Tag Archives: Writing Tips

So Many Drafts

Hey there, writers in the trenches! Let’s have a little talk about tweedle beetles drafts. Specifically, numbers of drafts.

I know that when I started out writing novels, I had no idea how many drafts a book went through before it got published. Thinking back on it now, I get all Ming the Merciless and want to tell my past self, “Pathetic writer. Hurling your manuscript out into the void, without the slightest inkling of what is out there. If you had known anything about the true nature of publishing, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror.”

Uh, no, really, actually, it’s totally great and awesome. BUT! I sure as hell needed to revise more.

So, in case any of you are despairing about how many times you’ve overhauled your book, here is a bit of data for you on my debut novel:

THE TETHERED MAGE went through around 6-7 drafts before it was ready to go on sub to publishers. Once Orbit accepted it for publication, it went through several official rounds with my editor—a major structural edit, minor structural edits, little fine-tuning kind of edits, copyedits, etc. But I did a couple rounds for each of the structural passes before my editor saw them. So it came out in the end to around 13 drafts.

Now, some of those drafts were me getting 20K words in and then going “Ugh! Start over!” Other drafts were just polish passes, where I was buffing up the language to a high shine and not making any major changes. But one of them was me revising from YA to adult, historical fantasy to epic fantasy, AND adding 50K+ words (almost doubling the length of the book from first completed draft to final draft), so I feel like it all evens out.

I created the doc for the very first draft of THE TETHERED MAGE in early 2014. I took some time off from it in there to work on revising an earlier book, but finished the draft that went on sub to publishers around the beginning of 2016. It sold in June of 2016 (BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER), and I continued to revise it for several months; it finally comes out next month (WHEEEE!).

Mind you, that wasn’t the first book I wrote. The book that got me my agent went through about 10 drafts before it did (I started querying it way too soon, though, on like draft 5). And I wrote other books before that.

Every single page I wrote, every revision pass, made me a better writer. The me of 2 books ago couldn’t have written THE TETHERED MAGE. Heck, the me of draft one of THE TETHERED MAGE couldn’t have written draft 13. Revision is where I learned the most, and still where I do my best work.

I’m working on revisions for THE DEFIANT HEIR now (the sequel to THE TETHERED MAGE). I’m really excited about them! I feel like this draft is going to be a big step up from the last one, and it feels so good to see the shape pulling true, and the pieces falling into place. I used to hate revision, but now that practice has given me a better understanding of how to spot areas for improvement and fix them, it feels awesome to make my book sharper and shinier with every draft.

Writing on a deadline, with an editor, is very different than writing on my own, and I don’t have the luxury to allow myself draft after draft. But I’m nonetheless already on draft 5 by my own count (my editor saw draft 4 as my “first draft”), and the version I’m giving her next month will probably be draft 6.

So, my as-yet-unpublished writer friends, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to embrace revision! The difference between my first drafts and my final drafts looks a lot like the difference between my writing 5 years ago and my writing now, and that’s not a coincidence. You never know how many times you’ll have to tear down and rebuild before you get it just right, but it’s well worth the effort. Every draft teaches you something, and takes you one step closer to the end of the publishing rainbow…

…Even if it’s NOT ACTUALLY A RAINBOW IT’S A WEIRD RAINBOW-COLORED NEBULA THING WITH AN OMINOUS FLOATING CITY IN IT AND YOUR ADVENTURES ARE ONLY BEGINNING.


Reset to Save

I just turned in the first draft of THE DEFIANT HEIR, Book 2 of Swords & Fire, to my editor today! YAY!!!

BUT WAIT! Let’s walk that back. While this is the first draft Lindsey is seeing, this is not even close to the first draft I wrote of this book. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you what draft it was. Because in the process of writing this book, I kept going back to the beginning so much, I might as well have been trying to fight the end boss with insufficient levels and mid-tier equipment.

And you know what? It worked out really well for me. So now I’m going to tell you about it, in case this is useful to anyone else.

