Student Spotlight: The Power of Outlining (and How He Finished a First Draft in 3 Months) With James Beswick
I recently sat down for a conversation with James Beswick—one of the writers who took my Notes to Novel course earlier this year—to talk about his outlining, writing, and editing journey over the last 12 months.
To give you a quick overview of James’s amazing accomplishments, he enrolled in the Notes to Novel course in January, finished a fully fleshed-out outline by March, and then had his 80,000-word first draft written by June. At the time of recording this episode, it’s mid-September, and James is now working through his second draft. So, he did all of that in the last nine months—pretty cool, right?
In our conversation, James shares some advice for writers who might be struggling to get started. Like most of us, James is a very busy guy with a full-time job and a family, so I think you’re going to like hearing how he carved out time to outline and write his first draft. He also shares what it was that finally took the overwhelm out of writing–and spoiler alert, he’s talking about the genre framework I teach inside of the Notes to Novel program. And funnily enough, James says he now suffers from the opposite of writer’s block–so, it’s no longer that he struggles to get the writing done, it’s now more like he has so many ideas, and a writing method that works, that he can more or less pick and choose which idea he wants to work with next–and, that is a pretty great place to be if you ask me.
So, this is a jam-packed episode with my wonderful and talented student James Beswick, and I’m so excited to share his story with you. If you want to listen to this episode, click here or search for the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast in your podcast player of choice.
Transcript: How James Used His Outline to Help Him Finish a First Draft in 3 Months
SAVANNAH: Welcome James, and thank you for coming on the fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. I'm so excited to have you here today.
JAMES: Thanks so much for inviting me, Savannah. It's great to be here.
SAVANNAH: Sure. Yeah. And you have a really fun story when it comes to deciding to write a book, going out and finding the help you need to make it happen, and then basically cranking out a pretty solid first draft in a handful of months.
JAMES: It's been a whirlwind. I'm kind of amazed I got to this point in some regards, but yeah, it's incredible to think where it all started from and, you know, where we're at so far in the process.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And we're gonna talk about all that. We're going to dive deep into each step you took to get there. But I think your story is a great example of what's possible for people. And I know it's gonna inspire so many people just by hearing your story and hearing you talk about the struggles you had and even the aha moments and things like that. So let's start at the very top. Tell people who you are, what you're all about, what kind of books you like, what kind of books you write, all that fun stuff.
JAMES: Yeah. So my name is James Beswick. In real life, I work in software. Nothing to do with writing and, but I do a lot of writing for my work, just technical writing and presenting to people and that kinda thing. But for really, for the longest time, I've thought about writing a book, I suppose many people have, but it's one of those things that sits in the back of your mind. And really hadn't done anything with it for a very, very long time. And then at some point during the pandemic, I think I'd watched everything on Netflix, read everything I could get my hands on and decided it was time to probably, you know, see if I could write that book. I like reading young adult stuff, but I’ll also read pretty much anything that’s out there. I’m someone who tries to read 8-10 books a year, you know, work and life interrupts that—I wouldn't claim I'm the most avid reader of all time, but I do enjoy reading.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, that's cool. And so like I said, we're going to talk through your writing journey. We're going to give people a highlight reel and then we're gonna go deeper. So, your highlight reel is that you, like you just said, you wanted to write a book. You enrolled in the Notes to Novel course in January. You had an outline done by, I think it was March, right?
SAVANNAH: And then you had a first draft done by June or July. After that, you got a manuscript evaluation, and I'm guessing you're working on your second draft now.
JAMES: Yes. Yeah, that's true. That’s exactly right.
SAVANNAH: Congratulations, because that is… I mean, It's September now, when we’re recording this. That’s nine months of actually going out and taking the action to write a book—outlining a whole draft that was solid, then drafting, and by June or July, you’re done. And you’re almost done with the second draft, I'm sure.
