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onesecondglance

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Inspired by Lucie's awesomeness, here's one of those pseudo-motivational talks you get at cons...

Three mistakes I made as a first time writer – and three I didn’t

For little reason other than having a story I wanted to tell, I decided to write a novel this year. I’d never written anything long or complex before – a few short stories as a teenager, and a couple of typically pretentious “experiments” in my university years. But a story had grown in the back of my mind, and I suddenly decided I wanted to tell it. That this coincided with my thirtieth birthday may or may not be coincidence. (As Commissioner Gordon didn’t quite say in The Dark Knight Rises: “You’re a writer now. You’re not allowed to believe in coincidences.”)

I finished my first draft six-and-a-half months after I started, and now, with a few weeks distance from my precious, I can start to look back at the things I’d do differently if I could go back.


ONE: KNOW YOUR GENRE

I was nervous about writing, despite the hook of the story digging into my imagination, so after I jotted down the first ten thousand words I sent them straightaway to a friend who’d said he’d review them. He was necessarily savage.

Despite having been an avid reader in my younger years, I’d read very little between leaving university and starting to write. Sure, I still consumed about a dozen books a year – but very few of them were in either of the genres I was mixing. I was putting together science fiction and crime – the two things I love most to watch in film or on TV – but I didn’t have the necessary grounding in the genres. Some of the major SF elements were soft and squishy, and they were butting up against the hard reality of a crime story. Not only that, but they showed an ignorance of those writers who had come before and explored those themes.

It didn’t make me fresh and dewy-eyed, untainted by the ideas of others – it made me naïve. To borrow a term from SF fandom, I was reinventing the wheel. The end result was that SF readers wouldn’t see anything they hadn’t seen before, and crime readers would balk at the overly-fantastic sci-fi elements.

My mistake was to not know my genre. Get your head into a ton of books by authors exploring stories and themes that interest you, and see what they did, how they handled things. It will inspire you, not put you off.


TWO: FLUFF IN THE MIXING BOWL

Writing my first draft was like baking a cake without a recipe. The extent to which this metaphor succeeds will depend upon whether you’re an outliner or not, but even though I had written a story summary before I headed into my draft, most of it was made up on the fly. The summary was a guide that would help me if I got stuck, but it wasn’t a scene-by-scene breakdown.

That in itself was not a mistake. I’d do it again, although I tend to err more toward planning than improvising. But methodology wasn’t my mistake. It was putting fluff in the mixing bowl.

About a third of the way into the story, I became worried that it was too short, too thin. So I invented, in a day no less, an entire subplot to “save” my work. I stuffed it in, and it duly thickened up the mixture.

But as I continued writing, and got further through the story, this subplot started to drag things down. It was a chore to write. The characters were a pain. I didn’t want to add the scenes I needed to so I could finish it off. I ended the first draft absolutely certain that I would kill the entire plotline with fire.

Adding that plotline didn’t stop me finishing the first draft under my target word count, nor did it create any of the lasting depth I wanted. As soon as I finished and decided to cut it, much better ideas for subplots grew in my head. And I’m going to give these time to mature before I write them in.

Inventing as you go can be a good thing, but adding something in just to allay a silly fear of having a thin story didn’t help me one bit. It was a silly thing to be worrying about at that stage in the process, no amount of fluff in your mixing bowl will make your cake taste good.


THREE: THE FIRST DRAFT IS NOT THE MANUSCRIPT

About two months into writing the first draft, I was already thinking ahead. “I’ll have finished this by October,” I said, “and I’ll have done the second draft by January. It’s only a polish – this is good stuff.”

The tears I’m wiping away now are mostly laughter.

The filename of my first draft was “manuscript.doc”. I’d spent far too long looking up how to format a manuscript for submission and was making sure I adhered to all those rules as I went along so it would save me time. I started planning who I wanted to be my beta readers, and which agents I’d submit to, and when I could give up work to become a “real” writer.

Oh, how I got carried away. What I’d failed to realise is how much work is involved in redrafting, and just how much work professional authors put in. It’s a classic amateur mistake! Worse, though, I was creating pressure for myself. “It has to be as good as it can be – right now!” That was the voice in the back of my head whenever I put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

My first draft is awful. It has no structure, the plot is thin and incomplete, and characters change dramatically from line to line depending on my emotional state at the time of writing. But I’ve learned that this is ok. The same is true for most people. Even professionals. The trick is to put just as much effort, or even more, into the subsequent rewrites.

It doesn’t matter how you get there, or how long it takes, but you can turn that pile of incoherent rubbish into the story you’ve been dying to tell. It’s part of the process. A first draft is just that. And that’s no bad thing.