My saved-off incomplete drafts look something like this:

Early drafts: 15K words

Middle draft: 70K words

Late draft: 125K words

Final “first” draft: 140K words

Weird, right? I KNOW! Here’s how that happened.

One different thing about writing this book was that since my publisher wanted to put a teaser chapter at the end of THE TETHERED MAGE, I had to get the beginning into really good shape very early in the process. So I wound up writing several drafts of the first 3 chapters before moving on to the rest of the book.

This was actually SUPER helpful. It gave me time to re-find the characters’ voices, feel my way into the story, and get some new characters and elements more solidified in my head before proceeding. It got the early, derpy, HA HA I’M JUST SPLASHING AROUND IN THE WATER I CAN’T ACTUALLY SWIM DURRRHHH stage of drafting out of the way.

After that, I was in a strong position to launch into the rest of the book. I forged ahead, pushing onward even when I hit a section that I knew I wasn’t nailing, because there was this pivotal sequence I was really, really excited to write and I just had to get there and get it out of my system. Both because I just HAD TO WRITE THIS PART, but also because it was SO pivotal that it was going to affect how I looked at the rest of the book.

After I finished that part, I was at about 70K words. I was halfway done—though at the time I thought it was more like 2/3, but that’s another story—and I was eyeballing that section I’d blown past which I knew wasn’t working. I had ideas on how to fix it, but they were story changes that would affect how the rest of the book would turn out.

It was a tough choice. Press ahead and finish a draft I could show my alpha readers, to get feedback while there was still time to act on it? Or go back and do some significant rewriting, so I could do a more final first pass at the rest of the book? It was especially tough because I had a deadline staring me in the face, and if I went back to rewrite, I’d miss the first draft milestone I’d set for myself.

I decided to rewrite. And it was the right choice. I had a much better sense of where I was going because I now knew where my characters had been. The new stuff I wrote when I caught up to where I’d been came out well on the first try.

Then I got almost done, and I hit another dilemma: I was writing the climax, and I was second-guessing my plans for the ending. I had ideas for more changes to that same @$!#$% section of the book that had given me so much trouble the first time around, and I also needed a sanity check on a few other elements of the book, and all of it might affect the ending.

So I sent the 95% complete draft to my patient alpha readers, with an incoherent email basically going “GUYS I DON’T EVEN KNOW IF THIS IS ANY GOOD WHAT IS HAPPENING I’VE BEEN WRITING ALL DAY EVERY DAY AND HAVE LOST ALL PERSPECTIVE HEEEELLLLP MEEEEEEEE.” And they were really awesome about getting back to me super quickly with encouraging noises and their thoughts on the various dilemmas I was facing. It gave me the clarity and morale I needed.

I had to go back and edit that one stupid section AGAIN, and then write the ending, and FINALLY I had a draft I could show my agent to get her feedback! It was much later than I’d wanted to get it to her, but… BUT… the draft I sent her was SO MUCH STRONGER than it would have been if I’d pushed ahead and finished that earlier draft instead of going back and restarting all those times. I’d worked through a lot of problems on my own, and the draft I sent her was in good shape and much closer to done. In the end, it SAVED me time.

So I guess my takeaway is this: Trust your instincts. If your instincts are telling you to go back and fix something before you keep going, DO IT. The rest of the book will be much clearer and better and more on track as a result, and you won’t wind up writing a bunch of stuff you’re just going to have to rewrite in the next pass. But if your instincts are telling you to press ahead, because you’ve got some other stuff you need to sort out first before you go back and edit, do that.

There is no magic in a completed first draft. It’s okay for the first complete draft to actually be the third, or the seventh. Or, hell, the fifteenth, if that’s how you roll.

This book will still go through a lot of revisions before it’s done. But I’m really glad I got some rounds of them out of the way when it was only 15K words, or 70K, rather than 140K!


Don’t Forget Your Audience (Especially if they’re ON FIRE)

OKAY GUYS, WRITING RANT TIME! Buckle in for some CAPITAL LETTERS and also LITERAL FIRE!

