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Getting It Right the First Time

If there’s one thing I have learned 23K into my sixth novel, its that not a single book has been written the same way.

My first, my throw away book, was a NaNoWriMo project. I’ll be honest and it was more about meeting the goal than the story, although I didn’t believe that at the time. I’d started several novels before and never even hit 20K so completing a book was at the top of the priority list. One key for me in completion is that I’d spent a week or so plotting, which had always been my bane. As weird as it sounds to most writers, my blog posts on my family blog taught me to plot. Every blog post/story had a beginning, middle and an end. It sounds logical enough, but I when I started my previous novels– the unfinished ones– I had a vague idea and started writing.

My first novel is currently unedited, nor do I ever plan to do so. Some things are better left under enormous rocks.

My second book scared the crap out of me. Literally. I got the idea while I was waiting a few weeks to edit the previously mentioned monstrosity. My son’s girlfriend told me that my then 4 year-old son would count to five but only if he touched her fingers while he counted. I said “maybe when he touches you he can read your mind and that’s why he knows the numbers.” And a book was born. The five-year old boy in my story couldn’t read minds (not at first) but he could see the future. As I plotted that book, trying to figure out who would want him and why– in a way that wasn’t cliche– I realized I had “something” and it was dark and twisted and completely unlike my blog or the previous book I wrote.

As I wrote my second book (CHOSEN,) I did so in a cloud of anxiety. Scared I’d screw it up. Scared I wasn’t good enough. I’d leave myself notes in the manuscript “This is crap, fix later” or as I went on and relaxed things like “Really, Denise? That’s all you’ve got?” My alpha readers were very entertained. It took me two and a half months to write the first draft of that 94K book and three months to edit. In editing, I’d spend hours on a single page, especially in one very key, action and emotion filled chapter. When I called it done (are they ever really done?) I was so proud of myself. I DID it. I completed a query worthy book.

My third novel was born as the germ of an idea on a Thursday afternoon. A woman works in a DMV. On Saturday, I received a heart-breaking rejection on CHOSEN. The agent loved it but didn’t think she could sell it. I had started the sequel to the CHOSEN and stopped. It wasn’t going well anyway, so I wanted to start with something fresh. On Sunday, I came up with the barest of plots. On Monday, I started TWENTY-EIGHT AND A HALF WISHES. That book was a complete and total rush. I completed the 103K book in 30 days, rarely wondering what was going to happen next, My fingers could barely keep up with my thoughts. I spent about a month and half revising and editing.  That book was truly magic and I doubt I’ll ever experience anything like it again.

My fourth book was HUNTED, the second book in the CHOSEN series. It bugged me that it was unfinished. I was still working out the details of the next book I planned to write and I’d figured out where I went wrong with HUNTED the first time around. I took the previously written 36K and reworked it and revised it, dumping 12K and completing the new first draft in five weeks ending with 92K. It is currently unedited. Some parts are a mess. I knew this as I wrote them but gave myself permission to move on anyway. The two previously completed, query-able manuscripts helped me believe I was capable of making it better. Self-doubt is always part of my writing process but the voices in my head telling me it was okay to move on were stronger than the ones shouting “if you don’t make it right it’s proof you suck.”

My fifth book was TORN, my young adult. I’ll be honest here and say that while I read YA, I hadn’t planned on writing one. But my thirteen-year old daughter was upset she couldn’t read my books, so I told her I’d write one for her and her friends. At that point, I hadn’t gotten an agent. I’d  had a few near misses and decided to write something fun. Sure, I hoped to get it published but entertaining my daughter and her friends was the highest priority.

I went into it with a TON of research and less plot than I would have liked, but experience had taught me at this point that I tend to write organically so it would probably be okay. Still, I was freaked out that I had little concept of the second half of the book other than a few vague ideas. Nevertheless, I forged ahead, knowing that I usually have plot points and know where something starts and where it ends but often have NO IDEA how this occurs.  I think this works well for me, especially in a tense scene. I like to live in my characters heads as they experience the situation, trying to get out of it as they do. There have been times I’ve put my characters in situations and had to get up and walk away from my laptop, pulling my hair and asking “how the hell are we getting out of THIS??” I think that desperation comes through in my characters’ voice. At least I hope it does.

