How to write fiction | Part 3: facing your flaws

Welcome to another #WeeklyWritingWorkshop! If you haven’t already, make sure you familiarise yourself with Parts 1 and 2, as today we’ll be delving into the process of editing your first draft.

I’m going to be totally honest with you, reader: this part scares me. All the parts are scary, but to me, editing is the area in which nightmares are spawned.

Throughout the process of writing the first draft, it’s natural to begin to form an emotional connection to your material. Writing any large work is like giving birth (not that I have any clue what that is like, nor do I care to) and by the end of the birthing process you may find yourself loving what you have written despite all its flaws, plotholes and bad grammar. After all, you have dedicated a large chunk of your life to getting lost in this world. So the process of editing – in which you face those flaws and try to correct them – can be extremely painful. It’s the ‘kill your darlings’ bit, in which you look at this beautiful deformed creature that has come out of you and say ‘right, time to chop off some limbs!’

OK. Let’s take this one step at a time and always remember to TRUST OUR INTUITION!

Taking space

Remember how we ended Part 2?

Put your vomit draft away and don’t think about it for a while.

There isn’t an exact science to the amount of time you need to take away from your vomit draft, but let’s just say a month for the purposes of this workshop. Less time if it’s a shorter piece of work – for a 2,000 word story, maybe take a couple of days. During these rest periods it’s useful to have other projects to work on, especially if they are a diversion from fiction. I like to write film reviews while I am ‘taking space’ because writing a film review feels like a walk in the park, a way to distract the conscious mind from thinking about the story.

It’s important at this stage that you resist the urge to show anyone your first draft. I know it’s a long, lonely process, and you so want to show off about how much you have written and what a Serious Writer you are, but trust me: it’s not a good idea and it will just add more complications to the process.

Do a first read

After your break, fish the vomit draft out of its hiding place and read it through, once, as if you’re ‘the average reader’. Read as quickly as possible; don’t linger on the details and don’t start editing yet. Allow yourself access to a notebook and pen and jot down any ‘macro’ issues you notice. Where does it get boring? What needs to be made clearer? Are there any sections which obviously need to be cut out or majorly revised? At this stage you need to ignore the ‘micro’ issues, like sentence structure and grammar, because those revisions will be made later.

You also need to pay attention to any patterns you can spot. ‘Hmm, there are quite a few references to trees so maybe the theme of the book is ‘nature’?’

When you have finished reading, ask yourself: what am I trying to say with this story? What question is it answering?

Once you have decoded the message, and realised the major themes, you need to figure out how you can bring them into sharper focus in your second draft. You may need to spend a little more time away from the story to find these answers; going on long walks, running, meditating until you receive the inevitable flash of inspiration from the Universe and run back to your computer or notebook to get it down. Don’t force it. Watch films and TV shows, read books, and allow space in your mind for the answers to appear; your subconscious is already working them out.

Fleshing out your characters

It’s likely that you will have one or maybe two ‘favourite’ characters. You felt at home writing for them; in fact, they practically wrote their own dialogue and sometimes may have even taken control of the story, redirecting the flow of emotion to places you never could’ve planned.

While you were getting the first draft down you hopefully had this experience, so by now you instinctively know who your strongest characters are; which ones already seem to exist, as fully formed people, in your mind. And it’s likely that during your reading of the first draft, these characters’ scenes stand out as being the ‘easiest’ to read.

But there will be tougher cookies to crack. Some characters may have seemed like a good idea when they were in development, but when you sit down to write for them, they refuse to come to life. Spend some time fleshing them out by asking questions about their backstory; what events led them up to this point in their life? How do they feel about their parents, their upbringing, politics, sex? Asking big questions like this will eventually bring them out of their shell. If not, you may need to consider getting rid of them or repurposing their function in the story.

It’s up to you how much backstory you give your characters. For some writers, it might help to know every minor detail but personally, I don’t find it helpful. The only time I seek out specific life events in a character’s past is when it directly affects the present story.

Killing your darlings

Sometimes you get so set on an idea, so jazzed about one particular element of your story that you fail to see that it’s just not working in context. It’s making your story weaker. This weak element might take the form of a character, a plot layer, or a particular scene you had your heart set on writing. Maybe you had SO many great ideas when you sat down to outline the story, and some of those ideas sprang other interesting sub-ideas, and you want to keep them all in the pot because they all contribute something to the flavour. You believe your story has to contain all of these crucial elements otherwise it ceases to be ‘your’ story.

Well, you’re wrong. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s true. This is why taking some time away from your work is so vital – hopefully, when you read it with fresh eyes and an objective mindset you will be able to see which ideas are not needed, or are actively making the story worse.

Think about the elements you can bin. How is the story over-complicated? Which scenes do not have anything to do with the message or question you are striving to answer? Which bits are boring, or too long? I promise you, by stripping away these dead parts, your story will begin to flourish.

Join us next week for the final part of our #WeeklyWritingWorkshop, where we will be letting our story out into the world and realising our unique voice.

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