Robin D’Amato ~
I’ve seen in the online writing community a reference to “pantsers” (those who write without an outline and see what happens as they write) versus “plotters” (people who start with an outline). I feel my process satisfies both. The creative flow that happens as you try to write your first draft in one take, without editing as you go, can be amazing. Ideas come out of nowhere. Characters take on their own agendas. On the other hand, your story does need a beginning, a middle, and an end, and by the time you get that very rough draft, you’ve essentially worked out an outline for your book.
My decision to write my first novel, Don’t Poke the Bear, came from discovering National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.org). I happened upon it online one day and thought it sounded intriguing: Write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. The idea is to get people to finish that draft, rather than leaving half-finished manuscripts all over the place. As I was guilty of that, this exercise seemed perfect for me. Keep writing, no matter what, until you get to the end of your story.
I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, but I did finish a workable first draft in those 30 days. Because of the nature of this writing exercise, a lot of sections needed to be moved or removed, but what I got was essentially an outline for a book.
As I started the editing process, I decided to add different points of view, which ultimately gave me four different main characters! The manuscript quickly blew up to over 650 pages with flashbacks and conflicting timelines. It was a confusing mess. Did I mention I didn’t know what I was doing? The biggest problem with the multiple POVs I now had was keeping a linear flow. Flashbacks and secondary plots can make interesting reading, but there must be a logical progression to the overall storyline, or you’ll confuse your readers. And my beta readers were very confused.
By the way, never let anyone read your first draft. I should have followed my own advice; this novel wasn’t ready for consumption even by the 27th draft! An agent friend who read an earlier draft said, “You’re a good writer. Just not this book.” Now it has been published with five excellent reviews, including one from Kirkus. Make sure your draft is ready before you let people read it.
Don’t Poke the Bear now had multiple POVs and flashbacks, jumping from year to year, character to character, season to season. Keeping everything sorted was difficult, and in the end, I added dates and names to the chapters and flashbacks. I felt like this was cheating, but I soon realized that the many flashbacks needed something other than just being italicized.
One of my four main characters was a high school teacher. Her story was heavily dependent on what was happening in her school, and of course most schools aren’t open in the summer! While the parallel stories of the other characters moved along, her story would grind to a halt in June. If her story wasn’t dependent on the others, I could have written shorter scenes for the summer months and kept her story moving along. I made the decision to remove her entirely from the book, which was becoming unwieldy anyway. As with everything I delete from my work, I saved her story in a separate document, in case I wanted to use it in another form in the future. I do this also for each draft for the same reason. Each major revision gets a new document and a new revision number, and everything is saved.
Now the book had three main characters: Allie, Rihanna, and Natia. The next thing I had to figure out was if the individual stories that remained worked on their own. I pulled the scenes of each character into separate documents so I could read their stories and see where I was missing plot points. Then I combined the stories’ scenes back into their original order. This is one reason this book took years to revise and ended up being published as my second novel. I recommend NOT doing anything this complicated for a first novel.
(A side note: I used an app called Notecards while I was editing. It kept me organized, and I could see scene order, timeline, and how much “screen time” each character was getting. When I needed to shuffle scenes, which I did a lot, Notecards made that easier to do. This app, similar programs, or actual note cards can be very useful when you are editing.)
Now the book was much easier to navigate. It was time to decide which of the three narratives would be the main one, the one that would carry the other stories. I decided that I had more material for Allie than Rihanna and Natia, so it was natural that Allie would be the focal point.
The last and maybe most important revision was making sure the individual stories were integrated with each other. Any plot holes I discovered from separating the stories would now be filled by adding Allie information into Rihanna’s scenes, or Natia information into Allie’s scenes, etc. Again, if I had written this linearly instead of piecemeal, the whole process would have been easier. I learned a lot about editing while I was working out these issues.
Don’t Poke the Bear took eight years to revise. The agent friend who told me, “Not this book” also told me that some manuscripts can’t be salvaged no matter how much you edit and revise, and she did mean this book. Somehow, I pulled it off. I could say if was because I believed in the book, but I also think it was pure stubbornness. If you have an idea that you think is worth developing, keep working on it until it’s right, even if it takes years. You will get that final manuscript, and people will love it.
Connecticut-born Robin D’Amato moved to New York City to attend New York University, fell in love with the City, and never left. In 1984, she was introduced to the Macintosh computer and has worked in the publishing industry as a pre-press specialist ever since. She also spent several decades pursuing dance and choreography. Her first novel, Somebody’s Watching You, won a 2021 second-quarter Firebird Book Award for fiction. She currently lives in Manhattan’s East Village with her 3,000-LP music room and her two cats. Find out more at robindamato.com, or visit Robin’s socials: