First Drafts… What needs to be right, and what can I fix later?

Is it okay if the first draft of your novel or screenplay is a little rough? I like to think so. Here are few tips that will help you get to the end of a messy first draft, not least the one thing you should try and get right first time…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, when writing a first draft, is it OK if it’s, well… a little rough? I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how to do it any other way. My first drafts are rough as sandpaper. And long ago I came to terms with the fact that I’ll probably rewrite a novel or script at least three, four or five times before it’s anything like as good as it needs to be. If this sounds like you, then rest assured you are not alone.

In over three hundred episodes of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, I’ve interviewed two, maybe three authors who are happy with their first drafts. The rest of us have to put up with the poor, wretched Frankenstein’s monsters that we will create out of pain and suffering. Here’s a question: with the first draft, what needs to be right and what can be fixed later? Well, what needs to be right? Well, none of it, really. I mean, it can be a complete disaster.

There’s a reason that first drafts are called — and apologies if you’re eating — first drafts are sometimes called vomit drafts. So please don’t overburden your first draft with your expectations. Nobody’s first draft will read like a published novel. The sooner you accept this, the more liberating it will be for your writing. I mean, I still stop myself and fix typos as I go, which is one of the reasons I’m writing more and more by hand, actually, because I scrub it out.

But if you can just burn through, and not look back, the chances of you finishing that first draft increase exponentially. You might be big outliner, but don’t feel that you need to slavishly stick to an outline, as that can create all sorts of problems, not least shoehorning your protagonist into situations simply because the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat says so. Permit yourself the flexibility to change your story when writing. Be open to the story opportunities that will emerge as you get to know your characters.

So I’m currently working through my first draft of my next book now, and there are things that change and evolve in the characters in the story. And the temptation to go back and fix them now is really overwhelming. But… experience tells me that’s a rabbit hole that creates more problems than it solves. If you start tinkering with stuff back there, then you start second guessing stuff that you haven’t written yet, and you end up being dragged into a swirling vortex of despair.

And no one needs that. Not these days, especially. I simply leave myself a little note in the comments and I’ll focus on fixing it in the next draft, because my priority is to finish this first draft, because nothing is more important at this stage than finishing a draft. I can make fixes on the next pass to the one after that or the one after that.

Or… You get the idea. However, if you want to concentrate on one thing and get that right first time round, make it your protagonist. Your entire story hinges on their journey. So if you haven’t figured out what they want and how the journey would change them, then maybe take a second to suss that out. Start with the simple stuff. How do they start the story and how they change by the end? Some of you out there will have heard me say this a million times before, and I’m quoting screenwriter Craig Mazin here.

But if you can figure out how your protagonist goes from “this” to “the opposite of this”, then you have the through line and central dramatic argument of your story.

Now, of course, there are authors out there who write painstaking first drafts that are as good as ready for publication, but they are rare as hen’s teeth. So if you think your first draft is ace. Fantastic. Good for you. But please don’t be discouraged if you feel your first draft is lacking. I think 90 percent of writers out there will be with you in solidarity. You are not alone. I hope that was helpful. Happy writing. See you again soon.

Here’s One Way To Write A Novel (Part 2): Three-Act Structure

I’ve just hit 22,000 words on my new novel, and this is where things can get a bit sticky. To make our way through the muddy middle of a novel, it helps to understand the basics of three-act structure, so here are a few pointers…

Here’s a link to part 1… https://youtu.be/A9u0SFjv3N8

And here’s the thematic video I mention… https://youtu.be/vD64WDtWsV8

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, folks. It’s been a couple of weeks since the last update. Since then, I’ve had a haircut and my first vaccine and I’m just getting over the side effects…

I’m still using the same method to write the first draft of this book, so scribbling in a notebook one day, then switching to the laptop and bringing it to life the next. And it’s been working pretty well so far. I’ve just hit 22,000 words, which is about a quarter of the way through this book. I want it ultimately to be somewhere between 80- and 90,000 words tops. So I’m about to hit what is possibly the most difficult part of the novel.

The second act, the muddy middle. As I said in the first video, and I’ll pop a link below if you haven’t seen it: https://youtu.be/A9u0SFjv3N8 — openings are relatively easy. Everything’s exciting. The world is your oyster. But when you get to the end of the first act, your characters will have started making choices that have consequences. Story consequences. So how do you navigate this? Well, let’s take a moment to talk about the basics of structure. All stories have this in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the three act structure at its simplest, used by the ancient Greeks in their storytelling, still used by Hollywood today.

