First Drafts

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Don’t expect perfection in a first draft.
Don’t even expect coherence.

One’s first draft isn’t so much a solid entity as it is an amorphous, adaptive, multi-functional and cluttered embryonic mass that will one day give birth to a polished manuscript, ready for publication. This gestation process is part rough outline, part sketchpad, part journal, part cheat sheet, part receptacle and part dream-catcher for ideas both clever and foolish. (The foolish ones will be gradually, eventually replaced by bouts of brilliance, of course.)

Every writer will experience a unique and different approach to writing a first draft. (Spoiler: There ain’t no single way!) For some writers—not many, but a few—each page will emerge pristine and complete as is. Those writers are basically drafting, editing, re-editing and polishing each page in their heads before continuing to the next page. For the rest of us, however, our first draft is (or will be) a hot mess, filled with gaping plot holes and various discrepancies, half-baked thoughts and overtly flowery prose—all waiting for an eventual fix in subsequent drafts.

Writing a novel-length manuscript involves a two-step process: Part 1. The Idea. And, Part 2. The Implementation. For most writers, creativity isn’t difficult. We’re all daydreamers at heart. The difficulty lies in which of those ideas can best be refined to produce relevant prose. Sometimes, the chasm between The Idea and The Implementation may seem impossible.

Part 1. Perceiving a potential novel—those weeks or months or years spent contemplating a story—that’s pretty much quantum thinking. Fragmented concepts spin around our heads like graffiti at Marti Gras, thoughts about this-or-that coming and going in no particular order. But then we must gather the chaos…

Part 2. Once a writer begins to put thoughts on paper, one word at a time, word after word after word, that’s linear thinking. Basically we’re taking a bloated, unwieldy ball of random ideas and filtering them through a very small cerebral nozzle—one painstaking sentence at a time.

Not everybody attempting a first novel can make that transition. At least, not easily. Our right-brain (the creative side) is handing the baton to our left-brain (the logical, orderly side). A good many beginning novelists fumble the baton at this point. The successful ones pick it up again and keep running.

A first draft is that fusion of quantum thinking crashing into linear thinking. Some thoughts will transcribe smoothly to the page, but others emerge kicking and screaming and not very sure if or where they belong. But a first draft allows all those free-flowing thoughts a place to safely crash-land—many only temporarily—and then recover. Think of an oil painter who roughly sketches an idea on a canvas with a pencil before beginning to apply paint. A writer’s first draft is very much like that sketch. You’re not really sure what the final results will look like, but at least you have an idea. It’s a start.

The key is to not expect immediate satisfaction in a first draft. You’re not looking for any sort of perfection or brilliant prose (although you may see bits and pieces of future brilliance begin to take shape.) Because a first draft is simply a tool meant FYEO, and one that often explores various changes to your story before you find the best way forward. Those writers expecting (or attempting) perfection with their first draft most likely won’t complete that novel—they’ll burn out first from mental exhaustion long before they can reach The End. And that’s only because they’re incorrectly using that tool. Some writers might finish those thoughts in a 2nd or 3rd draft, but most of us will redraft a dozen, two dozen, times before we’re ultimately happy with the results. But there’s no single way to successfully draft a novel. Every writer will have a different approach. The key is finding the one best suited for your needs.

A Comprehensive Illustrative Guide to the
Intentionality and Complexity of a First Draft

Essential Q & A

Q. What’s the difference between an outline and a first draft?

A. Typically (not always, but often) an outline can be created as a prelude to a first draft. Or, conversely, one might consider a first draft a framework of individualized, itemized plot-points, merged together to form a slightly more coherent overall concept. (Refer to The Outline in Where To Start if necessary.) Some writers’ outlines organically morph into first drafts, while others more resemble Outline v2.0. Some writers will hone and rewrite their outlines as a completely separate entity, until they feel comfortable beginning a first draft that might feel like a nearly finished novel. Doesn’t really matter what your outline looks like—so long as it’s comprehensive enough to fulfill your needs as an effective blueprint (e.g.; foundation, guideline, cheat sheet, operations manual, roadmap, master plan) for your subsequent fictional work.

Typically (again, not always, but often) one’s outline is plot-centric. Meaning that a writer is attempting to cobble together a cohesive plot from A-to-Z, but little else at this point. Some writers won’t attempt to define or hone their characters, personalities, motivations, until starting to draft their story. Only during a first draft will a writer begin to overlay bits of literary muscle and flesh to an outline’s skeletal framework.

Q. Should I outline before beginning a first draft?

A. It’s not mandatory. While both practices can be extremely important to story development, creating an outline isn’t absolutely necessary before beginning to write a first draft. S’up to you!

Q. Must my outline continue chronological from the first page of a story until the last page?

A. No. Some ideas begin mid-story, and an outline can continue forwards or backwards. Other writers will pause to create a partial outline only if they’re bogged down in a scene or chapter. Again, an outline is simply a tool that can help a writer move forward and/or more fully develop incomplete thoughts. If that tool isn’t necessary, there’s no need to utilize it.

Q. What’s the difference between a first draft and a second draft?

A. Depends upon your approach. There’s really no structural guideline between a first and second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) draft. Typically, any subsequent draft is a continuation of those alterations and additions begun in a previous draft—although in reality, one can transform a first draft into a final polished manuscript, if that’s the way your brain works.

For many writers (myself included), a second draft is really a mishmash of multiple, partial re-edits and rewrites. Personally, I’ll outline any scene or chapter as it occurs to me, sequentially or not. Even if I’m just beginning a novel, should some obscure Act III scene come to mind, I’ll outline that immediately, while my thoughts are still fresh. And should my story’s conclusion gel in my head—very often I begin a story with only a hazy ending in mind—I’ll immediately stop writing and draft as much of my last chapter as I can. Once I know, or even intuit, my conclusion, I find it much easier to move my characters toward that final destination. Far fewer wrong turns or dead ends, once everyone in my story knows where they’re going.

Q. How complete should/must my outline be?

A. Again, totally your call. An outline (or first draft) can be as simple or complex as necessary for your needs. Once you’re certain of your way forward, those tools have served their purpose. I create an outline for multiple reasons. I’ll include a detailed timeline, should I find myself writing various characters who need to connect in a later scene or chapter. When necessary, I’ll time-stamp hours and/or days (e.g.; TUESDAY 4:30PM) to keep myself aware of the clock ticking. Too often, when writing side-stories or back-stories, it’s too easy to muddle times and dates. One thing about a book’s ending—everybody best show up on time. I’ll also use my outline as a ‘call sheet’—reminding myself which characters are in any particular scene, when they appear and why—just so I don’t inadvertently sideline someone. It’s imperative, when writing a new scene, that every character is ‘accounted for’ ASAP. Each character should be ID’ed within a paragraph or two—an essential part of scene-setting—to avoid sudden ‘unexpected appearances’ later in the scene… even if those character do little but sit silently in a dark corner and scowl. They must be presented to readers ASAP.)

My outlines typically begin small—maybe a page or two of hastily jotted ideas, sometimes on Post-It Notes that pepper my bulletin board. As my story progresses, I find myself adding bits and pieces of data and plumping out a scene’s core elements in various ways— even including snippets of dialogue or scene-setting that I might otherwise forget if not notated in the here-and-now. By the time I finish my novel’s final draft (usually 350-400 pages) my outline will have expanded by 40-50 pages. So, yes, an outline can be a multi-faceted tool for those of us who need constant reminders of where, when, where, why and how I’m attempting to tell my story.

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Story vs. Plot

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Story vs. Plot. What’s the dif?
(Also: How to resolve the
“My story’s-too-short” dilemma)

I’m aware of confusion among many newbie novelists concerning the difference(s) between plotting and storytelling. So what exactly is a plot? What exactly is a story? Are plotting and storytelling identical? While the two terms might appear synonymous upon first glance—they are not.

A fictional plot contains a series or sequence of events, circumstances or the collective steps of a journey (physical, emotional, spiritual) that typically begins with an inciting incident and unravel in linear fashion—from your story’s Once Upon A Time… until the conclusive The End.

A story is a fusion of the three primary components necessary to create a complete, believable fictional reality. A story must include: 1. Plot momentum, as well as; 2. Character development, and; 3. Proper (meaning sufficient) scene-setting. A good story will seamlessly blend all three components — and will comprise little else. (See Simple, But Exciting.)

Character development should be self-explanatory. That is, the deeper, more fully formed and complex your characters, the truer-to-life those paper-people will become to readers. Insufficient (wooden, superficial, mundane, re-active*) characters lack the charm, attitude, unique individualism and compassion (for a protagonist) or else lack sufficient heartless, conniving and/or downright evil (your antagonist) qualities. Pro-active characters will skillfully, creatively and intuitively create or solve problems — and proactive protagonists won’t simply and repeatedly react to whatever obstacles a writer dumps in their way.

Proper scene-setting is more than simply visualizing a bare-bones environment for readers. Scene-setting means providing characters with proper stage-setting, and the subtle visualization of all necessary elements in a scene. Scene-setting also allows readers to occasionally stop and smell the flowers (for no other reason than stopping to smell the flowers). With each new scene or chapter you begin, it’s imperative to update (if necessary) the scene’s new whereabouts, any new time frame—has darkness fallen? Have days passed? You’re even noting any mood or emotional shifts in your characters. Your job is to note any relevant changes and make the appropriate updates.

Scene-setting also means providing readers with necessary sounds, smells, and attitudes… so don’t skimp on using a multitude of senses. The aroma of a sizzling steak or the screech of a hungry osprey can be as emotionally relevant to readers as defining a quaint village, a crumbling hillside castle, an angry sea or a cadmium colored sunset. In terms of a timeline, do you begin your new scene on a new day (or night), the following day, next Tuesday, or 2027? So if your last chapter ends around noon, and 10 or 12 pages into your new chapter, readers discover street lamps aglow, you’d have better revealed to us right up front that night has indeed fallen.

Or, to put it very simply:

PLOT: Is what happens.

STORY: Is what happens to whom.

Need more prompting? Okay, so let’s say you want to write a story about a ship sinking. Let’s call this tub the R.M.S. Titanic. A rough outline of your plot might be that of an unsinkable ocean liner speeding across the Atlantic, hitting an iceberg and gradually descending into the icy depths of history. Good plot (and certainly the tragedy’s been written enough). The choreography of the ship’s sinking — the unseen iceberg, the waterproof bulkheads failing, the boilers blowing up, the eventual founding and the ship ultimately splitting in two — that all makes for a riveting plot. But where are the people? How do they cope? Without a host of characters integrated into your story, you’ve basically written a book about buoyancy, or the lack thereof.

But put 2240 souls aboard that sinking ship — and perhaps focus on a dozen of those passengers, each with a different, dramatic, chaotic story to tell — now you’ve turned that very basic plot idea into a very spine-tingly, emotional story. Who’s the hero? Who’s the coward? Who survives? Who doesn’t? Who watches their loved ones go down with the ship? Again, a good story isn’t necessary about the what, it’s about the who.

Finding yourself with a too-short page count?

Newer writers, working on early drafts, tend to work primarily on plot-development first and foremost—which is perfectly okay. When you’re in draft mode, ain’t nothing wrong with defining your plot from beginning to end before you begin to embellish and elaborate. After all, you want to know where you’re going and how to get there. But once a writer’s sure of that destination, it’s all about plumping up character personalities and motivations, and grounding readers in the here and now.

