actually writing a first draft. This time, we will cover what to do once you have written it.
Step Three: Get Feedback
Having typed “The End” on a first draft—and having madly yet responsibly celebrated that achievement—you now have the raw material on which you may Revise Your Way to Greatness.
But revision cannot happen in a vacuum. You need to let someone see—and critique—your first draft.
This brings vulnerability. Maybe you cannot endure it. In that case, forget about being a writer.
There is no choice but to open yourself to others. Or do you write only for your own private amusement?
Of course it’s hard. When we’ve poured our time, effort, and care into a story, it becomes our baby. We see all its beauties and none of its faults.
For this reason, any revision you may attempt before seeking outside opinions is guaranteed to be trivial. You may fix a typo, change a comma to a semicolon, or break one paragraph into two. Because when something is basically perfect, it needs only little tweaks to become fully perfect. Right?
Enter the outside critic.
That would be anybody but yourself. They go by many names: collaborator, writing group member, beta reader, consultant, developmental editor, spouse. All these sources of valuable feedback have one thing in common.
They are not you.
They offer a perspective you cannot attain on your own.
Here is what will happen: You will share your manuscript with an outside critic, trembling a bit lest your brilliant writing style go unappreciated. You will fear being asked to make your language a bit less flowery—or a bit more flowery.
Instead, you will find out that your reader did not even grasp what you were saying.
When you wrote “There was a Prussian cast to Emil’s appearance,” you assumed readers would have the impression of a stiff German soldier, maybe even wearing a spiky helmet. But then your actual reader says, “Why was his complexion blue?”
And speaking of Prussians, Field Marshal von Moltke said, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.”
But your “main hostile force” is not hostile at all. It is your reader, who only wants to understand. She wants you to succeed as an author, and all she asks is that you say what you mean, in a way she can understand. Is that so much to ask?
Well, yes. It is.
Our mother tongue is a marvelous thing. It includes thousands of words, each with multiple meanings. You must string words together in a way that conveys meaning without ambiguity. (We mean, without unintended ambiguity. Purposeful ambiguity is an advanced technique we shall not bother with here.)
It turns out—stupid as this seems—that the only way to avoid confusing your reader is to go ahead and confuse a few readers, but ask them to report back to you.
Writing for public consumption is like lobbing artillery shells over a distant horizon. Your first shots fall short, or long, or to left or right of the target. That’s why gunners use spotters—remote observers who report where the shell actually landed. Then they change their aim and shoot again.
That’s what you must do as an author.
Perhaps you noticed the use of the plural—readers, spotters, observers—in the paragraphs above. That’s because any one outside critic will only trip over a few of the obstacles you have put in the way of understanding. You need reports from several readers to find all, or even most, of them.
Bill Martinez, a veteran writing coach, calls obstacles of this sort “snags.” They snag the reader’s attention away from the story, to focus instead on some verbal tic or point of confusion. You want to eliminate as many snags as you can.
This kind of feedback is so essential to your success as a writer that you need systematic ways to solicit, interpret, and exploit it. We recommend a tiered approach such as the following:
A first reader. The very first person with whom you share your first draft. It could be your spouse—if your spouse is intelligent and supportive, yet unflinchingly honest—and if your marriage can survive such honest critiques.
Or your first reader could be someone else with those same qualities. Someone whose judgment you trust, whose views you cannot help but respect.
If you cannot find such a person, then skip the first reader. But if you are lucky enough to have a first reader, that person can save you time, effort, and embarrassment by short-circuiting your worst ideas before they go any further.
One (or more) writers’ group(s). You need to join a small group of writers—no more than a dozen or so—who meet regularly to read and critique one another’s work. Wherever there are writers, such groups exist.
Writers’ mutual critique groups are all different, but the ones that work well have some things in common: (1) They meet regularly, usually once or twice a month. (2) They have procedures to allot reading, critiquing, and discussion time fairly among members. (3) They operate in a collegial fashion, with members offering sharp, yet supportive, critiques. The guiding hand of a seasoned, congenial chairperson/convener can foster these goals.
When you find such a group, treasure it and respect its ethic. You may need to lurk for months on its fringes to gain familiarity and to inherit a slot in the rotation of works to be critiqued.
Whether you are new or well-established in the group: Speak respectfully. Don’t hog the conversation. Diligently read the other members’ work and contribute your two cents’ worth, orally or in writing, or both. As you learn to give criticism constructively, learn also to receive it the same way. There’s nothing wrong with defending your own methods. But don’t do so out of a knee-jerk reflex that blinds you to the benefit of others’ ideas.
If you can get into one such group, that’s great. If you can be in two, that’s even better.
Beta readers. When you have revised your first draft, based on feedback from your first reader and your writers’ group colleagues, you may feel the resulting second draft is in pretty good shape.
Disabusing you of that foolish notion is the task of a small corps of beta readers.