JAMES: Yeah. A lot of it came down to planning. So, the first time that Notes to Novel enrollment came around, I didn't join the course because I couldn't commit enough time with my work schedule and I just thought there's no point in signing up if I couldn't really make that commitment. So, I waited until January until I knew my work life would calm down and I could really put the time in. But you know, I spent a lot of time going through the materials and doing all the exercises and really, you know, soaking up all the information. But then it came down to really how do you carve time out of your life to do this thing? Because I mean, we're all, we're all busy. I'm not different from anybody else, but I found that there was a routine where I could take an hour every morning from six till seven before work started, and then I take three or four hours each day at the weekend. And although at the beginning it felt like very small steps, you know. But over time, I was able to pick up pace and close the gap. So I didn't create an artificial deadline saying it must be done by this time. I just wanted to see daily progress.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And that's so important too. I think a lot of people get so focused on that—I'm gonna have it done in six months and then, it starts to put all this pressure on the process where if you do take the small baby steps, like you're saying, it's like pushing a boulder downhill. You know, it picks up speed, it picks up moss, all that. But also, structure wise in a story, once you get over a certain hump, it's like we start closing all the loops. So it actually does get easier if we just dig in and do the work. But I'm curious, let's rewind even before you joined Notes to Novel, what, had you tried anything else to write a book or like what, what was that pre-Notes to Novel period like?
JAMES: I'd occasionally open Microsoft Word and sort of look at the blank screen and I even got to a couple of templates where you get that double spacing effect, you know? And I had written a couple of paragraphs and it really was not going anywhere fast because you just don’t know what you're doing. And the problem is that I think you think about authors as being these people who just, you know, spew out brilliance. They sit in front of the word processor and just do it. And so I pretty quickly realized that I wasn't going to get to anything approaching a book length by doing that, and that's when I decided to look for help.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, and that's such a good point because we all compare ourselves to published books. I still do it too. We look at an author, you know, I always look at the Harry Potter series and I'm like, how did she think of all this stuff? It wasn't done on the first draft, so it's like I have to remind myself of that every day.
SAVANNAH: So then when you were out in the world looking for help, what made you choose the Notes to Novel course?
JAMES: So a long time ago I'd done some work around looking at Save the Cat! as a concept. I was really interested in screenwriting a couple of decades ago and so I thought I'd look at that again cause I had this great idea that if you could write a screenplay, you could probably write a novel—cause it’s the same thing, right? And then I'd looked up online and found some pieces you'd written about how Save the Cat! mapped to novel writing. But then I started looking at more things you'd written and more of the tools you put out there. And that's when I thought, oh, Savannah seems to really be, you know, an excellent teacher in this space. So I started going down the road of discovering it that way. And I suppose that's my entry point because it's just the Save the Cat! model from a long time ago worked well for me when I was just getting into the screenplay side of things, but honestly it doesn't work very well in the novel concept. So it’s funny to see the journey from where I thought that would work out perfectly to seeing where it doesn't really help that much.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, and it's so funny because I either meet people who are like, “I wanted to write a screenplay and I thought it would be easy to write a novel.” Or they're the opposite. Like, “I'm gonna write a novel because I think it might be easier to write than a screenplay.” So it's so funny. We think these are the same things. And you know, I could go on a tangent about this, but I work with a lot of people who come from writing screenplays, and a novel is an entirely different beast because you have to show like, the interiority of the character and you don't have producers and directors that are going to help you make this into reality, you know?
JAMES: Yeah. I think when I originally started, I had this really crazy idea that, you know, you sort of write a novel and just sort of tip out the screenplay over a weekend. Cause hey, you've done a novel, all the hard work's done. I can see at this point that's kind of lunacy. I mean, it's basically the difference between drawing an architecture and a house and building out a basement.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, they’re not the same task. I mean, I wish it was that easy and straightforward, but it is not. So, okay, then you found the Notes to Novel course. Was there anything that you were worried about or did you have doubts about joining?
