Whether you’re starting your first novel or nearly finishing your tenth, every writer needs a target to see them to the end. 500 words might not sound a lot, but these aren’t 500 normal words we’re talking about. We want 500 perfect words. What do I mean by perfect? I mean words that are publishable, words that you’d be proud for anyone to read, including literary agents, publishers or your adoring fans. By following this method, I wrote my latest novel Mervyn vs. Dennis in nine months. Compared to my other books, that’s a miracle. The Octopus Teaser took three years whereas The Papyrus Empire took six to plan, write and edit (two particularly tricky chapters took an entire year).
First off, you’ll need a draft. This doesn’t have to be a draft of the entire novel. Some writers don’t use drafts at all–they like to edit as they go. In that case, you need a draft of the scene you’re working on. As long as it’s 500 words or more, you’re set. If you don’t have 500 words to work with, go and write them now. I’ll wait. It doesn’t matter if they’re rubbish, we just need something to work with. One of the advantages of having a draft of the entire novel is that you’ll always have 500 words to work with. Personally, I don’t use drafts. I tried it once but it didn’t work; the draft I wrote sent the story in completely the wrong direction and it took me ages to figure out exactly where I’d gone wrong.
Okay, have you got 500 words to work with? Great! To show you how this process works, I’ll do it alongside you. The problem is, because I’ve been so busy publishing and promoting my new novel Mervyn vs. Dennis, I don’t actually have 500 words to work with myself. So what I’m going to do, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, is go and bash out 500 words of potential crap so I’ve got something to work with. I’ll try and write an opening to a novel I’ve been planning called Ellipsis. Not only will you get to see my work in action but you’ll also catch a glimpse of my exciting new book. Hold on to your hosepipes!
Okay, all done. Thanks for waiting! I’ve just written the first 500 words of my new novel Ellipsis. This is going to be a double exclusive. First, it’s a sneak peak at a brand new novel. Second, I’ve never shown anyone a first draft before. I find them so poorly written and embarrassing that I wish they’d never even existed. Not only are you going to see one of my shamefully bad first drafts, but you’ll also be able to witness the whole sordid mess unfold before your eyes. By the power of video capture and YouTube, I recorded my desktop as I wrote the opening 500 words over the course of 26 minutes. I’d never subject you to all that, but here it is sped up six times to a dazzling 4 minutes (with comedy background music):
Here’s a screenshot of those 500 words, warts and all:
Okay, I know it’s not great. It’s rambling and glib and just a massive infodump. It’s rubbish and ropey and all over the place. But now I’ve got 500 words to work with, we can get on with the fun part: rewriting! What you want to do is open two word processor windows, side by side. A little something like this:
Then type out everything from the right hand window into the left hand window (or vice versa), changing as you go. Keep the stuff you love and change the stuff you hate. If it feels wrong or reads badly, change it. Change it to what, you ask? Just follow your heart. Experiment and play. Most of all…have fun! The crucial thing to remember is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. This is just the second step in our editing process. There’s a good chance you’ll add things or even change whole sections. The great thing about this process is how the magic starts to happen straight away. Everything you write will be better than it was. Even if it’s new, it’ll be an improvement on what you started with. What you’re doing is like shaping clay. You’ve got the raw materials, now it’s time to build something special. With every line you rewrite, you’re discovering, word by word, the final form of your story. That’s your destination and there’s only one way to get there: writing!
In the interests of posterity, just like earlier, here’s a video of me rewriting those 500 words. This one has been sped up from 45 minutes to 7:
And here they are in all their (still rather warty) glory:
Wow, what a difference! I’d expected a few changes but not quite this much. I tried to tackle the ‘infodump’ problem by placing the narrator directly in a scene where he could discuss his issues in context. I’m not entirely sure if it’s an exciting enough opening, though. I’m hoping the humour will carry the reader forward. I’m also not sure about the narrator’s tone. I’m concerned the joke is stretching too thin and that his overreaction is too bizarre. On the next revision, I won’t try to force the story in any of these directions. Instead, I’ll keep these issues in the back of my mind and try to confront them if it feels natural. This is always one of the most important things in writing: to do what feels natural. Give your characters room to breathe, to have their own thoughts and to make their own (often poor) decisions.