Now, you may have read all sorts of fancy stuff about four-act, five-act, seven-act structures, pyramids, diagrams, all sorts of stuff. But in the end, it all comes down to these three essential beats: a beginning, a middle, and end. And why are we even talking about acts? We’re writing a novel. Well, this is largely because the language of theatre and screenwriting has seeped into the bigger conversation about narrative. But it really does help to think of your story in these terms, not least because an understanding of story structure will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your writing and enhance your self-critical skills. Here’s a simple breakdown of how the acts work. So, Act One is all about the set up, and that’s what I basically just completed. I’ve introduced my main characters. The setting, the themes, the tone and the rules of the story are established. There will be some kind of incident that will trigger the story and set the protagonist on the path of the story. The First Act usually ends with a turning point that will launch Act Two. Act Two is all about confrontation. Your protagonist will be tested as they strive to achieve their goal, the action rises and rises, leading to a midpoint that then becomes a crisis. The final events of Act Two, which often herald disaster or certain failure for our hero, will trigger the events of Act Three. Act Three is all about resolution. The stakes are raised to the point where we think it’s going to end in disaster. But the protagonist will take the lessons learned by the tests of Act two and find a resolution. They will almost certainly have changed from the person they were in Act one. And that’s it. The building blocks of story.

You can apply this not only to your overall story, but to each chapter which will have its own beginning, middle and an end. So this is what I have ahead of me next. Act Two. This is where I test my characters like an Old Testament God making their lives increasingly difficult. The good news is I have a pretty good idea of how I want Act three and the ending to pan out. So I just need to bridge that gap with some fun shenanigans.

And if I get stuck, then I need to take a moment just to think thematically. I covered that in a previous video… https://youtu.be/vD64WDtWsV8

Again, I’ll pop a link below. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Hmm. I’ve just written a scene where they come to a door and I have only the vaguest idea of who is on the other side. So, yeah, we’ll see. It’s never easy. But here goes. There’ll be another update a couple of weeks and until then, happy writing.

Tips for Writing Dialogue

Here are some tips for making the dialogue in your novel or screenplay feel real without the waffle…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, one day to the haircut. Right, before that, let’s talk about dialogue. There’s a knack to writing  dialogue, and some people have it, and others have to learn it. It’s a bit like playing an instrument. Some people can pick up a guitar and strum chords straight away. Other people, like me, need a little more practise, but that’s fine because soon we’ll all be playing Kumbayah in perfect rhythm.

Now, first thing with dialogue: maybe record yourself having a conversation with someone.

Make sure the other person knows for legal reasons, of course. Make it long enough to forget that you’re recording the conversation to avoid being too self-conscious, then transcribe the conversation. I did this with a friend of mine years ago, back when I first started writing plays, and it was amazing to know just how much waffle and repetition people speak before they actually get to the point. And we’ll discuss waffle in more detail in a moment.

Readers in reviews, they’ll say that they like their dialogue to feel naturalistic and real. But the trouble is, naturalistic and real is waffly, boring and distracting. The knack is to make it sound natural, while cutting out all the excess waffles.

Here are a few pointers; listen to others.

My cousin used to live tweet conversations he overheard on the bus to work and they were always hilarious with phrases that were absolute gems of dialogue. So whenever you hear a colourful exchange or phrase, jot it down in a notebook or your smartphone, you know, send it to yourself, keep a file of them somewhere. You may never use it, but doing this regularly will attune your ear to great dialogue. The more attuned you get, the better and more sparky your dialogue will be.

Cut the small talk.

Every now and then I hear someone complain that, “Oh, people in films never say hello when they pick up the phone. How rude.” There is a reason for that. We cut the unimportant stuff and get to the essence of the stuff that drives the story forward. This comes back to my point about naturalistic dialogue. I’ve literally had conversations that go like this: Mark, it’s your mum. How are you? Good. How are you and Dad? Oh, fine, fine, fine. Oh, good, good, good, good. That’s nice. Everything alright? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s all fine. Lovely, lovely. Good, good. That’s great. That’s lovely. That’s great… Oh your Great uncle died… What!?

You could never get away with that in a novel, unless it was a comedy bit. But the thing is, small talk… If small talk is essential for a character, then maybe fold that into the descriptive prose, you know: Mum called. She made the usual small talk, then hit me with the news. “Mark, I’m sorry, but your great uncle died.”

Next tip: Say it out loud.

I highly recommend talking to yourself. Write the first pass of your dialogue as freely and waffly as you like, go full naturalistic if you want, and then cut out all the fat. How to identify waffle and fat? Well, yeah, you’ve heard of the phrase chewing the fat? Apparently, this comes from small talk that sailors would make when chewing on salt hardened fat while they worked. This kind of chit chat that passed the time, you know. But as authors, we’re not passing the time with idle gossip.

We need to grip the reader. So our dialogue needs to do three things:

One: Move the story forward. Any exchange of dialogue needs to bring us closer to the end. Asking about the weather won’t necessarily do this.

Two: it needs to reveal character. Does your dialogue give us any insight into the character’s feelings and motivations?

Three: Build relationships. Does the dialogue create a dynamic that helps the reader understand relationships? For example, a father might yell at his kids, but be meek around his boss. That tells us something about him. If your dialogue doesn’t meet these criteria, then prepare the cutting snippers, because that dialogue might need to go. And you can get messy.