JAMES: Well, originally just the time was my doubt. I thought, could I really invest the time necessary given work? And that was really a concern. So that's why I missed the first one. Getting to the second time, I didn't really have any doubts because I was very, very anxious to do this. It got to the point where, I don't know if people remember the depths of the pandemic, but it's, you know, you just want to do something with meaning when you’re spending so much of your time sitting around. So I'd really, at that point, mentally committed to it. I wouldn't say I wasn't worried about, you know, the quality of my work because I'm not trying to compete with anybody—I’m doing it for my own sense of what I want to do. So, really, it was just the anxiety I suppose, is just how do you take those first baby steps into writing the novel.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. To achieve something that you dream of achieving, right?
SAVANNAH: I get a question a lot and I would love to hear your thoughts on like, do you think it was right to defer the time or do you think it would've been fine if you joined the Notes to Novel course in November?
JAMES: That's a great question. I mean, I think you should defer the time if you have to. If it's an excuse because you have doubts and you want to push it off, don't do that. You know, just make the time. In my case, because of my job, I really knew that I would not be able to squeeze it in. But then I also committed mentally I was going to immediately do it in the January course so I knew that I wouldn’t just push it off. Many people would like to just push it off because it’s hard and it’s hard to make time, but I wouldn't recommend that. I think if you're ready to go, just do it.
SAVANNAH: It’s funny because I always tell people kind of what you just said, like if you literally have a good reason to defer writing a book, go ahead and defer it. Just make a plan for, you know, tapping back into whatever that dream is. But yeah—so, then you got in the course and what was that experience like?
JAMES: It was amazing actually. I think as someone who's read a lot of novels (not written any) you have no real idea of what the process is, or what mechanics are underpinning it. So you throw back the curtain on what's going on behind the scenes of stories—and some of your presentations on genre and key scenes are just extraordinary because, you know, it's kind obvious—we read novels—so you’re like, yeah, of course, but it’s not obvious until it’s shown to you and you can see it. And so it's really, those first sessions are very illuminating on understanding how you can fit into this existing world of how things get built. And I think that takes away all the terror of, oh, there's 80,000 words to write and a bunch of blank paper. What do I do with that?
SAVANNAH: Right. I actually had a note because... I hate calling one of the modules the most important—because I'm biased and I think they're all important—but I do have to say the genre module is probably the most important because it gives you that framework. And it makes you kind of pick a lane. People are always worried, what if I pick the wrong genre? It's okay. You know, you pick a lane, you go with it, and then that tells you kind of the lens or the flavor that you're gonna look at everything else through. So your outline, your characters, your theme… I mean, literally everything. Right?
JAMES: Yeah. And that gives you those guardrails as well where you want to still obviously be creative throughout the process, but at some point you need to start limiting where you're going so you can actually focus on the chunks of work. Right? If you can immediately find what genres you're working with, then you know what you've got to do. And as you say, it's really just a framework. I mean, I think people panic in case it's some sort of formula and it's going to restrict their creativity. But yeah, in reality it's more just knowing the steps that you have in front of you.
SAVANNAH: Right. And then you can choose what you do with them. So, was it hard to choose the genre for your book?
JAMES: In my case, surprisingly not because I'd realized by looking at the genre list things I don't really have so much interest in versus the ones that I do. And I think it came down to a couple of genres. I was a bit torn between a few, and I read all the different contrasting points they had to have. And then I very quickly found the ones that I think my book fell into.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And you landed on Action with an internal Worldview arc, right?
SAVANNAH: And I guess this would be a good time… do you have a blurb or can you describe your book quickly? I know I sent you on the spot—sorry.
