BTS014, My Top 5 First Draft Mistakes
BTS014, My Top 5 First Draft Mistakes
Now, that I’m well into revising the first draft of Missing, I’ve decided to share with you the top 5 first draft mistakes I made as I wrote my first three thriller novels, Missing, Silence, and Immunity. Because apparently, I love to embarrass myself in front of an audience and openly point out my flaws. But, I’m not going to stop there. In the second part of this Behind the Scenes Podcast Diary episode, I will share with you five tips highlighting how to avoid making these mistakes in your writing.
Before we dive into the super fun trip down memory lane, make sure you stick around to the third part of this episode, where I will share a quick revision update, the comment of the week, and update you on what’s coming up next in season one of this podcast.
My Top 5 First Draft Mistakes
For some reason when I first thought of the idea for this podcast diary, I assumed this was going to be a painful episode to write. But, boy was I wrong. What was difficult was avoiding cliche writing mistakes. You know those videos or blog posts that highlight mistakes first time writers make. I think what made this easier was my decision to pull the mistakes solely from the first drafts of my thriller novels. It turned out that the hard part was narrowing down the list of mistakes. Apparently, I have no trouble with highlighting my writing pitfalls. So, here are my top five first draft mistakes.
Mistake #1 – Editing and Writing the First Draft at the Same Time
In the name of experimentation, I decided to share a revised version of the first draft of Missing on my blog. This experience turned on that critical editing voice in my head. I’m a perfectionist, so trust me, when I throw around the word critical, I mean it. If you only get one thing from this episode then take this on wholeheartedly; do not edit as you write your first draft, especially if you’re relatively new to writing. I’ve just finished my third book, and I will never do this again. Even if I wanted to blog a revised draft of a novel.
This one mistake lead to other writing mistakes which has put me behind in my production schedule. Making mistakes is one of those things, it’s a chicken or the egg scenario. It’s almost impossible to learn without them. And you will too, you’ll make your own mistakes, but you hopefully will not make these mistakes.
Mistake #2 – Obsessing Over Realism in Fiction
I know I’ve mentioned this mistake in a podcast diary episode before, so I’ll be brief. As I reached the end of the second act of Missing during the first draft writing phase, I flipped out. This flipping out had everything to do with mistake number one. Because I was reading the previous scenes and performing line edits, so the draft was fit for reading, I was aware of the flaws in my manuscript.
As a result, I took to Facebook and posed a question to a writing group. After that, I ended up asking a fellow thriller writer and former BBC journalists a question on realism in Thrillers. In short, I spent too much time stressing and obsessing over the realism in an incomplete first draft, instead of finishing the story. The one good thing that came from this apart from the insights from other writers is the realisation that realism is another one of those story elements that needed to be left for the revision phase of writing.
Mistake #3 – Put off Writing Scenes Because I Wanted to Do More Setting or Location Research
Again, this is something that needed to wait until the revision phase. The first draft is all about getting the story out of my head and onto the page, then perfecting it later. This mistake is also closely related to realism because I was obsessing over real places and a setting that was inspired by a real-life museum.
I think I mentioned this in a video that’s on my youtube channel. In this video, I mentioned how I spent valuable writing time researching what happened after the police are finished with a crime scene, including appearance, and whether my characters could return to the scene so quickly. While the information I gathered was interesting and helped me write the scene, I could’ve added this later, and focused on finishing the first draft.
You’re sensing a theme here; aren’t you?
Mistake #4 – Rushing Through the Story Planning Phase
When I started to create the idea that later became Immunity, I took my time. And, I started with the villain first, and then the protagonist. After that, the story flowed from there. The next step, to go from a long synopsis to a fully fleshed out outline was smooth and almost seemed natural.
However, when I decided to write Silence things went a little differently. After finishing the first draft of Immunity at the end of October, I decided in the final hour on October 31, 2016, that I was going to participate in National Novel Writing Month. This led me to rush through the story creation, outlining, character creation, and research phases. I ended up choosing a limited amount of fictional locations which needed to be changed in the revision phase to real-life locations around Oxford. Nevertheless, I will confess that taking a research trip to Oxford where I scouted locations for Silence was a lot of fun.
This story creation sprint, which lasted a mere four days, caused me to overlook a crucial element to my story. And that story element was character motivations. It wasn’t all character motivations but one seemingly insignificant character that turned out to be the backbone of my entire story. I failed to flesh out the motivation of a character who was the victim of crime and didn’t make it past the prologue. However, because I’m writing a thriller and the protagonist needs to solve the mystery behind the murder then stop the villain from making his next move, this character motivation became integral to the story. Even as you read the current draft, you can tell that I overlooked this.
Mistake #5 – Not Understanding Point of View Before Writing
My writing journey started in 2011 with my pursuit of screenwriting. As a result, I understood story structure, outlining, and creating characters, when I started writing my first thriller novel. But what I was unfamiliar with was writing the narrative exposition. And more specifically, I failed at writing from the Point of View of a character. Well, I didn’t fail, I chose a point of view that added distance between the reader and my characters. To be honest, I did know what I was doing and therefore did know enough to make a great point of view decision. Eventually, as I started writing the first draft of Immunity, I realised my mistake and eventually changed point of view from omniscient to third limited, then I changed it again to Deep Third Person.
