First Drafts – Your Own Block of Marble

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Let’s speak about first drafts. Sorry to say it, but your first draft sucks. I think this might be one of the most misunderstood parts of writing for new and fledgling writers. You’ve completed your first draft but something isn’t right. It’s not the instant masterpiece you had envisaged. What’s going on?

Well it’s simple: It’s the first draft. It isn’t supposed to be perfect. The first draft is to get the building blocks, the bones of the narrative. I think it can be best summed up by a famous quote from Michelangelo (no, not the turtle):

The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.

Michelangelo

That is what your first draft is; it’s your block of marble. Your job now is to start chipping away. Not with a hammer and chisel but with editing and revision. There isn’t an author alive or past that hasn’t had to do this. The illusion that the masters of our craft don’t do this is a common misconception and to be honest, I don’t know where it comes from. But the idea that we don’t get it perfect the first time is one that every writer has to get past in order to grow and have any kind of success.

It’s difficult. Our stories are more than just words to us. They are a part of us and it can feel like cutting off a limb when you have to go in hard with the red pen. This probably one of the most important parts of the process. There is no magic number to how many drafts you will need either. They will, however, get easier each time. The first Henrietta story, which is by no means a long epic tale, went through between 15 and 20 different versions before I submitted it.

The second Henrietta story is a good example of things you may have not thought of in the heat of getting those words down. There is a part where Amanda Moonstar stops a stampeding herd of cows by flying over them and releasing magical bedtime dust. I had the scene written and it looked great. I was happy with it and as actions scenes go, it was pretty awesome. Then one morning as I’m driving in to work a thought popped into my head. The way it was written simply wasn’t going to work. Even in a magical work, you have to account for physics, and dusting a stampede of frightened cattle from the front of the stampede is going to give end up with a very large and messy pile of cows. Why? Because the ones that get dusted first will also be the ones that fall asleep first. So begins the first major rewrite.

It was during this rewrite that I realised that there was also a disconnect between the start and the end. At no point had I mentioned the fact that the Gillyford festival was taking place. It suddenly got thrown in randomly in the middle. So back we go to the very beginning and another rewrite.

So know we are already on the third draft. This is how the process works. You will always miss things out in that first version. Or you will have extraneous parts that don’t add anything to story. They get in the way and will either bore or confuse your reader.

So don’t be disheartened when you’ve finished your story and find it’s not what you hoped for. This is your block of marble and now is the time to pick up the hammer and chisel to carve out the beautiful masterpiece that is inside. This is where the fun begins.

What’s in a Name?

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If there is one thing I struggle with more than anything else in writing, it’s naming my characters. I can’t explain it, I just get a mental block. With very few exceptions, I don’t think I’m ever fully happy with the names I give them. Sometimes it just falls into place like it did with Henrietta Hedgekin. BUT, what people don’t know (and I am about to reveal) is that originally, Ben was called Billy. I was about half way through the story when I decided to change it. Billy and Tilly just didn’t seem to work like I wanted it to. I mean, if you have twins, you’re unlikely to call them something like that, right? And yes, I get the irony in talking about realistic names in a book that includes a shapeshifting broom with with handlebars. It does kind of highlight the point though. In a world containing the fantastic, you need the regular, everyday things as well. If you do decide on a name change halfway through though, make sure you pay extra attention when your editing after the first draft. A find and replace function will help with what you’ve already written, but it won’t help with what is still to come. And after using the original for so long it is very easy to slip back without realizing.

So going back to coming up with names. I’m going to stick with Henrietta because it has a good blend of regular names and completely made up names. In fact, there is a naming convention that I decided to put in place which has helped a great deal. All the witches in this world have pretty regular first names. The magic comes from their surname. Hedgekin is a reference to being a Hedge Witch (I’ll let you guys look into that). In book 2 we meet Henrietta’s friend, Amanda Moonstar. Regular, everyday firstname; magical based surname. Having a convention such as this can be a huge help when world building. Remember, it’s your world and your rules.

The naming problem isn’t just a thing that plagues the rank amateurs like myself. And having a naming style is definitely nothing new. Probably the most famous comes from Marvel comics and from the late, great Stan Lee himself. Notice how many Marvel characters first and last names start with the same letter:

  • Peter Parker (Spider-Man)
  • Steven Strange (Doctor Strange)
  • Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic)
  • J Jonah Jameson (Oh come on!)

The reason behind this, as admitted by Stan Lee himself, is that he is terrible with names. Both coming up with and remembering. By creating a simple rule of having the first letters be the same, it makes the creation of names a lot simpler.

So the next time you’re struggling with naming characters in your WIP, try coming up with a naming style that works for you. Even if you only use it for that one story, it will make things a lot simpler and be one less hurdle to overcome.

Hook, Line and…Stinker?

One of the most important jobs we have as writers is to make sure that we grab the readers interest right from the get go. The second, of course, being that we keep that interest throughout. But without that initial hook, the latter becomes redundant.

We really, really want to avoid this.
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So how quickly do you need to get that hook in?

Some schools of thought say it should be the very first sentence. That’s when you need to grab the reader. Personally I’m not a big fan of this method. Yes, your opening line is important, but should you rely on that one sentence to carry the burden of everything that follows? In my opinion it’s too much pressure. It also increases the chances of the dreaded purple prose.

It was a dark and stormy night.

Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

We all know that one. It is probably one of the most derided openings in the history of literature.

My own preference is that the first page should be the hook. Maybe even that entire first chapter or the prologue if that is how the story is structured. But that first page will allow you to set the feel of the prose. You can go into more detail and give your audience a richer insight. What we want them to do is to want to look beyond that opening. To turn the page and become invested. You can have the greatest opening line ever penned but if the rest of that page doesn’t match up to that standard, they will lose their interest very quickly. A narrative is a marathon, not a sprint. Remember, no one turns the page after the first sentence.

You have the space to build your opening. Use it wisely.