While meticulously reading through the first draft of my manuscript, I came across a particular paragraph I had written. I know it’s a little conceited to congratulate yourself on your own writing but, honestly, this particular paragraph was probably the best piece of writing I had ever written in my whole life so far. I am not exaggerating; I was thoroughly impressed with myself.
The amazing paragraph in question involved my female protagonist walking through a particular university. She needed to urgently speak to someone about something that will help her achieve her primary goal in my story. On her way to talk to this person, I had described the interior of the university’s lavish lounge; its multi-colored and multicultural students; the smell of new books and the energy of young intellectuals permeating through the corridors.
I deleted it all.
I murdered the best sentences I had ever constructed. Why? Because that's what good writers do. We kill our words — especially our beautiful ones.
Every sentence must serve a clear purpose
It doesn’t matter what kind of writing it is – whether it’s my novel or if I am writing a thought-leadership piece for a B2B publication - every sentence I write must serve a purpose. Every sentence must be of such significance, that to remove it would be like removing a block from a Jenga tower.
It's what writers call tight writing. No word is superfluous. No sentence is too long. No paragraph is too rambling.
As much as I loved that beautiful description of the university I had written, after re-reading it for the third time, within the context of the chapter and the broader story, I realised it served no actual purpose. Sure, it was nice to read, but I was needlessly slowing the story down. Do my readers want to read a description of an ordinary university in London? The university only appears once in my entire novel so why am I wasting a whole paragraph describing it and unnecessarily slowing down the pace of my story?
Likewise, if I am writing an article for a B2B publication, I always ask myself questions. Does this sentence give the reader any useful information or does it substantiate the claims I am making? Does this sentence provide greater insight for the reader or is it just window-dressing?
Pacing – get to the bloody point already
If you ever want a reader to finish your novel or your article, you need to ensure the pacing is right. The pace of your writing is what tempo is to music. Sometimes the pace will be slow, and sometimes the pace will be fast. Often, the pacing depends on the genre or the type of writing. A thriller about the world on the brink of annihilation as a comet hurtles towards the atmosphere will probably have a fast pace. A literary novel exploring the fragile mind of a Vietnam war veteran will probably have a much slower pace as it will naturally be a more contemplative piece of writing.
My book is a romance novel, so the pace varies depending on the scene; its purpose and where it is in the story. The particular university scene I described takes place at a critical part in my book, where my female protagonist is about to find out something very significant which I have been building towards. As a result, I did not want to bog this scene down with a detailed description of a university, albeit a well-written one, which does nothing to progress the story but merely prolongs the big reveal that I have made readers read almost 70,000 words to get to.
Murder your darlings; murder them without remorse
Any serious writer will have come across William Faulkner’s often quoted phrase “In writing, you must kill your darlings." Although this phrase has become overused, it does not make it any less accurate.
A good writer must not be afraid to sacrifice his eloquently-written sentences in service of the story or the article he or she is writing. A self-indulgent novelist will write beautiful, amazing prose that unnecessarily slows down their story or, worse still, adds nothing to it. A self-indulgent feature writer will keep a highly pretentious sentence or paragraph in their article which provides little to no insight for its reader but merely massages the writer’s ego. These are hallmarks of gifted but undisciplined writers.
When I am reading through my manuscript, I am continuously asking "How does this sentence or paragraph move my story forward?" "Does my description need to be this long?" "Am I making my readers wait so long for the interesting parts?" Successful commercial writers always have their readers at the back of their mind. After all, as writers, we are asking someone to invest their money and/or time to read our prose, so we owe it to our readers to ensure our writing is tight, readable and, above all, engaging.
After four months of writing, writing and then writing some more (sometimes staying up till 2 am to finish a chapter) I have finally completed the first draft of 'A Prophet Who Loved Her'. Roughly 87,000 words. So I am done, right? It's time to publish this bad boy, pat myself on the back and boast to anyone who cares that I wrote a novel? Yeah...not even close.
The first draft = completely unpublishable
Usually, novel writers fall into two categories: planner or panster. The former is where you plan a detailed outline of your book, going as far as to have every chapter, emotional beat and character arc planned out in advance before you begin writing the book. A panster starts writing and lets the story unfold naturally and unexpectedly.
Being a man who needs some structure in his life (but never too much, that'd be boring and I don't do boring), I am a planner. I had to be since I was a writing novel that was complex in its structure. So, I wrote an entire summary of my book, wrote detailed biographies of all the characters and their emotional arcs throughout the book and plotted out all the chapters.
But even though I mostly followed the plan I had outlined, I know that my first draft is completely unpublishable. No one but me and me alone will ever read it. I think of my first draft like it's my daughter that has just woken up. Her hair is messy, she stinks, and she's not making sense. Even though she's breathing and functioning as a toddler should, I am not going to send her out to the outside world until I've bathed her, tidied her hair and made sure she's wearing some decent clothes. I don't want to embarrass her and myself as a parent.
My first draft may look like a novel, but it's not one that I should publish unless I want to embarrass myself. 'A Prophet Who Loved Her' is a complicated book, with quite a few characters, exploring sensitive issues like religion and bisexuality and takes place in two completely different timelines, one of which I wasn't even alive yet! I have no doubt made some inaccuracies. Not only that, but I know my grammar is all over the place as well.
Completing the first draft of my novel is great because it now gives me something I can work with; something to sculpt into a great work of art.
As I read through the first draft, it's now about quality control and I will be asking myself important questions. Is the plot strong? Are my characters realistic and consistent? Are there any plot holes? What are the weakest parts of the book I could remove or make stronger?
I need to make sure I am answering these questions, and so when I begin editing the first draft, I am producing a stronger and tighter second draft. But even then, the second draft isn't the finished product...
No one said finishing a book was an easy task. But if you don't want to make a fool of yourself, you better not rush the process. That goes for most things in life.