First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner

"First Draft in 30 Days"

FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS is a misnomer. Wiesner’s book is not designed to help writers quickly finish a first draft. Following her method step-by-step will only produce a healthy outline. Wiesner insists that a finished outline is as good as a rough draft, but they are not the same thing. At all.

Moreover, Wiesner doesn’t seem to understand that there are two kinds of novelists with very different approaches to writing. “Plotters” love outlines and use them for every story. “Pantsers” prefer to write by the seat of their pants. I have seen pantsers try to become plotters. It’s painful. They feel like they are locking their muses in a cage. Even if pantsers force themselves to produce an outline, they never follow it anyway. I must assume up front that FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS is not for them.

That leaves plotters like me. I love outlines the way Elmo loves his crayons.  To me, an outline isn’t a cage. It’s a comfortable house for my muse to live in. You can imagine how excited I was to try out Wiesner’s detailed method.

I lasted about a week before the worksheets and schedules and character studies and scene notes and nitpicky formatting guidelines sucked every bit of creative joy from my work.

So I tried jumping ahead. I wanted to make a solid outline without color-coding or timelines or other tedious stuff. But by modifying Wiesner’s method, I ended up writing the exact outline I would have written anyway. So why was I wasting a month of my writing time on this?

Even a complete outline isn’t complete in Wiesner’s world. Once finished, it has to be broken apart and “tagged.” Plot, subplot, tension, goal all have to be separated out. Then it has to be broken down by character and then chronologically. Why? Unless the book is a complex thriller that depends on the split-second timing of characters’ movements, I can’t imagine how this would be helpful.

I feel for Wiesner. I really do. She found a method that worked for her and wants to share it with everyone. But we’re quirky people. What works for one writer rarely works for another. FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS does a great job of explaining one outlining method in a clear–even inspiring–way. The flaw is not in the execution, but in the concept. Those who are pantsers won’t be converted by this book and those who are plotters already know everything that’s contained in its pages.

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rating: 2 stars

 

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder or Plot by Ansen Dibell instead of this book

The 10% Solution by Ken Rand

There are two schools of thought on revision. Some writers like to write quickly and revise at leisure, some like to revise as they go. However all writers agree–good writing is good rewriting. Doesn’t mean it’s fun. So when I find a textbook that promises a new way to help with revisions, I want it. Sadly, THE 10% SOLUTION offers no new help and not enough of the old help.

Ken Rand started his writing career in radio, writing advertising copy. He later became a newspaper columnist and is now a novelist. Along the way, he taught himself to cut every story by ten percent, mostly by eliminating adverbs and other unnecessary words. The first third of THE 10% SOLUTION details how Rand, with the help of mentors and books, developed his editing method. It’s a lot of extra information that doesn’t serve the reader in any way. We do not need to know how Rand learned to cut his prose, only that he did.

The middle of THE 10% SOLUTION details the difference between the right (creative) brain and the left (analytical) brain. Rand advises us to write without self-censorship, then revise methodically. This idea isn’t new. Every writer’s manual on the planet will tell you the same thing. The difference, Rand insists, is that his revision method is so complete that you can relax and create freely, knowing his perfect revision checklist will be there when you need it later.

The problem is, Rand’s method is nowhere near complete and perfect. It’s fine, as far as it goes, but it barely scratches the surface of good editing. In fact, it concentrates only on final-stage copyedits, specifically those troublesome words like “very” and “about” that creep into our prose when we’re not looking. Shrinking your draft by ten percent just by cutting weasel words might make your manuscript read more smoothly. However, this has nothing to do with true copy editing, much less true revision. It’s a disservice to beginning writers to suggest that their first drafts can become their final drafts with only a few minor cuts.

THE 10% SOLUTION is a small book, fewer than eighty pages in a large font with big margins. If Rand had truly edited his own manuscript, instead of just slapping a polish on it, he could have cut the entire first section (a self-indulgent biography) and middle section (the left brain/right brain stuff we all know). The remaining section would be a short, useful blog post on the importance of trimming the fat while doing a final draft. Polishing a manuscript is good and necessary, but as a final step, not the only step.

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rating: 2 stars

 

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King or The Artful Edit by Susan Bell instead of this book.

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Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver

No single book can teach you what you need to know to be a successful writer. That’s why my how-to shelf is so full. IMMEDIATE FICTION subtitles itself “A Complete Writing Course,” as if Jerry Cleaver can cover all there is to know about writing fiction in 275 pages. The problem is, this book tries to teach a writer everything, and therefore teaches next to nothing. It’s not that Cleaver’s advice is wrong. I agree with everything he says. But he tries to cram in so much that he can only give each topic a passing glance.

Cleaver starts by explaining the basic unit of storytelling–want, obstacle, action. This is his way of saying that books need conflict. It’s an important point, but every writer already knows that stories run on conflict. Cleaver repeats this many times throughout the book, as if it is some sort of hard-to-grasp concept that his students need help with.

Then he layers on some brief instruction about emotion and showing-not-telling. However, he never demonstrates how one evokes emotion in the reader, nor does he seem to understand why emotion is crucial. (Hint: it increases the stakes.) The writing exercises at the end of each chapter are nothing more than topics to write about. I have never met a writer who had no ideas. Having a strong story to tell is what made most of us want to write in the first place. So a list of story topics is useless.

Even more useless is the chapter on method. Should you outline or just start writing? Cleaver never makes a definitive statement. The entire chapter can be summed up in one sentence–do what works for you. Since that’s his conclusion, why pad the book with it?

Just when I was about to give up on this book, I read two chapters with good, solid advice that felt fresh and useful.

In the chapter called “The Ticking Clock,” Cleaver shows how to write a novel when you literally have no time. Even the busiest people can find five minutes a day, and Cleaver ingeniously shows how someone can use five-minute increments to build a solid writing career. It’s the perfect answer to someone who claims they have no time to write, or worse yet, says they will write a book “someday, when I have the time.” Cleaver could have written an entire book on his time management methods, and it would have been a much better book than IMMEDIATE FICTION.

The same can be said about the chapter on writer’s block. Cleaver respectfully addresses the idea of writer’s block, neither sweeping it under the rug nor making it into an undefeatable monster. He gives a clear explanation of what writer’s block is and isn’t, and also concrete solutions to getting words on the page. Like the rest of the book, the advice here is probably too simple, but it might be enough to help someone get started writing.

Even so, two decent chapters out of a “complete” book are not enough, or not enough of the right kind of instruction. If you’re an absolute beginner who has never put pen to paper a single time in your life, or if you’re very young, this book might get you going without confusing you or weighing you down with details. However, if you’ve written any kind of fiction, even a short story (or a slightly-embellished email) then your ability is already beyond this book.

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IMMEDIATE FICTION can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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This book is best for: absolute beginners

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I recommend SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder or BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott instead of this book.