Finish What You Start: Tips for Completing That First Draft

letters on yellow tiles forming the end text
Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com

How many first drafts do you have tucked away in a desk drawer? If you’re like me, the answer is at least two, maybe three.

You start the project with enthusiasm, proceed steadily until the halfway point, maybe even  two-thirds of the way through. Then suddenly, inexplicably, you stop. Why did you stop writing?

There are several possible reasons. Either you stop to go back to review what you’ve already written, and then you get detoured editing and rewriting sections of it. (Guilty!) Or you get stuck with the plot, unsure where you want it to go next, so you set it aside until inspiration strikes. (Guilty of that too!) Or you believe your writing simply isn’t any good so you abort the project altogether before giving it a chance to grow. (Yep! That too.)

But don’t give up just yet. Your novel-in-progress can be saved. In Writer’s Digest webinar, Self-editing Techniques That Work, publishing experts Marie Lamba and Cari Lamba offer some tips for making sure you finish that first draft.

* Think of the first draft as a brain dump. Here’s your opportunity to pour all those scenes and plot twists stored inside your head onto the page. The whole point of the first draft is to sort through your story ideas to see which ones work. Consider it a literary experiment to see how all the pieces will work together as a cohesive unit.

* Understand that the first draft is never perfect. Much of what you put down on the page will be garbage, BUT also recognize that some of it will be valuable. Don’t be tempted to throw any of it out – at least not until you finish writing the whole thing. That will be your reward for finishing.

* Write as if no one will ever see it. Chances are the first draft won’t be very good. Who cares if no one else sees it? Instead, enjoy the process of creating your story, of seeing your characters come alive on the page. Don’t stop writing until you write the words “The End” on the page. Refrain from re-reading what you’ve written. You might be tempted to edit those sections, which only slows down your progress. Or you might decide you don’t like the story, feel discouraged, and abort it altogether. Keep writing until you get to the end of the story.

* Stop trying to write and edit at the same time. Writing is governed by the right side of the brain, the creative side, while editing and other analytical skills are governed by the left side of the brain. They generally do not operate simultaneously. Editing as you write slows you down and prevents you from getting to the end, your primary goal. It also takes your focus away from the creative process. Stay focused on writing the first draft, and you’ll get to the end sooner rather than later. There’s always time to edit later.

* Do only the lightest of editing. Okay, this might seem to contradict the tip #3. There is one exception. Do light editing only if it helps move the story forward. Better yet, just make a notation in the margin of the changes you want to make, then edit that section later.

* Have an end scene in mind. Before you start writing that first draft, visualize or sketch out what the final scene will be. Then begin writing toward that ending. Or write a draft of that final scene in its entirety (with the understanding that you’ll probably have to revise it later). Either way, you’ll have something to work toward.

* Write a book jacket summary of the novel. Before writing the first draft, try writing a summary of the novel as if it will appear on the inside flap of the book cover. The summary acts the same way the end scene does, by providing you with a picture of how the story will progress.

* Remember, you’re not alone. Every author has experienced first draft-itis, no matter how experienced they are and no matter if they’ve been published before or not. If they all managed to overcome these obstacles, you can too.

When you are done writing the first draft, congratulate yourself. You put in some hard work and a lot of hours of writing. Savor your victory, but remember, there’s more work to do. Don’t jump back into your novel right away. Set it aside for several weeks at least, to give it a chance to cool off. That time away from your novel will give you a chance to catch your breath, rest your brain, and shift from right side thinking (creativity) to left side thinking (analytical). Then when you’re ready – at least several weeks – you can begin to tackle the revision process.

Working on the first draft of a novel is hard work. It’s like a practice run for a marathon. Pace yourself, and keep writing. Before you know it, you’ll be writing “The End” in no time.

Writing a Novel Takes Practice

close up photo of gray typewriter
Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

At a panel discussion I attended several months ago, one of the panelists described how she had a practice novel before ever getting published. She had been toiling on this particular story for months before deciding it wasn’t working. So she tucked it away into a drawer and began working on another novel, which eventually got published.

Up until that day, I had never heard of a practice novel. In that moment, I realized that one or two of the manuscripts I had been working on were most likely practice novels.

For the uninitiated, practice novels are written manuscripts that usually never get published. They serve to help you learn how to craft a story in novel form and work out different story ideas and angles. “Chances are the successful first novel is the one that was published, not the first one written,” writes author Donna Cook on her blog.

Think of a practice novel as the warm up concert act before the headliner hits the stage.