OK, so while we’re avoiding all the small talk, we can still sound naturalistic with interruptions, overlapping, half-finished thoughts, stammering… All these and more can help make your characters sound distinct.

Now, a quick word on slang, jargon and patois.

Use it very, very sparingly, especially when writing outside of your own experience. There’s nothing more likely to make the reader cringe than, say, a white person writing Jamaican patois, for example.

Some of you might have read the novel I co-wrote, Back to Reality. There’s an Italian character in that, Federica, who has a very distinct way of speaking. But we kept any overt Italian-isms to an absolute minimum to stop her sounding like Super Mario. We also gave it to an Italian friend to read to make sure we weren’t going to be banned from the country for life. You just need a tiny sprinkle of slang, patois to let the reader know the speech patterns, and they’ll hear the voice in their head and create their own accent and rhythm. You know, if you start emphasising it in every sentence of dialogue, it’s just too much. When it comes to jargon — military, police, scientific tech talk, doctors, things like that — use just enough to be authentic and avoid characters telling each other stuff they already know. You know, you get, “As you know, Dr. Smith, we make an incision here…” Use your prose to let the reader know just enough to add two plus two.

Again, I know it’s easier said than done, but it comes with practise. You have to keep the voices distinct as well. How can you stop characters from all sounding the same, or sounding like you? It’s important to make characters distinct. And a fun exercise is to remove all of the dialogue tags in an exchange and see if you can tell who’s saying what. Maybe give it to someone else to read and see if they can tell the difference.

This is where you need to get in character. If you find a character’s dialogue is bland, then, as an exercise, write the scene from their first person point of view, think about any moments of hesitation, frustration, what they really want to say, as opposed to what they actually say, how they hear the voice of others in that exchange. Do they find some people annoying, grating? Are they in a position of power in this scene, or are they having to watch what they say in order to get what they want?

Also, think about word choice. Do they use short, abrupt phrases? Or are they verbose and erudite? Do they use any slang, do they swear ten to the dozen? Think about their background and their world. You know, a working class docker will have very different dialogue to a nun… She’ll swear more for a start. Once you’ve done that, I think you’ll find it easier to write in their voice when it comes to dialogue. And have a think about subtext. You know, having characters blurt out exactly what they mean can be effective.

But mostly we should work with subtext:

Dialogue that defelcts, defends and skirts can be really engaging. Saying exactly what’s on your mind can have terrible consequences. You know, only the cold hearted tell their boyfriend or girlfriend that they want to break up. You know, characters that feel real will do everything they can to avoid delivering bad news. No one likes that. Or they will tailor what they say to the social situation.

Body language is also your friend.

We pick up so many clues from body language that it’s important to pair dialogue with descriptions of your character’s posture and mannerisms. Something like, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with a shake of the hand and a smile, is very different to, “That’s so helpful. Thank you.” Delivered with pursed lips and a withering glare. And tension. Thinking about subtext and body language brings me to how dialogue can build tension. Tension in a story comes from unanswered questions. Will he propose? Will she say yes? And dialogue can really help drive that tension and resolve it. Make every word count, keep the story moving forward, and keep the reader on the hook, which is easier said than done, of course. Well, I hope that was helpful.

And until next time, happy writing.

Theme is Story Fuel (and why you’ll never get stuck again)

What is your story’s theme? How can you figure out what it is? And how will knowing your theme ensure that you’ll never get stuck again…

Here’s the transcript of the Craig Maizin episode of Scriptnotes: https://johnaugust.com/2019/scriptnotes-ep-403-how-to-write-a-movie-transcript

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, apologies again for the lockdown hair. Two weeks to go. Let’s talk about theme. Sometimes, if you ask writers about the theme of their story, they’ll probably give you a one word reply like: family, war… Chickens.

Okay, probably not chickens, but it’s usually something monolithic. Some writers might not know the theme of their work-in-progress at all. And that’s fine because there are times when, you know, I don’t figure out what it is until I finish a draft. But, the sooner you can figure out what your theme is, the better. Because the theme, my friends, is story fuel. We’ll come back to that. First of all, what is theme exactly? Well, first of all, theme is not “an idea”.

Anyone can have an idea. Drunk uncles stagger up to me at barbecues and say, “I got a great idea for a book and you can write it for me”. No? It’s just me? Okay. Anyway, the point is: ideas are two-a-penny and they are not the theme. An idea is: a man dresses up as a bat to fight crime. The theme can change with every man bat story. Your theme is the central dramatic argument of your story.

It’s the question that the story and its characters will interrogate from the beginning, through the middle, and right to the end. And that’s the key to figuring out what your theme is: make it a question. Imagine that your book has been published and it’s being read by a book group. What’s the main topic of conversation for that book? What’s the big question that they will be asking? And here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering or original.

