In this little guide, I'd like to humbly offer some unconventional advice on how to take your first draft and turn it into your final draft, and in doing so master your tools as a storyteller. This is not a list of things that “should be done”, but a practical guide that I hope will be useful for you.
Most of what I’m about to share is a direct result of learning for many years under the mentorship of my literary agent, Xavier Waterkeyn, and my former publisher, Joel Naoum, who ran one of the world’s first digital imprints, and also what I’ve learned from many of Australia’s best editors and writers.
What kind of advice is in this post?
The advice in this post ranges from ditching the three-act structure to understanding how to harness your creativity, but the most important part is understanding what could become your new secret weapon: how to work with editors in a mentorship or coaching capacity before the editorial process even begins.
Sounds crazy, right?
Writing is crazy. It’s a high-risk low-reward activity, like sex in a public restroom. As a writer, you spend a great deal of time and attention on creating something for an audience who might never engage with, much less appreciate, your creation.
Being a writer is like having a serial pregnancy where most of your babies are likely to die.
Writing is a skill and an art that requires long-term commitment, it’s not for someone with the attention span of half a music video and it’s not a skill you can master in a weekend after you’ve explored your feelings and written a vaguely racist story about your encounter with the person who delivered your fridge. (That’s a real thing I read recently, by the way.)
Writing is a long journey, but it doesn’t have to be an aimless or endless one. So here’s the thing: if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it with an attitude of continual improvement. And I don’t simply mean “if you’re going to do something, do it right” because it’s tricky to talk about getting art or entertainment right. At best, you can only ever get it “less wrong” to the point where you develop a masterpiece. Do you want a masterpiece? Great!
But you won’t get a masterpiece until you first become a master.
To quote my literary agent (I’ll be doing that a lot, because he’s much smarter than me): you won’t achieve any kind of mastery unless you understand and learn to control your materials. By acquiring control over your materials, you gain the necessary skills to bring form to your ideas and your stories.
The materials you have at your disposal are many: plot, character, tone, pacing, theme, style, dynamics, syntax, grammar, rhythm etc.
But the most important material to master is yourself. It’s one thing to put the right words in the right order. It’s another to decide to do the impossible and become a writer in the first place.
Self-mastery as a writer is, at its most basic level, making educated judgement calls. This is a fun balance between inspiration and motivation, discipline and freedom, creation and destruction, success and failure, and — to quote my agent — knowing your crap and knowing you’re crap, and also knowing you’re not crap.
All this mastery takes practice and time.
But even more importantly it takes commitment.
Commitment will see you through the inevitable highs and lows of your career, and it will keep you fueled throughout your life. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint.
And commitment is everything.
What To Think vs How To Think
The Western European education system as we see it in many Western countries, and those influenced by it, will often hinge on “what to think” over “how to think”. You’re still allowed to think, but only if you arrive at the same conclusions as the rest of us. The Western European education system pays lip service to creativity, while completely failing to understand how to harness it.
If you're like me, raised in Australia or another Western country, you have been conditioned to tear things apart, especially other people and their creations, rather than build things or cultivate talent. Most especially your own. And this is very important to understand.
As a writer, a lot of what you do is about creating. Out of nothing. You have a blank screen and a blank world, and you populate it with characters who interact in situations to achieve goals that are important to them. If you’re like me, educated by the Western European system, you’re going to struggle with this. As my agent once said, you’ve seldom been given the opportunity to exercise your creative muscles because in the beginning those muscles are very weak.
I could also quote The Matrix here, but I’ll restrain myself.
So what do you do?
Stop blaming yourself and start exercising those creative muscles.
If you write what interests you—what you want to write—it will lead you through adversity. And it will lead you to do things which are challenging and often difficult, but not entirely beyond your capacity. So if you haven’t written your first draft yet, now is the time to give yourself permission to start.
The reason this is very important is because, generally speaking, society doesn’t support creativity, even though it pays lip service to such support. Most of the time, the only people who are allowed to be creative are people who are already famous or successful in the creative arts or entertainment industries, as if making a living by attracting attention somehow legitimizes being creative. Not much thought is given to how they might have gotten there in the first place, or how we might have treated them before they reached their present heights.
The rest of the time, when people who desire to be creative flex their creative muscles, they’re often met with criticism. And I’m not talking about constructive criticism of their work itself, I’m talking about criticism of their expression of creativity. This becomes a critical problem when you start to internalize this criticism. That inner spark of creativity inside you dies and never gets to develop into the warming, creative flame that it might become.
