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Writing the first draft of a novel

I had a lot of fun on the writers retreat weekend as a mentor and I hope I didn't overly overwhelm my three mentorees. They did an amazing job with the tasks I set them.  And since we'll be heading into National Novel Writing Month in a few months, these tips, which came out of the sessions, might prove useful if you put them into practice now.

1. Backstory has already happened. It's what the author knows but what the reader needs to know depends on each story. Build you elaborate worlds off to the side and sprinkle into the story. A great way to explain Backstory is to read the Stars Hallow Wikipedia page for The Gilmore Girls TV show.  It has a rich history that appears throughout the series to add credibility to the setting. So if you think of backstory as the world around the characters and you'd only include what's necessary, it's the same with character backstory.
2. The character arc might help determine what the reader needs to know. But a writer might be surprised to find that their reader can guess the backstory from the Products of the Lie. Some basic questions to ask for character arc:
  • What does the character WANT vs What does the character NEED?
  • What is the lie the character believes? For eg, in Adele's song "Someone Like You" the lie is that she will find someone like him.
  • What at the products of the lie? For eg, Falls in love quickly, Goes on too many dates, Dumps everyone after the first date.
  • What is the ghost of the lie? For eg, maybe her mother always told her she'd find her prince and so she believes she will.
A great site to check out for character arc and how to plot them is at K. M. Weiland's Helping Writers Become Authors website. Well worth the read one morning over coffee.
2. Plotting helps overcome writers block. Plotting your book can be done with post-its, in a document, use maps and pictures as visual aids. It a way to keep you on track and it also stops you from trying to edit as you go, which will really slow down your goal of getting your first draft completed.

3. Pick up from where you left off. Don't read over from the beginning, instead make notes and keep going. See note above about editing as you go. It does slow you down, and the worst part, some of your first draft edits won't make it into the final, so you've spent that time doing nothing.

4. Same with research, it's okay to make notes on the page or notebook and say [research how to ...]. I find on my brain dead days, that's when I do research with the music up loud.

5. Changes happen in edits, changes happen in edits, changes happen in edits. One way to ensure you don't get a novel finished is to make huge structural changes during the first draft. Write it all down, warts and all in the first draft and then take a look at what you've got. Does it need to be split up into 3 books (I'll raise my hand to that). I have 105,000 word novel with three main characters that isn't published and I just know I'm going to have to convert it into three instalments. That's okay because I have more of the story to write so now I have probably an 8 book series in the burner.

6. Know your story and it will write itself. This is perhaps the most important point. And it's something that I've overlooked and then spent countless hours trying to figure out after the story is written, and by then it's too late. This is why writers are supposed to be able to tell their story in 25 words or less, because that is the core of the story. Everything else, and I mean EVERYTHING ELSE, are scenes that support the core of the story from its beginning to its end.

Let's have a look at what components make up the 25 word blurb, also called a log line. It might help if you think of this as the TV guide description.

Harry Potter is a boy wizard (CHARACTER) who must face the dark wizard (GOAL) who killed his parents (CONFLICT) if he is to save (STAKES) the school of magic (SETTING). (25 words)

Another great way to practice defining your story is to use the Twitter pitch.
In HARRY POTTER, a young wizard (CHARACTER) must face the lord of dark magic (GOAL) who killed his parents (CONFLICT) and save (STAKES) Hogwarts school of magic (SETTING). (123 characters).
Then we expand on the log line to create a 100 word blurb, still using the same elements.  GOAL: (What the character wants, and there can be FALSE GOALS too which can add intrigue as we watch the character fumble towards the real goal). CONFLICT or PROBLEM: (This is what is stopping the character from getting what they want)

SETTING: (This is useful to let the reader know if it fantasy, contemporary etc and defines your genre)

STAKES: (Think of the stakes as you telling your character to "Do this or else" and they say "Or else what?"

CHARACTER: (Find 20 character traits then narrow them down to 3 crucial traits that support the goal and conflict)

Play around with the order while creating your 25 word and 100 word blurb. Sometimes the conflict comes first or the character or the setting. Also, the stakes don't have to be life or death.
I'll provide an example below of a 100 word blurb:

Tracey is a dancer (CHARACTER) who wants to go to an elite college in Vermont (SETTING) that her snooty aunt donates money to (GOAL). The problem is that the last time her aunt visited she called Tracey a feral because she shares a room with her sister Patsy who doesn't tidy up or even brush her hair, and her aunt is coming to visit in two days (CONFLICT or PROBLEM). So Tracey has until then to change her feral sister from Miss Messy into Miss Congeniality (FALSE GOAL) or she won't stand a chance of gaining admittance into the college that all her friends are going to (STAKES).

The stakes aren't life or death, but they are definable. Look at the below example of when the stakes aren't clearly defined. 

Tracey is a dancer (CHARACTER) who wants to go to an elite college in Vermont (SETTING) that her snooty aunt donates money to (GOAL). The problem is that the last time her aunt visited she called Tracey a feral because she shares a room with her sister Patsy who doesn't tidy up or even brush her hair, and her aunt is coming to visit in two days (CONFLICT or PROBLEM). So Tracey has until then to change her feral sister from Miss Messy into Miss Congeniality (FALSE GOAL) or Tracey's life is ruined (STAKES).

To merely say her "life is ruined", is in effect how she will feel, but is it enough for the reader to want Tracey to change her sister. That's why I recommend defining the stakes. So if your stakes are "to save lives", then add what you are saving them from. If your stake is ruination, state what that ruination will be. And also notice how the resolution does not appear in the blurb. The resolution is something the reader finds out along with the character, and the resolution is usually defined by the want versus the need question.

In this case: Tracey WANTS to go to her aunt's elite college to be with her friends. She NEEDS to a) stand up to her aunt, b) accept her messy sister isn't the cause of her problems, c) find new friends etc...the NEED is up to you to decide. But it is often linked to the CONFLICT or PROBLEM or STAKES.

It is important to have the log line written before you write so you don't do as I've had to do, major story edits because you get to the end and its' a great story but you still can't say what it's about.

I hope this isn't too overwhelming, but nailing these few elements will create a great first draft.

Good luck!


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