I will happily admit, when it comes to writing, I am a freaky perfectionist. Having been an English teacher for ten years probably doesn’t help me in this way. I need to feel that I have every sentence correct, every fact matching up, the whole thing the best I can make it, before I show my work to anyone else. The mere thought of someone seeing my imperfect, messy first drafts brings me out in hives. One time a copy editor rang me (while I was on holiday) and mentioned that I’d said it was Wednesday in my manuscript when it was clear from the context that it was Tuesday. I nearly died of embarrassment.
You’d think, with this obsession, I would write slowly, double-checking every comma. But I figured out a long time ago that if I were to indulge my inner perfectionist while I was writing a first draft, I would never get past page 26 or so. So I’ve developed the strategy of writing my first drafts just for me. I write them as quickly as I can, about 7000 to 10,000 words per week, and if something is wrong, I rarely change it. I just keep on going. If I need to research something, I put an “XXX” in the margin and move on.
The outcome of this is usually a first draft which is a total mess. So I go through a process of neatening, straightening, and polishing before I show the book to anyone else. Usually I make a list of revisions I know I have to do, right away—things that have changed from the beginning of the book as I’ve written them. For example, in GETTING AWAY WITH IT, I eliminated a character, changed the geography of the setting, and gave my heroine a pilot’s licence. Then I print out the whole manuscript and read it through, making notes and making text-level changes on the page to type in later.
Then it starts getting satisfyingly picky and perfectionist. I get the Post-It notes out. I don’t plan my novels beforehand, but I find it extremely useful to map out my story after I’ve written it. A visual map gives me an instant view of whether I’ve balanced the different story threads, whether I’ve structured the book correctly, whether I’ve developed my character arcs enough. I write a quick summary Post-It for each thing that happens in the book, using different colours for different story strands. I put them on paper in chronological order, and I get a lovely, useful Post-It plan:
At a glance I can see where I’m missing scenes, or where I’ve repeated myself. My Post-It plan becomes my road map for revising my book so that it makes sense. (I lost my last one a couple of weeks ago, mid-revision, and I was hyperventilating. Fortunately I found it behind the printer.) It’s also very handy for writing a synopsis, which I usually do after I’ve written my book whenever possible.
I’ve become addicted to the Post-Its. I made all my students do them on the last course I taught. (There’s a video of me going on about it here.)
I also print out a calendar and plot each event on it. This is really useful when you’ve got several different stories going on at once, which you have to plot against something that has a definite time arc—for example, a pregnancy or a summer holiday. This sort of thing makes my brain explode, but it’s worth it to avoid those humiliating phone calls from the copy editor.
Then I polish like mad, adding in research and smoothing out my prose. And give in the book. And sit back and chew my fingernails to stubs.
You can read more about Julie's Post It method on her blog!
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Julie Cohen's novel 'Getting Away With It' is out now!