Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently, I was feeling all kinds of nostalgic about nearing the finish line for Divided Elements | Resistance, and decided it was a good time to reflect on all the big lessons I have learned as a first time author. Last week I talked about the very sage advice of setting up your author platform (seriously, if you haven’t already done this step, add “start wordpress blog” and “set up at least one social media account” to your list of things to do). This week, I want to talk about the lessons I learned (and some I should have avoided) and the things I figured out for myself in writing a first draft.

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Lesson 1: Gnothi seauton. (Or, for the non-ancient Greeks, “know thyself”)

This is a lesson I had to figure out for myself and one I’m still trying to fully figure out. Every writer is different – in what we write, in how we write, in why we write. Inspiration for story ideas will come to each of us differently. There are those of us that start with a character (e.g. I want to write a story about your average suburban girl who has found street cred and a way to brush off her legacy of schoolyard geekery via zombie hunting), those that start with a genre (e.g. I want to write a supernatural dark comedy), others that start with a theme (e.g. I want to write a story about love overcoming prejudice), those that start with a setting (e.g. I want to set my story in post-apocalyptic Australian suburbia), and those that start with a premise (e.g. I want to write a story about a  zombie hunter whose mum has just started dating a zombie).

Each of these starting points represents a key aspect of the story you are about to write. Regardless of whether you are a plotter (someone who structures their story before they write it) or a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants without a roadmap), figuring out each of these is important for determining your story’s trajectory. Knowing your character is a starting point. Knowing your character, and the setting, theme, and tone (indicated by genre) of their core conflict (indicated by premise) – that’s trajectory.

Figure out yourself, figure out the gaps, and figure out the story trajectory. A story about a surburban zombie hunter in a paranormal mystery is a very different story to a one about the same hunter in a coming of age story or a dark comedy.

Lesson 2: Don’t write shitty first drafts

The old adage ‘write shitty first drafts’ abounds in writer circles. I agree with its underlying sentiment – “just write!” – but don’t agree with its call to action.

For me, ‘write shitty first drafts’ belongs in the same proverb bag as ‘he who hesitates is lost’. But, for every pithy idiom is another to contradict it –

“Look before you leap!”

“Haste makes waste!”

“Measure twice, cut once!”

“A stitch in time saves nine!”

I am not one of those writers who can vomit out words and then spend an inordinate amount of time going back and editing that word vomit into shape. I prefer to get my stories mostly right and then undertake strategic edits to fix problems that are the exception and not the rule.

Having your story trajectory sorted will help with not writing word vomit – so will these other awesome tips:

  • Read and watch and listen to good stories. When I get stuck or feel that the quality of writing (or dialogue, or setting description, or exposition) is sub-par, I read a few pages of a writer I admire or a book that I see as a benchmark. It serves as inspiration, motivation and a quick ‘how-to’ guide.
  • Understand story structure. Regardless of whether you are a plotter or pantser, you need to recognise that the human brain is pretty much hard-wired to absorb a story in a very specific way. It seeks out certain patterns and conventions. It’s why romance readers demand their happily ever after, why thriller readers demand their moment of ascendancy for the antagonist, why mystery readers demand their subtle clues and red herrings.
  • Know your end-point and where you want to go. This one is a little trickier (as I note in the next lesson)

Lesson 3 – Don’t go in blind. But, don’t plan too far in advance.

Okay, hard-core pantsers, you may look away at this point – this is one for the plotter-leaning amongst us (like most things, I think it is more accurate to think in terms of a Kinsey-like scale of plotting/pantsing, rather than strict binaries).

I love story structure. I spend each new novel planning stage extrapolating an outline from the bare premise I start with. I think you need a game plan before you run out on to the field. That said, I don’t think you can anticipate everything in advance. If your story writing process is anything like mine, your characters will have a way with assuming control of your story and shifting it along unexpected tangents, or your research will uncover some new and exciting aspect to the story that seems to shift its tone or direction.

You need to have a plan, but you also need to be flexible and open to new directions.

My approach goes like this:

  • Figure out my story trajectory and use that to frame the broad parameters for writing. Everything should be consistent with the trajectory, and the trajectory should be wide enough to allow for some deviations within the lines.
  • Outline (and write) in stages. Typically, I outline (and then write) each gap between the five key turning points. This gives me some structure to write to (which makes for much more productive writing sessions), while also allowing for new tangents, developments and ideas to be picked up in the next part of the story. Outlining in stages also helps me to keep fresh the key points I need to be hitting in each part of the story.