In any case, I started TORN the week before Christmas (just like CHOSEN, the year before) and finished it the last week of January. (CHOSEN was completed the last week of February, which told me I was getting faster) What’s REALLY important to note here, and I haven’t mentioned, is that the last several books, I gave myself deadlines. Sometimes they were arbitrary. I wanted to finish HUNTED by the end of November so I could start my YA. I wanted to complete TORN before I went to SCBWI the last weekend of January so I wouldn’t have the plot and characters rattling around in my head while I was gone.  When I have a deadline, both a long term (first draft done XX date) and short term (I need to reach 26K today) it gives me a tangible goal. I make them realistic. I KNOW I am capable of writing 2500 words in one day. When I write 4000, its that much better and it spurs me to keep going.

When I wrote THE END at the bottom of TORN (yes, I write The End. It gives me closure. LOL) I knew the end wasn’t right. And while I logically knew this was okay, I’d only completed the first draft and I could fix it in revisions, I was freaked out anyway. Mostly because while I knew it didn’t work, I didn’t know how to fix it. No. Freaking. Clue. So I let it go for three weeks, reading like a fiend and critiquing. When I opened the word file to start editing TORN, the new, better ending STILL wasn’t in my head.

WTH?

A mild panic had begun to brew as I forged ahead, the point I knew wasn’t working looming closer and closer and yet still nothing.  Then finally one day, it was there. I have no idea where it came from, or how it got there. It was just there. It wasn’t all tied up in a neat and tidy bow, but it had a beginning point and end point a few touch stones in between. I completely rewrote the last third of the book. My first goal was to have the book to beta readers the first week of April (I sent it the last week of March) and have it query ready the end of April. I made this goal, but had more revisions than I counted on so I had to PUSH myself to make it.

Now I’m working on my sixth book, currently untitled. It’s a middle grade adventure/fantasy born in my thoughts a year ago, but I kept pushing it to the side. This book is for my nephew. He’s eleven and is an avid reader. We bonded over Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and he was one of my biggest supporters while I wrote my NaNo book. (How many words have you written now, Aunt Denise?) He wants to read my books, so I’m writing this one for him.

This one is different in lots of way. For one, it’s a middle grade so it’s  game changer for me. I have to watch my character’s mouths (LOL) While Will in CHOSEN and HUNTED would have dropped the F-bomb a half a dozen times in the first tense situation, Zach, the protagonist in my MG merely says “crap” (and honestly, I agonized over that.) I’m writing in first person so I’ve put myself in an eleven-year old boy’s head, which has turned out to be easier and more fun than I expected. (I simply go back to my boys at that age and how they thought and behaved.) I give more description of some things and less in others. While I tend to write thrillers and action, fast-paced books (and this is no exception) it’s been harder to make kid friendly. The protagonists, Zach and Caroline, get swords and are expected to fight and defend a gold chalice, but I also don’t want them chopping up people. This has forced me to research and create a multitude of mystical creatures.

But the most important difference, is that I’m trying harder to get the writing and story right the first time around. I have a more developed plot, which I’ve found tends to hinder me at times and fights against my organic writing. (When organic feels right, I alway side with it, which means the plot has changed in minor ways as I’ve written.) But I’ve also tried to get the writing right. In first draft, I’ll write a description (the bane of my writing repertoire) and let it go. (The sky was a lovely shade of blue with wispy clouds.) Then I’ll clean it up in editing and make it prettier and less was-y. (Wispy clouds filled the cerulean blue sky.) But with Zach and the Golden Chalice (as I’ve taken to calling it) I’ll stop and play with the words.

At this exact moment, I’m describing a yard and I’ve spent about fifteen minutes on one paragraph. (thus, my procrastination with this very lengthy blog post) Silly, I know. I should let it go and fix it later, but I’ve considered this book an experiment. If I can write cleaner in first draft, how much can I shorten the editing? And conversely, if I shorten the editing, how much time do I add to the first draft?

This book seems like a good place to try this. For one, I’m a better writer than I was a year ago. It stands to reason, I’ve literally written hundreds of thousands of words since then. But I also wonder, can I force my mind to not just dribble out the story, but dribble it out in well thought out, pretty sentences? When I edit, I go through every single sentence and I end up reworking at least half of them.  Can I slow down and write so that the sentences come out right the first time?  At this point, 23K, I’m so not sure. Instead, I find myself editing as I write. What’s the difference between editing now and editing later?

Which brings me back to the yard. The description doesn’t come out of my fingers in well thought out, visually pleasing sentences. They’re stiff, halting descriptions.  Does it matter if they read pretty now or later? Maybe all that matters is that it’s lovely when I call it done.

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1 Comment on "Getting It Right the First Time"

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Leigh D'Ansey
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I’ve started many, finished few so I am speechless with admiration for you!

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