Over the last month, I’ve had great fun writing daily Tweets: ‘Writer me v. Editor me’. The Tweets covered writing blunders or issues that I’ve faced during the course of my writing journey to date, with responses from an editorial viewpoint. One reader (Chrissy ) asked if this suggested a Gollum-like complex – the impulsive writer in constant internal conflict with the balanced editor – but whilst this made me laugh, it gave me pause for thought. Whilst many of the blunders and issues were examples from my pre-editor life, I also used many examples which continue to crop up in my writing, despite my editorial training and experience. Surely, a developmental editor who also writes should be able to produce a near-perfect first draft? If not, why not?
From an editorial point of view, the quality of the first draft can be enhanced if time is invested initially in planning. First clarify your protagonist’s internal and external goals, then identify the key scenes and target wordcount for your genre. Key scenes can then be planned as plot points to occur at the 10%, 25%, 50%, 75% and 90% points of your novel. The journey towards the internal and external goals can then be weaved into these plot points. With some more planning, the scenes portraying this journey (with obstacles/ red herrings/ sub-plots) can be developed. And there you have it (slightly understated)! The foundations are laid. Now all that’s left is to write it.
However! Whilst it might be this simple for a few writers out there, most of us know that stories tend to take on a life of their own as soon as we start to write. When I started my current MG WIP at the start of lockdown, I approached it very much from a craft-theory/ editorial standpoint. I did all the above planning and mapping. But, whilst the plans have certainly helped me to produce the most tightly-structured first draft I’ve ever written, (I was once a pure pantster!) those plans have had to evolve with the story and the characters. As I got to know my main character, some of her choices changed, which led to new encounters, plot twists and challenges. The knowledge of craft-theory and novel development helped me to adapt and work with these changes, but it was nowhere near as simple as the tips in the first paragraph suggest it should have been.
It also has to be acknowledged that, whilst I’ve changed, some writers are unwavering pantsters. For these writers, all the editorial advice/ knowledge in the world won’t make a difference. If your creative process flows best from spontaneity, that’s how your first draft will need to be written.
And what about the next level of first draft issues: the continuity errors, the excessive exposition and tell-not-show-ing, the repetition and the slips in voice or point of view? As an editor, I’m experienced in identifying and offering solutions to these issues, however, as a writer, these issues are ongoing. Channeling your imagination onto the page is a very different skill to analysing how the page translates to the imagination. Even if you know what constitutes ‘great writing’, it is impossible to produce consistent ‘great writing’ in a first draft (or even in second or third drafts, for that matter!). And, then after the issue-filled first draft is written, the challenge for the writer continues. As an editor, when I read a client’s manuscript, I picture the world, the characters and their adventure exactly as the client presents it on the page. However, as I read my own material, I have a constant battle to read the story on the page, as opposed to the story I intended to put on the page. Editing experience helps. Taking a break from a manuscript and reading with fresher eyes helps. However, the difference between intention and result is still easily blurred. Cue beta-readers, critique partners, mentors and editors (even for writers who ARE editors)!
At the end of the 30 days of ‘Writer me v. Editor me’ Tweets, the main thing I realised is that writing blunders and issues are inevitably part of the writing journey. Taking courses, attending workshops and retreats, seeking mentorships, reading novel-craft books and listening to writing blogs, all these things can help you to approach and develop your writing, but the key thing is simply to get the first draft written. Whether you plan it or pants it, editing words on a page is much easier than pre-editing ideas floating around in your imagination. Let the first-draft, issue-packed, blundering words flow! The second draft will be even better. And through reaching out for support, the drafts beyond that will take shape and shine.