 

Well, that was cathartic! Hope you found it helpful 🙂

 

Image courtesy of DangerPup via Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

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Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts

Plotting to the Midpoint: Why you need a half-time plan

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

With Divided Elements in the hands of my copy-editor, I’ve been using July to get some new writing done. Having signed up for both #JulyWritingChallenge and Camp NaNoWriMo, I was worried that my efforts would falter the way my first attempt at NaNoWriMo did – a lot of angst and procrastination, not much writing. Pleasantly enough, I am slaying it! (Already at 12,000 words (I set my target at 15,000))

The two secrets to my success?

  1. Detailed and logically-structured plotting – thanks to my awesome plot roadmap
  2. Detailed and logically-structured plotting only up to the midpoint

The second secret is the important one (at least, for the purposes of this post).

I’m not sure whether it is pure genius or a product of my creative limitations, but it seems to be working. The thing is – when I get an idea for a story, it usually goes like this:

  • Thematic image and general premise – aka A visual and a one-liner ‘this is a story about…’

    Since I don’t want to give away the juicy details of the new WIP just yet, let me show how this would work if I was writing Sons of Anarchy … (bear with me, it’s been a while since I’ve watched it and the memory may be rusty…)

    Jax and Tara

    I would picture that moment where Jax takes on the Presidency and Tara stands behind him as his Old Lady, a corruption of two individuals who had the potential to escape a violent and toxic environment but have ended up as the next generation of everything they didn’t want to be – Clay and Jemma.
    That image also gives me my premise – the story of a son who seeks to escape the corrupted legacy of his father, who finds that escape in the return of an old girlfriend, but who ends up corrupted and corrupting her in his efforts to escape. Like struggling in quicksand – it only conspires to work against you.

  • That image and one-liner (okay, okay – one paragraph) give me everything I need up to the Midpoint – I get the status quo (Jax in the MC, Tara at the hospital), the hook (Jax finding his Dad’s journals), the inciting incident (reconnecting with Tara), the first plot point (going after Clay), the Midpoint (Jax and Tara as the new Clay and Jemma).

And that’s usually where the ideas run out – not because I can’t think of what happens next, but because there are so MANY paths this story can take. I generally know where I want it to end. I just don’t know how to get to that end.

This is why the first half of my plot outline for the new WIP is pages long and full of cool details. And the second half is … um, well… it’s blank.

I was kind of worried about this, but then I figured it could be a good thing. And I figured this while watching my beloved Wests Tigers play (and lose) another game (don’t get me started…).

A book, much like a game of football, is a tale of two halves. Every team goes into a game knowing the starting point (kick-off) and the end goal (walking away with a win, preferably a crushing defeat, that supplies two points on the ladder and a fantastic points differential). There will also be a detailed game plan – based on last week’s performance, where they are on the ladder, what current issues/injuries are affecting them, players playing out of position, whether it’s a home game, what they focused on in training, etc, etc.

But that game plan is only good up to the half time siren.

You walk into the sheds at half time with a 20 point deficit, you shake things up. You end the first forty minutes with three major injuries and a player sent off, and you start thinking twice about your earlier plan of putting on early points.

What it boils down to is this:

You can’t plan your second half until you know what position your first half has put you in. 

Same goes for stories. I’ve spoken about this before – sometimes the little details you use to fill in your plot outlining can introduce a range of subtleties and nuances that shift the direction of your story. In the beginning the shift is negligible – but as it continues on that same trajectory, the difference becomes more and more noticeable.

Tangent

It was the same with Divided Elements – what I had planned for my second half and what I executed were wildly different. In a good way. If I had stubbornly kept to the original game plan, I would have ended up with a incoherent, disjointed story with a lot of loose ends and an unsatisfying ending.

Which is why I am blissfully writing my way through the first half of this WIP without having a game plan for the second half. That can wait. I figure I will use the Midpoint as my new status quo and plot from there once I know my backstory (the first half).

What about you? If you are a plotter, do you plot the entire novel? And if so, do you ever allow yourself to change the plan late in the game?

Plotting to the Midpoint: Why you need a half-time plan

How to start your novel – The first part of the first act

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Starting a novel is no easy task. The problem with beginnings is that they are all about set-up, and set-up can very easily turn into boring exposition, unnecessary backstory and painful info-dumping. When I think about the beginning of a story, I think about the first part of the first act – what I like to call Gap A.

