Writing a novel draft by draft

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You can fix garbage but you can’t fix a blank page.

That was the advice of Mary Burton at a recent writing workshop sponsored by the Virginia Romance Writers with Sisters in Crime.

She should know given that this year she will write four novels. Burton is a USA Today bestselling author, who has written 23 novels.

When Burton first began writing, she would share a chapter with a critique group, but she quickly discovered for her that the stopping and starting process wasn’t conducive because she would lose the thread.

Now she simply plows through and writes a complete first draft, which she refers to as “sloppy copy.”

To ensure that she gets through the first draft, she writes daily goals on her calendar. Some days it might be to write 10 pages, other days 15. The point was that having goals made it real.

“There is nothing better than an external deadline,” she said.

During the sloppy copy phase she doesn’t edit. She does in subsequent drafts. Once the first draft is written, a subsequent draft will focus on structure, another on pacing, until she gets to what she calls “The Big Read.”

It’s at this point that she prints her novel on three-hole paper and puts it in a binder to read away from the computer. “Your job is not to be nice,” she said. “You have to be the editor.”

Each draft will lead to a rewrite and ultimately should lead to a novel that is published.

Advice to Get Your Book Published

If you think writing your book, is the hard, part, think again.

Ellery Adams, Meredith Cole and Mary Burton offer advice on how to get your book published. (Photo by Cynthia Price)

That’s the advice of a trio of mystery authors who spoke to the Central District Sisters in Crime group earlier this year.

Mary Burton, who has written eleven historical romances for Harlequin Historicals and four short romantic suspenses for Silhouette Romantic Suspense, says writing is a business.

Meredith Cole, who lives and writes in Charlottesville, Va., advises, “Be an editor and agent’s dream.”

Her mystery series with St. Martin’s Minotaur is set in the art community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and was nominated for an Agatha Award. “You want to produce a very well written book in a genre they can sell,” she says.

A key step to getting published is securing an agent. The way to do that is through a query letter, which are not easy to write. “It’s easier to write the book,” Mary says.

Their advice:

  1. Be as brief as possible
  2. Be as relevant as possible
  3. Write it professionally
  4. Reference relevant details

For example, Mary says, if you attend a writer’s conference and met the agent – even briefly – you should note the meeting in the letter. Or if you know the agent succeeded in publishing a book, note that. “It shows you’ve done your research,” Mary says.

They also suggest making an extensive list of agents within the appropriate genre. One site to help with that is agentquery.com, says Ellery Adams, who has written several mystery series. Another useful site, she says, is BookEnds Literacy Agency, which includes helpful posts about word count and sample queries.

When querying an agent, they recommend emailing 20 and then waiting about six weeks for the responses. “If you get 20 rejections, the query is probably poor,” Mary says. They suggest using the rejections to rewrite and try again.

When you do get to meet with an agent, they recommend having three good questions to ask and also having a paragraph about your book ready to share.

When it comes to getting published, Mary says, “Persistence is just as important as talent.”