I was invited recently to speak along with some other writers to a beginning creative writing class taught by an old workshop friend.
This class was filled with writers who’d completed their first project this last November during NaNoWriMo, as part of their semester work.
The MO of this class is encouragement and mutual cheering as it’s for beginning writers. Many had repeated the class a couple times, as the teacher is popular, warm, and encouraging. They do some critiquing in class, but the focus is writing rather than editing. A couple of them had piled up two or three NaNo projects, and were unsure how to go about prepping them for the next step.
I had a feeling I’d written about this before (and sure enough, I found it here, exactly a year ago) but thought I might as well write up this particular experience as well.
One writer who has taken the class three times, admitted having last December, flushed with triumph, taken her first completed novel, paid for a fine cover and self-published, sure that readers would love the story as much as its author. This writer had been excited by the fact that publishing is easier than ever before!
Well, a year later, the not-so-thrilled writer said that she’s taken the novel down again after four sales (she thinks she knows at least three of the buyers), a couple hundred freebie giveaways that apparently dropped into a void, and one (negative) review. She felt she needed to rewrite it before releasing it again. But how to start?
The others talked about approaching the next step, learning to edit, but short of taking a different class, how does a beginner begin? We discussed writing books–I recommended Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, my go-to for people first dipping a toe into self-editing, or even experienced writers who might want a refresher.
After some debate about the utility of beta readers (one person had found betas, who had all disagreed on pretty much every point, and were all beginners, too) another, one of those with several projects, had had no luck finding a beta outside the class who didn’t stall out in the first chapter. This she discovered after months and months of waiting, and being put off with “I’ll get to you soon!” and then finally, the truth came out.
“This is great practice for the interminable wait for agents and editors!” said another of the writers, obviously trying to put a positive spin, but which seemed to depress everybody.
Then we got around to What Do You Do.
My friend the teacher suggested that the writers who had publishing experience offer the first thing they looked for when self editing—which most answered with “Get a trusty beta,” “Get another pro to critique,” “Get fresh eyes, preferably not a buddy,” which not unsurprisingly the class pretty much found a Catch-22, then we went around the circle, each writer offering triage suggestions on their own first drafts before sending them out to betas, agents, or whoever.
The first one cracked up the entire room by saying, “The first thing I do before I even begin reading is delete the word literally from the entire manuscript, and already it will be a vast improvement.”
That caused an outbreak of clapping.
To that I would add, when one is constantly finding the word ‘literally’ in one’s work—especially when it’s being used figuratively!—that that is probably a signal that you instinctively know your verbs are weak, and in need of constant bolstering. So for every sentence that contains the word “Literally,” delete the word and then do the work to find the right verb to strengthen the sentence.
The next couple of people’s suggestions were a bit more idiosyncratic: “Throw out the first three chapters of any first draft,” —great advice sometimes, but by no means universal, especially for writers who actually begin the story too late, and end up shoe-horning a ton of flashback into the front in order to orient the bewildered reader—and, “Make sure your ending closes the story suggested by the beginning.”
Um, okay? I don’t remember now what the writer said that meant, but I do recollect the writer talking rather a long time in explication.
The next few were more succinct: “Watch for mixed images (“The lilt in her voice skittered”—a visual reader is going to stop cold and try to figure out how a lilt can skitter), watch for clichés—especially using two for emphasis (“She thought about the rattling skeletons in her closet and the ancient bones of her past that stirred” two clichés for the price of one, and both saying the same thing, which has a numbing effect) —go through and read aloud your sentences. “If the rhythm starts repeating, you’ve probably got way too many semi-colons.”
To which the next writer added, “And make sure you use semi-solons correctly, if you have to use them at all.” That writer thought that endless paragraphs packed with semi-colons, em-dashes, and colons are first draft problems, the sign of a writer writing very fast in order to get that story down.
The writer following had some interesting thoughts about what it might mean if you are reading your own work and find your mind wandering. If you find a scene boring, you can be sure readers will, too.
This writer pointed out that boring scenes might be one of three things: maid-and-butler talk (characters telling each other stuff they already know, to inform the reader), long narrative summaries that actually need to be scenes, and scenes that feel like you already read it. That might mean you wrote a scene that repeats the same emotional beats as a previous scene.
Someone else said that mind wandering can also result from bloat, or ‘repetitive redundancies.’ “The desk was handed down like a legacy” was the example given–the writer pointing out that a legacy is handed down, we don’t need to be told twice. Describing the piece of furniture as a legacy desk, or a handed-down desk, tightens the prose a bit, and every bit of tightening increasing the pacing a notch.
(Someone else pointed out that all those are boring, and they want a description of what it looks like, not to be told it’s old. At this point, I wrote in my notebook, Herding cats.)
Cutting out overused phrases and words (“though” is a prime offender, as are “then,” “immediately,” and “A moment later”) tightens sentences and therefore tightens pacing.
The last writer pointed out that in conversation, we humans, when we’ve made a good point with which everyone seems to agree, tend to then repeat that point because hey, they agreed and that feels great! Learning how not to do that in manuscripts—belabor a point—can also tighten pacing.
Repetition can be an instinctive signal again, like overuse of the word “literally,” that one isn’t sure the point is well made.
Looking hard at the words one uses to make that point, and being succinct—with appropriate emotional reaction from the characters—can sharpen a scene. That emotional component is vital! If the narrative drive is neutral, the reader tends to start skimming.
How about you? What’s first on your mind when you dive in to rewrite that first draft?