As I write, I see pictures in my mind. I will wander down a forest path with my characters, enjoying the breeze as it creates music among the rustling leaves. Sometimes we’ll move through a room together, noticing the smell of the leather furniture or the absence of an item the character remembers from their childhood. Creating these pictures in my mind is the first step in building my story world.
As an author, I create pictures with words. To do that, I must envision the forest path or the room in such detail that I can transport the reader there too. I need them to know whether the path is a worn dirt trail created by passing animals, or a manicured walkway covered in mulch and maintained regularly. If there is no trail, I need them to experience the tug of the weeds as they cling to their pant leg, and perhaps even begin to feel the itch of the chiggers that are climbing up their leg.
I also need to explain how that world works. Do the characters all worship the same god or no god at all? Do they use money to buy things or do they barter? Is there magic in the world - is that unusual or common place? All the details that we take for granted as we move through our world have to be explained to help that reader feel as if they are part of the story.
The first draft is when the author gets the story out of her head and onto the paper. That sounds simple, doesn’t it – just write it down. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Readers, literary agents, and publishers all have expectations that an author must meet to have a successful book. These expectations include a story structure that flows from getting oriented in the story world through multiple conflicts between the heroine and the bad guy until finally there is a major climax, and one of them prevails.
The lessons that the characters learn as they move through the story are also important. Even the length of the story is critical. For example, a cozy mystery should be about 70,000-75,000 words long, but a fantasy is longer – up to 110,000 words. If a writer writes a cozy mystery that is 110,000 words long, they may not be able to sell it.
The ‘first draft’ is also the phase where the writer decides whether the main character is young or old, male or female – whether the setting is rural or urban... They decide whether the reader will be able to share the main character’s thoughts (first person point of view) or be separated from their thoughts slightly (third person point of view). They choose whether to allow the reader to see the story through only the eyes and thoughts of the main character (single point of view) or through the eyes and thoughts of multiple characters (multiple points of view).
Countless decisions must be made, and sometimes the only way to make them is to write for a while and try something out. In my novel Saving the Land, I wrote the first 30,000 words with my protagonist as an 18-year-old high school senior. However, at the end of the first draft phase, my protagonist was a 29-year-old woman.
Perhaps there are writers out there who can just sit down and write their story. But all the authors I know either outline before writing the first draft or go back and forth as they write, trying things out and rewriting, until they get it right. Sometimes the rewrites result in a second draft, third draft, or more before the story feel right.
I worked on my novel Saving the Land almost eighteen months before I had the story out of my head and onto the paper. Of course, I was learning as I worked so perhaps it won’t take as long to go through the world building and first draft phases on my next novel. But who knows—sometimes it just takes a while to get it right.
I was so close to that story the characters and setting felt real to me. My dreams were in their world as if I were a character in the story too. They were like friends - people who shared their dreams and concerns with me. It was great fun but being that intimately involved in a story has mixed blessings.
I left things out of my novel that the readers needed to know, simply because I assumed they were obvious. They were obvious to me with my intimate story knowledge, but not to the reader.
Most authors choose three to four beta readers. Typically, it’s not a good idea to use family members as beta readers. To be effective, a beta reader must be someone willing to give honest and constructive criticism. Occasionally an author will pick a beta reader because of their specialty. I had a rancher and master gardener as a beta reader for Saving the Land because the story takes place on a ranch in East Texas.
An author can give their beta readers a list of what they want them to look for as they read, or they can simply have them mark anything that pulls them out of the flow of the story. My beta readers were invaluable. They opened my eyes to many problems. Because of their input, I am entering the Revision phase with new ideas and excitement for what my story can become.
Revision is where the magic happens. It’s where the story is polished and honed into a story that readers don’t want to put down.
At this point, the author has received the input from her beta readers. When I read the comments from my beta readers, I was shocked. How could people perceive a story that I had written so differently from the way I perceived it myself? How could I not have noticed that I’d used that word so many times? Why couldn’t they see the ranch in their heads – I could?
After reading their input, I had to step away from the book for a few days. I had to force myself to open my mind to the fact that they were right – four people independent of each other telling me the same thing couldn’t be wrong. Once I accepted that fact, my mind began to open to the possibilities. I became excited about what my story could become.
I am currently revising Saving the Land. I am learning as I go. Taking a story that is over 80,000 words and working through it page by page, as if it were a tapestry, making sure the plot threads are woven through it and tied off at the end. Working to show the growth of the characters or how their downfall came about. Removing any plot threads or characters that don’t improve the overall tapestry – it is a challenging and exciting process.
As I work through the story again, I will have the opportunity to add foreshadowing to help the reader figure out the mystery, or misdirection to lead them astray. I can add characters to make it more difficult to figure out who the bad guy is, or help the main character share her feelings more clearly. The possibilities are so vast it is sometimes difficult to envision them all.
That’s why the revision phase is often done more than once. The number of revisions necessary is different for each author and each book. Some authors love the revision process, and some hate it, but all of us do it.