Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 41: 7 Questions You Need To Ask Of Your First Draft


Welcome to week 41 of Anthony's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here

Goal setting
  1. Read over the draft of your novel.
Breaking it down
As we finish up our drafts, it’s time to look at how our first-draft manuscripts hold up. Keep in mind, this isn’t an editing process – it’s more of a health check. In fact, it’s probably not a great idea to change too much at this stage. Think of an artist standing back to look at his painting – a squint in his eye, looking to see if the balance is there.
①     Is there a sense of danger in your writing?
OK, I know what you’re thinking. “But my novel isn’t a thriller.” That’s not what I mean. This is more about you, as the writer.

Is each line in the story – each paragraph, each chapter – alive with your own sense of vulnerability, your own sense of exploring something personal? Or does it feel safe?  In your first draft, you shouldn’t hold back – you should explore bravely, perhaps even foolishly, as you explore everything there is about your story.
②     Is there enough heat in your story?
OK, so your story isn’t set in the tropics – but again this about the power of emotion rather than temperature. Have you invested enough emotion in your characters, in their actions and their motivations? Cold stories don’t have characters – they have caricatures. They don’t tell us what it’s like to be in love, to be scared, to want something so bad and be afraid we won’t get it.

Have you exposed your characters?  How can you make the plot more human-centric? Fancy plot turns are great, but we need characters – characters feeling every spectrum of emotion – to make those turns and twists work.

    Have you told the story you wanted to tell? 
Think of that artist standing back at his easel. Perhaps he wanted to paint a wild horse – sweating, beautiful, suggesting movement and power – and instead he’s ended up with an elegant drawing-room picture of a stately horse?  Not quite what he had in mind.

Sometimes we try to ‘shoehorn’ our stories into a perfect frame or formula.  We end up losing our initial spark or impetus for the story.  Think of your theme – the burning flame that curls the pages of the manuscript – and ask yourself if you’ve managed to wrestle with the questions you wanted to answer?
④     Have you achieved clarity in your story?  
This point can’t be overstated. Is there clarity in the shape and structure of your novel? Does it start and end in the most natural place? Are there any chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and words that create unwanted or unintentional ambiguity or confusion? 

Keep in mind ‘clarity’ doesn’t mean boring. It means being specific. It means giving the reader a radiant and powerful image of your story, your characters, and your theme.
⑤     Does your story have rhythm?  
Look at your sentences and paragraphs. Even the syllable-count in your words. Is it staccato? Like Morse code that’s going to hammer monotonously against the ear? Or have you achieved a pace that rises and falls along with the tension and conflict in your novel? 

Some authors like to keep things crisp, tight, fast.  Others like to create a more leisurely cadence.  But most are aware you need to shake things up now and then. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a flatline. 

And here’s another thing: if you’ve raced through the writing, there’s a chance that the reader will pick up on that haste – and the whole thing may feel rushed.
    Are you indulging yourself or entertaining the reader?  
In my journal, I found a poem I wrote. I was half-asleep so it’s not great. I’ll give you a fragment: ‘… brought into the light through the wound of the sun.’  Part of me likes the imagery it creates and, yes, perhaps it works in a poem. Would I use it in a book? No. Well, certainly not in the type of psychological thriller I’m writing at the moment. It’s a bit too self-indulgent.  For a more literary book? Perhaps — but even there I’d exercise caution.

Be careful of this self-indulgence when it comes to your work, and see if your eye stumbles on it in your first draft.  It creeps up especially in description; often it manifests in over-explanation.  Our first, and most primary, goal is to entertain the reader.  If it doesn’t serve the story, or suit the genre, it’s probably going to have to be cut from the next draft.

⑦     Do you still have strong feelings about this story? 
I was going to say “Do you still love your story?” but, let’s face it, there’s time that we hate our stories – times when we’re frustrated, angry, lost, stuck, I could go on. The idea is – are you still “connected” to it?

It doesn’t matter what the emotion is – as long as it’s still strong, and still powerful. The worst thing you can feel about your book is indifference.

What do you feel right now? Indecision is OK. Ambivalence – that’s to be expected. Panic. Terror. Excitement. Yes, all these things. But if you don’t care about the story, it’s probably not worth going on to draft two or three.  It’s like dating someone – if you don’t feel anything yet, you’ll probably never feel it.
Timelock — 4 to 8 hours

Take a couple of hours or a day to read over your manuscript.

5 Quick Hacks
  1. Choose a chapter at random for your book. Rewrite it in a way that totally disrupts the plot of your story.
  2. Write a scene of your book as a poem. Do it with your theme too.
  3. Write a love letter to your book. Tell it how you love it – what you dream about it.
  4. Write the synopsis for a proposed sequel to your book. You don’t have to commit to it. Just do it as a fun experiment.
  5. Take a hot shower. Have an early night.
Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘I got into my bones the essential structure of the normal British sentence – which is a noble thing.’ — Winston Churchill

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

If you enjoyed this post, read:
  1. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 40: 3 Rules You Can Break To Start Your Story
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 39: 3 Big Questions That Demand An Honest Answer
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 38: 3 Criteria For A Perfect Scene

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