So I made some silly mistakes. Here are three I avoided, more by dumb luck than judgement.


ONE: I AM AN UNAPPRECIATED GENIUS, RIGHT?

The temptation to post my draft online so others could glory in its magnificence was strong at first. Surely, I thought, this is far greater writing than any other first-timer has ever achieved? It will be an inspiration to others and a beacon of light in the darkness. Plus I will have my titanic ego massaged by the kind words of strangers who cannot help but fawn over my masterwork.

Fortunately, sense overrode ego for once and I held off. The time and patience of others who might choose to help you by reading your work shouldn’t be wasted on half-baked words – they, and you, deserve your work at its best. And if they don’t like it, then you thank them politely and think about what they said.


TWO: A WORD A DAY

There’s a kindly fellow on the Absolute Write forum called Uncle Jim, who has three letters he swears by. With these three letters, you can write a book, he says. Without them, you’ll struggle. These magic three letters are B, I, and C.

Butt In Chair. Sit down and write. It doesn’t do it by itself. You have to make time for it and get on.

I have a full-time job that will eat as many hours as I throw at it. But because I made time for writing, I managed to complete my first draft. I set myself monthly targets, and with the encouragement of online friends, I met those targets every month until I was finished.

This isn’t meant to make those who struggle for free time feel bad. But writing will not happen without you sitting down and doing it. I’ll set targets for myself again, because without them I’d still be making up excuses for not writing that damned subplot with the dead vicar and his kleptomaniac ex-wife.


THREE: THE MILK OF HUMAN KINDNESS

I’m a fairly solitary person. I have a small circle of friends upon whom I rely, and I don’t mind spending long periods of time on my own. But the two best things I did while writing my first draft were to join some online communities: namely, NaNoWriMo and Absolute Write.

NaNoWriMo was the perfect starting place for me. I found a writing buddy there who still supports me now, without whom I wouldn’t have made it even halfway. I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge of fifty thousand words in a month, but there is an infectious enthusiasm emanating from there that gives me a boost every time I visit.

Absolute Write is the friendliest place on the entire internet. Don’t be cynical about how helpful and supportive people can be online. Don’t underestimate the encouragement that can be gained from watching others struggle with the same problems you have – and succeed. There is kinship, and chocolate chip cookies, and a whole world of procrastination available on AW, and without the people I met there I wouldn’t have finished my first draft.

There are more resources out there for writers than ever before. There is no excuse. If you have a story to tell, tell it. And NaNo and AW will help you.
 

wonderactivist

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onesecond, that was SO inspiring. I also got teary, but my tears were at the end. Sort of warm all over. Absolute Write IS about the friendliest place--except in Share Your Work, but that has to be the case. We have to be stone cold when giving critiques.

So wonderful of you to help build the conference.
 

BfloGal

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Callalily has a pic of us together with Fay--on her phone, so you can pester her for that. I have a few pics from the panels, but they're on my camera--so when I get back to my room.

So far I attended a panel on Mystery Southern Style and Callalily's panel called It's a Job, about sleuths with unusual occupations.
 

BfloGal

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Grrr... I transferred my pictures and the ones of the hotel and the courtyard turned out fine, but apparently my zoom lens broke somehow, and none of my pictures of the panels turned out well.

So if you're going to get pictures of people, I have to get out of stealth mode. Getting ready for the opening ceremonies at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They're carting us all there on trollies.
 

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Day 2 starts here!

Good morning! I ran off to an early "workshop" so my post is a little bit later today. I hope y'all will all find something to post as well. I'm switching things around a bit so today the sundry bits of conference life will be here and my workshop will be on my blog. I've set up an interview with an editor today, so I hope to have that up later as well.

I need a good breakfast and waffles are the best thing available at most hotel buffets. We all love waffles because they remind us of our childhood. Don't try to deny it. When you're traveling and nobody's around who knows you, you indulge. As you eat that waffle, you're a kid on the inside. This kid:


Hotels want to connect with your inner kid--so you'll want to stay there when you're away from home. That's why they put the waffle iron on the buffet. Do you have "waffle irons" in your novel for people to use?

Today's Special Conference Moment
is one that happened to me earlier this year at a conference. I literally brought a book contract from a small publisher in my purse, hoping to find a literary attorney who would evaluate it for a fee. When I checked in, the conference host explained that no lit attorneys were there, but there was an author who was an attorney, a famous NY times bestselling author who I should ask to refer me to someone.

Ugh, so now I had to find the confidence to approach said famous author to ask for a name? And it would likely be an attorney I couldn't afford. I saw that author a couple of times, always surrounded by people asking him questions. I didn't want to be a royal pain to him.