It just needs to be a little bit tricky to answer. So going back to our Man Bat example… the theme for that might be: can a man fight crime and not become a criminal himself? It’s the age old question of vigilantism, and it’s a good one. One that has fuelled all kinds of very different stories for time immemorial. So, how is theme story fuel? Well, we all get stuck when writing. And I find that if I know what my theme is, I’m much more likely to find a solution when I’m wondering what happens next.

So, for example, in my current book, the big overarching theme is: are we stronger together or on our own?

Now, as an old liberal lefty, I’m all for unity and working with others. But there are times when we need to strike out on our own. And when I’m working on the story, and wondering what happens next, I ask, how can I present this dilemma and dramatise it in the story? How can I divide my united characters? Or how can I take someone who works alone and make them realise that they might need help? All good stuff. You really should give it a try.

It really does. The screenwriter Craig Mazin, who wrote Chernobyl and many other things goes into this in greater detail in Episode 403 of the Scriptnotes podcast, and how it ties into protagonist’s story of change. And it’s really good stuff. I think the episode is behind a paywall now, but you can check out the transcript online. I’ll pop a link below. Well, I hope that was useful, and happy writing.

Here’s One Way To Write A First Draft

I’ve been working on a new way of writing the first draft of my novel. And it’s been working really well… so far…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks. Apologies for the hair. Still in lockdown and two weeks till I get a haircut, so this is going to get worse before it gets better. Anyway, I’m working on the first draft of Skyclad, the third Witches of Woodville book.

Regulars will know that I used to be a big outliner when it came to writing, but I’m becoming more and more of a pantser or discovery writer, whatever you want to call it.

That is, I’m making it up as I go along. Well, sort of. I do have a rough idea of where I’m going and I know how I want the story to end. And I have a few key notes on a few key moments, but I thought you might be interested to know how I’m working with this one. Again, regulars might know that I have a different notebook dedicated to each project. Here’s the one for Book Three of the witches of Woodville, Skyclad.

This was bought at the National Trust Gift Shop at the White Cliffs of Dover, which is a little clue as to where some of the book will take place. What I’ve taken to doing with this story is switching from day to day between paper — the notebook — and the screen — the laptop — and it’s really working for me. So to give you some idea… On, say, Monday, I will start noodling ideas for what happens next in the story in The Notebook.

So here I’ve written in big letters, “How can the Poltergeist exorcism go wrong?” Slight spoiler, but it’s the opening scene. I’ve made notes on what can happen in that scene and they are imperfect notes. I’ve given myself permission to wander off, and noodle and try different scenarios, and scribble stuff out, and put other things in boxes and underline them, and highlight them. And what I find is that by the end of the writing session, I have a really good idea of how that chapter pans out.

The level of detail varies from session to session. But the next day, Tuesday, when I open up the laptop, I’m not victim to the tyranny of the blinking cursor. You know that feeling when you look at a blank page of Word or Scrivener that bastard cursor is flashing at you, “Go on, write something. What are you waiting for? Call yourself a writer?” Well, now I just go to my notes and start typing, and before I know it I’m up and running. I used the less formalised version of this with The Crow Folk and the second book, Babes in the Wood, available to pre-order now.

And it worked really well. So this is an evolution of that. A few caveats. I’m only 10,000 words into this novel and, in my experience, openings are pretty easy when compared to the rest of the book… not least the middle section, which can lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. So I’ll check in with this in about a month’s time and see if I’m feeling quite so smug still. Also, I’m writing the third book in a series.

I know the characters and situations really well. I have a very good idea of how people will react when presented with challenges. And that makes a writer’s life much, much easier and makes me wonder why it’s taken me so long to write a series. This is so much fun. Anyway, I hope you found that helpful. How is your writing going? Does this sort of method work for you? Pop a comment below or drop me a line. In the meantime, happy writing.

The First Round of Edits Are Away!

Why do I love editors? Because they help me create a better book. I’ve spent the last week or so in the first round of edits for my next book Babes in the Wood, and here’s what I learned…

