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 what, for the love of Gawd, names should I give these characters?
Phew! Questions like these’ll keep us up all night! They do me. Eventually, though, we have to stop deliberating and choose. We have to give ourselves permission to write what author Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” ‘Cause 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, “Well this is solid gold.”
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. Wanna know what mistakes I made in my first draft? Read about three of them and use them to 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 my upmarket romance, right?
Wrong. What works like a charm in one novel doesn’t necessarily work in another. Nameless characters weren’t cutting edge at all. In fact, they pushed readers right out of the narrative and worked against my themes of identity and love, among other things.
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 another stupid mistake. Even though both protagonists, who are in love, have equally vital functions in the plot, I originally focused 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, a troubled misfit teen.
In my novel, the focus on just one POV kept readers from watching the other protagonist develop and tell his own story. Eventually I realized that having the ONE point-of-view was STUPID and I started giving half the narrative to the OTHER character. Although this conversion to a dual narrative created a new challenge — How could I make these voices distinct from one another? — the conversion ultimately means these characters from different cultures speak for themselves and about each other.
Stupid mistake #3 – The wrong opening scene
Opening scenes must:
Start with action. Show conflict. Raise the stakes. Get readers to care about the characters.
I originally opened my novel with a scene I thought fit these criteria. The lovers are engrossed in a conversation–a formal interview, actually–that leads to their relationship’s demise.
Action. Conflict. High stakes.
But the scene lacked emotional appeal because it started so far into the overall story line. It felt like arriving at 7 pm to a movie that started at 6 pm. I hadn’t given readers 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 showing how the lovers meet and get the idea to conduct the fateful interview.
What about your manuscript? Have you opened with the wrong scene? Are you making POV mistakes? Are you in the throws of whipping your novel into shape? Sign up for our new revision course:
We’ve developed a HUGE toolbox of strategies to help you revise the right way! The course opens in January, but you can sign up EARLY to secure your spot and take advantage of some major savings!
While you’re at it, check out the revisions Whitney worked on in her novel for more ideas!