Typically (and this is a generic observation… exceptions always exist) for every 100 pages of plot momentum, one can easily write 100 pages of character development as well, some of which may directly or indirectly influence your plot as well, but can also add back-stories or side-stories or include secondary characters who fail at their tasks (or intentionally thwart your MCs…who then have to try again). And a writer can easily add 50-100 pages of scene-setting, exploring/explaining realms, adding visual excitement to scenes. Heck, some writers (and George R.R. Martin comes to mind) can write a dozen pages simply visualizing a feast, setting the table and choreographing a scene before the action even begins.

So if you find your characters moving mechanically through the book, mindlessly following the plot—realize that there’s room for all sorts of embellishment and unexpected twists and nuance. How many times have you seen a character fail to start a car, when time is of the essence? Those few moments of frustration aren’t directly plot-related, they’re intentional interludes meant to add tension and drama. You’re upping the emotional ante and giving readers additional reasons to turn the page.

Should you decide to throw in a few extra characters to foil your MC’s efforts, you can add dozens or hundreds of pages to a manuscript that don’t directly influence/effect the plot, but that add to the overall thrill ride. Not to mention that you’re creating characters far more exciting (clever or scary, unlucky or frivolous or devious…or whatever) for readers to discover.

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* What’s a reactive character? That’s a character who’s always (or most often) responsive to an unfolding plot. Reactive characters typically resolve obstacles through luck or <gasp!> coincidence. (More than one or two discreetly placed coincidences and your novel may begin to feel fake or unbelievable.)

A reactive character wanders from scene to scene, and has little need for personal growth (See: Character Arcs), rational deduction, fortitude or tenacity. Sure, protagonists often initially react to initial drama or danger (again, your novel’s inciting incident) and occasionally to various situations beyond their control, but once a protagonist is motivated, it’s up to him/her to actively confront said drama or danger, to make important decisions and take control of the situation, no matter the risk.

For instance, your disgruntled PI can’t simply solve a crime by sheer luck alone, blundering into clues and having witnesses suddenly pop out of the woodwork, pointing fingers. Your gumshoe must make logical, skillful pro-active choices to solve the case. Or maybe your MC wins the lottery. (Somebody has to. Why not her?) But a character who’s flat broke, finds a dollar bill on the sidewalk and then spends it to win a billion dollar lottery, a day before her eviction, divorce and potential suicide? That’s borderline coincidental. So is the cop who defuses a bomb with 3 seconds remaining on the timer. (How many times have you seen that one? It’s not only coincidental, it’s pretty much a cliché.) Your protagonist(s) must actively rely on their cunning and knowledge to survive (or fall in love, or solve a dilemma or win the big game, or whatever). Sure, protagonists must be occasionally lucky… but too damn lucky? Unless you have an ironclad reason — a literary equivalent of a last-second Hail Mary Pass that wins the Superbowl — that’s pretty much taboo.


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More Common Obstacles

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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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More Common Obstacles that
Novelists Commonly Confront
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I’ve previously mentioned those few literary hurdles I often confront when working with novice writers. Getting stuck (See A Few Common Obstacles) is the most common dilemma that new writers encounter—and a conundrum that all writers face at one time or another. Although the act of getting stuck generally assumes that we’ll eventually get ourselves un-stuck as well. That occasionally annoying perceptive rut known as writer’s block isn’t supposed to be a chronic condition, after all, and most of us manage to work our way free, sooner or later.

However, if getting stuck increasingly feels like a permanent situation, or if you find yourself consistently accumulating little more than first scenes or first chapters—project after project, year after year—the issue(s) you face may run far deeper than simply a matter of ‘learning the ropes’ or ‘running out of fresh ideas.’ If you’ve been toiling away for a year or two on any single project, yet remain unsatisfied with the results or with your level of creative output, perhaps it’s time to dig a little more deeply into your writer’s psyche. Even if you consider yourself to be a gifted writer, your inability to produce adequate results (in terms of quantity or quality) may require some personal introspection. In other words, many of us must at some point confront those emotional or psychological issues that might be inhibiting our progress.

And while the prospect of ‘personal introspection’ may carry a certain negative weight, don’t worry—it’s not a euphemism for ‘you suck at writing.’ Rather, if you’re aching to write but can’t seem to gain any traction, self-reflection is simply my suggestion (unscientific as it is) that you look inward before contemplating all those extraneous external factors. Various assumptions for not writing—I can’t find a sharp pencil!; or It’s raining out!; or The rent’s overdue!—may feel like adequate excuses (and sometimes they can be) but more often than not, such superficial symptoms simply disguise a far more complex, subconscious quandary.

While legitimate factors such as fear of failure, or what if I’m not good enough? or even the very real fear of success do exist, those psychological roadblocks can often be overcome by simply acknowledging their presence. Thus, consider this: I’m certainly not good enough if I give up, but if I try, I may surprise myself. Because the only thing worse than failing to finish a novel is the unwillingness to start a novel.

And you won’t know if you don’t try—and not trying (or succeeding) is often the result of unrealistic self-doubt or lack of confidence. Every writer born has suffered through great gobs of self-doubt. (Stephen King’s disposal of his first manuscript, Carrie, only to be resurrected from the trashcan by his wife, Tabatha, is legendary. Had he not have been married, the iconic Mr. King might never have sold a single book.)

For first-time writers (especially those without concerned spouses like Tabatha), those often ubiquitous subliminal roadblocks can feel pervasive and insurmountable… because sometimes our brains are funny that way. But, guess what? Every problem has a solution. Every story has an ending. There’s always a way to get from Point A to Point Z, no matter how seemingly hopeless the journey might appear. However, each of us needs to dig deep to find the patience and persistence to go the distance. So finish. That’s Rule #1 after all.

Refer again to Perfection should you remain uncertain. Because (spoiler alert!) perfection doesn’t exist. (You can always change a word, a sentence, a paragraph…) So stop trying to obtain the unobtainable. Allow your first draft to be little more than a messy, incomplete rough sketch of whatever greatness is meant to come. Allow yourself sufficient time to tweak and refine and polish through numerous, subsequent drafts. Even if you can’t achieve perfection, pretty damn good is worth striving for. (And also quite possible!)