A creative person who no longer gives themselves permission to be creative is like an extrovert who locks themselves in an igloo. Don’t let that happen.
Your writing muscles are weak to begin with, and they need flexing. They need to develop and grow stronger. You need to get used to experiencing the act of writing.
As my agent once said, nurture your creative spark first.
Fan that flame and as you progress, you can grind the lens and focus the light so that it can burn a spell in people’s hearts.
How Professionals Assess Your Work
If you’ve ever submitted your work to a publisher or an agent, or even a competition or magazine, you’ve probably experienced rejection. Some of today’s and yesterday’s best writers have experienced hundreds of instances of rejection.
When a prospective reader picks up your book, you have a matter of minutes to make a positive impression.
When an editor or a publisher picks up your book, you have a matter of seconds.
Why only seconds?
1. An experienced reader like my former publisher, Joel Naoum, looks for red flags. Most of the red flags can be found on the first page, and almost all of them in the first chapter. An experienced reader doesn’t need to read your whole manuscript because the red flags are early indicators of problems. Your normal readers—your potential audience—might miss these red flags, and this means once they hit the crux of your problems they will have invested time in your story and won’t appreciate having their time wasted.
2. Experienced readers have read millions of words. Their expertise comes from considerable experience. Unlike your audience, they read analytically with a skill that they acquire by doing lots of reading, lots of editing or lots of writing—usually all three. It’s this expertise that allows them to spot red flags very quickly.
3. The biggest red flag, according to my agent, is when the reader stops and thinks, “I wonder how much longer it’s going to take to get through this.” Often this is the point when rejection occurs. It’s also the point where you, as a reader, will reject something you’re reading too.
As readers, we’re pretty brutal. We who live by the sword as readers must also die by the sword as writers. Or the pen. But the sword sounds better.
The role of a writing coach, teacher or mentor is to spot these red flags, as my agent did throughout my many drafts. He pointed the flags out to me and then suggested corrective action, usually by noting what I hadn’t yet done and still need to do.
If you are dedicated to pursuing a career as a writer, I’m going to suggest something highly unusual here:
Hire an editor before you need one.
Whether you’re self-publishing or traditionally publishing, I’m proposing you hire an editor before the edit. And I want you to hire them to evaluate your plot outline, then evaluate your first chapter. And I want you to ask for their help. Ask for them to do the very same thing my agent did to me in an educational capacity: help reveal to you your red flags and help you learn to resolve the problems they represent.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
You don’t need a degree in creative writing.
You don’t need a manuscript assessment.
You don’t need beta readers.
What you can use is an editor who is properly equipped to help you learn to become better.
Before I even thought about approaching an agent, I hired an editor. I figured that if my manuscript was structurally edited and copy edited and proofread, it would greatly improve my chances of landing a literary agent. That’s true, but I had no idea what I was in for. The editor I hired helped me learn to make it better, although it involved going to hell and back. But it was worth it.
This helped me get in the door with an agent who then helped me learn to make it even better. This works because it scored me an agent, but that’s not the point. The point is it makes you a better writer than you were. It’s the process.
In a sense, editors will hand-hold their writers through the editorial stages. Sometimes, if the writer is financially successful enough, the editor will stop holding their hand and the result is a Dan Brown-like situation where the writer learns little, and is beyond the point of further improvement. Sadly in this scenario, the writer’s true storytelling potential is never fully realized.
But some writers learn from the editorial process and continue to hone their writing. They don’t repeat their mistakes, they make new ones and learn from those too. You can do this during the editorial process, but you can also do it before. Now wouldn’t that be smarter?
If you’re self-publishing, this saves you a lot of money.
If you’re traditionally publishing, this saves you a lot of rejections and burned bridges.
Society likes to see accomplished writers as being born with talent, and the media love nothing more than an “overnight success” (who quietly worked their ass off for decades to become that overnight success). But the truth is we are merely born with the interest to do it. No one came out of the womb as a good writer. Just as no one came out of the womb as a good cook or good driver or good parent.
We get there because we follow that interest and decide at some point to engage with it meaningfully. And during this entire process we are always learning.
This guide isn’t for getting you to a certain passable level of quality, that’s merely the first step. This guide is for continually improving yourself as a writer.
Don’t just take it from me, someone who writes for a living. Take it from someone who reads for a living: