Born and raised in the seaside/country town of Geraldton, Western Australia, Amanda was raised her on a diet of Rocky, Rambo, Muhammad Ali and AC/DC. She studied film & television/creative writing at Murdoch University. Her debut novel Aurora:Darwin was published with Momentum in May 2013; the sequel Aurora: Pegasus was published in December 2013; and Aurora: Meridian will be released on 11 September 2014.
Unlike me, I’m sure most writers never have any trouble finishing a first draft. Okay, maybe a couple do.
I like to tinker, play, and revise to distraction. In fact, I sat on the opening three chapters of my first novel for about a hundred years.
Years, anyway. Quite a few of them.
Which brings me to today’s subject. First drafts. How do you go about writing them? What’s your best advice to a newbie on the subject?
I’ve found the best way for me is to rush through them – write every day until they’re done, and then take a break. NaNoWriMo is perfect for this.
So my advice: Get it on the page – it doesn’t matter how good or bad it is. You can fix it later.
Here’s some more great advice you might like to consider:
“Your first draft is your plan or outline. It’s much easier to take your ideas and characters out for a spin in the virtual world of an outline rather than manage hundreds of pages of a rough manuscript that may end up going nowhere.”Luke Mercieca
“Bad news is, it will suck because you’re not perfect. Good news is, you can make it better. Even better news is, that means you don’t have to worry about what you write. The first draft is for yourself and yourself only.”Era Metko
“The first draft of a manuscript lies in the midst of a great journey. What you do next will make all the difference.”Chantelle Griffin
“A large part of what goes into a first draft will not appear in the finished work.”Giulio Zambon
“You will see things that need to change, how a different structure would enhance a scene or a chapter. Take notes, move on, and make those changes in revision.”Gerri Lynn Baxter
“Chapters 1, 2 & 3 are about to become Chapters 2, 3, 1 & 4. Oh yeah and you need to tear out most of them and re-write, because they’re bad.”Charles Murray
“In the middle of the draft, if it gets hard or boring or you feel like it’s the worst thing anyone’s ever written, that’s completely normal. Keep on writing anyway.”Kyra Halland
“You might end up rewriting 90 per cent of it, and that’s okay. Don’t be afraid of it.”L.K. Evans
“Writing is like making a jigsaw puzzle without an image of the finished work, and the first draft is like working on the edges of the puzzle and on the parts you can easily recognise. Expecting to be able to write a first draft from the beginning to end is like attempting to solve a puzzle from top-left to bottom-right.”Giulio Zambon
“You’ll discover so much more about your world, characters, plot than you had planned. And that’s okay. Don’t try to force it into a box, even if you do have an outline.”Vanessa Maclellan
“Don’t get distracted by little details that you think you should fix – keep the momentum going and save your edits for later.”Drew Briney
“First Drafts are first drafts. It may only be a very small step on a very long journey especially if your intension is to write a series and its the first book. The first draft may be an experiment to see if the plot works or even an expedition to discover both the plot and the characters, and after a analysing it you might find yourself transplanting these elements into a decent story structure…”Mark Mercieca
“Don’t waste time trying to polish up a first draft.”Giulio Zambon
“You’ll get bogged down somewhere around the middle. Don’t give up. Push through, and finish it.”Keith Keffer
And there you have it. I think the general consensus is ‘just write it and worry about making it great later’.
If I could tell you the secret of writing a successful book, would you like to know what it is?
There is actually a secret, and it’s pretty neat.
What’s more, it works on all genres and subgenres, and will even help you break the genre barrier and reach beyond, which is where you want to be if you hope to sell in big numbers.
A recent discussion that cropped up on Google Plus, and one that often appears among writers, was about a certain book that people love to hate.
I won’t mention it by name in order to protect the innocent filmmakers involved, but it rhymes with highlight and features sparkly vampires.
I read it a while back along with a bunch of other successful books including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games, all of which racked up ridiculous sales numbers.
The reason I read them, other than to appease the people telling me I should (hint hint), was to try and understand why they were so popular.
The comment that sparked the discussion on Google Plus claimed that the sparkly vampire book was badly written – a subjective remark at best, and way off the mark at worst.
To some extent I can see where the comment was coming from. The novel didn’t work for me either, but I was hardly its target audience, and that’s not a reason to say it was badly written.
Having broken it (and others) down, I found it more or less structurally perfect and technically fine. What it lacked, if anything, was originality. Other big sellers contained quite a few original elements, so the secret wasn’t there.
And I suspect that’s where this particular comment originated.
The book rhyming with highlight followed a standard formula in an emerging subgenre, while doing little more than tweaking the known tropes.
In the end it gave its readers exactly what they wanted and expected.
In short, it didn’t do anything special from a story standpoint, so the secret wasn’t there either.
So what was the secret?
Here’s a question. What would you do if you could apply that secret to your own writing, without:
compromising your integrity as a writer
giving up on originality
dumbing down or nullifying your brilliant ideas?
What would you do if I said the secret was simple and could be applied to almost any story?
Take a look at any book that’s sold millions of copies, read it, and then take a look at that book’s audience. What do you see?
You see people who:
recommend the book to their friends
discuss the book online and off
look for other books by that same author.
In short, you see fans. Lots of fans. Why do books find fans?
Because fans care about your characters and what happens to them.
It’s as simple as that.
Make your audience care and they’ll tell their friends, discuss it online, and even look for more of your stories. They’ll become fans, and you’ll become successful.
You don’t even have to alienate your niche market to do it.
It’s obviously not as easy as it sounds or everyone would be selling millions of books, but the more people you can make care about your characters and what happens to them, the more successful you’ll become as a writer – assuming you judge success by sales numbers.
If not, forget you read this post and keep on doing what you’re doing.
If you want to sell books though… well, now you know what it takes.
I’m a pantser – I like to start with an idea, concept, character, situation, whatever, and see where it leads.
Writing a novel for me is an exploration. Plotters do the opposite – they discover everything they can before they write, or at least enough to be happy to write.
Quite often I won’t have a clue what a story’s about or where its going until I’ve written it, which is fine in its way, but really makes it hard to edit without an ingrained knowledge of story structure.
The best solution I’ve found is that with a bit of pre-thinking, I can generate the key points I’d like to hit while writing, so my story comes out with all the right elements in the right place.
I won’t necessarily stick to whatever ‘pre-writing points’ I generate, but if I know them in advance I can change them as needed.
So, if you’re a pantser, study up on story structure. Even if you don’t sit down and prepare before writing something, it helps to know what your story’s going to need.
Ian generously moderated the CSFG novel critique group this year, offering invaluable advice to each participant. Here’s what he had to say about the experience and his writing.
Q: You began running the CSFG Novel Critique Group this year. As you have your own novel in development, how are you applying this experience to your work?
I think the big lessons I’ve taken from this year’s crit circle are (1) the importance of giving the novel good structural bones and (2) the importance of fully developing characters, including their motivations, pressure points, relationships and mannerisms.
While plotting hasn’t been a weakness of any of this year’s manuscripts in terms of plot holes or internal inconsistency, the need for plots to build tension and offer some surprises has been a recurrent theme.
Going hand-in-hand with this is the need for major characters to be both active and instrumental in confronting the problems of the plot, and for a sufficient level of sadism towards one’s characters – you have to hurt them because you love them.
Q: Your critiques suggest your core strength as a writer comes from your intuitive understanding of character. How does this affect the way you offer feedback, particularly in regard to conceptual-based (ideas/plot driven) stories?
Funny you should say that. I like to think that in my short stories I generally create distinctive characters who drive the story, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it my core strength.
In my first novel, I’ve found that I’ve struggled a bit to sustain that distinctiveness and roundedness across a larger cast of characters and staying with them for so much longer.
I’ve also tended to let my created world, in wanting it to be a character itself, overwhelm the human characters at times.
So I think, rather, that my focus on characters in critiques reflects the focus of my own struggles, rather than my strengths.
Q:Your credentials as a short story writer are well-established after winning the Writers of the Future Contest. What are/were your greatest challenges in writing a novel compared with a short story, and what would you do differently next time?
Sustaining the story for so much longer and over a broader canvas. Next time I’ll write – am writing – a shorter, simpler novel.
Q: Character is story, but story needs structure. How do you approach the structural needs of a novel-length story?
Haphazardly, at the first attempt, and with a rising sense of panic.
I’ve got a lot of value out of the structural stuff we’ve done in the CSFG novel writing group this year, for both long and short form stories – particularly understanding structural archetypes and having planning tools to map character wants/needs/actions/suffering to the story’s plot.
I think a couple of other factors are really important too: (1) knowing how much you can chew before you bite, and (2) having confidence in what you know about your story.
I didn’t do either of these first time through.
Q: Do you intend to run the novel critique group next year, and do you intend to submit your own novel? If so, what would you be looking to get out of it?
I think I’ll run it if I have a novel ready to submit for it – or at least am far enough progressed that I can finish the manuscript to a deadline next year.
If I put in a novel, then I’ll be hoping for some signposts to a better second draft.
I think the novel critiquing group is a really valuable part of what CSFG offers to its members so I think keeping that going is an end in itself. I was happy to support that this year without putting up a novel of my own.
That said, if I don’t have a novel ready next year, I’ll pass the baton and focus on my own writing.
Q: If you could give any advice to an aspiring novelist, what would it be?