Tackling a novel is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Writing a practice novel can lay the groundwork for future success, while helping you work out the kinks of your writing process. If you harbor any doubts or have any question about your abilities, the practice novel can usually answer them.

Here are several ways that practice novels can help your writing.

Practice novels are ideal for beginning writers. While many first-time published authors have previous writing experience, and perhaps have earned a degree from an MFA program, most beginning writers are starting to figure out how to write a novel. Practice novels help you learn the art of storytelling – from plot structure, dialogue, character development, even sentence structure. You learn as you go along, by learning from mistakes, picking up helpful tips from other writers, or by taking occasional workshops. It’s a piecemeal process, and a lengthy one. Even after spending several years working on a manuscript, off and on between other projects, that time is not wasted because you are continually honing your craft.

Practice novels help you gain insights about yourself. As you write each day, you learn how to set goals for yourself and solve storytelling problems. You pay more attention to how you think and how you feel. You may pay more attention to conversations around you, observe how you interact with others, and examine scenery with an eye for color and detail. Through your characters, you learn what makes people tick. Practice novels help you see your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and help you determine if you have what it takes to pursue this strange ambition. Novel writing isn’t for everyone, but a practice novel can tell you if this path is right for you.

Practice novels can help you test out different genres. If you read a variety of genres, it’s only natural that you want to experiment with each of those styles. Perhaps you’re a fan of both romantic suspense and mystery/thrillers, for example. While the two share common elements, there are also differences. You might experiment with both of them, but find through practice that writing a thriller fits your writing style better. Practice novels can help you figure out which genre best suits your writing style and whether your story idea has wheels.

Practice novels may never get published, but parts of it can be – later. It’s rare that the practice novel manuscript gets published at all. There are a few exceptions, such as Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but published many years later. Most readers and critics agree it wasn’t nearly as prolific as Mockingbird. While most practice novels never see the light of day, some can be utilized in bits and pieces. For example, author Anne Allen, used pieces of her practice novel for another one she wrote 15 years later. Likewise, you may decide that some of the scenes and characters from your first unpublished manuscript are worth saving for the purpose of using in other works. The work you’ve done on a practice novel is never wasted when parts of it can be used in future works.

Practice novels can help you stick to a regular writing practice. When you know you are working toward a specific goal, like completing a novel, it’s much easier to write every day. It’s also much easier to find time to write, no matter how busy you are, because you are immersed in your work-in-progress.

Instead of practice novels, try writing short stories. Many people find the prospect of writing a novel daunting, like climbing a mountain when you’ve never climbed before. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a smaller project, like a short story, which can provide valuable storytelling skills, like plot, character development, and pacing, according to The Writing Cooperative. Further, if you decide to send out that short story to an editor or critique group, you’ll likely get feedback faster. People may be more inclined to review a 20-page manuscript than a 200-page novel. With speedier turnaround time, you’ll learn sooner rather than later whether your work is any good, and what you may need to do to improve it.

Practice novels require a lot of time, effort and patience, but that time is never wasted. Each hour you put into your practice novel is time well spent learning about crafting stories. Even if your practice novel never gets published, just completing one is worth celebrating.

 

NaNoWriMo: Achieve Your Writing Goals

blur business close up college
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Editor’s note: I am not employed or affiliated with NaNoWriMo not-for-profit organization nor am I being paid for promoting this event. 

Could you write 50,000 words in one month? A national non-profit writing organization is challenging you to do just that.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it is often called. NaNoWriMo is a creative writing event hosted by a not-for-profit organization that began in 1999 to challenge young writers to complete a novel during the 30 days of November. The goal is to write 50,000 words, or roughly 1,667 words a day. That may seem like a lot to some, but not if you plan your time well, say writers who have participated in the past.

If you’ve always wanted to write a novel and wasn’t sure how or where to start, the NaNoWriMo website offers some practical tools and resources to help you get started. I’m especially impressed with the Prep 101 Workshop, a series of exercises that helps you plan your novel. In this section, you’ll find an entire handbook containing exercises, quizzes and worksheets to help you do everything from developing your story idea, creating complex characters, outlining your plot, developing the setting for your story, and organizing your time to get it all done.

I found the quiz about plotting preferences especially useful. I discovered that I don’t like a lot of detailed planning, but just enough to get me started and keep it flexible enough to allow for new characters and plot twists.

If you’re writing a memoir, a play or non-fiction book, don’t feel left out. While this event is geared toward novel writers, you could easily adapt the tools to your own work. The goals are the same – 50,000 words in 30 days.

You don’t need to donate to the organization to participate. You can do the work on your own, like I plan to do. Or meet with fellow writers in your area for ongoing support and encouragement. Check listings in your area for write-ins that might be taking place at bookstores, public libraries or schools. For the uninitiated, a write-in is like an open house for writers where you spend an hour or several just focused on your writing. Write-ins are a marvelous way to immerse yourself in your novel.

Also check if there is a local NaNoWriMo chapter in your area, just like this one in Chicago.

November is an exciting time to be a writer. Take advantage of these resources and challenge yourself. See if you can reach 50,000 words in 30 days.

Besides, imagine how great you’ll feel at the end of the challenge. Even if you don’t reach the goal of 50,000 words, even if you only achieve 30,000 or 20,000 words, that’s more than what you have written up until now. And you’ll be that much closer to completing your book. That’s always a reason to celebrate.

Screenwriting: A Visual Form of Storytelling

person writing clapboard
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

With the 2019 Academy Awards set to take place this Sunday night, I thought it would be interesting to look at two of its more overlooked categories – Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay – from the perspective of writing. An original screenplay is written completely from the writer’s imagination. It may be inspired by true events, but the screenplay is developed organically. There’s no other model that it borrows from.

An adapted screenplay, on the other hand, is recreated from another source, such as a play, a novel or a short story. Think of the Harry Potter book series, which was written by J.K. Rowling but was adapted to the big screen in a series of eight films. Adapted screenplays may even have been produced as a film previously, such as A Star Is Born. But excellence in screenplay writing is no guarantee of winning Best Picture honors. Last year’s Best Picture, The Shape of Water, did not win the Best Original Screenplay category, though it was nominated.

What I love most about these screenplay categories is that they honor the writers, the people who work diligently behind the scenes to create the dialogue, the setting, the action, and the characters in ways that can be visualized on the big screen. These awards may be largely overlooked by most of the public, but Hollywood insiders understand how vital they are to a film’s success. Audiences will never know who these people are, but the actors and directors holding Oscar in their arms will likely give a shout out to these folks, thanking them for writing a “brilliant script.”  Without a strong screenplay to start with, a movie director won’t have much of a story to tell. Conversely, no amount of directing or acting can save a poorly developed screenplay.

So how do screenplays differ from novels? What elements do they need to tell the story? What makes some of them Oscar-worthy, while others wind up in the trash bin?

According to Screencraft.org, a screenwriting consultancy, screenplays differ from novels in several different ways.

Screenplays have fewer pages than novels – A typical screenplay runs 100-120 pages while novels can be several hundred pages. That’s because the bulk of the screenplay is made up of dialogue and condensed action, whereas the novel provides much more detailed narrative and backstory.

Screenplays are dialogue-focused – Dialogue is the vehicle that drives the story’s action forward. Dialogue is used generously to reveal plot lines, conflict and character. In novels, dialogue and action are separate entities. In screenplays, dialogue IS the action.

Screenplays contain condensed action – With only 110 pages to work with, writers need to establish characters and setting within the first page or two. There isn’t time to delve into backstory. And they must do it using dialogue.

Screenplays place less emphasis on narrative – Novels have a ton of detail, much of it contained in backstory and narrative. However, screenplays don’t have that luxury. Viewers aren’t privy to a character’s thoughts as they might be if they are reading the book, so they have to experience the story through the characters’ actions and speech. The only exception to this might be the use of voice over which can help reveal the narrator’s perspective (a technique used in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper).

Screenplays are more genre-specific
– According to Screencraft.org, novels may overlap several genres. Harry Potter, for example, is often described as young adult, fantasy, coming of age and family-friendly, among other things. But a screenplay that attempts to do all of it may be deemed complicated and confusing by Hollywood types, not worthy of their time. Screenplays may achieve more success by sticking to one specific genre, such as romantic comedy OR suspense, but not both.

Screenplays may have fewer characters and subplots than novels
– Because of the condensed format, it may not be possible to include all the characters that are part of the original story into a screenplay. It’s common to combine two characters into one, or eliminate characters all together if they are not integral to the story.

When it comes to screenwriting, writers need to think creatively and economically. They have to tell their story succinctly, using dialogue as a vehicle to drive the action. They have to think about the economy of characters, and they have to think about the complexity of setting. A setting in one or two locales will be easier and less costly to produce than a story set in multiple locations.

With so much to consider, a screenwriter’s job is far more challenging than meets the eye. It makes you truly appreciate the nominated films in the screenplay categories – and the creative geniuses who brought them there.