Gap A is all about setting the context for the story – articulating the status quo of the protagonist and their world – a status quo that will soon be thrown into disarray with the inevitable disturbance (the first story Turning Point) and it subsequent impacts.

A richly-drawn status quo is important for giving the disturbance the punch it needs to throw the protagonist (and the reader) into a spin. Winning a trip to Paris for a seasoned jetsetter who spends every other weekend in France is less of a disturbance than it is for a recent widow who has dreamed of going to Paris for the thirty years since seeing Gigi at her local cinema.

Which brings us to the first necessary component of Gap A – The introduction of your protagonist. Give the reader an understanding of what makes your character tick. Focus on their key traits – their unque quirks that will ultimately drive the story and underscore its conflict. Introduce your protagonist with action, not exposition. Don’t tell me that your widow is shy and defeated and fragile. Show me.

The best way to show what lies at the core of your protagonist is to position them in a characteristic moment. Your widow has finally left the confines of her small flat to do some grocery shopping. She shuns the new, red shoes she bought the week her husband died, she leaves the makeup littering her dressing table untouched, she swipes at a stain on her blouse, but doesn’t bother changing it. At the grocery store a dashing older man pays her a compliment, she blushes at the attention and then is wracked by waves of guilt. She ignores his question, leaves her shopping trolley in the middle of the aisle, half full, and leaves the store in a hurry.

Giving the reader a clear picture of your protagonist gives you the leverage you need as an author to create maximum impact with the Disturbance.

But, in order to give your reader a clear picture of your protagonist – you first need to have a deep understanding of your character and all their complexity. Which is particularly difficult to do at the start of your novel when you are not yet sure how your character is going to react to the challenges and obstacles you throw in their path as your story progresses.

Hmmm. We have a catch 22.

To write a good beginning, you need to know your protagonist. To know your protagonist, you need to have seen how they react to your story points as they progress. 

Oh, Yossarian, what to do?

Thankfully, our solution to this paradox is fairly simple – write a rough draft of your beginning, knowing that you will need to change it after you have finished your first draft (when you will have the understanding you need to write a better beginning).

This is what I am currently doing with Divided Elements. After quite some time apart from this WIP that is loved and hated, I have returned to revisit the beginning. I have a much better understanding of my protagonist, Anaiya, and a much clearer picture of the traits and relationships that both define her and define her conflict with the novel’s main storyline.

What about you? How do you develop a strong understanding of your protagonist? How do you build this into your novel’s beginning to set-up a stronger disturbance with maximum impact? 

Image courtesy of Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons.

How to start your novel – The first part of the first act

After the First Draft – the difference between an edit, revision and re-write

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

So, I finished the first draft of Divided Elements last month. And, no, I didn’t celebrate. Which surprised me, because after a year of slaving away to beat this story out of my psyche, I was all kinds of ready to celebrate. But, when you are faced with the final product in all its glory and with all of its flaws, you gain a new appreciation of the kind of work that is necessary to make your rough hewn story match your original vision. 

Looking over my first draft, and with the help of my critique group, I have learnt a lot about not only my story, but  also my identity as a writer. These lessons are the key driving forces guiding me into the next stage of my writing process – the rewrite.

Yes, I said re-write – not edit, not revision. Re-write.

What’s the difference? 

An edit is a review, assessment and amendment from a distance. Most edits are undertaken by an outsider – someone distanced enough from the project to view it objectively and offer insight into assumptions, oversights, gaps and flaws. Editing your own work is difficult, but possible – it requires distance from your own work (usually by letting the work ‘rest’ before you even glance at it again) and an approach from a position of understanding the excellence you seek to achiever (usually by reading awesome books by talented writers, gaining insight from industry players on what works, and getting your hands on all the right writing guides).

A revision is a tinkering at the edges. For me, it is the equivalent of a line edit or proofread – focussing on the finer, micro details and ignoring the larger structure (even if it riddled with flaws). Revisions are best left til the eleventh hour, once everything else has been fixed. No point fixing a paint chip if your entire chassis is structurally defective. Revisions that take place too early are usually a symptom of being too close to the work – you’re too attached, too biased, blind to your errors and issues. Not being able to see the forest for the trees is a real thing – it’s the whole Cameron Frye complex – you’re focusing on the dots and have lost sight of the picture. 