I’d offer one piece of advice that I did follow and one that I failed to.
The first is: learn the art of storytelling by writing short stories first. Ray Bradbury said this, and I thoroughly agree.
I think short stories give a writer enormous scope to experiment with and learn how to handle different characters, worlds, plots and styles.
Stephen Dedman once said to me that you can learn 12 times as much if you write 12 short stories in a year as if you write one novel, and I think he’s right.
I think that even if a writer’s first novel is a success and easy to write, the next one or the one after that may not be.
If you’ve given yourself the best possible grounding in short stories first, you’ll have more tools available to write yourself out of trouble. (And also, you can use short stories as world-building and character-building tools for a novel idea, while at the same time creating a marketable product that will hopefully give you some sort of record of publication to mention to publishers once the novel is written.)
The second thing, that I failed to abide by, is: don’t underestimate how big a leap it is from short stories to novels.
While you’ll learn a lot from short stories, there’s still more to learn in taking the step up to writing novels. Learning what it is before you leap in can save a lot of heartache.
Ian McHugh is a 2006 graduate of the Clarion West writers’ workshop. His first success as a speculative fiction writer was winning the short story contest at the 2004 Australian national SF convention. Since then he has sold stories to professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest, been shortlisted four times at Australia’s Aurealis Awards (winning Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010) and appeared in the Locus annual Recommended Reading List. Links to most of Ian’s past publications can be found (free) on his website. His first short story collection, tentatively titled Angel Dust, will be published by Ticonderoga Publications in 2014.
There are two sides of a story, but they’ll usually fall toward one side or another, some more strongly than others. On one side are stories with a stronger intellectual pull, and on the other, stories with a stronger an emotional pull.
Different genres generally lean toward one of these categories, but the best stories, no matter their genre, do both.
Take Hard Science Fiction for example. Hard SF is likely to feature complex science and ‘big ideas’, and would therefore be more likely to draw readers looking for a high concept, original story.
Murder Mystery readers would fall into the same category, but for different reasons; there’s a mystery to be solved and that’s what works for them. Its the intellectual pull that draws them in.
On the other side of the fence are the readers looking for emotional content. The obvious example is the Romance novel.
Romance readers already know how the story’s going to end, yet romances sell better than anything else.
Why? Its the emotional rollercoaster. Fantasy readers would also sit here – it’s a hero they want, and it’s a hero they get. Usually.
For readers looking for emotional content, how it happens is more important than what happens. You can almost be certain the ‘dark lord’ is going to lose in the end or the romance will work out.
So how do you make this work for you?
Do both. Throw in a high concept and blend it with emotional content.
Don’t believe me? Here’s some examples:
Harry Potter – Orphan Boy must defeat Dark Lord – standard fantasy tropes. Throw in a mystery or three, exceptionally clever plotting, and then make the boy the object of almost everyone’s ire – whalah! Bestselling series.
How about Dune? Hard SF revolving around the ecology of the planet Dune and the byproduct of giant sand worms which more or less grant supernatural powers. Throw in a couple of romances and a hero that must rise up and defeat an empire – whalah! One of the biggest-selling SF novels of all time.
Titanic (the James Cameron movie). A ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Its inevitable – history. A documentary would just show the facts – a tragedy. However, throw in a romance between two starcrossed lovers, book-end it with a search for treasure and show it from a survivor’s POV, and Shakespere couldn’t do much better.
How about The Hunger Games? Twenty-four kids from a distopian society get thrown into an arena to fight to the death – as high-concept as it gets. However, give them something to fight for – something even bigger than their lives – and suddenly you’ve got a story everyone wants to read. It’s about them, but it’s bigger. Its a love story. Its a story about defying the unjust authorities.
The Girl Who Played With Fire. It could easily be seen as a standard mystery, but it’s not. There’s something of a romance between the two protagonists, but that’s just part of it. They also have their own stories – one is unfairly put in goal while the other gets physically and emotionally abused -and suddenly you’ve got a story thats bigger than all the parts put together.
So how do you use this to your advantage?
Simple. Borrow from both sides of the equation. Make your story both emotionally and intellectually stimulating.
Talk to any writer, and each will have a different process for writing – more so with longer works.
My preference is to do a complete pass and then give it a break – doesn’t matter whether I’m doing a first draft, final polish, character pass, or whatever. I find that if I start but stop halfway through, it’s hard to go back later on, and the longer I leave it, the harder it gets.
What’s more, I find the more I focus on the one story, the more I want to return to it, and that seems to translate into a bigger, better, and more effective effort.
For me, that’s when the magic starts. Ideas, thoughts, and story twists come almost unbidden. Problems resolve in directions I didn’t see coming. The story ‘flows’.
What’s your process? How does writing work for you?