Beta readers agree to read your entire manuscript and give you feedback. Choose them for specific strengths they bring. One beta reader may be expert in a field related to your book’s content. Another may be a writer of strong, graceful prose. Another may have a special connection with your story’s main character. Yet another may know the publishing industry, or may simply be a person of rare perception and judgment.
“Sensitivity readers” are beta readers who can alert an author to passages that may offend readers based on racial or other group identities. People with such insights can be of value—their services may even be mandated by an agent or publisher—to avoid alienating large groups of readers.
The best beta readers are intelligent, unsparing, distinguised, and willing to work for free. Some beta readers, however, charge for their services. And their advice may be worth paying for. That’s a decision you will have to make.
When you get feedback on your work, what do you do with it?
Evaluate each comment. What’s it worth? Should you make a change, or stand pat?
Remember: You are the author. It’s your work.
Some notes you get will be well-meant but ill-founded. Thank the originator graciously and move on.
Some comments will strike right to the bone and force a deep reconsideration of your approach. Major revisions are a lot of work. But it’s better you received this feedback now, not later. The earlier you discover a problem, the better.
Most comments will fall between the two extremes just cited. You should consider them, but how seriously should you take them?
If you get the same comment from two or three sources, you must address the issue. It’s not one person’s isolated impression.
But there is a danger that revision may lead you away from your first intention. The larger the revision, the greater the danger of undermining your own creative impulse.
Here’s a conservative approach: Correct your draft in the least obtrusive way possible. That is, address the issue, but undercorrect slightly. You may enrich your narrative and short-circuit the snag, yet without changing the rhythm or purpose of your prose.
Eventually, your outside critics will change from “readers” to “editors.” This change is inevitable if your work is to be published.
If you achieve “traditional” publication, by a royalty-paying book publisher or an established periodical publication, your work will be assigned to an editor who works for the publisher. If your book will be self-published, then you will hire an editor to prepare the manuscript for publication. (You could skip this step, but we’re assuming you don’t want to publish a pile of crap. And no, we don’t believe that you—besides being the writer and the publisher—have the skills and objectivity to do a good job editing your own work.)
If your work is intended for traditional publication rather than self-publication, you may think you’ve escaped the need to pay for editing, since the publisher will do that. Well . . . maybe.
But if you send your work to agents and publishers, and you find that even those few who actually read the work are not impressed, then maybe you would benefit from hiring an editor for your own enlightenment.
There are, in general, two kinds of editors: developmental editors and line editors. A developmental editor will help you identify structural weaknesses—major problems of plot and characterization, if you’re a novelist, or of general organization, if you write nonfiction. You may resist, resent, or reject the feedback of a good developmental editor. His advice may send you back to the early stages of story development. You may need to rip out and and rewrite large sections. But if you receive his feedback with an open mind, you may find the extra work is warranted.
A line editor, also called a copy editor, will help you correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and conform the copy to all the requirements of the Chicago Manual of Style or other governing style guide. This is detail-oriented work, with which many writers have little patience. But if you submit a manuscript that falls short of the exacting standards of the publishing industry, its other merits may not be enough to save it.
In a Nutshell
Whether you get their services for free or need to pay, outside critics—be they first readers, writers’ group colleagues, beta readers, or professional editors—are an essential step on your path to publication.
We live in an abundance of riches. The literary world is flooded with so many good manuscripts that your work must be first-rate to attract any attention at all. There is no shame in admitting that you need feedback from others to make it so.
Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.
If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
Step One was “Skip Straight to Literary Lion.”
This week we feel compelled to point out that writing is also an essential prerequisite.
Step Two: Write
At some point, every writer asks, “Am I really a writer?” Or, “How do I know if I’m a writer?”
The simplest answer is best. If you write, you’re a writer.
This answer does not rest on anybody’s laurels. You need not be a member of the Authors’ Guild to be a writer—though, if you are a writer, it’s not a bad guild to be a member of.
You need not have won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, or a Newbery Medal.
You need not even have published a book, an article, or a poem to be a writer.
If someone asks what you do, just say, “I’m a writer.” This will get you past impostor syndrome. Unless you don’t actually write.
As to where you write, when you write, how often you write, how much you write, whether or not anybody reads what you write, whether or not anybody likes what you write—these are details.
Just get something down on paper.
(When we say “on paper,” we mean to include virtual representations of paper, as in a computer file.)
Maybe you already have something down on paper. Maybe you need to add something to it, so what you have on paper becomes a more complete something. It could be a story, a screenplay, a poem, a novel, a novella, an essay, or a memoir.
Your first object is to write—and to keep writing. We’re talking about discipline, which belongs to what is called “the craft” of writing.
Writers all have different methods, or different approaches to the actual task of putting something down on paper.
Some write before breakfast; others write after lunch.
Some write on a laptop; others use goose quill pens on antique parchment paper.
Some write from a beach house overlooking a blue lagoon; others write in rented office space to get away from family and friends; others write on the kitchen table while feeding six hungry children.