A re-write is the thing between an edit and revision – it needs to come from an intimate and personal place that only the writer knows, it needs to be infused with their voice and their vision and, yet, it needs to be focused on the bigger picture – the structural elements of plot, character and theme. Re-writes mimic the first draft approach and typically benefit from lots of thinking and (if you’re a plotter) lots of outlining. But, unlike the first draft, it benefits from what has come before and the insight that brings – a fuller exploration of your ideas and a more informed gut instinct of whether it is working (in its individual parts and as a whole).

Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing my experiences with my  novel ‘cut and polish’ and, hopefully, I’ll be able to turn this rough carbon allotrope into an FL (or at least a VS1)… 🙂

  

Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson via Flickr Creative Commons

After the First Draft – the difference between an edit, revision and re-write

Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and write your Midpoint

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

As with all things chased with dogged persistence, the middle of my first book, Divided Elements, is growing larger and larger as it comes within reach. Not the general middle of the second act, but the specific middle – the actual halfway point. With the WIP at just over 42,000 words, first plot point reactions and repercussions are a distant memory and it’s time that the fun and games of the first part of Act II give way to the business end of the story.

Which brings me, and therefore us, to the Midpoint.

For me, the Midpoint has two definitions – a functional one and an allegorical one – both of which are equally important; as it should be with something called a midpoint.

The functional definition articulates the Midpoint as the middle point (shock! who saw that coming?) – The point of your story that separates the first half from the second half; the mathematical halfway point that acts like a signpost, directing you 45,000 words that way to the start of your story and 45,000 words this way to the end of your story.

In contrast, the allegorical definition is, obviously, more interesting. Many authors, readers and writing mentors identify the midpoint as the point at which everything changes. I don’t agree. Everything can’t change – that would mean that we are reading a completely different story; and there is a very big difference between a new direction and a new story.

And so, for me, the midpoint is not just a distance marker set to the middle. It is a fulcrum. And the definition of a fulcrum is so much more interesting than the definition of a mere middle point:

A fulcrum is the “point or support about which a lever pivots” (wikipedia), the “thing that plays a central or essential role in an activity, event, or situation” (oxford dictionary), or “any of various structures in an animal serving as a hinge or support” (free dictionary) – and yes, my story is an animal; sometimes all wet licks and puppy yelps of excitement and sometimes a netherworld beast determined to wreak havoc…

So, the midpoint is the point on which the story shifts its balance – the centrepoint of the see-saw that facilitates the shift from a) the safety of being down on the ground, legs crouched and ready to spring, to b) the wild abandon and panic of being airborne with legs dangling and gravity resisting.

And that point, in any story, is the realisation that something needs to change – that Plan A isn’t working or isn’t sufficient or isn’t right anymore and that a Plan B is needed.

 

Developing your Plan B

Plan A is the first part of the second act – the plan that is borne of the shock of the first plot point; borne of reactions and naiveté and resistance and ignorance and general hubris of the protagonist who finds themselves in a new world they didn’t want, but nonetheless got. But the reveal of the midpoint lifts the veil and forces consideration, development and implementation of a Plan B.

For me, Plan B comes back to triple loop learning – with the protagonist deciding that either the HOW (actions), the WHAT (strategy) or the WHY (motivation) is sabotaging their goal.

When the second part of the second act is driven by a “HOW” Plan B, the Protagonist is shown to change how they achieve their goals. Consider the following storyline – A girl has lost her lucky charm and she decides (in Act II, Part 1) to  try to find the all-powerful magus who will be able to restore it to her. In this first part of Act II, the girl attempts to find the all-powerful magus by teaming up with a private detective. At the midpoint, she discovers that the private detective is just another hack and comes up with a new plan – Plan B – to find the magus. Her actions change.

In a “WHAT” Plan B, it’s not the how that is holding the Protagonist back, it is the what. For this type of midpoint, the private detective is the real deal and working with him is the right way to find the magus, but the problem is that the magus is just a myth – a bad Wizard of Oz fake. So the girl and the detective come up with a new plan to find her lucky charm. Her strategy changes.

And then there is the “WHY” Plan B, the nuclear game changer. What the protagonist is doing is keeping her on the right path to her goals, and she is doing all of the necessary actions perfectly. The magus is the real deal (definitely all-powerful and fully capable of restoring the girl’s lucky charm) and the detective is brilliant at finding him. But somewhere along the way, the protagonist realises that what she really needs to do is let go of her lucky charm. Her motivation changes and her new Plan B is to let go of the charm and create her own luck.