Apologies in advance for… the wind…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, Mark Stay here. Last time we talked, I’d just started the edits on book two of the
Witches of Woodville: Babes in the Wood. Well, after a week and a bit
of intense editorialising they’re done.
They’re off to my… Well, I say “done”. This is probably the first round, but they’re off to my editor, Simon & Schuster, Bethan, for her to have a look at. Lessons learned? Well, um, this took longer than the first book. Now, the first book was Alpha-read and Beta-read up the wazzoo. Lots of eyes on that before it went off to any publisher. So it was in very, very good shape.
This one was in good shape, too. But, uh, there is a murder mystery element to it.
Which… Writing any kind of mystery like that is, is storytelling with the hood off, you know, everyone can see the working parts because you put them there on display for people to… To notice things. And if everything doesn’t quite make sense, then it really stands out in a way that other stories, you know, you can probably get away with the odd teeny weeny plot hole. So this one, most of Bethan’s notes were just little clarifications. Can you make this a bit clearer? Can you hang a lantern on this? You know, can you emphasise this a bit more? Uh, of course, during, uh, during my edit, I realised one massive plot hole was that I have a murder and never once explain how the murder was done. Only I could do that. Um, this is why you have editors, folks. So, uh, that was handy. I was able to… The thing is I’d written it down. I put it in my notebook. This is one good reason why you should have a notebook, folks, for each project that you’re doing, because I had actually written it down. I just hadn’t put it in the actual novel. Small point. But, you know, we always catch it in the end, which is good.
So, yeah, really happy with it.
And it gave me the opportunity to add a few extra layers, a few extra flourishes that… Particularly towards the end I wanted to ramp up the tension a little bit more. So I’m really happy with it. Really happy with it. So that’s gone off to Bethan. She’s in the middle of editing another book. So it might be a few weeks before I see it again.
But until then, I’ve got a short story to edit. I’ve got a short story to finish. These are the Miss Charlotte Quartet stories. So, I’m gonna spend this weekend… Beautiful… I’m gonna spend this weekend rereading that and giving that a final polish, and getting that ready. So if you subscribe to my newsletter, you can get these stories for free. Free! Number one’s out already.
I know.
Good, innit?
Number two is coming on the fourth of April in ebook and audio… Got to record that too. And then
three and four are on their way. So that’ll keep me busy. That’ll keep me out of trouble. So yeah. If I hear any more on the edit…
I’ll let you know. I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, I’m just going to pop into my local library.
Happy reading.
Happy writing. See you again soon.

FIVE TIPS: BEFORE YOU EDIT YOUR NOVEL

I’ve got the notes from my editor on my manuscript. Now what? After a week of avoiding my edits, it’s time to knuckle down. Here are five quick tips to help you sort through editor notes before you start your next draft…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, about a week ago, I put up a video talking about how I just got my edit notes from my editor, Bethan at Simon & Schuster, for the next book in the Witches of Woodville series, the The Babes in the Wood book.
And if you were watching that video, you might think, oh, he’s got his notes. And we talked a bit about things like the edit triage and and, you know, just looking at headlines, bullet points
and making notes and stuff like that. And you’d be perfectly forgiven for thinking that immediately upon me, you know, finishing that video, I would jump straight into the edit. So what have I been up to since then? Procrastination, mainly, we can talk about procrastination, if you like,
maybe later. But, actually to be fair, I have had a couple of rewrites on two short stories and also some light rewriting on a horror movie which essentially took all week. So, you know, I’ve been doing that. I think, to be honest, it is a good thing not to jump in with both feet. As soon as you get your edit notes, you know those ideas, you know, you read and review those notes that your editor has sent you. Let them simmer in your brain, gain some acceptance from that time. Procrastinating.
That’s my excuse. And I’m sticking to it, During the meanwhilst, here are five tips on the first things to do before you start your edit…

Save a copy.
Seriously, save it. The original one that your editor sent you. Save it, file it away, leave it untouched. Don’t change anything because there will come a point in the edit where you’ll come across something and you think, oh, what did my editor say about that? And you won’t have any way of knowing…

Accept all changes.
I’m going to show a little video here. There’s a thing in Word and other similar word processors called “track changes” where the editor will turn that on and every single change that they
make comes up as a change. And you have a choice to accept or reject that change. Frankly, when it comes to the punctuation and grammar changes, there will be hundreds of them. Just “accept all”, you know, there’ll be a way of doing that easily on your bit of software. Google it. You’ll find a YouTube video that will tell you how to do that just “accept all” because frankly, they know their
punctuation and grammar. Just accept it.
They may make changes to a sentence or may make changes to a particular word. A good editor will leave a note saying, “I’ve changed this… Is that OK?” Or “Does this make more sense?” And, you know, you can maybe go back to your original document, which you will have saved, and have a look and see if that change is harmful or gratuitous in some way. But frankly, in my experience, they don’t make any crucial difference. These these are words that, you know, just there for clarity… Changes
are just there for the reader. This draft is not for you. It is for the reader. Hence, all drafts from now will be for the reader as well. Just ask yourself, “Is this a hill I’m willing to die on?”
Because in my experience, by the time you got round to the copy edit and the proof edit you’re kind of… You can’t even remember what that word was anyway, so just accept all changes.

So after that, you’ll be left with the comments. I’ve got about three hundred and thirty comments left on my document now from down from five hundred something. Go through those comments, read, make notes, reply to yourself, you know, make quick fixes if you want. Sometimes, you know, you’ll have duplicated word in a sentence or a paragraph and they’re pretty easy to fix. But don’t be tempted to make any big changes yet. Wait till you get to the end, because sometimes editors will see something that bumps them out of the story, make a comment about it, suggest changing it, and then later on, when they get to the end, they realised that was actually part of a plot twist all along. So don’t change it because it may be something that just needs a little bit of clarification or might be fine, just as it is. So read the comments, make notes.