For this rant, I have my day job technical writer hat on, but the general principle applies to fiction, too. It’s about knowing your audience. What does knowing your audience have to do with ACTUAL FIREBALLS? Read on and find out!

So there I am, trying a new recipe for zucchini tacos, and I am substituting the broiler where it calls for a grill, as I have done several times in the past with good results. Everything is going great until I flip my not-even-browned-yet tortillas and put them back in the oven for LITERALLY THIRTY SECONDS to try to get them toasty and suddenly SMOKE! SO MUCH SMOKE!

And I open the oven to try to rescue my tortillas in case they haven’t turned to cinders yet, and HOLY CRAP THE OVEN IMMEDIATELY SPAWNS A BALL OF FIRE!

SHIT SHIT THAT’S ACTUAL FIRE, I think, like you do, and slam the oven door shut on the INSTANT HELLMOUTH I have unwittingly created. Smoke is billowing everywhere. My ten-year-old begins asking me a number of pertinent questions from the next room, like, “Mom, is something on fire?” and “How much fire?” and “Should I leave the house?”

I pretend to be a calm and responsible grownup, saying things in a relaxed voice like “Yes, it’s on fire, but I have this under control, why don’t you go to another room to get away from the smoke?” when in fact what is actually happening in my head is that I am staring at the fire in my oven and realizing that there is STILL FIRE and I am the only adult in the house and it’s FIRE and I had better do something about it.

I figure okay, if I keep the oven door shut, that should starve the fire for oxygen, and it should go out, right? So I wait a bit, and sure enough, the fire seems to die down, so I open the oven again and NOPE MY MISTAKE FWOOSH STILL ALL KINDS OF FIRE IN THERE.

So I slam the oven door again, which does seem to help, and open all the windows and turn on the vent fan, and then for lack of a better idea I run to my laptop and Google “Oven Fire.” And lo, the internet delivers! Several articles appear titled helpful things like “How To Put Out an Oven Fire” and “How To Put Out Kitchen Fires.” Great! YAY THANK YOU INTERNET!

I click on the first one, very aware that there is likely still ACTUAL FIRE burning in the oven behind me, and I get like A FULL PAGE OF INTRODUCTION with scene-setting crap like (and I’m paraphrasing, here) “There are many reasons fires can start in a kitchen…” and “Cooking can be awesome, but also dangerous,” and “Let’s set the scene…picture this… you’re cooking, but you spill some grease…” and I am like NOPE and go to the next article, where I get MORE OF THE SAME. Paragraphs and paragraphs of flavor text before you get to anything like the promised instructions for how to put out an actual fire.

And I want to lunge through the screen and throttle the writers, because OH MY GOD THERE IS AN ACTUAL FIRE IN MY KITCHEN AND YOU ARE TRYING TO PAINT ME A LITTLE PICTURE OR GIVE ME RELEVANT CULINARY CONTEXT WHEN WHAT I WANT IS TO PUT OUT A FIRE.

Luckily, by the time I find an article where I only have to scroll down a LITTLE bit to find a clear numbered list of what to do, the fire in my oven is basically out, because in fact, in case you were wondering, closing the door and trying to starve the fire to death is apparently actually the right thing to do. (Note: I am clearly not an expert on things on fire, given that I was googling oven fires on the internet, so don’t listen to me.)

So here’s where this becomes a writing rant. In instructional writing, and for that matter in lots of other kinds of writing including fiction, one of the very first things you do is consider your audience. Who are they? What do they want? What are their interests and concerns? Etc.

Well, for an article about How To Put Out a Kitchen Fire, I would argue that:

  • Your audience is PEOPLE WHOSE KITCHENS ARE ON FIRE.
  • They want to PUT OUT THE FIRE AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.
  • Their interests are AAAAH SHIT SHIT FIRE, and their concerns are FUCK MY OVEN IS ON FIRE HELP HELP.

They do not want paragraphs of lovely flavor text setting the scene. They want to PUT OUT THE GODDAMN FIRE. You can tell them the history of kitchen fires AFTER THE FIRE IS OUT.