JAMES: It's fine. So, essentially my book is about a teenager who has run away from home because he's been accused of a crime that he didn't commit and he's living essentially off the grid, down in Florida. And then events happen where he's called back home where he has the ability to make things good again and repair events in the past through some magic that happens. And so it takes him on a journey to essentially restore his name with his family and reconnect with friends in his past.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And one thing that's cool about your story, I'm just going to add a layer to that, is… I can't remember if you said this, but your character was falsely accused of a crime. So in a way, going back home means he can clear up some of the mistakes and issues that he initially created by leaving. He can also clear his name and reconnect with some of the people that he misses in his life and all that fun stuff. So, okay, this is great because I think we're probably gonna get into some more specifics. Also, we should mention his life is at stake as he navigates all of this. So, I think you're right that yours might have been a little more straightforward to choose the genre, but I could also see you arguing like maybe at a point in your head, was it thriller? Is it crime? Is it, you know, something else? But I think you made the right choice landing on action. So, okay, so you picked your genre, you went through the course. Fast forward to, I believe it was March when you had a finished outline. So that's at most… three months from starting the course to having an outline. What was it like to create an outline?
JAMES: Terrifying. Yeah.
SAVANNAH: Are you naturally a plotter?
JAMES: I think I'm not. I'm somewhere in the middle where I like to see where something goes and zoom out and then try to get some structure around it. Then it feels too vague. Zoom back in. So, I'm somewhere there and I'd looked at outlining before, just as a broad technique and just gotten lost because it's just a massive, massive journey when you look at it. I think what was different here was that you'd given us some guardrails in terms of finding the key events in your story from front to back, what the catalysts were, the act breaks were, the final scenes and so forth. And so using that, I was able to break it down into quarters, and once I knew what had to happen by the beginning and end of each quarter, figuring out 10 scenes in each quarter was a much smaller challenge than, you know, 80,000 words.
JAMES: And that point, I was able to then dissect it. Another key piece of advice that you gave was absolutely critical was this idea that one scene follows the next, which again, it sounds obvious, but you know, you don't think that way in your writing. And so once I've realized that, All the events were inevitable. One flows from the other to the, to the next to next. Suddenly it accelerated the ability to do the outline. And yeah, I think in that three months, I sat for six weeks with an empty outline and another four weeks with a very vague outline. And suddenly it came together very quickly.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And I think that's how it happens for a lot of people that embrace the whole process and the idea that it's not gonna be perfect right away, you know? I find a lot of people to overthink that cause and effect where it's like they, they kind of dismiss the fact that there's a character who, if you've created or fleshed them out in a way that is real, they're going to help you make the decisions just based on like what a human would naturally do. So did you find any of that where you were kind of like, gosh, this is a little easy. Like is it weird that it's easy?
JAMES: Yeah. And a couple of other things you've added that really helped. One was this idea that fundamentally the character has to have stakes that they choose between each scene. But also they have, you have to describe internally what they're thinking in each scene. You've added that as something to, to work on. That was actually magic. Because when you put those two together, suddenly things happen. You don't have scenes where someone just shows up and has a cup of coffee and chats and they all agree and they leave and it gets rid of those problematic scenes where nothing seems to be moving forward. Or like, why is it here? It becomes much leaner and it's telling.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And that's so funny because… it's what writers end up spending a lot of time on is they'll have all this like fat in their draft and it's like, you know, scenes where people get coffee and then it's like the woman goes to the store and she buys a dress, and then it's like, what are we doing here? You know? So I think, yeah, that cause and effect chain from scene to scene and also making sure there's that like goal, conflict decision set up through each scene if you can, I mean, I, on this podcast, we've talked about that in different episodes, but if we can keep that in mind, it just helps eliminate potential future issues.
JAMES: I did find that I had to make things more difficult for my hero. I've realized in the past I was just being too nice to the guy. And really, you know, beating up your hero in act one, putting him into a place where he’s got no choice but to go down this journey… And then you're beating him up again towards the end of that journey too. Really just, just making it more extreme and more difficult for them. Although it felt painful at the beginning, I think it made the dramatic elements better in the story.