Ask yourself What’s the worst that can happen by trying, by staying the course? If you can’t convince yourself to go the distance, maybe writing a novel isn’t your best creative outlet. Yet other creative endeavors may await you, and it’s probably important to discover your options before you spend a year writing an uninspired (no offense) 400-pages that will ultimately disappoint you.

However, before you give up completely and become a plumber or an astronaut, what unrealized roadblocks or self-doubts linger within your soul, waiting to be discovered?

You may be #1: A Serial Story Starter. Starting a novel is a lot like a first date. The possibilities feel boundless, and our expectations are through the roof. Filled with excitement and confidence—even if our perceived ending (or second chapter, for that matter) remains a bit nebulous—some of us can easily write a fabulous ten or 20 pages with little effort.

And yet our creative expectations, like love itself, can be fickle. Here today, gone tomorrow. It’s not uncommon for new, assumptive writers to experience that roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows, once the initial rush of balloon-light giddiness dissipates beneath the eventual iron fist of reality. Before long we may begin to sense waves of self-doubt, fading hopes and unexpected stumbling blocks. Some of us will begin to approach our pages, our progress, with a tingling sense of dread. Might starting a novel have been a mistake?

Frequently, as we concoct and/or approach a specific story line, we may realize (correctly or not) that the story inside our head is more difficult to decipher than originally presumed. Maybe the plot sputters, or our premise begins feels weak or clunky. Our characters stop speaking to us or become lost in the fog. So many What if—? questions remain unanswered. So many Now what—? questions feel suddenly impenetrable. Or maybe, 30-50 pages into our story, an even better idea comes to mind. Those feelings are more common than you might think—and knowing when to stop can be as important as knowing when to hunker down and proceed.

It’s perfectly alright to revamp our daydream in another POV, or tell our story in a completely different way. It’s also perfect okay to start a completely new book from scratch. It’s all part of the learning curve, after all, and ’tis far better to disregard 50 or 100 pages and begin anew, rather than belabor to complete an unfulfilling brick of a book that you’ll ultimately stick in a drawer, disgruntled and disillusioned, and perhaps never write again.

Many (most) published writers do have unfinished starter novels and dog-eared notebooks filled with half-baked ideas littering our drawers and PC desktops. Those false starts are also part of the process. We’re still in the process of learning to think like novelists. Sometimes, that development can take years or decades of effort.

Or, you may be #2: A Panster. Thirty years ago, the term panster did not exist—or else did so clandestinely and had yet to evolve into the literary limelight. The term (should you have recently awoken from a coma) defines those freestyle writers among us who write without any perceived forethought or planning or, more often than not, without a clue as to how one’s story might end.

Personally, I love starting a novel with wild abandon, sometimes with only a vague or fuzzy notion of my characters’ personalities/motivations and with a single inciting incident in mind. But within 50-or-so pages I typically realize that I’m confronting too many options to wing it any further.

At that point I begin to outline my next few scenes and/or chapters. And while I shall refrain from mentioning the virtues of outlining yet again, if you’ve missed my last few dozen posts, HERE‘s a quick reminder. Do realize that outlining doesn’t necessarily mean religiously, unerringly, bullet-pointing an entire novel from cover to cover before you begin writing. Outlining can be as brief and as vague as a few jotted lines that jog your creativity or lead you out of a jam or dead end. For me, outlining is also a sort of reality check (can I do this scene differently? Can I do it better?) before I proceed into uncharted waters.

If you are a panster and decide outlining doesn’t work for you, at least you’ve eliminated the process as a potentially valuable tool. So it’s worth consideration.

Or you may be #3: A Daydreamer. (All dressed up and nowhere to go.) We’re all daydreamers, we fiction writers. Ain’t nothing wrong with daydreaming—what’s a novel after all, but a daydream we write down, embellish, and ultimately complete? I’ve known a good many writers who concoct rather brilliant ideas, even come up with a functional synopsis or summary…and then perhaps finish a scene or two, a chapter or two, before realizing that Writing is hard. (Refer again to: A Few Common Obstacles.) For most creative people, coming up with boffo story ideas is by far the easy part. The difficulty comes over the next several months, or years, attempting to complete in exacting detail the story you’ve envisioned. It’s not for the feint of heart. Or for the incredibly busy.

You may be #4: A Closeted Screenwriter. The novel isn’t the only game in town. If you love writing dialogue but hate elaborate scene-setting or nuanced character-building, consider writing a screenplay. A 90-120 page script (translating into a 90-120 minute cinematic runtime), can be completed in a fraction of the time and (imho) far easier to conceive and complete. Ninety percent of a screenplay (more or less) will be dedicated to dialogue. Deep thinking, indecision, unspoken secrets — all are non-existent, unless exposed through dialogue, or VO, or a few dramatically visualized, emotional cues. Scene-setting is reduced to a few lines of often vague information, and yet sufficient for a director to interpret. Thus:

EXTERIOR. SUMMER. DAY. SOMEWHERE IN NEBRASKA. A FARMHOUSE SITS ON A DISTANT HILLSIDE. UNSEEN COWS ‘MOO’ IN THE DISTANCE.

JAKE and MARY SUE walk hand-in-hand down a dirt road toward a tractor shed, where JAKE has parked his old ’67 Flatbed Ford.

MARY SUE
(staring cautiously behind them)

Daddy says I’m not supposed to see you any more. He says if he catches us together he’ll throttle me and kill you.

JAKE
(smirking)

Let ’em try.

MARY SUE

He ain’t jokin’, Jake. I’m scared.

JAKE
(motioning toward the Ford)

Then run away with me, Mary Sue. Today. Right now. We always talked about goin’ off to California. Now’s our chance. Let’s leave this shit-hole, and your no-good excuse of a father, in our dust. No more milkin’ cows. No more takin’ crap from a man who’s far more a drunk than a daddy.

