10 things I’ve learned from my fiction work in progress

I have finished the first draft of my manuscript.

And through the process, I have learned many things. Here is a glimpse into what has consumed me the past four months.

1. I have no idea what I’m doing. That didn’t stop me, but it certainly was a humbling realization. There is so much to know about plot and character development and dialogue and conflict and more conflict. And while you’re muddling through that? You also have to, you know, write. Which brings me to:

2. Sweet mother of biscuits this stuff is work. Hard work. Work in progress is completely accurate. I have literally spent days on one paragraph, trying to get it right (it’s still not right). So I have put it aside to obsess over other stubborn paragraphs and pages. I have cut large swaths of words. I have added chapters and characters. I am contemplating adding another subplot. But this all requires brain power, and there are days when that’s simply in short supply. Still, I keep fighting.

3. I need feedback. My baby has been sent to several people whose opinions I trust. Who I know won’t sugarcoat it because they don’t want to hurt my feelings. A work of art is personal, whether it’s a novel, a painting – anything that you created from your soul. However, I have to separate myself from my words and look at it as objectively as possible, so I can take the criticism and use it to make my story even better. I have had hours-long Skype conversations that should’ve involved an adult beverage or two. I’ve had emails with bullet points. I’ve had discussions over a chapter with my fellow editors here at Write on Edge. I ultimately decide what feels right and what doesn’t, but without someone with distance weighing in, I would miss valuable insight.

4. Yes, I’m too close to these characters and their story. I talk about them to people as if they are real (which they are, to me, of course). What’s good about that is someone can say, “Yes, but I didn’t get that motivation from what s/he said in this chapter” or something like that and I can make my story more clear. I know I need some time away, and I have had days where I haven’t looked at it. But those lines and chapters that I know need work keep calling me back.

5. Murdering your babies isn’t really as tough as you think. There were scenes I really loved, but they simply didn’t work with the way the story went. I plucked a couple lines or descriptions from them, but mostly, they got deleted. It actually was liberating and helped me move on and create other parts that worked so much better. And were still pretty good.

6. Enough with the sex scenes already. When I started this manuscript during NaNoWriMo, my goal was just to get words on the screen. My characters are young and hot so, you know, they did it. A lot. With some detailed play-by-play. They also seemed to be either drinking, having sex or eating. Quite the hedonistic lifestyle and somewhat realistic for who they are. But it did nothing to drive the plot. So when I started editing? Lots of those scenes were cut. They are a little more chaste, sober and hungry. Okay, not entirely, but in most cases, less is more.

7. Facebook, twitter, Skype – as much as they can be a help, they are a huge distraction. I have to close the browsers when I’m really writing because, if I’m struggling with a particular passage, I’ll look up and see I have a message on Facebook and it’s all “Ooh! Shiny things!” I do my most productive writing once the kids are in bed, but if I keep my social media avenues awake, then writing takes me 10 times longer.

8. It can take over your life. I have not been around here much. I have not been at my own space as much, either. My passion is writing fiction, I have discovered, and I have a perpetual story going on in my head. I also have three kids and a husband who occasionally want to see my face and not the back of my head as I sit in front of this computer. I’ve tried to pry myself away. This serves to let the story marinate, and when I do get to work on it, I am fresher.

9. Google is so lovely. Much of my research has come from Google. My main character is a widow, and there are a ton of resources out there to give me a glimpse into what that would really be like. I have consulted street maps – and friends who live there – of Boston, where much of the story takes place. I have even searched images to see if I could find someone who looks like how I imagine my characters. I still have more research to do that I won’t find on Google, but at least it’s a start.

10. I have no idea how a writer knows when the manuscript is done. I can pick at this thing like a leftover Thanksgiving turkey for, possibly, the rest of my life. There will always be something I wished I’d done better, whether it’s a turn of phrase or a description or whatever. In related news, I hope, someday, to be done.

This has been an amazing journey so far. I still have a long way to go before I tackle the world of researching agents and sending out query letters. I am proud of what I’ve accomplished, even though I’m well aware I have a huge amount of work ahead of you. But it’s a labor of love.

I love this stuff. I really do.

19 Responses to 10 things I’ve learned from my fiction work in progress
  1. Lynn
    February 20, 2012 | 5:59 am

    Thank you for a great post! Love it! Makes me see the reality and feel it is a possibility.

    • Cheryl
      February 23, 2012 | 11:29 pm

      If I can do it, anyone can!

  2. Erin @Momfog
    February 20, 2012 | 7:04 am

    Great post! Number 6 made me laugh out loud. I participated in NaNoWriMo and my WIP has a lot of unnecessary and/or unnecessarily long and detailed loves scenes, too. That’s not like me. Do you suppose making word count is to blame or the whole “writing with abandon” mentality?

    Best of luck to you!