Don’t just focus on the criticism. Look at the praise, too, because a good editor will leave you praise. It’s called the praise sandwich. It’s like, “This works.” “This is a bit rubbish.” “This is wonderful.” Fragile egos of writers strikes again. But actually praise is really helpful because it tells you what’s working. Lean into that when you rewrite.

And don’t feel you need to reply to the editor’s comments. You know, sometimes they’re just posing a question just to prompt a thought from you. You know, they’ll say, is this really necessary? Do you really… Does this make sense? Did they really do that back then? So the editor isn’t necessarily asking for a reply when you send back the next draft, although if you feel you would just want to clarify a point, that’s fine. But it’s usually a good sign that it’s something that’s bumped them out of the story. Might need a quick fix. So think of it that way.

So, folks, five tips. I think that was five. Pretty sure it’s five… Five tips for when you start your edit. I hope that was useful. If it was, give us a thumbs up, leave a comment. All that jazz. Share with writing groups, all that good stuff. If you’ve got any comments pop them below and I will reply. Stay tuned for some goodnews coming about the next book. Some cool news coming on Friday (cover reveal). So, yeah, stay tuned for that. And in the meantime, happy writing.

The First Edits for Babes in the Wood…

I’ve just got my first set of notes back from my editor for the next Witches of Woodville book BABES IN THE WOOD, so this is a great time to take you on the journey with me from editing a book to publication. I run through what a marked-up manuscript from an editor looks like and how I plan to tackle over 500 changes and comments…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, Mark Stay here.
The second Witches of Woodville book Babes in the Wood, is coming in October 2021, October 28th, I think, just in time for Halloween. And it’s March now, March the 5th. And I’ve just had my first round of line edits turn from my editor, Bethan, at Simon and Schuster. So I thought what I’d do on the ol’ YouTubes is start a whole new thread of the road to publication for Babes in the Woods, starting now. So where I am now, I’ve already written a couple of drafts which have gone to friends, beta readers who’ve made comments and sent thoughts back to me, and I’ve made changes before sending it off to Bethan. I’ve also had… This book involves Kindertransport children, so Jewish children fleeing the blitzkrieg and the Holocaust and coming to England. And I’ve already had a reader, a Jewish reader, go through that and give me all sorts of feedback and notes on that as well. So it’s in pretty good shape. Bethan has come back with a marked-up Word manuscript, which has got… 560 comments or changes, which I’m pretty happy with, actually, I think my first book Robot Overlords had well over 3000 comments and changes on there, so that’s doing pretty, pretty good. So, yeah, we got the first round of edits. I got this marked up manuscript of all sorts of little bumps in the road. So we have a look at some of these on screen. So Bethan’s… uh… Just if you’ve never done this before, we have a thing on Word and Pages and bits of software like that could tracked changes where any changes or comments that your editor makes is marked up so you can see it and easily recognise where a change has been made and accept or reject that change. And also, she’s left comments. And Bethan is brilliant because she doesn’t miss a thing. She notices all the little bumps, all the little things I got wrong,anything that bumps her out the story. But she also does the old “praise sandwich” as well, which is where you say, “Oh, this is good, this needs work, but this is great.” So the author’s poor, fragile, ego isn’t too bruised. What I’ve got now is what I call the edit triage, which is where I go through the comments. I make my own notes in a notebook. I try and take it off the page. And also Bethan has sent me a separate document as a kind of summary of her editorial notes of the big, big problems to solve, which is why the triage thing comes in. If you’ve got you know, do you think of your book as a patient lying on a gurney, you know, what do you have to fix first to save their life? You know, what’s the what’s the biggest injury? So rather than worrying about, you know, slightly… Any punctuation or grammar or anything like that, at the moment, you look at the bigger picture, start wide and move in and move in. So, yeah, really, really good notes. I’ve got a month to sort this out, which should be plenty of time. So we’re in March now. Book is published in October…

Yes, October.
Babes in the Wood is book two of the Witches of Woodville series and available to pre-order from retailers now. Visit your retailer of choice or go to the bookshop at WitchesOfWoodville.com and now back to your regular programming

… which if you’re an indie author thinking, well, why are you taking so long? Why does it take so long to get the book to market? Well, part of that is that we’re working to retailer critical paths. So someone like Simon & Schuster will be selling in two retailers, six, seven, eight, nine months in advance of publication. For some retailers, they ask for a lot longer ahead of publication or sometimes over a year. So, yeah, that’s one of the reasons. And of course, you know, a publisher Simon & Schuster will be doing it in forty, fifty, sixty books a month depending on the month. So the marketing departments, the publicity, the art departments, they’ve all got to you know, they’ve got huge, huge workloads to work through. So better to give yourself plenty of time to do it properly, then have it as a last minute rush. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to this. I’m going to I’m going to dig in and start figuring out the big changes I need to make. There’s a murder mystery element to this, which I’ve never done before. And what’s been great with Bethan’s notes is, you know, she just said: a bit of clarity here, a little bit more mystery here. Wouldn’t she have thought this here, stuff like that. So it’s it’s been very, very helpful. So, yeah, I’m going to jump in and maybe check in in a week or maybe two weeks to give you an idea of how I’m getting on. And then after that, we’ll go through the whole rest of the process.