On the second day, he was suddenly standing within feet of me at the buffet--alone. My friends at the table prodded me to get up so I nervously approached, introduced myself. (below is a dramatic reenactment from memory, not word-by-word)

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course," he said, not exactly smiling but not frowning either. He looked like he was thinking of bacon at that moment.

"The conference hostess had advised me to ask you this. I have a contract in my purse from a small publisher but don't know a literary attorney. Do you know of someone who could evaluate it? I mean, for a fee."

"You know, I actually don't."

"Thanks anyway--" I wanted to run away as quickly as I could.

He stopped me, "But I would be happy to take a look at it myself. I'm not a contract attorney, but I've certainly had to decipher my own contracts and I am an attorney."

WOW! He ended up giving me a full evaluation and some advice when I received a second offer on the book. How amazing. I didn't even get to buy him dinner ... yet. I plan to find him at a conference one day and do just that.

Writer's conferences are magical because of the people. So are mysteries. Which brings me to my workshop for today:

The Magic of Mystery

Watch for that editor interview later as well.
 
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wonderactivist

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Maybe I should actually confess to being sort of hung over from last night's virtual concert at my imagination's version of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

U2's Bullet the Blue Sky

(which actually inspired the rhythm of the motorcycle scene in my book)

Someone please find me a hangover remedy .. pretty please with sugar on top. (The sugar isn't helping).
 
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Okay, the article is up and live on my blog. The link on my signature should take you there.

I know that serial storytelling isn't a big part of MTS, but I think it's something that can help people tell a better story regardless. I'm interested in what everyone thinks
 

lizmonster

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Someone please find me a hangover remedy .. pretty please with sugar on top. (The sugar isn't helping).

I used to know a lot of hangover remedies. And then one day they all stopped working.

Things that worked from time to time over the years:

  • Haagen Dazs Key Lime sorbet (eat the whole pint)
  • A Wendy's cheeseburger (no other fast food place would do)
  • Saltines
  • Jelly Belly Sours jelly beans (oh, no, wait - that was for morning sickness)

A med student I knew once recommended a) as much water as you can drink; and b) aspirin. If you can stand calories, eat something that you think will stay down.

And sleep. If not today, then tonight.
 

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1. Greasy salty breakfast.
2. Jog/Hair of the dog (if you can at all make yourself do it, some vigorous exercise feels wonderful in the end. Last resort: a cold beer.

Good luck, wonder!
 

heyjude

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Day 2 starts here!

Good morning! I ran off to an early "workshop" so my post is a little bit later today. I hope y'all will all find something to post as well. I'm switching things around a bit so today the sundry bits of conference life will be here and my workshop will be on my blog. I've set up an interview with an editor today, so I hope to have that up later as well.

I need a good breakfast and waffles are the best thing available at most hotel buffets. We all love waffles because they remind us of our childhood. Don't try to deny it. When you're traveling and nobody's around who knows you, you indulge. As you eat that waffle, you're a kid on the inside. This kid:


Hotels want to connect with your inner kid--so you'll want to stay there when you're away from home. That's why they put the waffle iron on the buffet. Do you have "waffle irons" in your novel for people to use?

Today's Special Conference Moment
is one that happened to me earlier this year at a conference. I literally brought a book contract from a small publisher in my purse, hoping to find a literary attorney who would evaluate it for a fee. When I checked in, the conference host explained that no lit attorneys were there, but there was an author who was an attorney, a famous NY times bestselling author who I should ask to refer me to someone.

Ugh, so now I had to find the confidence to approach said famous author to ask for a name? And it would likely be an attorney I couldn't afford. I saw that author a couple of times, always surrounded by people asking him questions. I didn't want to be a royal pain to him.

On the second day, he was suddenly standing within feet of me at the buffet--alone. My friends at the table prodded me to get up so I nervously approached, introduced myself. (below is a dramatic reenactment from memory, not word-by-word)

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course," he said, not exactly smiling but not frowning either. He looked like he was thinking of bacon at that moment.

"The conference hostess had advised me to ask you this. I have a contract in my purse from a small publisher but don't know a literary attorney. Do you know of someone who could evaluate it? I mean, for a fee."

"You know, I actually don't."

"Thanks anyway--" I wanted to run away as quickly as I could.

He stopped me, "But I would be happy to take a look at it myself. I'm not a contract attorney, but I've certainly had to decipher my own contracts and I am an attorney."

WOW! He ended up giving me a full evaluation and some advice when I received a second offer on the book. How amazing. I didn't even get to buy him dinner ... yet. I plan to find him at a conference one day and do just that.

Writer's conferences are magical because of the people. So are mysteries. Which brings me to my workshop for today:

The Magic of Mystery

Watch for that editor interview later as well.