MARY SUE
(frowning)

I can’t just up an’ run, Jake. I can’t leave little Billy alone with that man. Not for a single night. I need to stay an’ protect my baby brother. You know that.

In a screenplay, you’re choreographing actions (such as driving away) and emotions (fearing a drunk daddy, protecting a vulnerable little boy) largely through dialogue. In a screenplay, your options of revelation to an audience are simple. You’re either depicting visual actions, or else revealing necessary information through relevant dialogue. 

It’s up to the writer to convey emotion as simply, as precisely, as possible. One can allude to visual cues (Perhaps we see Mary Sue frowning at Jake’s suggestion to leave, for instance.) But even that nuanced gesture or expression is ultimately in the hands of the director, working in tandem with the actor, to fine-tune those visual cues, based on the blue-print (script) that you’ve provided.

Nor is there need to transmit unnecessarily detailed info to your audience. Let’s look at the aforementioned Nebraska farmhouse for example. Unless that particular structure/color/location is somehow specifically relevant to the plot, it’s simply labeled (in your script) “a farmhouse.” Whether it’s well kept or dilapidated, big or small, white or brown or a pleasant Robin’s Egg Blue, if its description isn’t plot-specific, it’s irrelevant in your script. A set director or location scout will run those potential decisions past the film’s director.

Realize that a script is simply a tool, one of many foundational elements necessary in producing a film. And you, the writer, are simply the “tool maker.” (And a well-paid toolmaker, should your script make it into a film’s production stage.)

But you’re not the end-user. The director wears that crown. And seldom, if ever, will a script be followed verbatim. Some scripts, by the end of a film shoot, may even be unrecognizable by the writer. So just be aware that a great many story-making decisions — those exclusively decided by a novelist (although somewhat massaged by a publisher) — are now under complete control by a director (or a cinematographer or a set-designer). You’re merely providing those folks with a viable roadmap. A director may dramatically alter your story, change your vision in numerous ways, even hire various script-doctors and/or other writers to fulfill certain needs. It’s just part of the process. Film development is a team endeavor. Once the script is complete, a screenwriter simply moves on to another project.

Certainly, pro’s and con’s exist, and should be examined in far more detail than I could ever explain here. (Nor have I ever completed a screenplay, so there’s that!) I highly recommend William Goldman’s Adventures of the Screen Trade. (Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men…so the guy knew what he was doing.) Also check out Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat.

Writing, selling and marketing a script is a whole ‘nother beast, and in a marketplace far different than traditional book publishing. I have a friend who’s optioned a single script three times. When a screenplay is optioned, typically by a production company or lone producer, your story is in limbo. Meaning that your script hasn’t—yet—been outright purchased, but is being held in escrow as that producer’s exclusive property. No other production company or studio can touch it for a fixed amount time (sometimes a year or more), until that producer either commits to film it or releases all rights back to you.

You are, however, paid a stipend (typically 4-figures, occasionally more) for the luxury of waiting—although there’s no guarantee that a producer will find sufficient money and actually begin production. (If so, you’ll sign a contract and be bumped into a 5- or 6-figure compensation.) And finding yourself with an optioned screenplay is certainly better than having no interest at all.) If your script is ultimately rejected, you’re free to put it back on the market. Some scripts will spend a decade or more, bouncing between various production companies, waiting to find the right fit.

Not ready to give up on your current manuscript? Not ready to give up the prospect of being a novelist? One final suggestion. Put the manuscript away for at least two weeks. Maybe a month or more. Allow yourself sufficient time to clear your head, or to formulate new ideas (write a short story or two, perhaps?) and then approach your your manuscript with a newfound thrill and a fresh perspective. Sometimes, that down time can work wonders.

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Write the Daydream

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Write the Daydream
(Intro to Plotting)

What’s a novel, but a daydream we write down and embellish, expand and hone into something coherent, dramatic and hopefully entertaining?

Sounds simple enough, in theory. But how does one begin? How does one even attempt to begin?* How do so many rudimentary thoughts (Hey, I’ll call this girl Juliette. I’ll name that dude Romeo. They’ll live happily ever—no, wait, I have a better idea!) emerge to produce a provocative story? Maybe we gaze longingly at books like A Game of Thrones, or The Lord of The Rings, the Harry Potter series or The Time Ships, and think WTF!? How do people create such rich, complex, creative narratives? What were they thinking? What were they smoking? I could never begin to craft such an incredibly detailed epic adventure! Until I figure it out, I guess it’s back to watching reruns of The Gilmore Girls.

Well, you won’t know unless you try. Sometimes new or wannabe writers will procrastinate for years, waiting for the right moment (that may never come without that spark of concerted effort.) But it’s far easier, perhaps even more exciting, to fantasize about writing than actually writing. So, yeah, we procrastinate, rebuilding or babysitting our daydreams time and time again inside our heads. And it is procrastination, you know—those unwritten daydreams, those many incidental acts of minutia that feel like writing… (What should I name my characters? I’ve spent months looking through baby-books and still can’t find one I like!) But until you begin actively writing that first page, that first scene, that first chapter, let’s face it, you’re not really “writing.” You’re stuck in idle mode, still awaiting that creative spark, that literary ‘Big Bang.’ (You can rename your characters during or after you finish your first draft, for example. You can begin writing a story in the middle, and work back to the beginning later. You can begin to develop a character or two, or write snippets of dialogue and infuse them into the proper scene later.) But the only way to write a novel is to start a novel, and that is by putting words down on paper. (Or a PC.) Your non-writing hours are either spent actively prepping or researching that eventual book or avoiding that eventual book. And yes, most writers subliminally know the difference. (And if you’re procrastinating, I suspect you do, too.)

