Writing

Planning Your Writing and Editing Time: Countdown to the 17th September Deadline
Ellen Banda-Aaku

Kwani Trust’s literary prize for African writing is a great incentive to start writing that story that has been growing in your head for years now or to pull out that work in progress novel. Bear in mind that a manuscript submitted to a literary prize actually gets read – in order to select a winner - whereas there is no guarantee that a manuscript sent to a publisher will be read.

So start writing!

While putting a novel together in less than two months may seem daunting it can be done with lots of determination, meticulous planning, and many hours sat at a computer.

Planning and writing

Planning is essential. Set time aside to get your first draft done.  Work out how many words you need to write a day in order to reach your target.  Set achievable daily targets so that at the end of each day you have a sense of accomplishment to keep you motivated.

As part of your planning, you might find it helpful to sketch out your plot/novel.  Have a summary of what happens in each chapter.  When I was writing my novel Patchwork, I wrote a chapter around each main incident in no particular order.  I then put the chapters in chronological order when I finished the whole manuscript. 

Don’t be alarmed if you find new chapters springing up and existing chapters losing their place in the story as you write, it’s the story taking shape.  Allow it to grow.

At this stage you should know what your story is about, where it is set – preferably a place you are familiar with so you don’t have to do too much research in the limited time frame - and also have an understanding of your characters.  Ensure you have a portfolio for each of your characters.   Have a checklist giving each character physical attributes, personality traits, idiosyncrasies etc so they come across as human and you know them well.  Knowing your character well makes it easier for you to tell the story, as you get to know how a character will react when you place them in a particular situation.

Editing

Once you have got your full draft down, give yourself some space from it so you can come back to it with a clear mind and fresh eyes. In the given time frame, I suggest a break of a week to create some space between you and your manuscript.  You will probably find that during your break ideas come to your mind, note these changes down as they occur but try not to incorporate them into the story until the time you go back to the manuscript.

Allow time for editing and revising your manuscript.  Editing and revising is an important stage of developing a manuscript. It can be difficult as it often involves having to cut out prose we have painstakingly crafted.  This stage is not only about cutting, but also filling in gaps.

As you edit, cut out sections where you have over explained and any repetition. As you work through your draft, look out for any narration, subplot, dialogue etc that is not relevant and /or necessary to the story.  Ask yourself what the significance of each chapter is. Dialogue serves to characterize, move the plot, or show the relationship between characters. If your dialogue is doing none of the above, consider reworking it.

One way to figure out what to cut is to look at a scene in the story and see whether if you cut it out the story will lose its essence. Remember to save all the pieces you edit out of your story, that character or dialogue you have removed from this story may work well in another one.

Feedback

It’s difficult to know when it’s time to stop working on a manuscript and let it go. This is the advantage of writing to a deadline; you will have to stop if you are to meet it. Allow yourself time for one more stage. The stage where you share your work with someone whose opinion you trust.  Because of the limited time, I would send my work out to between 2 and 3 people. Give your readers a realistic time to give you feedback and let them know when you hope to hear back from them. You might find your readers don’t have the time to read a full manuscript. In this case, I suggest you send them the chapters you feel need more development.

Now bear in mind that people’s views differ and so you are unlikely to get the same feedback.  It is tempting, especially as a new writer, to either take on board all the suggested comments or to ignore them all. The value of feedback is it helps highlight things you could possibly have missed. For example, an unbelievable character; or a 25 year old protagonist who turns 30 two years later; or a character using a mobile phone in 1980. I gave the first draft of Patchwork to my sister as my first reader, and she brought to my attention that  I had described a TV scene in the early 70’s in colour, however colour TV did not come to Zambia until 1978. It was a fact I had completely overlooked.

The important thing is to consider all the comments and suggestions made and go with the ones you feel need revising.  Remember it is easier for someone to say nice positive things then to mention the weaker points in your writing, so be grateful for any feedback and let your reader know you appreciate their comments whether or not you take them on board.

Aim to get the feedback from your readers at least 2 weeks before the submission deadline. This will allow you time to revise, do a final edit, and proof-read the manuscript. Avoid submitting your manuscript at the last minute. We all know the internet has a way of playing up at the most inopportune times. When I wrote my manuscript, Wandi’s Little Voice which won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa competition,  I walked into an internet café in Accra to print out the full manuscript and my floppy disk  - yes it was the days of the floppy disk – corrupted. Everything froze and I lost my story. With 24 hours to the submission deadline I rewrote the whole manuscript from the scraps of earlier print outs I had kept. In my haste to meet the deadline I cut a chapter and a half out of the story. I often wonder if editing out the chapter salvaged the story. Anyway, the lesson I learnt is never to submit a story too close to a deadline!

Once you have sent off your manuscript, congratulate yourself for all your hard work. You can afford yourself a break before you start working on your next novel!

Good luck!

Ellen Banda-Aaku is a Zambian who writes for children and adults. Her first book for children Wandi’s Little Voice won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa in 2004 and she won the Commonwealth Short story competition for her story Sozi’s Box in 2007. Her novel Patchwork won the Penguin Prize for African Writing in the fiction category and was short-listed for 2012 Commonwealth Book prize. www.ellenbandaaaku.com

This article was first published in The Star.

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