Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

The Part that Sucks the Most (Or: Getting From First Draft to Something that isn’t a Steaming Pile of Shit)

Most of us know about the three act structure:

Act I The setup.  Put your characters on the stage. Sally is a beautiful stockbroker with a dog named Zippy.

Act II The confrontation. Everything goes horribly wrong. Sally’s abusive ex-boyfriend starts stalking her, she is framed for her neighbor’s murder, zombies attack, Darth Vader attacks, her drinking spirals out of control, etc.

Act III The resolution. Sally rescues Zippy from the zombie-controlled Death Star, along with the data tapes that prove her ex-boyfriend killed the neighbor, all the bad guys are killed in the blast and we leave her talking to the most hansom man in the City as they walk their dogs into a pet-friendly AA meeting.


In our world, writing a novel is Act I.  Pursuing and landing an agent /publisher/ fame/ fortune is Act III. This post is about the abusive, alcoholic Death-Star piloted by zombies who make wrongful accusations that is Act II. The part after you are done writing your book and before your book is more than a big pile of shit on your computer.

This post glosses over pretty much everything. It is more of an outline for future posts than direct advice. More than anything, it is a big flashing red light and siren and a sign that says;

WARNING: DOING THIS RIGHT IS GOING TO BE A HUGE PAIN IN THE ASS. YOU SHOULD SERIOUSLY CONSIDER TURNING BACK NOW.

For those of you who didn’t turn back, here is the painful, ugly roadmap:

1)    Write a novel. Yea, right. I realize just saying “write a novel” is like saying “If you want to get rich, have a bunch of golden monkeys fly out of your butt and then just melt them down.” However, for purposes of this post, I am going to assume everyone has already done it. In future posts, I will spend hours writing about resources to help with this part, give you my half-assed opinions on the subject, try to list the accepted truisms and do everything I can think of to assist in this part. Today you get three words.

 

2)    Forget you wrote a novel. Looking at your novel within three weeks of finishing it is like hooking up at a bar at closing time. If you’ve been there since happy hour. After six months at sea. You are not going to be particularly discerning about minor flaws like morbid obesity, stage-three acne, and, if you’re a dude, her Adam’s apple. Don’t even let yourself peek at it for a month.

3)    Read your novel from beginning to end without changing anything. This may be the hardest part of the writing and revising process. When you start reading, you are going to discover that the unbelievable masterpiece you finished a month ago sucks balls.

  • You will be crushed. The nausea will last for weeks. You will realize you are a worthless writer who vomited tens of thousands of words into a computer and only about eleven of them are worth keeping.
  • You may seriously consider taking your own life, but then you will get on here to post a comment on this blog saying goodbye and remember that I told you this was inevitable, and every Pulitzer winner and Nobel Laureate felt the same way. You have taken your first step toward actually writing something good.

During this reading, do not write anything on your pages or make any changes. There will be plenty of time for that later. You can keep notes on a notepad, but even those need to relate to content. We will fix the 880,000 typos and errors you managed to squeeze into 95,000 words later. For now, worry about your story.

4)    Revise, redraft, edit, revise again, edit again, redraft again, edit fourteen more times. You get one shot at each agent. It does not matter whether you have made your bad book mediocre, your mediocre book good, your good book great, or your great book the best book in the past 100 years, you are only going to get one shot. It has to become great before you send it to anyone, and it is far from great right now. The difference between revising and redrafting is huge, and neither of those things is the same as editing (a painful and difficult process that is the least painful and easiest of the three).  In short:

  • Revising literally means “have a new vision.” You know that horrible feeling you had that your book sucked when you read it after a month? You were right. That ending didn’t work, and the middle dragged on too long without enough happening. The beginning was not as strong as you remembered. So all you need to do now is come up with a new beginning, middle, and end. You just won a no-expense paid two-week vacation with a whiteboard, an abacus, 700 post-it notes, a Ouija board, and some coffee — now you get to gut the hell out of your book and patch it back together.
  • Redrafting is when you put your new vision on the page. Entire scenes may be added or cut, a semi-useless character may need to go, which means the three important things she did need to be done by someone else. One of your minor characters may be doing too many important things but otherwise not matter to the reader. Do you up the ante by making her more interesting? Now the reader cares about her, so we need to up the ante on the other end, too. Does Act II have more impact if we make the reader love the character and then kill her? Laugh your evil villain laugh as you slip that knife between her ribs. Then curl up on the floor and cry because you loved her and she’s dead.
  • Editing is what you do after you have turned that plotless pile of shit with a weak storyline and insipid characters into a pile of shit with a plot, story and characters. Fixing errors, tightening language, making it flow better – this is another topic that is worth 10 post in itself. The important thing to remember today is that editing happens long after you finishing writing the book. Months after. More importantly, a few major rewrites and overhauls after you finishied it.    This is where most writers begin and end the process of fixing their books after they’ve finished writing them. Which is the literary equivalent of going to the free clinic to test for STDs and trying to forget about that Adams’ apple.

5)    “Now I’m ready to send my book to an agent!” Except you aren’t. You are ready to send your book to some beta readers. We’ll cover how to find them later, but for now let’s just say that if you know anyone who hates your guts and has a Bachelors or better in English, that’s who you want as a beta. Your mother or spouse is not a beta reader (unless you are in prison for trying to kill her or are going through a messy divorce). At a minimum, you need someone who is going to be honest. Friends are not honest and, if they’re still speaking to you, your family is not going to be honest, either.  In this context your best bet is other writers who don’t otherwise know you. Betas are not editors. They should be doing the same thing you did after your book sat for a month, reading the story without fixing errors or trying to change anything. You want feedback on what worked, what didn’t and how they felt.

 

6)   “Oh my fucking God, I’m revising again.” Yea, your betas are there for a reason. That gun in the first chapter used to go off in the third, but the third was revised out and it makes no sense to have it there anymore. You loved that quirky waitress, all three of your betas wanted to strangle her. And 100 other things. This sucks.

7)    “Now I’m ready to send my book to an agent!” Except you aren’t. Now you’re ready to send your book to someone who is willing to edit it FOR FREE. Why “for free?” Because there are thousands of scammers out there who will happily charge you to edit your work. If you have a good enough grasp of the English language to write a novel that stands a chance of success in the market, the odds of them doing more for you than a critique partner will are low. How do you get someone to spend dozens of hours editing your work FOR FREE? Easy, you get to spend dozens of hours editing her work FOR FREE.

 

8)    “Now?” No, but you are closer. Once you get all of the edits back from your critique partner and have made all of the changes and run spell check and grammar check one more time, you are ready to read your book again, from beginning to end. Preferably change it to a .pdf and put it on your e-reader or have a text to speech program read it out loud to you as you read along or kill a tree and print it if you have enough toner, but read it in some other format beginning to end. With any luck, aside from the two dozen typos that somehow slipped past everyone, including you all 500 times you have now read the damned thing, it is now as good as you thought it was at the beginning of step 2.

 

9)    “I’m not going to ask, you’re just going to say no. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.” Not quite, but almost. You need to format the manuscript, have an irresistible query, an outline (several, of different lengths), a synopsis (again, several, of different lengths) and a battle plan for approaching agents. Those are all things I will cover in detail in future posts. They are also all things that you can be working on as of Step 7, so congratulations, just six months after you thought you were done with your novel:

 

YOU ARE READY TO SEND YOUR BOOK TO AN AGENT!

(Almost)

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3 thoughts on “The Part that Sucks the Most (Or: Getting From First Draft to Something that isn’t a Steaming Pile of Shit)

  1. “Easy, you get to spend dozens of hours editing her work FOR FREE.”

    And you’re going to enjoy it.

    And here. Have a picture of step 4b. http://instagram.com/p/b4pg8KNOqu/

  2. elorenalory on said:

    This is a bit depressing. Us writers truly are a crazy bunch, aren’t we?

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