Next up, I’ll do exactly the same process again: retype what I just wrote, and see what happens. If you’re interested (and not sick of the comedy music), here’s the sped up video:
And here’s the revised writing itself:
Once again, some big changes. In completely retyping the text, I’ve given the words and ideas chance to move, flow and change. If you simply stare at what you’ve written and fiddle with the punctuation, you aren’t giving the words chance to become what they’re supposed to be. Working, in this form, is a kind of discovering and this rewriting method is like a second chance. With all the words back up in the air again, they can settle in new places or form entirely new scenes.
With this latest revision, I ended up heavily editing my last version and also combining it with the backstory from the first 500 words. Once again, I anticipated none of this. Many writers complain about how tedious editing can be but with this method you can see the potential creativity and fun. I’m definitely approaching the finished shape and structure of these 500 words. I’m not sure on the ending–it feels a little forced, as if I tried to twist the action into a mini conclusion. Once again, I’ll retype everything. How many times am I going to do this? As long as it takes. I’ll continue to retype these 500 words until I only make minor changes. That might be in the next revision on another five down the line. We’ll see! Here we go again, here comes the next revision in sped-up video form:
And here’s the text itself:
Good news! While typing out this third revision, I only made minor changes. Now we can move on to the next stage of the process. What you need to do now is break your 500 words into chunks. I’ve split mine into three separated by line breaks as follows:
Once they’re separated, read the first chunk through. If you decide to make a change, then re-read from the start. Do this again and again until you can read through an entire chunk without making any adjustments. If you’re having trouble or making a mess with too many changes, simply type everything back out again just like we were doing earlier. Once you’ve managed to read through the entire text without making any changes then you’ll have finally finished the day’s 500 perfect words. Congratulations! Now let’s see how it works in action:
And here’s the final edited text:
What’s that, I hear you cry? Those 500 words aren’t perfect? Right now, with my ability, they’re perfect to me. I’d gladly show these to anyone without feeling embarrassed (which couldn’t be said for my awful first draft). Of course I’ll make some changes further down the line. I’ll gladly accept critique and incorporate ideas. There’s always the chance that I’ll never even use this scene at all (I wrote over 20 different beginnings to The Papyrus Empire). With these 500 words complete, though, I’ve taken a huge step in starting another novel. If I do the same thing another 160 times, I’ll have an 80,000 word book to show for it.
You’ll notice that I still made plenty of adjustments. Many times I made changes and then unchanged them again. There’s no real way to tell you what changes to make. What I do is read each sentence and they either feel right or wrong. Most of the time I’m not even sure why they feel wrong. Occasionally it’s obvious–if I’ve used a cliché or the flow is clunky. But most of the time I’m simply working on instinct. It’s one of the things I’ve developed in the twenty years that I’ve been writing. When I first started out, I was happy with every single sentence I wrote, but as I developed my standards got higher. For a while, it paralysed me. I’d spend entire days working on single sentences. It’s why those two chapters from The Papyrus Empire took an entire year to write. But working out this method helped me a great deal and I hope it helps you too.
If you actually watched the video all the way to the end, then have yourself a Haribo. You’ll also have noticed that I had to cheat a little. Because of the sections I cut near the start, I ended up with only 450 words by the end, so I had to write an extra paragraph to bring the word count back up. I edited it on the fly as much as I could but it likely needs more work.
Now just because you’ve written 500 perfect words, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay perfect forever. What you need to do is read them through again the next day. If you make a change, then highlight the section. This is an example of the way I do it:
Then on the following day, reread the highlighted section again. If you make another change, keep it highlighted overnight and reread it again in the morning. On the other hand, if you didn’t make any changes and everything’s groovy then unhighlight the section and give yourself a pat on the back.
People often say that writing is rewriting, that writing is the fun part and editing the chore. While I do enjoy the creative splurge of bashing out a first draft and exploring the unknown, I get much more satisfaction from basking in the warmth of 500 perfect words. While this technique might seem laborious, in my experience it’s actually the quickest way of editing your work. Without manually retyping the words back out, they’re much harder to manage and you’ll find yourself fiddling and fussing without any end.
Good luck and let me know in the comments if this technique has been helpful to you.
(If anybody’s curious, any similarity between Oliver James and Jamie Oliver is entirely coincidental.)