So maybe you should put the bit about how to put out the fire RIGHT AT THE TOP, in a numbered list or bullet points that jumps right out at you, or maybe a nice graphic. JUST A SUGGESTION, INTERNET.

Now, this is super extra true for instructional writing—you always want the information people really need to jump in their faces right away—but it’s something to consider in fiction, too.

Who are your readers? Adults? Teens? Kids? What genre expectations do they have before they even open your book? What do they want to see first when they start reading?

Also, what’s going on in your book? Is now really a good time to start telling us your cool, detailed backstory or worldbuilding? If your main character is desperately fighting off a giant spider that’s trying to eat her face, maybe you can wait until the fight is over to tell us that she was trying to collect the precious silk of its webs, which the Y’Kreeth people have used to make the sails of their ships for thousands of years, and which is found only in the deep chasms of the Marimata Rifts that separate the North from the South, but only on dry days in autumn, and… yeah. Fight off the spider first (or the ACTUAL REAL LIFE FIRE, for example, not that I’m still bitter), and THEN tell us all about your amazing fantasy world.

It’s great to think about your characters and their arcs, but it’s just as important to think about your audience. Your readers are the invisible bonus character/fourth wall/fifth element/secret ingredient that makes your story real in their heads. So consider where their heads are before you put your story in it.

And here’s a tip: if their heads are JUST A FEW FEET FROM A FIRE, maybe get to the point a little faster.


Don’t Drop That Line

You know what I wish I’d figured out earlier in my writing journey? The importance of through lines.

Take right now. I’m working on a revision of THE DEFIANT HEIR (Book 2 of Swords & Fire). I got about two-thirds done with a first draft, then realized I needed to go back and revise before I wrote the last third where everything comes together. Why? Because the Everything that needed to come together was pointing all over the place, like a pile of dropped sticks, rather than forming a bunch of lines converging inevitably toward the climax. And I had a whole section of the book that was kind of just sketched in, with caution tape strung around it saying “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.”

I didn’t have a clear through line.

A lot of definitions will describe the through line as a theme, idea, or goal that continues from the beginning to the end of a story. I personally find it more useful to think of the through line visually, as a pure structural element.

The scenes and events in a story are beads, and the through line is the thread that strings through them all to make a necklace. Without the through line, you just have a pile of beads. The through line is what makes it a story.

If your through line is working, every scene leads to the next in a natural progression of cause and effect. Your protagonist has a goal, and is driving the action toward that goal. The core conflict runs true at the heart of the story. There’s a clear emotional arc to the story, too, as well as a plot arc; everything bends toward the climax.

It’s all too easy to drop your through line. For instance, I know one way I often do it is when something unexpected happens to cause a plot turning point. That’s good! Yay surprises! But if now suddenly my characters are doing and feeling all new things that have nothing to do with everything they were doing and feeling before, it’s going to feel disjointed to the readers. Even if the new things are all exciting and cool, if we’ve dropped all the threads the readers were invested in and excited about, they may lose interest or feel lost. We need core elements of the story to continue, sticking with us through every zig and zag, propelling us through to the end.

Another common way to wind up with a dropped through line is when you have insufficient agency for your main character. They have to be the one threading that string through those beads. If they’re running around reacting to things that fate or the antagonist keeps throwing at them, without having driving goals of their own which they’re actively pursuing, there’s no clear thread to connect the events of the story and carry it forward…and the readers with it.

The through line gives the readers something to wonder about, to be excited about, to be emotionally invested in. It’s what keeps them turning pages to the end.

I don’t think you necessarily need to be able to define your through line in an explicit word or phrase or statement. Really, it’s a combination of things: core themes, your character’s emotional arc, the main plot arc, the central conflict, your character’s goal. It’s the heart AND the spine of the story.

But you should KNOW your through line. At a deep, instinctive level—and you should also be consciously aware of it. You should be able to trace its passage through your story.

