Manuscript #5: Lessons Learnt

Having just closed the book, so to speak, on the first draft of my fifth novel, MUSE, it’s a good time to think about what I’ve learnt while writing this manuscript.

Lesson #1: What works for others, doesn’t necessarily work for me. I’ve previously mentioned I would love to be able to write from a detailed outline. I’ve tried it but can never stick to the plan. What does work for me is a very loose outline on index cards. It helps keep the story’s path clear in my mind while still allowing the flexibility to move, add or discard scenes as I need to.

Lesson #2: I need deadlines. Without them, I don’t write. I am fortunate to be a part of a wonderful goal-setting group. At the start of each week, we email around our goals and account for the previous week’s progress. I don’t like to admit I failed to achieve my goals so this often pushes me well past the stage where I would have otherwise stopped. And one day when I have to write to someone else’s deadlines, this practice in meeting goals will pay off.

Lesson #3: I need to keep my mind in my story’s world. This means focusing my free time reading on relevant topics and not spending too much time in front of the tv. The story flows best if I can keep myself in my imaginary world. It starts to fall apart when I get distracted. This year’s season of Master Chef almost killed my story.

Lesson #4: The this-is-crap stage. With every new manuscript, I wholeheartedly believe the first two thirds is the best thing I’ve ever written. Then I hit 70,000 words and the this-is-crap zone where doubt creeps in: This story is terrible. The plot is too contrived. I’m a lousy writer. What made me think I could write another book? The next 10,000 or so words are invariably painful, progress is slow and I spend weeks, or sometimes months, stalled here. This time, I knew what to expect and when the 70,000 word this-is-crap stage arrived, I pushed through, telling myself I had been here before and it would pass. And the knowledge that this was my this-is-crap stage did help, to an extent. It was still agonising and I wrote far slower than I had until then. But by recognising this as another stage of my creative process, I was able to move on.

Lesson #5: It doesn’t matter if I can’t write the ending on the first draft. I usually finish just two or three scenes short of the end and it’s not until the first, or even second, re-write that the ending comes out. That’s okay. For me, the first draft is about learning the story and getting to know the characters. I need to sit on the ending, puzzle it through, spend some time getting to know the story again, and then that ending, previously so elusive, usually flows.

So now it’s time to put away MUSE and let it simmer in my subconscious for at least six months before I return to it with fresh eyes and, hopefully, bucketloads of enthusiasm. For now, I’m moving on to a new round of edits on another project. I’ll see you on the other side!

What have you learnt while writing your current manuscript?

11 responses on “Manuscript #5: Lessons Learnt

  1. Sky

    Love the Post!

    My “this-is-crap” wall came at about 35,000 words. As you did, I forced my way through it. I was able to do so because of great blog posts like this one where I’ve learned the sensation is a normal part of the process. Thank you.

    What I’ve learned during this manuscript (my 3rd) is that I’m NOT a pantser. I’m purposely forcing myself to write this one with as few notes as possible. At 30,000 words I nearly jumped out a window screaming about the desperate need for outlines and notecards. Never again will I stalk the page without my outline woobie to cuddle tight.

  2. KylieQ Post author

    Thanks, Sky. I’m pleased you found this useful. I’m exactly the opposite – I’d love to be able to write to a detailed outline but I just can’t stick to it. The story always goes off on its own tangent. I’m envious of anyone who can write to an outline!

  3. Evan

    I, too, need outlines. I think the difference must be that you’re *that* much more imaginative and creative than me, Kylie! Once I get locked into my outline, my brain doesn’t volunteer a lot of tangent possibilities. 🙂

    I hit that revulsion stage all the time, at multiple stages through the writing process. 🙂 It’s a real bitch.

  4. KylieQ Post author

    Evan, that’s exactly my problem with outlines – I get locked into this cycle of “this is what the outline says must happen here” and as soon as I deviate from that, I can’t figure out how to get back to what the outline says and I ditch the whole thing (the outline, that is). My new system of brief notes on index cards is working because I can add in new cards, or throw away previous ones, as I need to. My brain seems to need to believe it has flexibility to do what it wants, regardless of whether or not it really does.

  5. John Wiswell

    One of the most obvious things I learned in my current manuscript was the unimportance of writing the proper opening. I only needed a framework, something that would prop up ensuing chapters. Then I was able to return in the next draft and bang out exactly how the story needed to begin, once I was familiar with how everything went. It’s almost the reflection of your not needing to write the ending.

  6. Evan

    Great advice, John. I’m one of those writers who tends to work chronologically through my story, even when it hurts my own personal momentum. I always feel pressured to write what happens next instead of something I’m looking forward to. Anyway, after struggling a great deal with my current opening, I think your idea has some merit. 🙂 Maybe I’ll jump ahead a few chapters and work backward later.

  7. KylieQ

    John, that perfectly illustrates what I mean about how something that works for one writer doesn’t necessarily work for others. I need a substantial beginning before I can move forward. That doesn’t mean the beginning won’t change later but it needs to initially feel right.

    Evan, I used to write chronologically but for the last couple of manuscripts, I’ve been writing one viewpoint all the way through from beginning to end and then writing the next viewpoint. I’ve found it much easier to keep both the plot and the character consistent in doing this. Give it a try – it might just work for you!

  8. Colette Vernon

    I wonder if the chronological versus viewpoint might sometimes have something to do with the style of the story. In my recent manuscript, my viewpoint characters were basically moving within the same setting, being with each other at different times, but all moving within the framework of one story. Writing chronologically was a must for me in this scenario. The next book has two stories moving independent of one another until events bring my viewpoint characters together. In this case, I’m having to constantly go back and review where I was at with the current story line and pull everything together again. Reading this post, I wonder if I wouldn’t be better served to write out each individual pov’s story all at once until the point where their stories merge. It’s never worked for me before, but it might be a good idea now.

  9. KylieQ Post author

    Colette, I tend to have independent storylines that eventually come together so I’ve found writing one vp at a time really useful. Might be worth a try!

  10. Frank Morin

    I’ve shifted from being a ‘no outline, many drafts’ writer to more of a detailed outliner. The outline helps ensure I have a solid structure for the story and that it’s pointed in the right direction. But within each chapter, I free-write and allow myself to explore ideas that come up while I’m ‘in the zone’. Many times those ideas have dramatically improved the story. However, if they break the outline I have a decision to make: do I keep the change and go back and adjust the outline to make sure the overall story still works, or do I throw out the new idea because it pushes the story in an unacceptable direction?

    I find I always rewrite the opening and closing chapters several times, so I don’t worry about getting them perfect right off. I write the best opening I can, then move on to the rest of the story and keep an open mind for better ideas as they arise, knowing I’m going to revise the opening more than once.

  11. KylieQ Post author

    Frank, you sound a little more organised than me. It’s interesting to see the variety of techniques that work for different people.

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