Some write in absolute silence; others type to the tune of a Death Metal soundtrack.
It’s all okay. Your way is your way. But the more rarefied your minimal writing conditions become, the more obstacles you place in the way of getting anything down on paper.
By all means, find the time and place that works best for you—but if things are less than perfect, write anyway. Do not let the perfect defeat the good.
How much, and with what regularity, should you write? How much, and how regularly, can you write? There are no wrong answers to this question. But the more you can write, the more you will write.
Some well-known authors apply the seat of their pants to their writing chair and do not rise until they have produced a thousand new words. Or they write flat-out for four hours each day and stop in mid-sentence when their buzzer goes off.
If you need to quantify your efforts in that way, go for it. But one size does not fit all. Some of us just write whenever we can squeeze it in. If a lot of things bubble up inside you that you need to write down, that’s as good a way as any.
So relax. Your Muse will not fail you. Just write.
We hate to even mention “writer’s block,” but we suppose we must, even though it’s akin to whispering “homesick” at a summer camp full of junior Brownies.
Some writers insist writer’s block is a myth, that there is no such thing.
We prefer to say that if writer’s block exists, it applies to non-writers, not to writers. And the beauty part of that is, you get to decide each day whether you are the one or the other.
We noted above that you may already have something down on paper. We gently suggested that you keep on writing. When you reach the place where it makes sense to type “The End,” go ahead and do so.
Then do a little victory dance, eat a Twinkie, and congratulate yourself. You have achieved that which many people never achieve. You have completed the first draft of a literary work. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.
But know that the achievement you just celebrated is the start of a long process. First drafts are inherently defective.
Some writers have even said, “All first drafts are shit.” We prefer more moderate expressions.
But the fact remains that all first drafts need to be improved. No author ever rolled a first draft out of his old Underwood typewriter, sent it off to Random House, and received a million-dollar advance in the next mail.
(Harold Robbins claimed that was his process, but he was a notorious liar.)
Suffice it to say, before you can begin to improve your first draft, you must have a first draft to improve. Thus our constant admonition: “Keep writing.”
When you go back and read your first draft, you will want to change something, and that’s revision.
For many of us, revision is the fun part of writing. We are editors at heart and love to chop away at dull prose, spruce it up, and bring it to life. And that is a good and holy thing.
But if you are one of us—one of those who would rather edit than write—try to resist the urge.
You may be the greatest reviser on God’s green earth. But if you start with a poorly conceived first draft, no clever amendments to the copy will revise it into greatness.
That is why they pay James Patterson a lot of money.
We fear, Dear Reader, that you must acquire the knack of putting a good story into your first draft right from the start.
Unless you are a “natural storyteller,” to build a compelling story, one worth writing down with the best words and phrases you can bring to it, is an art that takes many years, and lots of practice, to acquire.
So you’d better start now.
There you are: Just you and your keyboard. What are you going to do?
You start with an idea. We can’t help you there; it has to be your own idea. The good news is, there are a lot of ideas you could have that will deliver the goods, depending what you choose to do with them.
Let your idea become a person. A specific person, a character with a need and a desire. The story you are going to write will be her story. She is the “progagonist.” Her chief attribute, above all others, is action.
A protagonist takes action prompted by his or her needs, to meet his or her desires, and despite serious obstacles.
Here is where it gets tricky, Dear Reader. It may be hard to put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. Unless you are a swashbuckler in real life, a protagonist is different from you and me.
When faced with the demands of life, we hem and we haw. We shilly-shally and we dilly-dally, in a wishy-washy way.
Not our protagonist. The protagonist plunges right in and commits herself to a course of action, whether impulsively or with a carefully calculated plan.
She acts. Right now.
Before you, the author, can catch your breath, the protagonist has dragged you into a conflict, a problem, a nearly-insoluble dilemma.
The protagonist will have to use her wits and battle her way out. So the one thing the protagonist cannot be is passive.
Writers sometimes say: “The protagonist must protag.”
That may be the main principle to observe in writing your first draft.
In your new identity as a literary lion (see Step One), you are no doubt reading books and articles about story structure—books that break or analyze your story’s plot into definable acts, or beats, or “stages of the Hero’s Journey.” All of these concepts are fine and dandy. They will help you out of tight spots. We encourage you to learn and use them.
But none of them will work out well unless your protagonist is active. And if your protagonist is active, he or she will organically create the story structure, just by protagging all over the story’s landscape.
Keep your protagonist protagging until you come to some satisfying end.
Then you can start revising.
You cannot revise out of thin air, Dear Reader. For successful revision, you must expose your first draft to intelligent readers and get well-considered feedback. Which will be the subject of our next article.
Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read.
After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates, places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.
I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text.
The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.
My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at.
I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said.
Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!
My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.
Toward a Smashing Second Draft
I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.
So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.
After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,” “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions.
That step is a lot of work, too.
Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort.
By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.