SAVANNAH: Well, and it's back to that truth of like, people don't change unless we face conflict, right? Because we'll sit on the couch all day if nothing's pressuring us to do something else. So, yeah. I think it's one of the hardest things writers have to deal with is making, putting their character through something tough. Because we all identify with our characters to some extent, so we don't wanna go through something difficult.
SAVANNAH: I remember there was a time in the Notes to Novel course that you sent your outline in for feedback and there were like three main things that I remember saying to you. One was that you really did do a great job with the internal aspect of each scene. I remember that. And you just said that was a huge help. So I think that's kind of fun that you paid a lot of attention to it, and it paid off because your outline was strong. And then there were a few notes about your character making decisions in each scene. Like some scenes you had your character face a choice, but in other ones, we needed to beef that up. And then there were a few scenes where I was like, I don't know if we need this or maybe we should move this here and there. Do you remember anything else?
JAMES: Yeah, I think those are the major things, and then it became this trick of how you could collapse a couple of scenes into one or, or just do some compositing tricks, putting things together or just removing them entirely. I remember the outline. I changed probably 25 or 30% based on your feedback. And the funny thing is, I'd shown it to my wife, and she's an avid reader, but doesn't have mechanics of how to write a book. And so I showed her the first outline and then I showed her the second one and her reaction was, “Oh, this is much better!” And she doesn't know why, but she just read it as being much, much more engaging and got the point basically.
SAVANNAH: That's so cool. And so that must have felt good because you’re like, “Okay, she noticed a difference right away. My hard work is paying off.” And I mean, you did a lot of groundwork—you did a lot of the hard work during the outlining phase. So what was it like when it came time to actually write the draft?
JAMES: I was really ready at that point. Funny enough, I felt that I had the roadmap and it was all just a series of, you know, 2,000 word chunks at that point, more or less. And so that's when I got into this day by day routine of just seeing what I could chew off each day. And I think initially it's hard, you know… You're opening the blank page and it's chapter one, such and such happens. Lots of pressure, terrifying, lots of pressure. You know, this has to be, you know, a publishable version one day or something. But I think once you let that go and you just start producing words, it's critical. And then you said something as well that really helped was that don't edit what you've written, just keep moving forward. And so I'd written some absolutely terrible stuff in the beginning—it just wasn't good. I was just getting from point A to point B, but it got me into the process, and then I didn't go back and fix whatever logic errors or characters might be missing… I just kept going until I’d essentially blasted through 80,000 words. And, at that point, it was almost like the clouds lifted because you can say, well, I did it. I completed the challenge of writing this much stuff. Now I just have to make it good.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And imagine if you had spent that time editing a, you probably, well you wouldn't have finished then with your first draft. You may not have finished even now. I mean, who knows depending on how long you went back to edit. You said the clouds lifted… And I think that is the best feeling for a writer to get to when even though there are issues, it's like, okay, I know what this is, or I know what it wants to be. Now I can kind of make decisions for how I want to tweak things to make it that. Is that how you felt?
JAMES: Exactly. And there's something else that happened over the course of this and during the course with you is that you realize the book isn't a final fixed thing. Right? It's a liquid piece of work that moves around anywhere you want it to. And once you accept that, that becomes very liberating because essentially you can have good parts, missing parts, whatever you want. It's just finding that path through… and the story only really gets locked at the very end when you choose. And you don't realize this coming into this as a new writer. So, to me that was just incredible. Just a sense of, well, I could move this character here or take this person out or make this happen earlier. It's never really dawned on me before.
SAVANNAH: Right. And I think it's hard for a lot of writers because–well, there are many reasons, but—a) because we compare ourselves to publish works, but then also b) it's like we spend so much time, let's say, writing a side character that then we realize might not need to be there—if we’ve spent all this time doing that, and if we're not coming into it with this fluid mindset of like, I want to tell the best story that I can and I want to convey a certain message, then we're gonna get stuck in those weeds of like… but this character, it took me so long to figure out their motivations and blah blah blah. Even if it doesn't match the vision you have for it, it's like you hang onto it cause you've spent so much time doing it. And I think you were able to skip over a lot of that because you went into it with a mindset of like, this is gonna be something that's living and breathing. It is going to take multiple drafts. So was it hard to hold that mindset?