And it is the midpoint that kicks off this Plan B. In the “How” scenario, the midpoint could be an amateur mistake made by the detective – causing the protagonist to question his credentials and decide to go it alone. In the “What” scenario, the midpoint could be the detective tripping over his own shoelaces and falling into the tech haven of the nerd behind the magus illusion. In the “Why” scenario, the midpoint could be the culmination of lessons learned along the path of Act II, Part 1, teaching the protagonist that luck is earned and not gifted.

And so, to craft the midpoint, all you need to do is ask yourself, “What will tip the balance?”

Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and write your Midpoint

Understanding the role of the First Draft

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

The messiness of first drafts can either be terrifying or liberating (or occasionally, both). Initially, I wasn’t a big fan. I’m an impatient learner – I want to get things right (if not perfect) the first time around. I’m the sort of person who will pick up a guitar and expect to be playing full melodies within weeks of learning the basic chords. So the idea of labouring through a very average first draft of my novel wasn’t appealing. Twelve thousand words later, I am coming around.

Wise words from authors and bloggers have helped (this post by Standout Books is a great one – Writing your first draft is not as scary as it seems), but there was a particular article which was like a lightning bolt of inspiration directly to my brain.

I wish I could share it with you, because it really was awesome, but alas, I have lost it to the immensity of the internet. I do, however, remember its central tenet, which I will now do my best to faithfully recreate.

Remember the word ladders we used to do in school – the ones where you would have to move from one word to another in a five or so steps by changing one letter at time? First drafts are a lot like the first word, with revisions representing the subsequent words until you get to the final draft – the final word.

Look at the four sentences below:

1. The man stepped out into the cold July winds and buttoned his coat up against the onslaught of icy snowflakes.

2. He stepped out into the night. Icy snowflakes attacked him immediately, striking the bare flesh of his face left unprotected.

3. An icy tempest of bitter winds and sharp snowflakes assaulted him as soon as he stepped out.

4. Beyond the room, snowflakes like icy daggers attacked him with the full force of the winter tempest.

With each sentence there is a clear and easy transition to the next, but when you compare the first and the last, there is a huge gulf between them. The last sentence cannot be reached in a single leap – it is the product of an evolution and can only be generated by way of a series of steps. That’s why you need to find the shape of your novel in the first draft, before you can properly write it.

This idea gives me huge amounts of comfort – firstly, because it declares the necessary evil of a messy first draft; secondly, because it shows that the first draft is really the first step to creating an amazing final draft.

 

Understanding the role of the First Draft

Sculpture & Fiction

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

The first draft of a novel always feels like a marathon for me. I will write a few paragraphs and then read them and then re-write them, add some more paragraphs and repeat the whole process again (ad nauseum). I just really, really want my novels to be good. To be worthy of reading. To be something I can be proud of.

I remember studying for my end of high school exams and Brother Celestine reminding me, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien (the best is the enemy of the good)”. Both he and Voltaire understood that our desire and desperation to be perfect was a hopeless cause and ultimately counter-productive – that it would cause stagnation through never-ending improvements spurred on by fear of failure and crippling self-doubt.

I wish I could say that I went on to heed their advice, but I still strive for a kind of perfection every time I start a novel. I want my words to encourage me along the path, to reassure me that I am a capable writer whose story is worth telling. This inevitably results in a very long (and always, in the end, aborted) first draft process.

But this time it will be different. Why? Because I have two pieces of the puzzle I didn’t have before.

The first piece – I am not alone. Seems like this is a fairly typical illness most writers are plagued with.

Second piece – I now have some reassurance that writing a messy, incoherent, awful first draft is not only common, but necessary.

Joshua Wolf Shenk said it best when he advised that it is

Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft

The quote immediately reminded me of sculptors – who hack at a piece of marble or hew a piece of wood into a rough shape first, hinting at what the final product may be, but never eliciting any real detail. Their’s is a work of constant refinement, of slowly magnifying their focus to concentrate on smaller and smaller details, until the final masterpiece is unveiled.

It made me realise, that a first draft of a any piece of writing is the discovery stage. It is about finding and setting free the story trapped within my mind. It is a first incarnation, born without sophistication, yet with a direction and sense of purpose. And it is from the first draft that we can begin to understand this beast that is our story and better understand what it needs to mature. For writers, like sculptors, this additional refinement is (as August Rodin noted) a simple matter of chopping off what we don’t need.

Sculpture & Fiction