In this particular revision, I realized I didn’t know my through line well enough. I had a bunch of events, and I saw how they lined up with cause and effect to create a story, but I needed to clarify my character’s motivation and goals and emotional arc to give those events life and purpose, and to bring them all together. Once I got a better understanding of my through line, suddenly all the pieces I’d been having trouble fleshing out or fully integrating came clear. A lot of the bits that were giving me trouble or that I didn’t have energy for suddenly seemed easy to tackle.

To map the path of your story, you need to know where it starts, and where it ends, and the lay of the land along the way. But just as much, you need to know who is walking that path, and why, and where they thought it was leading when they first set foot on it.

Your through line is Ariadne’s string, to guide your main character—and you, and your readers—through the Labyrinth. Lose it at your peril.


Justifiable Murder

One thing that bugs me as a reader (and I do realize this is a pet peeve that probably doesn’t bother lots of people) is when an author kills off a character and I get the feeling they did it solely to make things seem EXTRA DRAMATIC. As if they might get some kind of MY BOOK IS SERIOUS NOW badge because a named character died.

(Side note: It’s particularly annoying if the character clearly serves no purpose except to die tragically and make the main character sad. You know… when it’s like HERE IS MY BEST FRIEND/LITTLE BROTHER/INNOCENT RANDO I AM TRYING TO SAVE, WHO IS VERY SWEET AND NICE AND HAS NO PERSONALITY AT ALL BUT WOULDN’T IT BE TRAGIC IF SOMETHING HAPPENED TO THEM.)

I was thinking about this while doing laundry, and wondering how exactly I would define the difference between deaths for angst value vs. earned, necessary deaths. And lo, into my head popped a perfect test to tell whether a death is story-driven, rather than “I want some more drama here”-driven. It’s simple (“well, duh,” even):

Does the death change the story?

And I don’t mean just “now our hero is sad” change. I mean plot change, with effects in suitable proportion to the importance of the character who died.

Look at the deaths (and whoa, large data sample) in A Song of Ice and Fire. When George R. R. Martin kills a major character, you nearly always go “Holy shit, that changes EVERYTHING!”

If you take the death out, or swap in a different character to die instead, the story is completely different. You can’t do it. It wouldn’t make sense.

That is how you murder characters.

I’m totally using this as a test now myself anytime I’m thinking of killing off a character.


Breaking a Scene List into Arcs

In a previous post, I talked about color coding my scene list by stakes. That’s only one of the ways I use my scene list, which is really a super handy all purpose tool to look at a book’s structure in all sorts of ways. (To review, it’s just a list of all scenes in order, with a short phrase naming each scene.)

Another way I’ve used it that came in really handy on my current revision is to use the scene list to break the book up into arcs or acts.

I look at the scene list and try to identify turning points in the book, and map out arcs connecting those turning points. You can look at varying sizes of arcs, from a few major acts to lots of shorter arcs—whatever’s useful to you—and even nest them if you want to get fancy. For my current round of revisions on THE TETHERED MAGE, I wound up identifying 10 arcs of varying sizes.

After I identify these turning points, I break up my working copy of my scene list accordingly, and I try to name or label each section based on its overall arc. If I can’t identify an overall direction, or I want to label a section “A Bunch of Random Stuff Happens,” it probably means I have a bunch of disconnected scenes without a clear through line. (This happened to me on this latest pass, and it was super useful to catch it so I could find/make a through line.)

Here are a few of the redacted-for-spoilers labels for my current working arcs in THE TETHERED MAGE, for example:

  • Meet [REDACTED], Your New Problem
  • [REDACTED] Is Getting Worse And Maybe It’s [REDACTED]’s Fault? LOOK ALL THESE THINGS ARE CONNECTED!
  • Starting to Figure Stuff Out & Have Victories & Solve Stuff…
  • OH WAIT NO EVERYTHING GOES TO HELL

(Those aren’t consecutive, except for the last two.)

