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Good Writing Is...#4 Why new writers get lost and give up.

Updated on December 2, 2011

Why did you give up on that novel?

How often I hear the remark “I dragged out the old manuscript; I haven’t worked on it in _____ (insert: 2 months, 6 months, a year, a decade.)“ Or as another wrote to me, “…my novel, got frustrated with it and stuck it in a closet two months ago.” How often do we abandon our work before it’s anywhere near finished, telling ourselves a rest will bring a clear mind? The thought of returning to the work fills us with dread, so we walk away convinced we suffer from writers’ block.

Why does this happen?

I can tell you why. (Good, you’re thinking; else why would you write this article?) I can give you two reasons.

  • Expectations

Many, probably most new writers sit down to a clean page and expect to roll out a reasonably finished piece of literature – just like that. Yes, we tell ourselves, the resultant product will need editing for the fine points, but that first draft should be next to publishable.

And when it isn’t, when our inner critic won’t stop yelling “garbage, ridiculous, pathetic, give it up,” we assume we’re not as ‘talented’ as we thought we were, and our enthusiasm disappears; we turn a cold shoulder on our efforts. We are to blame, and we can barely stand to look at what we’ve produced.

  • Lack of Direction

In the beginning, many of us start to write a story with only the vaguest notion of where our story is going; only knowing it will be a bittersweet romance, a tale of our adventures in the Navy, yet another pale reflection of Harry Potter, or Twilight. (We have enough vampires now – find a new wagon to hitch up.) Whatever our destination is will come to us in the creative process. Isn’t that how it works?

The Hard and Bitter Truth

Listen up – I’m about to share with you one of the most important secrets of writerdom. It is so important I want to print it here, bold, italics and underlined:


I’d show you some of mine, but I erase them as soon as I’ve moved on – can’t stand to look at them. I live in the fear I’ll be in some traffic accident and right after the EMS checks to make sure I’m wearing clean underwear, they’ll send someone to go through my computer files and find my first drafts. Then they’d think I wrote like that. At which point I’d die of embarrassment.

I write slapdash for the first draft. Some of my sentences are two words long, but they gallop towards wherever I’m going. Which is my destination, and that comes next, but we haven’t finished with first drafts, yet.

Here’s how one might look:

“What the world knows: 2 years earlier 2006:

The crime: Tracy Gable and her husband, Richard (Dean) are on vacation with her three children: Angela (Angie) age 12, Stuart age 10 and Courtney age 7, in Orlando (Disneyworld trip) and she’s rented a house in the city. They are part of a group of friends, two other couples and their children.

Angie isn’t feeling good one day, and wants to stay home. The other two children are terribly disappointed so Dean says he’ll take them. Tracy decides that Angie’s fever is a little high, and decides to whip out to a nearby drugstore for aspirin. She is involved in a car accident, minor, with another woman while exiting the parking lot, which delays her for a couple of hours. She calls home first time and Angie is fine. She calls home later and there is no answer. She calls her husband, and he says they will head for home. Tracy and her husband get home around the same time, but Angie has disappeared.

Police were called immediately. The bathroom door latch is broken. Small traces of blood discovered on the vanity.

Some of Angie’s clothes are missing – jeans, tees, underwear and bra, and toothbrush. Also her ipod.

Police set out amber alert. Days go by, with no news.

Dean takes other children home to Calgary. Tracy stays in Florida for month – no news.

They look at Dean as possible suspect. Dean contacts Abe. Abe clears Dean and Abe puts Tracy in tough with Bria who is in Florida.

Police decide even though bathroom door broken, could have been done anytime in family disagreement, and think that because of the missing clothes and ipod, Angie could be a runaway.

Nothing Tracy and Bria can do change their minds. Case goes cold.

Bria and Tracy try to keep story alive in media and on internet.

Two years go by.”

That's right; this is the first, first, first draft of the opening of a new novel I’m starting right now (when I should be editing the previous, but I can’t edit for more than four hours at a stretch.) Is this good writing, a work of literature, showing great gifts for storytelling and a way with language? Hardly. But this is the starting place. This is scene one, take one.

(And some of you may have noticed this is so rough one of my characters keeps changing name from Richard to Dean. I think I'll go with Richard as Dean is the real name of my friend's husband and the basis for this character.)

Even before this point, I’ve done a lot of work. I know who my characters are, and as some of them live in my previous two novels in this series, I know them well. The newcomers, well they’ve already had the full treatment as described in #3 of this series dealing with characters(linked below.)

This is reality.

Get this: my first novel in the series, This Bird Flew Away, now in the hands of fifteen trial readers, and two agents considering representing the book, will undergo another rewrite following the reviews of my beta readers. Here’s what it’s been through already.

I started the first draft of the total novel in February of 2009, but prior to that had worked out my characters, my plot, and I’d written three of the pivotal scenes in advance. So when I set out to write the novel itself, I knew where I was heading, and got there the fastest way possible. I had a rough draft by the end of March, and I rewrote. I put it away for a couple of weeks and started doing the ground work for the next. I started my next rewrite at the beginning of April. At the end of April, the manuscript went to my editor and I will use her name here because she’s great with new writers, Kathryn Lynn Davis – New York Times bestselling author, and creative editor extraordinaire. (And all round gracious lady.) I worked some more on the second novel, when I wasn’t writing new scenes or rewriting existing ones for Kathryn. Eight weeks later, my manuscript almost completely covered in red, blue and green type in MSWord’s editing program, returned to me. For the next two months, I rewrote. I sent some sections back to Kathryn. I rewrote again. Then, I put it away and finished the first draft of the next and sent that out to Kathryn. I recovered “This Bird” and rewrote again, and again. I worked on polishing certain important scenes. I rewrote. I sent my MS out to fifteen volunteers for a trial read, and I will rewrite again.

Put the picture of the great artist carefully selecting each word from his pocket version of Roget’s Thesaurus , straining over his complex sentences (“Oh please, let me write one true sentence!”) and calling on the muse to tell him what’s next, out of your mind. By the time quality of language comes into play, the novel is already built.

Good novels are constructed.

  • First, we design.
  • We prepare a foundation.
  • Then we frame.
  • We put up walls and a roof to protect the interior.
  • We work on the internal details, like cupboards, flooring and paint.
  • When the structure is sound, we add the final touches: rich language, texture, complexity and style.

Isn’t writing a gift?

Popular myth says that Iris Murdoch (Dame Iris Murdoch, author of The Bell, The Black Prince, The Green Knight, The Sand Castle, among others) sat down and wrote every word of every book verbatim the first time round. She had all her characters, each word of dialogue, her plot – all of it, all worked out in her head and just let them flow to her fingers. What a gift! And oh, don’t I wish I’d been so blessed!

But I wasn’t, and chances are, neither are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this.

No, most of us must grunt through the above listed process. Building a novel, a good novel, is dependent on two things:

  • Great characters
  • A plot

We covered characters in “Good Writing Is…#3 What is the most important element of successful fiction?” linked below. We will begin our study of plot: Good Writing is…#5 The Plot Thickens – Plotting for New Writers. I hope you tune in.

What we covered today

  • Let yourself write shitty first drafts
  • Know your destination
  • Good stories are constructed, not dished out by the muse.

And previously

  • Know your characters before you begin writing.
  • Keep your characters real.
  • Present your characters in direct methods.
  • Stay active
  • Show and share, don't tell and describe
  • Keep you own voice out of the story.
  • Let your characters do the work.

I wish you all good writing, the friendship of true characters and a destination along with the fortitude to get there.

Back in a couple of days to start talking about plot.

Lynda M. Martin


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