I guess in order to learn this lesson I needed to make the mistake of choosing the wrong point of view. That’s how I learn, by doing. Now that I’ve said that, I wouldn’t make this mistake again. If I had a chance to write Immunity from scratch, I would choose a multiple Deep Third Person Point of View from the start because there’s nothing more tedious then having to go back and change the point of view in a 120,000-word novel.
So, What Should I Have Done?
One of the upsides of looking back at your writing mistakes after you’ve finished writing the first draft of your third novel is hindsight. It truly is a beautiful thing. As I look back over those five mistakes, the solutions have become quite apparent to me. Here are the top five tips to avoid the mistakes I just shared with you.
Tip #1 – Start with the Crime and the Whodunit Before You Outline
This tip has a lot to do with the genre of my series. When you write in the crime, mystery, and thriller categories, you need to start with the crime. Decide how it occurs in real time, then figure out the whodunit, why, and inject realism in the story idea before you outline and write the first draft. By figuring this out first you know exactly what happens and why and can leave red herrings along the way. You can add red herrings to your story outline, but you can also add these in during revisions. Yes, I’m a control freak, and I realise not everyone likes to write this way, but I do.
Tip #2 – Do One More Round of Editing Your Outline Before You Start the First Draft
This tip was learned through experience and was later confirmed to me through a masterclass on writing with James Paterson. As I created the outline for Missing, I went back over it and checked that every scene was in the right place, and served the story. While I have cut scenes from the first draft of Missing, it was because I wanted James to take a different path to arrive at the same story ending, not because the story didn’t make sense or act two was a little muddy. I decided that James was working too closely with the police and wanted him to have his own investigation separate from the Police Procedure. Even though I got this right with Missing, this was something I skipped as I wrote Silence and Immunity. As a result, I’ve spent more time revising books two and three. So, it really does pay to go through your outline one last time before you write the first draft.
Tip #3 – Create Setting or Location Profiles During the Outlining Phase
The outlining phase is a great moment to do research, to find house plans, search google for images, even take trips to locations and see and experience them for yourself. I now realise that I need to take things one step further and create location profiles with pictures and details to help write better setting descriptions, which is something that I suck at. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not doing enough research into setting in each of my three novels for various reasons. But, it all comes down to being in a hurry to get started and write. While motivation is a beautiful thing, I needed to slow down and set myself up for success before I open Scrivener and put my fingers on the keyboard.
Tip #4 – Embrace Fast Drafting
We’ve all heard that catch-phrase “you can’t edit a blank page.” It really is that simple. One of the biggest pitfalls for me was writing the first draft. My favourite parts of writing a novel are the idea and planning phase, and revisions. Writing the first draft is where I struggle because I’ve done all of the story discovery beforehand. After that, all I have left is to get the story out of my head and onto the page. That’s where fast drafting comes into play.
For my fourth thriller onwards I need to write the first draft as quickly as possible. By embracing fast drafting I will leave a short note in parentheses if I get stuck instead of diving down the rabbit hole of research, or just move onto another scene further on in the story, then come back to where I got stuck at a later time. That’s the bonus of outlining, I know what’s going to happen, and I can jump about and not write the scenes in order. I did do this with my first three novels, but I still allowed myself to get stuck and obsess over elements of my story. In my fourth novel, I’m going to be more strict with this rule.
Tip #5 – Understand How to Write a Novel Before Starting the First Draft
You don’t need to know everything, just enough to get started. Because I started out writing screenplays I wish I researched how to set the scene, and writing dialogue. While you do set the scene in a screenplay and write dialogue, it’s done differently. As you write dialogue in a novel, you also show how the character is reacting, whereas in a screenplay you rely on the actor, director, and camera to do those things. It’s the same thing with Scene Setting in a screenplay, it’s minimal, and it’s the job of the director and camera to convey these things. Essentially, a screenplay is the skeleton of the story, whereas a novel is the equivalent of a one-man band indie movie maker, who plays every role from the actor to the director through to film editor.
My first ever novel, which was a romantic comedy set on Broadway, read too much like a screenplay. Just a side note, as I was writing this, the TV show Smash was released in the UK. I remember being super annoyed at this revelation. What would’ve helped with that romantic comedy was understanding a little bit about how to set the scene and writing dialogue for a novel. As I look back I realise that didn’t need to know everything, just understanding those two elements would have gone a long way.
My advice to you is to figure out your biggest struggle and understand how to fix that. For some people, it might be story structure or creating believable characters. So focus on whatever you need to know to get started. You don’t have to follow a strict outline, you can flesh out the key scenes, and discover the rest of the story as you write. Do what works for you. All I can show you is how I write.
I made quite a few mistakes writing my first three thriller novels. And, as a result, I’ve also learned a few lessons along the way. Lessons that I can put into practice for next time. These lessons are:
- Start with the crime and the whodunit before you outline.
- Do One More Round of Editing Your Outline Before You Start the First Draft.
- Create Setting or Location Profiles in the Outlining Phase.
- Embrace Fast Drafting.
- Understand How to Write a Novel Before Starting the First Draft.
Are you writing the first draft of a novel? Or, perhaps you’ve recently finished the first draft of a story. What’s one thing that you would do differently next time? Let me know by leaving your answer in the comments section below. Or, alternatively, you can tweet me your answer at WriterADHay.
Thank you for listening, reading, commenting and sharing with such enthusiasm.
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