Conversely, some new or wannabe novelists—heads filled with so many swirling, exciting possibilities—believe they can plop down one day in front of a notepad or a PC and simply begin to scribble or type out a coherent, fully-developed story. Most of those writers don’t realize that stream of consciousness writing will only get you so far, but then what? Writing a novel requires an incredible amount of strategy, of organization and finesse. And most of us will likely require a working roadmap (see Outlining) so we don’t lose ourselves along the way. A few lucky writers may be able to simultaneously craft a comprehensive story inside their heads as they write, but that’s an ability most of us do not enjoy.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. One can begin a novel by either illuminating (or alluding to) your plot, or by introducing a character—usually, but not always, a protagonist or antagonist. Since no definitive rules exist on beginning, one can open a novel on virtually anything—although one’s first line/first page should probably have some bearing, directly or indirectly, on one’s story or primary character(s). (See Where To Start.) However, it’s totally up to you. My only suggestion is, make your first line count. Make it relevant, and provocative or subtly revealing. Basically, make it memorable!

As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s fair to say that most novels begin with a single What if? notion or premise. We’ve concocted a vague daydream that seems promising. Or at least interesting. Gee, I wish I could fly. What would I do if I could? What might I accomplish? Or, Linda doesn’t even know I’m alive. If I could only make her notice me! What if…? Or, I love to world build! Dragons and castles and wizards and dark magic! But where do I start my story? What possibly could happen that will interest readers? Hey, what if a young knight bumps his head, develops amnesia and then….? These fragmented notions, in the hands of a creative mind (or in the mind of creative hands), might easily become the core of a superhero thriller or romantic comedy or epic fantasy—or a thousand other fictional possibilities.

But of course, one will need far more potential material than an original, perhaps fuzzy premise (your inciting incident). You’ll need to transcribe your hazy daydream into a linear, logical story line—meaning you’ll need to squeeze those amorphous thoughts into coherent words, sentences and paragraphs.

Your original idea will likely sputter out in 5 or 10 pages. You’ll very quickly need to create entirely new scenes, chapters and ultimately create a compelling, complete story. How do you proceed? Well, you do what every novelist does. You concoct another fantasy—this time with an overt (or discreet) connective thread to your original daydream. Meaning if your first chapter was filled with knights and dragons and damsels in distress, your next chapter probably shouldn’t be about astronauts on their way to Mars. By connective, I mean either a chapter that’s sequential or oppositional, but relevant in theme, tone and rationality to your already developed story line.

For instance, let’s say we’re writing a classic old, shoot-em-up Western. Chapter 1 might be about a young protagonist named Sheriff Bob, who’s arrived in Deadwood to keep the peace. Chapter 2’s about new schoolmarm named Betty Sue, who’s just stepped off the train from Boston. Chapter 3 is about nefarious scoundrel Black Bart, eyeballing the town’s bank. Three distinct, separate (oppositional) stories at this point. Your characters, and their isolated stories, may very well begin independently of one another for several chapters, although sooner or later those three character will most likely meet up—at which point their lives (and your chapters) will become chronologically connected in a coherent, linear (that is, sequential) fashion. Writing linear chapters: A, B, C, D and E, holds infinitely more appeal to readers than disjointed chapters written A, E, C, B and D. (Although never say never, Pulp Fiction fans). Still, for most of us, continuity is imperative.

But back to the problem at hand. Let’s say you’re fresh out of daydreams after a chapter or two. Let’s return to our superhero notion. Since Superman is obviously taken, we’ll call the protagonist of our fictional wisp of an idea Fly-Man. Okay, that’s a little eerie. How about simply Flyboy. As in slang for pilot. Because, oh yeah, Flyboy can fly.

And let’s say your fantasy, the one you’ve been contemplating for a few months now, is simply about an unlikely, lonely teenager. The kid’s bitten by a radioactive housefly (with apologies to Spider-Man) and with his sudden new superpowers, saves Mary Jane Ellen, the cute girl next door (and his secret crush) from being kidnapped by, dunno—space pirates?

So now what? One nifty thing about creative writing is, whatever happens next, that’s totally up to you. Perhaps there’s no direction at all (yet!) screaming to be followed. What’s your gut feeling? What might make an exciting continuation to Flyboy’s infatuation with Mary Jane Ellen, after his daring, Chapter 1 rescue?

So maybe she falls in love with Flyboy, unaware that he’s really her shy, lovelorn next-door neighbor. That’s an option, although one that may be best served coming later in the book. Or maybe she’s knocked unconscious during Flyboy’s rescue and doesn’t have a clue what happened? Or perhaps, in Chapter 2, we decide to further develop our story’s antagonist, the sinister space pirate named Rodney.

So your next daydream fantasy might be, with his kidnap plan thwarted, how does Space Rodney best plan his revenge on the unsuspecting Flyboy?

You’re creating a reaction (Rodney’s revenge) to the original action of the failed kidnap attempt. And Chapter 3 then becomes Flyboy’s reaction to Space Rodney’s subsequent action… and this action/reaction sequence continues until you find a suitable place, 300-400 pages hence, to end the book. (See Action/Reaction.)

Can’t think of any new, suitable daydreams? Sure you can. If you’ve thought of one, you can do it again (and again, and again). Because that’s the only way to write a novel—layer upon layer of creative ideas, creating sufficient suspense and excitement to go the 300-400 page distance.** So stay curious. Stay creative. Use your imagination. Discover the joys of Outlining… because that’s the absolutely best way to get unstuck, whenever cerebral stickiness sticks.
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* Don’t know where to start? See the appropriately named Where To Start.