Great story and fantastic post! Mystery is magic, indeed. :)

Hey everyone.

Just finishing up my serial storytelling article. Will post a link to it here once it's up on my blog.

Excellent!
 

BfloGal

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Ok, thought I'd pop in and give a mini-report of day 2.

Panels were great. At least two panelists were missing in action due to reported projectile vomiting. People I spoke to were unclear whether it was the flu, food (or other) poisoning, a hangover, or if they were playing hooky.

Highlight of the day for me was the panel involving the Jungle Red Writers, who did a panel on Girls Just Want to Have Fun, where they played a game of Family Feud against each other, and gave out prizes to the audience. I can't say I learned a whole lot, but it was a lot of fun.

If you ever think you shouldn't attend Bouchercon because you're not published, put it out of your mind. Many people here are "just fans" looking for face time with their favorite authors--and new authors. Even if you write and are not published, people will ask you about your writing.

And the conference, sponsors, and authors give away loads of swag.

I met an author with whom I share an editor and an agent. So that was really cool. I bought a book which she signed, and she even gave me her email addy.

And today during a panel, there was a mass signing of Books to Die For.

I don't know how many contributors' signatures I got--at least 20. My life's work is to now carry this book around to conferences to see if I can get as many of them as I can.

And tonight was the night the AW gang hit the Irish Pub. I don't have pics, but there were at least four taken of the whole group, so some will be posted later. Fish fry was great. Desserts were monstrously large. And we have some great writers on this board--and great people.
 

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That's SO awesome. I adore you guys for meeting up. I hope you're sniffing/sipping some Bailey's for me today.

I got my editor interview, but figure everyone's at the virtual bar tonight so I'll post it tomorrow morning--when I wake.

And Matt, that's awesome. I actually do believe in serial storytelling. Sherlock Holmes stories started as a series in the Strand magazine. People would line up for hours in advance of the next story release.
 

heyjude

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Thanks for the update, Bflo! It sounds like a ton of fun!
 

lizmonster

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Non-published girl, here. Was thinking of conjuring up a blog post called "The Importance of Critics." I'll link to it here in case anyone is interested.

(And I apologize for slacking - bad week - but I have really been enjoying reading!)
 

wonderactivist

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Liz, I think that sounds awesome. We all should contribute what we can. I'm about to post an agent interview on my blog and have a couple of other things in mind too. /i have two surprises as well.
 

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Day 3 is a bit more relaxed. It's Saturday, folks. We've had a busy day of seminars. Now it's time for a toast (if you don't drink, you can have club soda):

Drinking Toast with Friends

On my blog, I've posted an interview with Buzz Books, Swarm, and Mero Family magazine editor, Mari Farthing.

Interview with an Editor: Mari Farthing
I'll tell you a not-so-secret: she hates Oxford commas.

And finally, a surprise--me! I don't want to bore y'all but here's a new video interview with the author of Distortion (to be released in November). She's sort of goofy and not a tv personality.

 

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OK, for those interested, I've got a post on critics at the blog link below.

It became more a personal journey thing than a general thing, as blog posts tend to do; but there you go. :)
 

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On my blog, I've posted an interview with Buzz Books, Swarm, and Mero Family magazine editor, Mari Farthing.

Interview with an Editor: Mari Farthing
I'll tell you a not-so-secret: she hates Oxford commas.


That's a wonderful interview. But I have to say - if pitching in person is necessary to publish a book, I'm giving up now. I am way too shy for such things!
 

heyjude

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Day 3 is a bit more relaxed. It's Saturday, folks. We've had a busy day of seminars. Now it's time for a toast (if you don't drink, you can have club soda):

Drinking Toast with Friends

On my blog, I've posted an interview with Buzz Books, Swarm, and Mero Family magazine editor, Mari Farthing.

Interview with an Editor: Mari Farthing
I'll tell you a not-so-secret: she hates Oxford commas.

And finally, a surprise--me! I don't want to bore y'all but here's a new video interview with the author of Distortion (to be released in November). She's sort of goofy and not a tv personality.


Lucie! You are lovely! :) What a great video. I can't wait to read the book. Were you reading something? You're so together and coherent!

Fantastic interview. I tried to leave a comment but it kept asking me for my password. :Shrug:

Question: Does your editor actually remove Oxford commas? :ROFL: I'm not sure I could handle that. :D

OK, for those interested, I've got a post on critics at the blog link below.

It became more a personal journey thing than a general thing, as blog posts tend to do; but there you go. :)

Excellent. :)

That's a wonderful interview. But I have to say - if pitching in person is necessary to publish a book, I'm giving up now. I am way too shy for such things!

Fortunately, it's not. :tongue I like talking to people in general, but pitching sounds high-stress to me.