So, you’re writing your opus, or a series of short stories, or an epic poem. How can you make it as good as it can be? How can you let your readers get so lost in the piece that finishing it feels like discovering a new love and an old friend, all at once?
Give these tips a try. I had to learn them all the hard way, but they most definitely work…
Let It Breathe
You’ve just finished a first draft that has left you in a breathless whirlwind. You feel fantastic. Of course you do, and you should, because you’ve just created something wonderful. You’re desperate to share it with the world.
Don’t you dare.
Not just yet.
That stack of pages, those lines of verse, those frolicking clauses and fictional marvels are just as exhausted and buzzing as you. That means they’re not thinking straight. They’re the headless chicken we hear so much about. They’re lava, nowhere close to cool enough to touch.
Leave them be. Put the pages away. Close your laptop for a few hours, or better, a few days.
Walk, run, read, listen, watch, screw, laugh, and love, and put this new creation out of your mind, just for a while.
Then, when you’ve refilled your energy reserves, take the project out of the drawer and look at it with eyes that feel like they’re seeing it for the first time. Let your new project be the old friend you haven’t seen in a while. You’ll notice how they’ve changed, but you’ll love them all the same.
You’ll see where the roughest edges are. You’ll see what you can lose, and what you can expand upon. It will make your second draft – and there should absolutely be a second draft – be that much easier to get into shape.
The Pudding Is In The Proof
You can’t make a delicious cake without the right ingredients, and you can’t make a masterpiece without the right steps, either.
One of my failings is haste. Sometimes I’ll write a poem directly into an image app or Photoshop, a quick musing that tickles me, and I’ll pull the trigger to fire it off into the world without a moment’s hesitation. And then, after it’s been retweeted, liked, shared and commented a few times, I’ll notice there’s a glaring typo in it, or a superfluous repeated word. For that split-second I know the reader will be thrown out of the piece.
I’ve done the same with blog posts, and I’ve published books that, while I was convinced I’d caught every minor error, I’ve picked it up, flicked it open, and seen a glaringly obvious blunder on the first page I come to. Occasionally, somebody who is deep into one of my books will drop a discreet tweet (and bless them for that) saying ‘There’s a spelling error on enter-page-here’.
It’s embarrassing, dispiriting, and it’s entirely preventable.
Proofread your work. Seriously.
Like a famed speech-giver extolling the virtues of sunscreen, I cannot stress this enough.
Proofread. Your. Work.
Proof it, and get other people to do it. A bunch of them. People who know the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’. People who can see where your tense shifts from present to past and back again, all in a single sentence. Folks who pay attention to things like clothing, like eye colour, and that nut allergy you mentioned on page four that didn’t rear its head when your protagonist dipped into a bag of dry roasted on page ninety-two. You need your Grammar Nazis and your continuity-sticklers. Arm them with a fine tooth comb, and let them search for the nits amongst your pages.
Once you’re entirely sure, it’s one hundred percent proofed and perfect… proof it again.
Know What The Story Is – But Not Necessarily At The Start
The best stories are about something.
That doesn’t necessarily means a lot of things happen in them, although that’s very important too.
It means they have themes, and motifs, a heart, and a point.
Harry Potter isn’t about magic, or wizards. Sure, those things are in the story. But it’s about friendship, about growing up, about being brave in the face of the vagaries of the world. A story of love between two strangers may really be about acceptance, or discovery, or coming to terms with the past.
Your story could be about love, or life, or memory, or friendship, or passion, or betrayal, or all of the above in one glorious and exciting tale. As the writer, you need to know what these things are.
You can know when you start, you can find it as you go, or even realise it at the end. Just know it.
Once you know it, go back and see where you can make these themes stronger, how you can create cohesion in your future drafts. Trim away what the story isn’t about, to show off what it really is. That’s not to say your story can’t meander into new territory, but be wary of trying to cram too much ‘about’ into one place.
Save some for your next wonderful story.
So – writers and readers – do you agree or disagree? Do you have any of your own advice for how to make sure your book is as good as it can be? Let’s hear them below.
Cameron Lincoln. 2015.