For other projects and past drafts, I’ve sometimes used more specifically descriptive phrases, as opposed to the more abstract and structural ones above. Here’s a made-up example of this approach:

  • Part One: Searching for the Golden Potato
  • Part Two: Potato Found, but Stolen by Void Bunnies!
  • Part Three: Hunting Down the Void Bunnies
  • Part Four: NOPE! Running From the Void Bunnies
  • Part Five: All Seems Lost (Void Bunny Ambush & Aftermath)
  • Part Six: Unlocking the Inner Potato (It Was Within You All Along)
  • Part Seven: Stealing Back the Golden Potato
  • Part Eight: Void Bunnies Destroy Seattle
  • Part Nine: Unleashing the Golden Potato
  • Part Ten: Post-Potato-splosion Wrapup (soup w/leeks & bacon, mmm)

It’s kind of like the scene list zoomed farther out.

In addition to helping spot structural issues, I also find breaking up the scene list into sections to be really helpful for tackling my edits in bite-sized chunks. For instance, if one of the 25 things I want to work on in this revision is strengthening character X’s voice, and character X doesn’t appear until my 3rd arc, I don’t even have to worry about that item on my list until I get to that section.

It helps me manage the revision a piece at a time, without having to juggle too many things in my tiny brain. And I can identify what I most want to focus on in each arc, and keep that focus in mind as I revise that section.

I’m sure there are a ton of other ways you could use this, too — and other writers probably have their own variations on this technique. I like making lists, because that’s how my brain works. Some people may prefer to map out acts more visually, or go crazy with sticky notes, or make an Excel spreadsheet, or name their cats after various plot themes and throw out some catnip mice and see what happens.

Some people may even be so awesome they can keep track of all this stuff in their head and not need 32 pages of notes to do a revision. (HA HA WHAT KIND OF LOSER HAS A 32 PAGE REVISION PLAN ANYWAY? NOT ME.) (*Switches tabs while you’re not looking*)

For me, though, the scene list is the X-Ray that lets me look at my story’s skeleton. And this is one way to make sure everything’s all connected properly, and not just a loose pile of bones.


Stakes Map

I did a new structure thing today which worked really well for me, so I wanted to share it with all my fellow writers!

I was side-eyeing my current revision, which involves adding a bunch of new scenes, and thinking there might be some patches where I had too many sitting-around-and-talking scenes in a row. I needed a way to zoom waaaaaay out and look at the story structure to check for places where I let the tension drop for too long.

Here’s what I did:

First, I had already made a scene list. I find this is super handy for looking at big structural things. It’s just a list of every scene in the book, in order, with short names (usually just a handful of words) for each scene. Here’s a made up example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one

Etc. You get the idea.

The new thing I did was to color code each scene in the list by the stakes. I might use a different color code for a different type of book, but for this one I did red for high-stakes action scenes, blue for high-stakes non-action scenes (the character has a lot to lose), and green for low-stakes talky scenes (the character doesn’t have much at risk, though plot points still happen).

This was awesome, because it made any places where I had a bunch of low-stakes talky scenes in a row really jump out at me. See what I mean in this example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Sophie fills Greg in over donuts
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg fails math test
Greg moping over lunch
Greg goes home, gets in trouble w/mom for missing bus
Greg catches bus fine next day
Greg has to do makeup work in math class
Ninjas kidnap Stanley

The middle has way too much green. I can see immediately that it’s a problem. Then I can experiment with different solutions in my scene list until I have a better balance of colors.

For instance, in this example story I might cut a bunch of scenes and insert a higher-stakes one to avoid dropping the dramatic tension on the floor while Greg messes around:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg tries to ask Stanley out
Ninjas kidnap Stanley
Sophie fills Greg in while they track down ninjas to get Stanley back

That might be too little green. Readers do need time to take a breath, dig in, and get to know the characters when they’re not in the middle of a huge crisis. But this color code technique will let me spot those problems, too, and identify spots where I need to give the reader a bit of down time or breathing space between epic fight scenes and shocking revelations.

When I tried this with my current draft, it let me get a bird’s eye view on stakes and pacing, move stuff around to fix problems, and make changes to up the stakes where needed. It not only made it easier to correct the issue I’d already identified, but it helped me spot another potentially slow stretch I needed to fix.

I’m totally doing a stakes map like this for every book from now on.