Things like looking at bits of cover art, looking at the blurb, looking at how we might publicise this one, what with lockdown, hopefully not being a thing by the time this comes out. So, yeah, first step on the path to publication. I hope you’ll join me further down the road.

Where I got the idea for The Crow Folk

We had a special episode of the Bestseller Experiment this week and Mark Desvaux asked me a bunch of listener questions about The Crow Folk. I’ve broken them up into short videos, and in this first episode I talk about how the idea developed from a contemporary TV pilot into the Second World War novel that’s out now.

You can listen to the whole podcast episode here.

Discover more about the Crow Folk and the Witches of Woodville here.

TRANSCRIPT:

MARK STAY: Hello folks, it’s here! Look! Finished, gorgeous. Thanks to everyone who bought the book, read the book, said lovely things about the book, a huge thank you to all of you. It really means a lot. What you’re going to see today… We had a special episode of The Bestseller Experiment where I answered a whole bunch of listener questions and rather than one big lump of video I’m going to do them in little chunks over time, in more digestible chunks. So the first of these, people ask me where I got the idea from and how it developed. And this has been in development for some time. Be warned: this video contains gratuitous bellringing.

MARK DESVAUX: But let’s let’s dive in because there’s a lot there’s a lot of things people want to know about this book. And the first thing the first question is from Jan Carr, and Jan asks, where did you get your idea from?

MS: Classic, classic, and just to reassure listeners, so I’m going to try and make the answers as helpful for writers as possible, and it’s not just going to be me blowing smoke up my own bum for an hour, I mean, maybe for just forty five minutes. So hopefully we’ll get some insight into working with agents, editors, development, ideas, writing for series historical fiction, stuff like that. So Chris asked the same question. Chris Lowenstein: Where did you get the idea? Matt says, of all the story ideas you likely had before you started this book, why did you choose this one? Tanya says, How do you decide if it’s a book or TV thing? What made you a great idea for a novel? A lot of variations on that. But here’s the thing. I’ve got files going back on this idea going all the way back to 2008. So it’s… and it probably dates to before that. I mean, this has been mulling around for a long, long time. And it did, weirdly, it started out as a TV idea, but it was very different.
First of all, I think the big problem with it was I had the point of view completely wrong, and it only took me about 10 years to figure that out. And the period was wrong too, because it was contemporary. Set in the here and now. So a few things had to change to sort of make the idea fall into place. And for me, it really started getting momentum in its current form when we were visiting friends in Chiddingtone in Sussex. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chiddingstone. It’s on the border of Sussex and Kent. And it is your archetypal English village. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Weirdly, I work with the chap who lives there called Mark Streatfeild, who is kind of Lord of the Manor at Chiddingstone castle. He’s related to Noel Streatfeild who wrote Ballet Shoes. And they have… The family have their own coat of arms and everything. And Claire was down there, bellringing And while she was ringing, me and the kids sat outside a pub and the kids challenged me to come up with an idea for Doctor Who. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a whole session of bellringing? But they do something at the end. They ring down the bells because the bells have to be put in a position where they kind of put up and then they’re rung down and something happens to the bells, the bells and ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. They start ringing very, very closely together, really, really closely together. And it creates this incredible sound, an absolutely incredible sound. It’s like the lost chord from the beginning of the universe. It just creates this incredible magical hum and… And I got something from that I thought that could be that could be something magical, but that’s a good MacGuffin. I could use that. And of course, we’ve been using bells to fight off evil since time began. So bells…. Bells was something… Going to be very important and also Claire hosts… The bellringers will go on journeys. They’ll go from Surrey to Kent and back for the day back or whatever. And they they use us as a base for a couple of days. So sort of twice a day they come back and I’d have to make 40 cups of tea and then double up 40 lots of sandwiches or whatever. And I joked to them, oh, this is just after The End of Magic came out. I joked that I would make bellringers the heroes in my next book. So so the whole bell ringing MacGuffin was coming together. And it does play a really important part in The Crow Folk and then the time period thing put it into place, because it was still a TV idea. My TV agent, my script agent said, why don’t you set it… Instead of making it contemporary, why don’t you set it in the Second World War? Because that period England… Downton Abbey is an easier sell to Americans and overseas people than contemporary England. And that just… Another sort of thing sorted into place. Okay, great: World War Two and… I’ve moved to Kent. Moving here made a big, big difference because… Moving to the country made a big difference. And World War Two, I mean, it happened here with the Battle of Britain right above our heads. So moving here made all the difference.

MD: I got to say…

MS: Slotted into place and then.

