Ask an Author

Published by Sam Ruddock on

Guest Post by Sandra Jensen


You asked questions about completing your writing project. And we’ve got some answers for you.

How do you maintain momentum to finish a first draft? 

For me, writing – as opposed to editing – is all about finding a set of ingredients to encourage me to apply my ass to the seat, so I can “dream the dream” (I’m paraphrasing Stephen King here). This is especially the case when writing a first draft.

My ideal situation is a writing retreat or residency: a quiet room (without my usual clutter all around); a desk with a view looking out onto trees or fields or water or mountains (or all of these!); good coffee, three meals prepared for me (I’m not fussy, a buffet is fine and often I’d rather there weren’t set meal times so I can work to my own timetable) and last but not least, other writers in the building or nearby slaving away–I always do my best work if this ingredient is there. Perhaps I get extra help from other people’s muses just by being in close proximity!

I’ve written a great deal of work in these circumstances – usually writing most of the day and then gathering in the afternoon or evening with the other writers. Some retreats I’ve attended have a code of silence until the evening meal. I love this, it fosters a wonderfully intense atmosphere.

I tend to prefer self-directed retreats, or at least those which allow for plenty of solitary writing time, but having an expert on hand, or someone ‘holding the space’ can really be a boost to flagging energy or spirits.

Luckily I’ve received literature grants to attend some residencies (at The Banff Centre, for example, all the right ingredients and then some!), but otherwise retreats and residencies are not always affordable so I try to re-create some of the aspects myself: a finite period of time (a week, for example), easily prepared (or pre-prepared) meals and firm instructions to all and sundry I’m not to be disturbed during the day (my cat ignores these instructions). Sometimes I’ve arm-wrestled a friend to join me in the ‘page a day’ process via email, and this keeps me on task.


How soon after finishing a first draft should you start editing and rewriting it for a second draft? 

The longer I leave a first draft in the drawer, the easier I find the editing process. I’ve sometimes returned to short stories I’ve had problems with years later, and instantly spotted how to improve them. And, novels can allow for this gestation period given just how long they are: by the time I’ve edited the first chapter, the second will have ‘sat’ for a while (and the last for a great deal more time–I suspect my final chapters are often better than my first ones!). Some writers edit as they write, fine-tuning each sentence as they go. For me, this destroys the dreaming state and can pull me down a rabbit hole on the internet or into a spiral of self-doubt.


Do you have any tips for editing and rewriting? At what point should I get outside eyes to read it?

Ah, this is a hard one. I’m rather chaotic in how I approach all things in life, including editing! I do try to do an initial read all the way through without focusing on line-edits. It’s easy to tweak sentences, but harder to work on plot, pacing and characterisation – and if I’m tweaking sentences without working on the bigger picture first, I could be wasting my time on sentences that will, in the end, be deleted. And I believe in re-reading, and re-reading, and re-reading. It’s exhausting, but for me it’s the only way. I’ll read a draft to the end, make edits, re-read the draft, make more edits and so on. I don’t always do it, but reading one’s work aloud is very helpful, my ears often catch things my eyes don’t.

I’m also blessed to have an excellent first reader in my partner. I do give him fairly rough work, but it’s better if I can wrestle things into some sort of shape first so he doesn’t have to wade through boggy (baggy?!) material. I have one trusted writer friend I swap work with, she gives me excellent feedback and I have a writer friend, Michelle Bailat-Jones, who is a professional editor (and translator). I use her if I’m still unsure about my work and I do pay her. I think this is important: unless you’re swapping work with another writer, it’s a huge ask to have a friend read a whole novel.

I’ve also learned I need to trust my instincts. They don’t always shout loud enough, but quite frequently I have a quiet but niggling sense of something not working, or it could be that I pause a bit too long over a section (or sentence), and this usually indicates I need either to get rid of it, or change it.

Here’s a writing tip that helps me with editing: overwrite. I find it easier to delete sentences/paragraphs/words from a draft than to put them in later when I’m no longer in dreaming-writing mode. So the more detail I put down in the initial draft the better, especially those important ‘sensuous’ details (sounds, smells, textures, tastes).

And then there is Scrivener. A fantastic word-processing program and outliner designed for authors. Once I have a first draft of a novel, I separate out the chapters (or scenes) into Scrivener documents. Depending on what I’m doing, my main window has the scene or chapter I’m working on, and to the left a list of ALL my chapters or scenes (these can be put into folders for sections or parts). In this way I can see my entire novel, in a sense, on my screen, rather than digging around in my brain, or trawling through one long document or searching in folders on my hard drive (remember my chaotic approach – things are filed in all sorts of weird places). The application window has areas for notes and a synopsis of each chapter/document, and you can make folders to collect research or character sketches and so on. It’s possible to view all chapter or scene synopses on a corkboard, and move them around—the possibilities are endless, really. It’s not an expensive programme and there’s plenty of free online help. I tend not to write my first drafts in Scrivener itself (no good reason!), yet many writers do. I don’t know half of Scrivener’s features, but using it has quite literally changed my writing/editing life for the better.


