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I once read an Ann Patchett quote where she compared the act of writing to taking a beautiful butterfly and killing it, rendering it flat on a page with a large pin until it’s a husk of the shimmering butterfly it was before. That image has stayed with me, and I think I understand what she means. The act of writing is a physical one. Writing is a type of alchemy, of taking an idea and translating it to words on a page.
Writing begins foremost with an idea, do you have a compelling story to tell? I think the most important aspect of a story is how compelling it is. As literary agents, we look for narrative, we look for stories that are powerful, that are memorable, that want to be read. There are of course, exceptions, but I think that even very literary work that focuses on language, has at its heart, a compelling idea.
The Idea and the narrative engine
For a writer, the idea stage must be the most exciting part. This planning stage can take months, some writers like to begin with a kernel of idea while others like to expand the story before they begin.
Here are some questions to consider with your story idea. What is your story about? What is the narrative heart? What are the emotional stakes? Does it have conflict? There are many books on storytelling, but my favourite is probably STORY by Robert McKee. It breaks down the elements of compelling storytelling. A mistake we often see from first time writers, is a lack of narrative momentum or a lack of stakes.
Some novels are voice driven, others are character driven, I would argue that a novel will always need multi-dimensional characters. Characters that live and breathe off the page, whose motivations and actions are logical and ring true. However, the common point of a voice-driven narrative or a character-driven narrative is that there is that drive. A narrative needs an engine.
Writing your narrative
Then there is the “killing of the butterfly” where you as a writer take your idea and write the story. It can be tempting to keep your novel idea to yourself, to keep dreaming it, thinking it, because if you don’t write your story, then you never have to see how imperfect it can be. But this transformation is a necessary one to writing a novel. An idea that gestates for years won’t necessarily become better, it needs to make that transition.
With the actual writing process, there are different schools of thought. There are some writers who believe in an outline, planning out the structure of their novel scene by scene, while others believe in an organic flow of ideas to see where the story takes them. Some writers write their first draft in a frenzy and then edit afterwards, while others edit as they go along.
I don’t think there’s a magical equation to this. The most important thing is just to write. Whether it’s longhand or on a computer, you just have to write. Write the words on the page. However, I think for beginners, it’s always best to write chronologically, because that ensures that the narrative builds naturally to momentous scenes.
Post the first draft, using the “scissors” of revision
After you’ve finished a first draft, it will be very tempting to want to send it off to an agent straight away. Resist this temptation. There are many reasons why, but the primary one is that your first draft is not strong enough. No one’s first draft is. A first draft is for a writer’s eyes only or for your trusted first readers. I would argue that the revision process is just as important, if not more important than writing the first draft.
I would always say to give your first draft some space to breathe. Put it away for awhile, maybe a week, maybe a month, put the book away and forget about it, and then return to it with a critical eye. With the benefit of time, you’ll be able to notice the things in your story that aren’t working. Perhaps it’s the language or the pacing of the opening chapters, or maybe you have an extra viewpoint that’s not necessary. View your first draft with a critical, unsparing eye, and don’t be afraid to make dramatic changes. Truman Capote said, “I believe in the scissors more than the pencil.”
This is the attitude to take with revision. Think of the manuscript as still in the sculpture phase, nothing has been set in stone, it’s still malleable.
There are many writers who talk about throwing out their first draft and beginning again, and others who talk about extensive surgery on their manuscript, from changing the perspective to cutting out the second half. Writing is a marathon, it’s a process, and it takes time.
After you’ve revised your manuscript a number of times, and have shared it with a trusted reader, it is time for the querying process. Querying requires you to think of your manuscript as a businessman would. What are its strengths? What is the pitch? You are going to be pitching your book to agents. Remember that agents don’t necessarily expect a perfect manuscript, so you don’t have to invest in an editor or editorial guidance.
Querying literary agents
Literary agents are the first professionals who take part in the writing process. It’s best to put as much space between the first draft and an agent as you can. As agents, we are inundated with manuscripts (it’s a privilege), but it means that we’re not able to give feedback. You shouldn’t look to an agent for feedback, most likely you’ll receive silence or a form rejection.
Rejection happens to everyone; every writer has a rejection story. The most important thing is to improve, to keep going, and to learn from rejection. Rejection is never personal and remember, it is an opportunity to learn.
But don’t let these thoughts enter your mind in the idea process. There’s no need to think about agents or the publishing industry or publishing trends when you’re creating your novel. When you still have that butterfly of an idea in your mind, there you are the creator, you are in control of the story.
Catherine Cho’s next article on Writer’s Block