Hello again from Sarah Graves, author of the Home Repair is Homicide mysteries, which as some of you may know contain…wait for it…home repair tips. (Or as the covers call them, “tips!”) Also as you may know, there have been over a dozen books in the series, with something around a dozen chapters in each book, and each chapter opens with…
Yep. A tip. That’s about a hundred and fifty tips on everything from plumbing to painting, plaster wall reconstruction to window rehabilitation, et cetera, et cetera…
Et cetera. So I know how to write tips, or at least I have experience writing them, and what I thought I’d do today is toss out a few of them on something else with which I have experience: that is, writing, itself. Who knows, maybe some of these will come in handy to a new writer, or even an old one. So here goes:
1. Your standard mystery novel nowadays is about 85,000 words long. That’s something around 350 or so manuscript pages: double spaced, left-justified, courier 10 typeface, one-inch margins all the way around every page, name/title/page # in a header at the top. Your primary job is to create a pile of pages like that, 350 or so sheets high, with about 250 words on each one. When you have finished you will have a…
2. Tah-dah! You will have a first draft. This is something you can rewrite into a novel, maybe. But if you don’t have a whole first draft, you can never rewrite it into a novel, so Finish Your First Draft. I forget which smart person it was who said that writing is not an enterprise in which one can succeed by the production of interesting fragments. But whoever it was — Robert Heinlein, I think? — was right.
3. In order to finish your first draft, don’t rewrite page one forever. Zillions of people are doing that. You’ve never heard of them and you never will, because they will never Finish the First Draft. Personally, each time I sit down to write more of the first draft I allow myself to rewrite one previous page, just to rev the engine and get some momentum. The thing is, it has to be forward momentum. So keep going! Onward.
4. I don’t care if a lot of it is crap. All first drafts contain plenty of this substance. Just keep going. You can fix it later. But you can’t sculpt the statue until you’ve got the marble, and the first draft is the equivalent of…get it? (And yes, I’m sorry about that mixed metaphor. Um. Well, sort of sorry.)
5. There are lots of ways of rewriting. Personally, I do the first rewrite by cutting the manuscript by about a third. (See #4 for “what to cut.”) That leaves about a third of the total word count to put back in during the second rewrite, only this time it’s not…you know. Or anyway, I hope it’s not. You’ll find your own way to rewrite but only after you Finish the First…yes, I know you know what I’m going to say, so just do it.
6. Plenty of people have valuable things to say about inspiration, artistry, and so on. I value those things, too; honestly, I do! But these tips are meant to remind you that there are mechanical skills and other extremely mundane stuff that also go into the writing of a novel. And they will help you, they really will. That thing in # 1, for instance, about 250 words on a page and 350 sheets of paper in the pile of pages?
At 5 pages a day, it’s 70 working days. Even at only 1 page per day, it’s less than a year. But at 0 pages per day…
Well, you get the idea. Meanwhile, when you’re not writing, if you happen to be fixing up an old house, may I just say right here that in the long run it’s easier to take the old window sash out of the frame to rehabilitate it, rather than leaving it in and trying to do most of the work sideways and/or (heaven preserve me) upside down.
And please, don’t ask me how I know that.
Nicely done, Sarah! I used to be an eternal editor, until one day I realized I would NEVER get my first book finished if I continued in my perfectionist ways. Now I barely go backwards at all… I tell myself I can edit when I’ve got a draft.
Great advice, Sarah. I’ve taken books from 485 pages down to 350. Sometimes in rewrite I discover that I’ve left out whole chapters that really need to be there, so I go and muscle the story apart and put the new stuff in. But as Anne LaMotte says, in Bird by Bird, you’ve got to write that sh*&ty first draft (her word, not mine). I tell my students story goes in in the first few drafts, and craft in the next three.
And one more piece of advice I’d like to add: Please be familiar with the conventions of the genre you’re writing in! Something needs to happen right out of the box in a mystery, you don’t have ten, or forty, or even five pages to grab your reader and convince them to spend hours with your prose. Go read some mysteries and then deconstruct them–make an outline of what happens when. Pay attention to how characters are created and revealed. Take note of the author’s strategies for creating tension. This will help signpost the job you have to do.
Two books that are really helpful to writers who struggle to find the time to do their writing are Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time, and Stephen Kelner’s Motivate Your Writing.
“Writing time is time carved out of your life with an axe.” — Barry Longyear
I WISH this was my problem. My first drafts are always too short. sniff.