JAMES: I mean, there are definitely days when you're doing it where it feels it's very lonely as a process. I mean, if you sat there by yourself writing, it's not like you've got a million people to talk to about it. And even though people want to be supportive and helpful, they don't really know what you're doing mentally with the thing. And so there's definitely points where you can feel this is just, this is hard—and it is hard. But I think it's funny because after about 30 or 40% of what was written, it started to become real. And it was much more like I was telling the story of some people I once knew, instead of it being this stick figure drawing.
SAVANNAH: Isn't that funny?
JAMES: It was very strange. I've never had this experience before. But it's really bizarre how it just comes to life. And then you're kind of just finding the right words to describe the thing that happened.
SAVANNAH: Because you had done so much work to flesh out your character, whose name is Jonas, and because—if you do that kind of work up front, they do become real. And it's not James moving Jonas around the chessboard anymore. It's Jonah saying, “I'm taking this action because of who I am and because of what happens.” But yeah, I think that's really cool. And then, so come June, July-ish, you were done with your first draft. So from January to June, you had outlined, and you had finished an 80,000 word first draft. What made you decide that it was time to get some outside feedback?
JAMES: So I think the big mystery here is you just have no objectivity at that point. And, you know, I've written versions of scenes and I didn’t even remember the final state at that point. It’s like when you just literally just stepped out of it and you wonder, is this something that flows? Because I mean, my basic goal with this was to do something entertaining more than anything. And so I first gave it to my wife. She was the first reader, and I said, go read this and see what you think of it. But even past that stage, I really wanted professional help with it in terms of telling me what works and what doesn't work—where should you push more, take things away and move it around. And so, although I'd finished at that point, and it was really a wonderful day. I will remember it forever, getting that draft finished. But I knew that there was more work to be done.
SAVANNAH: And how did you feel about your draft at that stage? Like, I know the feeling of finishing it was very exciting, but were you like, I can't believe I wrote something that feels like an actual book?
JAMES: Yeah, funny enough, I put it into the Kindle format and I was on a long flight so I could read it, and it was like an actual book. This isn't terrible. But at the same time, I knew that it's just, I had some doubts because I knew that I'd gotten better at writing various things as you progressed. And I knew the earlier stuff wasn't as good as the latest stuff. And I also thought there were some plot lines and things were a bit questionable and maybe didn't work so well. But I needed someone else to tell me that. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, if I rewrote the story, I wouldn't do it this way. You just need that second voice, I think.
SAVANNAH: And what did your wife think when she read it? Did she finish it?
JAMES: Yeah, she finished and she really liked it. There's a couple of surprises in the book she didn't see coming. She didn't get confused anywhere. But yeah, I think that she was happy with it, but ultimately there's not much more feedback she can give me. Cause all I really need from her is, is it entertaining? Does it work? But beyond that, it's just, she can't help me. I needed more help.
SAVANNAH: And that's the case for most of our friends and family… And even some of our fellow writers…. It's really hard to give feedback. Unless we're kind of trained in this ability, which some people are. Some people are very good at giving beta reader feedback, but for most of the average humans, it's just not their skill set. So, okay, fast forward to getting the feedback. Well, actually, I wanna back up. So, I tell people a lot that we hear this thing on the internet that Act 2 is going to be the hardest to write. I actually think Act 1 is the hardest to write because like you said earlier, your skill set isn’t developed 100% yet. You're kind of finding your rhythm, you're finding your characters… A lot of people put a ton of pressure on Act 1, so it's almost like this self-inflicted cage we put ourselves in and then we get stuck in the beginning. That's why I think it's the hardest. But did you find that there was a harder section to write?
