When we start a novel project, we confront a lot of choices, even if we’re dead set on a particular story-line. Should the point-of-view be first-person or third-person? What scene should open the novel? Should the plot follow a linear or non-linear trajectory? Should the novel end in tragedy or triumph? And for the love of Gawd, what names should I give these characters?
Questions like these’ll keep us up all night! Eventually, though, we have to stop deliberating and make choices. We have to give ourselves permission to write what author Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” Because if we don’t, we’ll block out the “inventiveness and playfulness and life force” every project needs. Worse, we’ll never sit down and actually write.
So let’s say we make some choices and knock out three-quarters of a shitty first draft. Only, we don’t realize how shitty the draft is during the initial read-though. Instead, we’re like, “This is Pulitzer Prize material if ever there was such.”
But the second read-through … well, that’s when we realize those choices we made were actually BIG, STUPID MISTAKES.
Or … maybe we put it in the hands of our writing buddies, confident they’ll rave over it, but instead they say,
“Look, Suzie, this thing you’re doing? It just ain’t gonna work.”
Or … maybe we go so far as to pitch the shitty first draft to literary agents and they all express reservations about voice or structure or some other choice we made, way back when.
Gah! Whatever the case, one thing is true: we have to do something about the BIG, STUPID MISTAKES, even if we’ve made TEN of them. If you want to know what mistakes I made in my first draft, I’m laying bare three of them, so that they can help you examine your own manuscript:
Stupid mistake #1 – Unnamed protagonists
When I first started writing my first novel, I chose NOT to give the protagonists names. They would be “man” and “woman,” “he” and “she.” I totally thought what I was doing was cool and cutting edge. I mean, if Cormac McCarthy’s The Road can get us interested in an anonymous father and son darting around a dystopian landscape, I could do the same in an upmarket romance, right?
Wrong. What works like a charm in one novel often doesn’t work in another. Nameless characters weren’t cutting edge at all. In fact, they pushed readers right out of the narrative and worked against the themes I wanted the novel to explore.
Eventually, I realized that what I was doing was STUPID. So what did I do? I assigned names to my characters and began inserting them into my manuscript. The more I switched out all the “hes” and “shes” for names, the more vibrant and unique the characters’ voices sounded. In fact, their entire personalities changed. I couldn’t believe how dull and flat my characters had been without names.
Stupid mistake #2 – Two protagonists, one POV
Right after I finally named my two protagonists, I realized I was making another STUPID mistake. I created two protagonists. They have equally vital functions in the plot. I knew this from the beginning. But STUPIDLY, my original tactic was to focus the narrative on only one point-of-view.
Now, plenty of novels advantageously narrate through a single first-person POV, like Catcher in the Rye, for example, characterizing the iconic Holden Caulfield as a troubled misfit teen.
In my novel, focusing on one POV resulted in an unbalanced narrative. Eventually I realized that what I was doing was STUPID and I split the story up, so that TWO characters narrated instead of just the one.
In so doing, I created a new challenge for myself: making the voices of the two narrators distinct from one another, so that readers could more readily experience the characters’ unique identities, personalities, and philosophies about life.
Stupid mistake #3 – The wrong opening scene
Opening scenes must:
Start with an inciting incident. Show conflict. Raise the stakes. Get readers to care about the characters.
Every decent writer knows this. I originally opened my novel with a scene I believed would fit these criteria. The two protagonists are engrossed in a conversation–a formal interview, actually–that leads to their relationship’s demise.
Action. Conflict. High stakes.
But the scene lacked an incited incident AND emotional appeal because it started way too far into the overall story line. It felt like arriving at 8 pm to a movie that started at 7 pm. If I had kept the manuscript as it was, readers would never have a chance to get to know and care about the characters.
So after getting a lot of feedback, I decided to fix this STUPID MISTAKE and write a new opening scene, one with inciting incident that makes it clear who the characters are.
What about your manuscript? Have you opened with the wrong scene? Are you making POV mistakes? Check out the revisions Whitney worked on in her novel for more ideas!