If I need help with my work, a professional editorial eye, where can I find it?

There are many freelance editors out there, some published authors, and I’ve had wonderful help from a few, I mention Michelle above, and another is Adrienne Marie Barrios. However, much of my experience with using professional editors has been with The Literary Consultancy. Their Chapter and Verse mentoring scheme was part of my prize for winning the Bridport Prize for a novel. They also offer other editorial services and I can’t recommend them highly enough. Story Machine has editing packages ranging from feedback and advice and a comprehensive edit, and while I haven’t used these for my fiction, Sam did an exceptional job giving editorial suggestions and feedback on my grant applications, I’m certain he’d be great working on other material.


How do you cope with the exhaustion of redrafting when you thought the book was finished?

I’m smiling as I read this question! Novels are exhausting. And, seemingly never-ending. For one novel (in a drawer right now) I wrote several emails to friends over the years of writing it saying, “I’m on the last draft” when in fact I wasn’t even close (and still am not…).

Breaks are important. My mind is clearer if I have some days away from the novel (usually enforced, I find it impossible *not* to keep working). I also wish I could commit to an alternative creative endeavour to balance my day: a musical instrument to play, a painting to work on, a garden to tend. I believe activities like this let certain parts of the brain rest (and can inspire the free-flow of ideas for writing).

But in the end, I couldn’t manage without the support of other writers, knowing I am not alone, knowing others have gone through, or are going through, the same thing.


How do you know when a book is ready to submit to prizes/agents/publishers? And how do you best find places to submit to? 

I think with experience one has a sense when a piece of work is finished – or at least as finished as it can be prior to an agent or publisher’s input. If you don’t already have an agent to help advise, then I’d definitely listen hard to those trusted readers of yours. To be sure, get professional advice (from, for example, the two organisations mentioned above). If you’re looking for representation, be very careful about submitting to an agent too early. Many will not look at a new draft of your work if they passed on it the first time around.

Novel competitions are a different category, if you don’t place, you can always enter the following year. Competitions usually only ask for the first chapter or so. The Bridport Prize is a bit different, they ask for an initial 5000-8000 words and then more if you progress. Actually, when I entered, I *only* had about five thousand words written and edited, and I didn’t read the small print…When I heard I was longlisted and they needed an additional 10,000 words for the next stage of the judging process (i.e. a total of 15,000 words including my original submission), I had those words, but in very, very rough first draft and I had but a couple of days to edit and send on. I was in New York, visiting friends. They barely saw me. At that point I understood if I was shortlisted they’d want another 15,000 words, so I re-purposed a residency I was about to attend (I’d planned on working on a different project) and wrote and edited like mad for two weeks in the mountains of Banff. I’m not sure I could’ve done this at home, so the timing was nothing short of miraculous.

A word of warning: competitions are subjective. I’ve had work get nowhere in a relatively minor competition, only to win or place highly in an important competition. Don’t get discouraged, use competition deadlines as a way to get you working and editing.

Another word of warning: ‘tips’ and suggestions are also subjective. This applies to all my blogs on writing. What works for me may very well not work for you, so take anything I say lightly!


Further Reading

This is one of a series of blogs that Sandra Jensen has written for Story Machine. You can read them here:

The Art of the Grant: How to Get Arts Council Funding to Finish Your Book

Writing When Ill: Tools for writing, no matter what

Ask an Author: You asked questions about completing your writing project. And we’ve got some answers for you.

What Rough Beast?: Letting go of what you have already written and starting a new creative project

About Sandra Jensen

Sandra Jensen’s work has been published in a number of literary magazines and journals; her awards include winning the 2019 Bridport Prize for a first novel.She was a guest writer and panelist at the International Conference on the Short Story and a workshop leader at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka. She’s received writing and travel grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. You can find out more about her at www.sandrajensen.net.


Book Today! Workshop – Writing Well with Illness or Disability with Sandra Jensen

Are you a writer who wants to develop their craft? Do you live with illness, disability, or a chronic or life-limiting condition? This is the workshop for you.

Saturday 11th December
2-4pm
Zoom – joining details will be shared with you before the workshop.
£5 or free for low income with the code ‘WRITE’. Self-certification, no proof needed.
Places limited – booking is essential

Categories: Writing Tips

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