JAMES: To me, the second half of Act 2 is the hardest because I felt that the growing complexities and the things that have to happen to raise stakes, actually really pressure test your story. And it's easy to find that not enough happens, or that it's just not good enough. And then when you start looking at that, it does then feed back into the things you've not done in Act 1. So, A lot of these things are kind of connected. I found the same with Act 3. I got a fairly clear idea of the thing that had to happen. And the skills that the hero needed to get through and you know, the big surprises. So I was able to put those back into Act 1 fairly early on. But it was that second part of Act 2... Because it's just such a long act. I mean, you just, yeah… it feels like it’s never going to end.
SAVANNAH: I like what you said earlier, that you thought about it in terms of quarters. So each like quadrant of the story, which, that's how I like to look at it too. I think that's really smart. But yeah, Act 2 tests your characters and all that. It also tests your creativity and your skill as a writer, like you said, to up those stakes. So you were probably feeling that, you know? It always makes me laugh when someone's like, well, if I do this at the midpoint of my story, how am I gonna make things worse? And it feels hard, but like, that's what it means to be a writer. You know? We have to figure that out.
JAMES: Yeah. I think in the first version of this, in my mind, you know, a long time ago, It was a very basic story. And when I started making the outline, I pulled a lot of the big surprises forward so that it became more engaging. By the time you hit the midpoint, you've used it all up, you know, everything you had is basically there. And so that's when you, I think you get into, well, what's the story really about? What are the real problems here? And that powers you through the second part of Act 2. So, funnily enough, I'm now doing another outline, and I now know what to expect a bit more. But the first time round is kind of terrifying.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. Especially if you're doing it without talking to another writer, or if you're doing it just by yourself, you don't have anyone to sit there and say, “Oh yeah, that's normal, James, don't worry!” You know? That's, that's part of why I wanted to do episodes like this for the podcast, is just to show other people who are in their writing cave alone that this kind of stuff happens and that you're not weird If your Act 1 is a little shaky, and if you realize you're getting better in act 2, that's pretty normal, you know? It’s not a trick of the eye. So, I'm fast forwarding again. You got some feedback. I have some notes on the highlights of the feedback, but what was that process like? Because you went into this thinking, I don't really know what else to do to make it better. Right?
JAMES: Yeah. Fundamentally, I had some thoughts around things, but I'm just too close to the material at that point. I could have just got into a loop of just moving things around, and I might have never got out of it. And so I do think having that second pair of eyes for me was critical because, you know, your feedback throughout has been razor sharp. You know, you can look at outlines, you can look at chapters and immediately pull things out that other people either wouldn't see–or it would take them forever. And so that speed of being able to say, well, I see how this pairs up, you know, with the thousands of other books you've read, really makes all the difference. And so that to me was the course correction where I was able to get out again and say, well, yeah, that seems to, you explained a lot of the things to me. It was, it was very much common sense exercises going, yeah, I agree with that, moving, this could be better.
SAVANNAH: I remember too, that we agreed on things, and that your instincts were already telling you what needed to change. So it was kind of fun to see that in a way. There was nothing surprising. It was just you needed that objectivity of like, here's why you are feeling that way. Here are the actual craft reasons why you feel that way, and here's what we can do to tweak it. So the three things I highlighted that I remember is that we had to talk about the age range, because you have, you said a teen, so you've landed on it's gonna be a young adult book…
SAVANNAH: And I remember in the draft it was questionable, Is he an adult or a young adult? And you've landed on that. The other thing was consistency with his character. I think the issue was in Act 1—you had a character who, by the end, had a really nice arc, but the beginning of his arc was a little muddy. It had a couple different things going on. And the reason I'm calling out these issues is to show that these are next level problems. You know, these are good issues to be having with your first draft. If, if you have a draft that is quality and then you get to this level of seeing these kinds of issues, that's a cool thing to me. It's not saying like, your story's fundamentally broken.
