This is the first of what will be seven updates on the seven month 3rd draft novel writing course I am currently undertaking. The course is divided into seven sessions, each requiring a submission to my tutor. Once I have digested the session feedback, I’ll be posting on course content, my novel progress and what I have garnered from my tutor’s feedback.
When I refer to the first or second drafts of my novel, they are in fact detailed drafts of a synopsis, planned to the nth degree. The third draft is the first stab at writing the novel proper (in a course context), and at the end of the course I will have a handful of solid chapters and the tools to finish the rest on my own. My attitude with this course is to have fun. What was my attitude previously? Well, there were times where drafting and re-drafting the story structure felt like slow torture, even slower than molasses in a southern hemisphere July and I continued not out of love, but a frugal need to not waste the already expended effort.
Progress on my novel between the second draft course and this was limited to NaNoWriMo 2016 which as I will talk about later, has come in handy, but not so much through direct use of words.
Session one was all about re-acquainting myself with the story, and getting my tutor up to speed on it as we had not previously worked together. I reviewed some of my work from the second draft and submitted summaries of the following:
- Story outline
- Central dramatic question
- Central conflict
- Character arc
- Seven turning points
- Story steps for turning points one and two
Much of the above was unchanged from what I’d already developed in the second draft. The submission also included a summary of the first five chapters—new work for me, with the chapters covering the story between the prison (turning point one) and the inciting incident (turning point two). It was in writing the chapter summaries that my NaNoWriMo efforts proved worthwhile, with some of the imagery and backstory in that 50,012-word output seeping into my subconscious and finding an outlet in fresh writing.
The feedback I received from my tutor was constructive, although she was only taken by a few elements of the story. Most importantly, the magical realism aspect excited her, which is just as well because that is the genre! It was helpful having a fresh pair of eyes look over the story, and some of the questions she asked forced me to think through the logic of some plot points which I’d taken for granted, having sat with this story for about 6 years now in various forms.
In trying to resolve my tutor’s questioning of one particular part of the story, I came up with a new angle which I am much happier with—specifically, the reason my main character is in debt, which is a crucial part of her struggling to get out of her prison/predicament—remaining stuck in an unfulfilling, financially dependent relationship. A plausible reason for the debt was essential, and now, thanks to my tutor’s questioning, I have arrived at one. Throwing out ideas that don’t work is part and parcel of this writing gig—no room for sentimentality or attachment. The changes I made strengthened the plot without changing the greater story I am trying to tell.
Much of the rest of the feedback was to do with detail I had removed from summaries in my pedantic attempt to keep to the word count (which my tutor subsequently told me is flexible). It was also a lesson in ensuring I convey information clearly and not assume the reader knows the story like I do, within reason though, as it is always better to show rather than tell.
I am currently feeling stuck and unmotivated (hence plenty of time to blog and play with Canva!) while revising the first five chapters and re-imagining their ordering. Perhaps a different approach is called for over the coming days, sketching scenes from each chapter and throwing words onto the sketch like a comic strip, borrowing from the ‘bricks of detail’ idea taught in an earlier course I completed with The Writers’ Studio. It involves brainstorming details about emotion, setting, smell, sounds, touch, sixth sense, sense of irony…all that in addition to considering character arc, central dramatic question and conflict in each of these sketches. I will then follow the sketching/brainstorming with a quiet few moments with my eyes closed, visualising the story.
Session 1 officially closed on 21 September so I am behind, but provided I continue doing something, I am okay with that. Once done with the revised chapter summaries and order, my final session one task is to write the opening 600 words.
The course material emphasises the importance of the opening. It must entice, with each sentence ending with a juicy carrot dangling in sight but just out of reach, keeping the salivating bunny/reader hopping on to the next and the next.
I thought I’d put this to the test by revisiting the opening lines of books I have read and loved. Some have been an influence, whether in style, genre, or sparking the dream to be a writer. All are books I’ve read over the past 15 years, listed in roughly the order in which I read them. I was a voracious reader when I was a child and in my teens, but apart from vague recollections of Agatha Christie, Stephen King and some true crime books such as one on Charles Manson (don’t ask), I cannot really remember the books I read.
Have you read any of these books? If not, which samples make you want to read more? My favourite opening (out of the examples I have given here) is the one in White Teeth.
Are you writing a novel? What do you do when you are stuck or short on motivation? Has this post given you ideas on how to approach your story planning?