    • Cheryl
      February 23, 2012 | 11:30 pm

      Probably a combo of both. They were fun while they lasted. :)

  3. julie gardner
    February 20, 2012 | 11:00 am

    I LOVE YOUR LIST! And I relate to every single point.
    (Even the sex, booze, food. And the turkey carcass. Yum.)

    I say YES to the subplot and to your instincts and to your hard, hard, hard work.

    (Isn’t it so much harder than you thought? Because, you know, you’re a writer. So. Why not write? Easy!)

    Cheers to you. And to Skype.
    And to talking about your characters like they are real.

    Because they are.
    They are.
    They are.

    • Cheryl
      February 23, 2012 | 11:30 pm

      They are.

      Right?

      They so are.

  4. Renee
    February 20, 2012 | 12:09 pm

    Oh the stories in your head. And they keep waving at you, trying to get your attention. “Me first!”

    I love writing little bits of stories. But that conflict part? And characters and scenes? All of number one?

    Yeah, you got it, that’s where all the hard starts…

    • Cheryl
      February 23, 2012 | 11:32 pm

      It can be a bit overwhelming, so as Anne Lamott says, you just have to take it bird by bird.

      And then occasionally you take the birds out back and beat them senseless.

  5. Barbara
    February 20, 2012 | 12:42 pm

    Congratulations! And I agree with you on all of the above!

  6. Melanie
    February 20, 2012 | 3:54 pm

    Awesome! Love this! Congratulations, Cheryl! Doing a happy dance in your honor.

    I know what you mean about having that perpetual story in your head. Mine’s tries to take my attention at all times. I just finished a draft of my WIP and it’s hard to let it go – even for a week.

    Wishing you all the best during this writing process.

    • Cheryl
      February 23, 2012 | 11:33 pm

      Congrats on finishing your draft. It feels good, doesn’t it?

      Wishing you the best as well!

  7. Adrienne
    February 20, 2012 | 7:02 pm

    This is inspiring to see all the hard work you’re doing.

  8. jill simonian
    February 20, 2012 | 8:11 pm

    Congrats on what seems to be an incredible journey, Miss Mommypants! Very excited to learn about this… and, just from my humble & inexperienced point of view: You will NEVER feel like you’re done. Ever… only because you are constantly evolving, and with that will come the desire to change things along the way. I say to change moderately, but resist a bit, as this particular work will be a stamp representing this particular part of your life/evolution… something for you to look back on years from now and have pride in, yet also realize that you’ve grown since then. That’s the beauty of it all, right? (Sorry to get so philosophical about it! ha!) :)

    • Cheryl
      February 23, 2012 | 11:34 pm

      I love when you get all philosophical on me! Thanks for telling me I’ll never feel like I’m done – you have confirmed my suspicions for sure.

  9. Diane Tarantini
    February 22, 2012 | 3:36 pm

    What a great piece! I can relate to everything but participating in NaNoWriMo. What really got me was the fact that it’s hard work and it can take over your life. Bingo and bullseye.
    My ms has been done for 3-5 years. Wish I’d put a date on it ’cause now I can’t remember what year I finished it.
    I shopped it around for awhile but lately I’ve pulled back from that. I know in my gut it’s not “done” yet. Last week I read an article in Writers Digest that said something to the effect that your ms will never be perfect or done in your eyes. You need to get it to the point where it is something you are very proud of. Unfortunately I’m not there yet.

    • Cheryl
      February 23, 2012 | 11:35 pm

      Are you going to dive back in and do some revisions? I bet you have an entirely new perspective from when you finished it, whenever that was. :)

  10. London Crockett
    February 22, 2012 | 9:50 pm

    Great list. I think I went through all of them except for #6—my protagonist thinks that Thing is disgusting. The best thing I learned from my first draft was to get good readers and how to listen to criticism. Listening to criticism often means deciphering what other people say is wrong into terms that make sense for your writing. Most people can’t articulate why only that “I didn’t like it” or worse, something that isn’t true.

    • Cheryl
      February 23, 2012 | 11:36 pm

      Oh no! That poor protagonist! And you’re right, good readers are incredibly valuable and I’ve been incredibly lucky so far.

  11. Elizabeth Barone
    February 24, 2012 | 2:08 pm

    I think every writer has to discover their own definition of “done.” It took me years to figure out what that is for me (and it may even change in the future).

    To me, the first draft is the very first, very rough — or sometimes polished, but that’s a rare occasion — draft of a story or novel, from start to finish. It may be missing things, but I can fix those things when I edit, revise, and rewrite to create the second draft.

    After that, I think a manuscript is ready for the public when it’s been edited for grammar errors and continuity issues, it follows a “problem, try and fail several times to solve problem, and solve problem” format, its characters are realistic and three-dimensional, and a few other things. Mostly, you just have to trust your instincts. Beta readers are gold.

    Congratulations on finishing your first draft!