MD: I was going to say, yes, that’s kind of like and it’s an extreme case, isn’t it, of a book research is to actually leave leave the suburbs of London and buy a house and therefore you’ve immersed yourself in it. Must have changed a lot because immersing yourself in kind of a village kind of environment must have given you an amazing kind of sense of backdrop for the book. Right?

MS: Completely. Completely. I mean, one of the nice notes I’ve got from someone who read the book said they said you write nature really well, and it’s just being here. You become a lot more aware of the nature and the surroundings. And then the big thing that clicked into places I got the POV right. In and the original version had been the monster’s POV. With this, I created a created a character called Faye Bright. She’s this young girl. She’s your classic, you know, hero… ingenue, kind of, you know, of character. And it all kind of started to click into place. And going back to I think it was Matt who said, why choose this one? It was just the idea that just would not go away. And I couldn’t figure out why… I’d write other things. And whenever I finish those things, I came back and this idea just kept coming back: a magical wood, a village. And, you know, the other thing is I knew this had series potential, you know, that endless well of story. And for years I’ve been trying to think of a series idea, something I could come back to. Well, could it be a science fiction idea? Fantasy idea, what have you? And this it all clicked into place about a character that was able to grow with the series. You know, she’s 17 in this book, but she’ll grow as it goes on. And it just took a really, really long time to see what was right in front of me. But, yeah, that’s a very, very long answer. But it had a very, very long gestation. It’s been around for 13 years. And ten of those it was kind of swimming about and it was completely wrong. So if anyone out there is thinking, you know, I’ve got this idea and it just won’t gel, just be patient. Just if it keeps coming back, if it keeps nagging you, there’s something in there. There’s there’s gold in them thar hills. And you just have to have the tenacity to hang in there because eventually it will reveal itself.

MD: I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant testament really to that idea. And we often call it signposting where you get to you know, you get an opportunity in life where you can start something new or you can try something and you look at the signposts and the different things that you could do at that point in your life. And if there’s a signpost is always there, it’s always like this is this I’m not going away. I’m not leaving you. If you see that enough times, you really have to follow up. And it sounds like intuitively you went right now. But it’s also about timing, is it? Well, I mean, you couldn’t have written this book five, ten years ago, right?

MS: Well, I did. I did write the book. I mean, that’s the thing. I mean, we’ve got questions about development later on. I finished many, many drafts of the wrong book, you know, that eventually kind of and scripts, you know, TV pilot scripts, feature length scripts that I got to the end of. And they still didn’t work. So, you know, it’s I did write it, but it was it was just wrong. It was it was wrong, wrong, wrong era and not the right character for you to write the right book as well.

If you enjoyed that, folks, there’s more to come. I’m going to be talking about future episodes, things like development, the writing process, writing historical language, historical dialogue and comparing my experiences in crowdfunding and indie publishing and traditional publishing, all that good stuff. So subscribe and don’t miss an episode. See you soon. And happy writing.

Why I’m Okay With Plot Holes

Writers live in fear of a leaky story, but I’m okay with plot holes. And here’s why…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, Mark Stay here. I’m going to tell you why I’m completely okay with Plot Holes…

What is a plot hole exactly?
Well, in a story, it’s one of those little bits that doesn’t quite make logical sense, doesn’t really stand up to any scrutiny.

For example, in The Godfather, just how does Tom Hagen cut that horse’s head off without anyone noticing? So in the Ewok village, Princess Leia’s dress… Where did that come from? Just how did Andy’s poster stay on the wall in his prison cell after he broke out? Just what did Bruce Willis do when he wasn’t talking to the scary ghost kid? Who exactly heard Charles Foster Kane say “Rosebud?” The entire final act of this, and every James Bond film ever made.

All of these films are bona fide classics, films that most of us love and adore.
And they get a pass.
We gloss over their plot holes.
And why is that?
Because we respond to stories on an emotional level.

As a writer, this doesn’t mean you now have license to write a story that’s full of plot holes and we all vary in our tolerance of plot holes. And you have to work hard to make sure that your story makes sense and not just, you know, paper over the cracks and hope we don’t notice.

Always write on the assumption that your readers are smarter than you are, you know, work as hard as you can to iron out all those little holes.
But the thing is, when you’re dealing with stuff that doesn’t exist, you know, fantastical stuff like time travel, magic, warp speed, that sort of thing, you’re not going to be able to… One or two will inevitably slip through.
However, ask yourself this: What’s more important to you? A watertight logic puzzle-style story, or something that’s going to have some emotional oomph? I know which end of the spectrum I veer towards, although none of my books have plot holes, none of them, if you doubt that you should buy them all, and read them from cover to cover and make copious notes and then drop me a line if you spot any. Anyway, hope that’s helpful. A little note on plot holes, and sleep tight in the knowledgethat when Dorothy wakes up from a trip to Oz, Toto will still be put down by Mrs. Gulch