** While one’s daydreams should be linear, this doesn’t mean that you must write scenes or chapters sequentially. It’s okay to create various puzzle pieces out of sequence—and piece them together as your later daydreams catch up with your earlier efforts. One need not start on line one, page one. Begin wherever you feel the excitement flowing, and connect the dots later.
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Fundamentals

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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The Pillars of Success:
. . . .The Fundamentals of
. . . . . . . .a Successful Novel

An athlete must be fast and agile. A scientist curious and logical. A watch-maker nimble fingered and methodical. A comedian funny. So what exactly are those attributes that a writer must possess to become a published author? Is there a single, foolproof, absolute secret to a newbie writer’s impending success? If so, nobody’s told me. However, a few fundamental qualities, either designed by nature (an innate instinct) or nurture (the process of learning) are probably well worth knowing before you embark upon your journey.

These quasi-laws of Literary Physics—the so-called pillars of success—can serve as cues as to who may be more likely to publish a novel. If lacking one or more of these qualities, are you doomed to never finish or sell a novel? Should you stop writing? Not if you love doing so. Best-sellers have been occasionally written by steadfast, tenacious, pillar-lite souls, despite the odds. And, by all means, give it your best shot. You have my blessing to prove the odds-makers wrong.

Those Pesky Pillars.

Ah, but I digress. Pillars. Depending upon who you ask, three or four such pillars exist. A fifth may provide the proverbial ace up your sleeve and the sixth is a bona fide soul crusher. The problem is, not everyone agrees as to what these pillars actually might be. If you Google the pillars of successful writing, you’ll get an eyeful. I’ve found (in a snappy 0.0874 seconds) the following assumptions:

Ethos, Pathos, Logos. Aristotle, the old Greek dude, coined the original foundations of persuasive communication. Ethos, meaning credibility and acceptance (the readers) of your fictional reality. Pathos, meaning emotion. Drama. Tension. Make it larger than life (if only subliminally), and keep it coming. Logos, meaning logic. Logical characters. Logical story arcs. Because illogical writing makes for weak, unimpressive and occasionally stupid novels.

Variations on this theme are: Aspiration. Inspiration. Perspiration. (Clever! And, yes, all necessary elements.)

Theory, Practice and Consumption. (Theory meaning learning the craft. Practice meaning practice. Constantly. Consumption meaning knowledge. Read novels. Read non-fiction. Read how-to primers. Immerse yourself in all things literary.)

Know your audience. (What’s your genre?) Have a purpose. (Your novel’s message). Adjusting style. (Your writer’s voice). Repeating the Process. (Practice. Write often.)

Concept. (A writer’s idea, premise and plot.) Conflict. (Drama. Always.) Characters. (A fully developed protagonist, fully developed antagonist, fully developed extras.) Theme. (The reason you’re telling the story. There’s always a reason, even if we ourselves are unaware when we begin.)

Curiosity. Creativity. Productivity. (All self-evident.)

Plot. Character. Setting. (Ah, this one sounds familiar…although more likely story-based components, rather than a success-based adage, imho. But no less important.)

Emotion. Logic. Credibility.

Mindset. Environment. Tools.

…and the list goes on. Our pillar-theories may vary (we theoretical pillarists), but our intentions are both admirable and identical: The ultimate success of the writer. So, with that in mind, I’ve included my own blend of literary pillarizing. Although I am suggesting a slight twist. I’ve even drawn a Venn Diagram to explain (…a picture being worth a thousand words, after all).
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A Moderately Helpful (or else utterly confusing) Vennish Diagram.

So let’s dissect this pillary thing, shall we?

The Internal Factors.

• Talent (An innate, inborn capability to concoct and produce a well-written novel). Talent is that inherent ability to tell an interesting story in a unique voice. And then to impress agents and/or publishers with a sterling query. Like chess masters, divas, athletes and multi-platinum singers, you’re either born with a certain talent or you’re not. Me, for instance. I love music. Learned to play guitar—badly. Practiced daily for years, but never broke out of that meh! stage. The mathematics of music confounded me. (Change keys from G to B-flat? Whaaaa?) I also have a singing voice like a frog in a hailstorm. So no, no amount of dedication was ever going to help. We all can’t be everything we want to be. Just sayin’. Then again, everything we might become is certainly worth a shot. • This attribute is inborn; out of your control or your ability to learn.

• Craft (Technique. Absorbing information. Trial-and-error. Attempting to establish an authorial voice.). Craftsmanship is your ability to learn and develop the rules and mechanics of writing. It means perusing ‘how to’ books on grammar, plotting, narration and dramatic pacing. It means perhaps taking classes or joining a writer’s workshop (which I highly recommend). Or finding employment in a writing-based job—copy writing, advertising, journalism. Or reading manuscripts. Teaching English or Literature. Me? I was a newspaper film critic for several years with a strict 750-word ceiling. Man, that job taught me more about self-editing, about whittling down excess verbiage and getting to the point, and greatly honed my writing abilities. Sometimes it means starting a novel or two, if only to fully develop the necessary knowledge to write a novel that sells. Write until you find your own personal, authorial voice, and then write some more. Realize that it’s okay, perhaps even essential, to blunder, to learn from your mistakes, and then keep writing. • This attribute can be taught and learned.

• Skill (Competence, Expertise, Finesse, Finding your voice). Skill is your ability to realize your potential (an infusion of self-confidence), and then utilize that expertise to its fullest extent. Skill is what results from learning your craft up, down, and sideways, inside and out. Skill is basically Craft 2.0! • This attribute can be taught and learned, but ultimately it’s a personal choice to educate yourself until you’re all but assured of eventual success.

• Patience (Determination, Perseverance, Practice). There’s no other way to finish a novel than to begin. By writing a single line, an infectious opening paragraph, a fully developed first page, you’re making a psychological pact with yourself—that you and your brain are in this for the long run. You’re here for the whole enchilada. Writing a novel is like raising a kid: Less sleep, fewer weekends down at the disco, lots of self-doubt and even a little self-pity. (A little is okay. You’re a struggling artisan after all.) You may be constantly apologizing to friends and family for your prolonged absence. You’re committing yourself because you know you’re competent and talented, even though nobody (yet) may recognize those talents. You’re aware that thousands of other novice writers exist with similar dreams—and if they have a shot, so do you. So you take the leap. Write a page, then another, then another…because that’s the only way home. • This sort of inner drive can’t be taught or learned—and may take years of practice and dedication.

* The Sweet Spot. (That tiny white diamond in the middle of the diagram.) If one has the talent, craft, skill and patience to finish a manuscript and begin to pitch the book, the chances of finding an agent or publisher are typically far better than those writers who find themselves lacking in one or more arenas. (If you do find yourself lacking, doesn’t mean that you can’t learn and grow and, in time, prosper.) Which only leaves a single potential speedbump standing between you and Stephen Kingdom—and that’s luck. But read on….

The External Factors.

• Connections (It’s who you know and who knows you). This one may feel a bit disingenuous—but the simple fact is, nepotism and associatism exist and, by all means, if you got it, use it. Is your uncle an editor at Macmillan? That one’s a slam dunk! If you know somebody who knows somebody who works at Simon & Schuster (even in the mail room), or if your great aunt used to date a literary agent in Tuscon—yes! Follow the bread trail. You never know.

P.S.: If you have no connections, and you’re one of those charming extroverts, capable of perfecting your own bow tie, of making a marvelous (shaken, not stirred) Martini, who’s proficient at making friends and connections wherever you go (and if so, good for you) then go for it! As they say in Hollywood, schmooze ’til you lose!

• Luck (Rolling the cosmic dice). This one’s the looming nightmare, the nasty, giggling gremlin who pervades every writer’s hopes and dreams of a book sale. Luck is fickle, unorthodox and totally unpredictable. If your exquisitely written manuscript lands on an agent’s desk who’s hungover or is having marital problems, you may be inexplicably overlooked. A publisher’s assistant who’s going on vacation tomorrow? Same results. Your e-mail query ends up in a junk mail folder. Maybe your insanely well-written novel reminds an assistant editor of a less adept novel that crossed her desk last month, which was nevertheless accepted and that fortunate writer has just signed a contract for a juicy royalty and certain fame. Or maybe you’ve somehow overlooked a typo on page one. (I’ve done that!) It’s sufficient to turn potential good luck to unfortunate, rotten luck.

Speaking of rotten luck, I’ve known a few fiction writers who’ve lost manuscripts in hard-drive crashes, and (of course) the backup’s been corrupted and…well, shit does happen. Aware of Coronal Mass Ejections? Y’know, those giant plasmatic, magnetic fields occasionally spit from the Sun? A lightweight solar flare will cause a pretty aurora. A direct hit from a heavyweight magnetic distortion can potentially fry power grids. Electronic files can (theoretically, at least) be damaged or erased by such an incident. So here’s a new rule. Maybe one of the most important. Rule #98: Make a hard copy (paper) back-up of your manuscript every now and then, even if you’re still working in draft mode. See Finagle’s (aka Murphy’s) Law. But brace yourself.

Here’s a fitting, random comment about blind, stupid luck. Years ago, producers greenlit a film about John Lennon’s life (John and Yoko: A Love Story). The gifted actor chosen to portray Lennon was named Mark Lindsay Chapman. Lennon’s killer was named Mark David Chapman. Yoko Ono so freaked out at the eerily unlikely coincidence that another actor was ultimately recruited to replace him. True story. Bad luck. It exists.

The Hierarchy of Competence

Whether writing a novel or attempting to learn (and master) any of life’s million or so teachable lessons, there’s a savvy little social model that may explain the ‘Pillar Approach’ in somewhat different terms. American Filmmaker Noel Burch’s The Hierarchy of Competence dictates:
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  • Unconscious Incompetence: Meaning that I’m unaware of a particular skill, or of any necessity to even utilize that skill. (Johnny doesn’t know the difference between a noun and a verb, nor does he care. But, hey, he’s just read a good book and the author’s raking in some pretty big bucks. Johnny rationalizes that anyone can write a novel and make a fortune. It’s not that difficult, right?)
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  • Conscious Incompetence: I’m becoming aware of a need for a particular skill, and the rationale for learning the appropriate lessons, but nahhh, I can probably get along by faking it. (After scribbling out 5 atrocious pages, Johnny’s confused and angry to realize that he knows very little about writing a novel. And yet, he persists.) By the way, the persistent part? That’s every writer’s make or break moment—the decision to practice and learn and, hopefully, to go the distance, is crucial.
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  • Conscious Competence: I’ve learned a thing or two about a particular craft and, hey, maybe I’m not half bad. But I’m aware there’s lots more info to absorb. (Johnny understands the basics of plotting and the fundamentals of fiction writing by now. He’s read Strunk & White. He’s read Bird By Bird. He deconstructs novels that he’s read and likes—trying to figure out what ‘makes them tick.’ He’s even signed up for a creative writing class. Sure, he believes he’s pretty good at writing, but he knows he could be better. Time to read a few more ‘how to’ books and then it’s back to the keyboard. Or sharpen that pencil.)
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  • Unconscious Competence: After a few years—yup, years—of practice, of trial-and-error, of finishing a dozen short stories that receive good feedback, I’m becoming a skilled writer, in total control (and harmony) with my talent and craft. (Johnny sits down in front of a computer and new worlds unfold before his eyes. He realizes that the act of writing—drafting, composing, editing—is no longer drudgery and anguish, but has recently become a labor of love. Sure, occasional moments of self-doubt, of lethargy and uncertainty may linger, and yet with utmost confidence, Johnny begins his novel. He’s certain he will finish. His thoughts afire, his fingers dance over the keyboard, working in nearly effortless tandem. (Because, yes, those moments do exist.)

Bottom line: Don’t let anyone—not me, certainly not this post—dissuade you from trying. From persisting. Write your freakin’ ass off, until you succeed or something better comes along. So if I can leave you with anything, it’s this:

“To infinity…and beyond!”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . — Buzz Lightyear
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