Thursday, December 18, 2008

Guest Author: Jan Brogan

Our guest blogger today is award-winning author, Jan Brogan. Brogan has been a journalist for twenty years and is a winner of the Gerald Loeb award for distinguished financial writing.

In addition to having taught writing, she published her first novel in 2001. Final Copy won The Drood Review of Mystery’s Editors’ Choice award, was named one of the best eight mysteries published in 2001. A Confidential Source (Mysterious Press, April 2005) received a rave review in The New York Times Book Review and was chosen by The Mystery Guild Book Club as an alternate spring selection. Yesterday’s Fatal published by St Martin’s Press in May, 2007, was named a “Killer Book” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association and one of the summer’s best reads by Northeast Public Radio. Her new book, Teaser, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in December.

Welcome Jan!

Write With Authority

When writers talk about the “channeling the characters,” or about a story just “coming to me.” I want to scream. Stories don’t just “come to me.” After the adrenaline rush of a new idea begins to wane – at about page 40 to 60, the fear settles in. What if I can’t make it work this time?

I’ve written four novels, now. I should be past this, right? But part of my problem is that I like multiple plots. And these complex plots must converge. For that reason, the first draft feels like torture every time – it’s always an irritating riddle I may not be able to solve.

What I’ve learned about myself is this: I don’t really like writing. I LOVE rewriting.

So, no matter how troubled my first draft is, I struggle to the end. That’s when the fun begins. As insecure as I am in my first draft writing, I’ve gained confidence in my second draft system. It works every time.

I start by letting the draft sit a week or two. This gives my addled brain a rest and let’s me approach it with fresh eyes.

Next, I divide the book into four acts. The setup, usually around the first 100 pages; the midpoint, about another 100 pages, including “the twist” that sends the protagonist in another direction; the climax, which concludes the crisis and critical action; and finally, the reflection, which wraps everything up.

Then, I sit down to read each act with a pen and notebook in my hand. As I read, I make detailed notes. This could be anything from weak dialogue, to stilted prose, to a note that the scene needs a better or different conflict. I mark the page numbers and store the notes in a manila folder for each section.

Something about the longhand note-taking process gets at a different part of my brain, and around Act II or III, a miracle occurs: complete clarity. All of a sudden I realize what I’m really trying to get at with this book. What the purpose of the story is, and what is getting in the way.

I finish my note-taking and write a revision plan. One for each act, and then another for the entire novel. Armed with a plan of attack, I can write with authority. The second draft seems like a breeze. Like I could sit down and write it all in one sitting.

Recently, I had the unique experience of writing a mini-screenplay for my book trailer, and co-directing the project. It was amazing; the same rules applied. Writing the mini-screenplay, casting the actors and finding the props and settings (the first draft,) were really hard work. But co-directing the trailer – pushing for a different attitude in a line or moving a plastic cup for its visual effect – (the second draft) was the most fun I’ve ever had. It was like rewriting in three dimensions.

You can watch the trailer on YouTube. It was a rewriting dream come true.

Thank you, Jan!

If you have questions or comments for Jan, be sure to visit the Comments section.


  1. You're the first author I've heard say they love the re-write...very different. Thanks for sharing with all of us, very informative.

  2. Fascinating article. How fun and interesting to know what goes on inside the heads of other writers as they do what they do. Jan, when did it occur to you that for you taking long-hand notes as you re-read your first draft activates a "different" part of the brain - I assume its the "problem solving" portion of the gray matter? Did you just decide to try it on a whim once and liked it? I found that to be of special interest.
    Perhaps worth a try. I also relate to the "stumped" feeling you can sometimes get when developing a plot on breakneck inspired speed and then you suddenly hit this dead end where the darn thing just doesn't seem to make whole sense anymore - lol. Glad I'm not the only one!

  3. Hi John,
    I find it amazing that other writers don't like the rewrite. To me, the first draft is problem solving and the second draft is the artwork. That's why I show no one but my writers group my first draft. EVER. It's REALLY messy.

    Marvin, I think I just stumbled upon this process. I needed to be able to get a handle on my first draft. See what I really thought about it. And as a reporter, taking notes by hand came naturally. Then when I started having epiphanies while note-taking I made up the part about it stimulating a different part of the brain.

    But for me it works! Now I'm off to a first draft. UGH!

  4. Then I'll be the second person to say I LOVE the rewrite, and HATE first draft. Jan's comments about the first one sounded SO much like me!! The process preparing for the second one I found VERY helpful, and made note of it. I am in first draft of my fourth book right now and already have clammy palms and sweaty forehead! Thanks Jan. And the mini screen play was great! Hooked me good!

  5. Like Marvin, I find it interesting to see how other authors work. I like the first draft and the second draft. I don't take such copious notes as you do, Jan, but I do approach the second draft in much the same way, looking for plot problems as well as all the rest you mentioned. What I really, really, hate is the final draft where I am supposed to be proofing and copy editing. No matter how hard I try to just concentrate on that, I get caught up in content.

    Loved your trailer. I have done some work in film and you are right, it is a real creative high.

  6. Thanks Sylvia and Maryann for the kinds words about the trailer.

    It's really interesting how every one develops their own methods.
    To a large part, I think good writing comes from confidence in the story. And we all have our ways to gain that confidence

    (now if I could just develop confidence in the whole marketing part...ick, I hate it)

    And I agree, there does come a point in a manuscript where you just can't see anything anymore. But that's why the publisher has copyeditors.

  7. It is interesting to see how others write. Some don't know the killer until he reveals t himself at the end. Some plot out extensively. Some worry and fester over the first draft and hate re-drafts. Some -- like Jan and Sylvia love the second draft period.

    This is such a great conversation going on in the comments section!

  8. Hi, Jan. I enjoyed your article and am wowed by your trailer! I also like the rewrite after I've struggled with the first draft. I read recently about the three-act play, which originated with I believe Sophocles in 1 AD. It's fascinating that his technique has survived and is still being used.

  9. Hi Jean,
    Glad you liked the article, but REALLY glad you liked the trailer!

    It's so interesting how all our different minds work!

    Helen, I'm in the camp that has to have an idea of the ending. Usually I get a better idea as I go on, but even if I don't use it, I have to have a plan to start.

    I always tell students that writing badly serves an important purpose. If you can see that its bad, you've already improved!

  10. "If you can see that its bad, you've already improved!"

    How true Jan!

  11. Jan,
    I loved the trailer and hurried over to the Kindle store to see if the book was available in a Kindle edition. I was SO disappointed that it isn't—vision problems make it difficult for me to read print.

    Also enjoyed the article and appreciate your sharing your writing process.

  12. Thanks Lillie,
    I mention this to my publisher! It was fun being here, you're a great crowd!
    all best,


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