If writing & revising your book tops your 2018 to-do list, here are 7 must-know tips to help you write your best novel or memoir.
1.Write your 1st draft quickly, ideally within 3 to 6 months. Key to this process of drafting is to refrain from editing your 1st draft!
Writing draft 1 without editing?! I can hear some of you writers howling with anticipated pain and frustration! But trust me (or at least listen with an open mind) when I say your best novel will probably be born from a quick 1st draft. Note, when I say probably, that’s because there are no rules when it comes to writing a novel. There are always exceptions to the “no edits” and any other advice teachers offer. But, most people do best when they capture their 1st draft straight from the heart and that means quickly, without editing.
2. Don’t get heady.
When writing & revising, take steps to stay out of left brain analysis because that will only lead you to your idea of your story. Your idea of your story will not be wrong, but it will be incomplete and usually much smaller/narrower/tunnel ‘visiony’ than the story you unleash and discover while letting it flow quickly onto the page with your 1st draft.
3. Use free writes.
I use a process to get to know my story world and characters (including backstories) through experiential free writes. Write from the primary characters’ viewpoints. Use prompts for the character: “My first memory is…” “The worst moment of my life was when…” Write fast and you don’t have to re-read. This is a way of discovering and imprinting who your characters are, what they want, what’s driving them, why they are unstoppable. You also discover who they are not. That’s handy, too.
4. Explore the story world and your characters.
As I’m exploring the story world and my characters, I’m aware of story markers, important scenes, and discoveries that occur in all stories in some form. When writing & revising, I’m always on the lookout for these markers, and I use these to gently guide my structure. The experiential writes keep me in my right brain, and I stay out of intellectualizing my story. The story markers remind me of archetypal story structure without locking me into a formula. There is no formula for storytelling that won’t end up giving you a formulaic tale.
5. Do not lock your story in place with a hard outline.
And, oh, yes, I don’t plot in the sense of writing a step by step outline before I begin chapter one. Instead, I let the characters and their desires and obstacles and needs and core dilemma guide me to the strongest story of transformation possible. I begin to see things–a world where my characters are in action and conflict. I begin to hear things–snippets of dialogue, voices, arguments, desires, prayers. I’m messy, jumping from this scene to that moment to another scene. I scribble my free writes and then I go back to my document. It’s fun to compose on my computer as well as on paper with pencil. I keep learning while I’m writing & revising.
6. Do use a soft outline.
Okay, I just claimed I don’t plot out everything before I write. That’s true. However, I do use outlines to ‘shake’ out my story and see the shape takes: beginning, middle, and end. I look for the inciting incident–the moment when the reader groks and says, “Oh, I get what this story is about!” There are “thresholds” marking story movement from one act to the next act. There will also be a ‘dark night of the soul’ when my protagonist suffers and reaches her ‘innermost cave,’ and she will emerge and prove herself in a ‘battle scene.’
7. Trust the process.
It is a process–sometimes messy, sometimes euphoric, sometimes cranky-making–and it takes courage because you will need to spend time not knowing, staying actively curious, exploring, and using your strongest “trust muscles.” This means recognizing your internal saboteurs, gremlins, harpies and not letting them stop you from writing your truth. We all have inner voices intent on stopping us from writing. Tip: Write “I’m afraid to write this story because…” at the top of a blank page. Now make a list of all the reasons you’re afraid. Fill the page. Don’t be surprised if you write things like, “This book will hurt people” and “Everyone will know I can’t write” and even “I will die.” Some fears make rational sense, others seem a bit crazy. At nature, they connect to something inside you. Use your fears to connect to one or more characters in your story or memoir. Ask yourself, who in the story is dealing with these fears? I promise you, you and your characters share primal fears.
P.S. Develop a built-in B.S. detector.
Oh, and it’s also really helpful to remember Ernest Hemingway’s suggestion: “Develop a built-in bullshit detector.”
Everything you write isn’t golden, so be vigilant when it comes to sniffing out the BS. This is especially important when you are revising. B.S. Detector Tip: Record yourself reading your work out loud, then play it back in an hour or a day. Sometimes we can hear “clunkers” that seemed fine when we were reading silently.
Next post, Part II, I’ll cover what I do as I move from my 1st draft to my revision. I’m always surprised by how many writers, novices and professionals alike, forget that novels are written in drafts. You will revise. You must revise. And I strongly suggest you write a quick and messy 1st draft and save revision for your 2nd draft.