I’m an organic writer first, planner second. I think it’s important to not stifle your muse on the first outing, especially if you’re feeling vulnerable, intimidated, or overwhelmed. The most important part of the journey, for any writer, is to finish a story before we worry about how it is written, all the things that need to be fixed.
If we worry too much about how the rough draft is written, we are less likely to finish. I’ve seen it too many times in clients that come to me for help.
Listen – if you’re a writer who is having a hard time getting past the idea of writing something stinky, think of it like this: The first draft is exactly that – the FIRST draft. It’s okay if it’s messy and filled with plot holes and too many characters. Think about your first crush, or your first time behind the wheel, or your first skiing experience – how did things turn out for you? Did you screw up, at least once? Of course you did. And what did you do next?
You probably tried again. (Unless you’re me on skis, and then you’d be smart to give it up entirely.)
It’s okay if your first draft makes you want to chew glass. This setback doesn’t mean you’re a failure at writing. It just means you’re still making that journey. Chill out, grab a refreshment, and read this post to see if any of the following issues are in your book. Then get ready to make the changes to help you tighten and ignite your writing.
Surplus of Characters
When we’re pantsing, we don’t stop to think about how one character can take on more than one role. Rather, we create a slew of characters to handle certain roles and responsibilities because we’re more focused on the CONFLICT and making sure that things are happening.
FIX: Try assigning at least two roles per character and cut your cast. Your scenes will be tighter, and your characters will be given more dimension because they are doing more.
Dialogue scenes are a great tool for authors to relay information, reveal a secret, or introduce backstory. Writing natural-sounding dialogue takes practice, and you’ll find that you probably wrote longer stretches of dialogue than necessary.
FIX: Take into account the personality and motivation of the characters speaking. Don’t state the obvious. Use body language, business, and dialogue tags to break up the monotony of speech.
Using Someone Else’s Work to Boost Yours
I’m not referring to plagiarism. Rather, I’m referring to a common usage of famous quotations as chapter sub-headings. Beginning writers tend to rely on famous quotes to illustrate theme or character motivation.
FIX: Scrap the Hemingway and Lincoln quotes—tune into your characters and write from their hearts to get the story across. If you’re using famous quotes to underscore theme, try literary devices instead: symbolism, metaphor, and others can do wonders for a drab piece of writing.
This is a big one, because fixing it often means major rewrites. Weak openings usually happen when the story starts with your main character thinking. Readers want to meet the main character in the middle of something important.
FIX: Turn the thinking scene into an action scene, or start your story in a different place, where something more interesting is happening. All that thinking can be merged into the draft in another spot.
This is hard for me to talk about because I’m afraid it could hurt a writer’s feelings. But it’s got to be said. Beginning writers tend to over-indulge themselves with their words. On one level, this is great! It means you’re enjoying yourself and enjoying your story. But fluff doesn’t belong in the finished product.
FIX: Read out loud to yourself. Read the whole enchilada and highlight any section that sounds over the top, drags on for too long, feels redundant or unnecessary, or simply doesn’t belong. This will take practice and maybe even an honest yet supportive beta reader to help you flush out all that fluff.
Most of the manuscripts that I have worked on are either choking with extraneous detail or have no detail at all. Authors need to find that happy medium, and it’s often tough to do when you’re pantsing, because more than likely, if you’re pantsing, you don’t know what your details are yet.
FIX: Create lists that you can refer to as you do your rewrites. If you didn’t decide ahead of time what your characters look like, take the time before revising to figure that information out. Every scene should include 2+ senses. Keep track of weather patterns: if it rains on Tuesday, then the patio chairs will be wet on Wednesday–a weather timeline is extremely helpful in stories that might undergo a lot of changes in seasons, weather, or in Fantasies where the weather is supposed to be wonky.
If you’re writing a positive change character arc or negative change character arc, then your major and minor characters who play specific roles must evolve over the course of the book (positively or negatively, depending on their individual arcs). People always change, for the better or worse, in response to experiences, and this needs to come through in your book if your character(s) is/are affected.
One caveat–flat arc. Some characters won’t change at all, but this really needs to be a conscious decision made by you before you even begin to write. There are few instances where characters will remain fairly unchanged from beginning to end, but those instances need to be substantiated in some way, and written believably so that readers will buy it.
FIX: Make sure each character who has a significant role has a significant GOAL and that there is an OBSTACLE in his/her way. Have the character respond/react to the difficulty in achieving the goal.
KEEP IN MIND—these aren’t the only issues a pantsed first draft will have. But they are the most common. Expect to tend to a whole slew of issues when you go back to rewrite. When we are aware that major rewrites are part of the deal, we’ll handle things more gracefully.