JAMES: Right. And you're right. And I think when you said these things, I kind of knew secretly anyway cause you know, the first five chapters you're finding your way. And then I think I held onto those chapters being a bit too precious because they were the first. And in reality, they just need torpedoing in places and just to, to fix them because they don't really match the later material quite as well. But there is a sentimentality factor of just, well, this was such a good scene in my head when I started, and it's very hard to step away from that.
SAVANNAH: Well, and I think it represents a nice, or like precious time in your life when you sat down to finally write this, you know? And I see this with a lot of writers. They want to hold onto the opening scenes and it's, you know, maybe because you thought it was a good idea, but also maybe because it represents taking action on your dreams. You know? So anyway, I remember telling you that you had a really good quality draft and it's not, let's fix the broken things—it's more like let's make things better. So like, what was that like to hear?
JAMES: Great actually. I mean, I always said to you, just give me the direct truth. I don't need sugar coating or anything. I think knowing what can be fixed or how to make things better is great. Because I mean, everything can be made better over time. I think if you had said, “Yeah, there's absolutely fundamental problems with this story all over the place,” that would've been a surprise to me. I would have thought, oh God… I really messed this up. But that's not really what happens. I know when you're waiting for feedback, you can go through the ride of like, oh my God, what's coming back? I think what you've said was very much in line with some of the things I'd suspected, but also surprising in terms of some of the things you suggested that were really helpful. And when I first got your feedback. I think I read it about 10 times. I first powered through the whole thing…
SAVANNAH: Looking for the bad, I'm sure! Where’s the bad?
JAMES: Yeah. But then, going over it, I kept going thinking, yeah, this could really work. And it just fired off lots of new ideas in terms of making the story more seamless. And that's the fun part.
SAVANNAH: I want to zoom out and talk about editors in general, not just me, but any editor or book coach you're gonna work with. Ideally, they can see the vision that a writer has for their story and then say, okay, here's what you have and if you want to make it this, here's what you can do. You know, so a lot of people are scared to work with editors because they don't want their story totally torn down. But that's not an editor's intent. An editor's intent is like, okay, you wanna do this, let's make it this. I'm excited to do it with you.
JAMES: Yeah, and I think, you know, being practical. You're working in a space where the quality is very high. You know, you watch things on tv, you read books all the time. The stories work fundamentally. And you don't want to be in a position where you make mistakes that are, you know, that betray you reader fundamentally. So I think it's important—if you're gonna do this seriously, whether you self-publish or publish or not, you've got to realize you are in the Olympics and you need to, to get every piece of help you can to get that bar as high as possible.
SAVANNAH: Well, and I always like to compare it to random stuff. Like the one I go to is building a house. If you're gonna build a house to live in, you want that house to be pretty darn secure. And you want the rooms to work. You want the stairs to work. To me, I'm like, let's, let's collectively decide that writing's as important as building a house. And if it's our dream, let's take it seriously. You know?
JAMES: Yeah. I think some people may have a fear of editors or just the process because they think it's like being at school where someone's gonna come along and put a comment here and you know, say that your grammar's terrible here. And kind of rip you apart that way. And that's really not the process. You know, this is much more of a sort of meta level process of just timing in the story, and what various characters are doing and thinking. It's not probably what most people are expecting.
SAVANNAH: I think so too. And I'll, I'll say a caveat, I'm sure there are editors out there who do that. So if you've had that experience, we're trying to diminish it. But if you find a good editor—an editor who really cares, which I know there are many out there—they can make a huge difference in your work. I always tell people, “I'm your writing buddy now!” So I'm going to help whoever I'm working with, in this case, James, I'm gonna help him make his vision come to life. And that's the kind of… It doesn’t matter if it’s an editor or an agent, whatever person you're working with… That's who you want on your side is someone that's gonna help you get your vision across the finish line. So, speaking of all that and the finish line, how is the second draft going now?
JAMES: So, I took a month off, right? I completely did nothing for a month, and I just started revisiting the outline. So, I've gone into how that's going to look, and I'm much more confident going to the outline the second time around. I think you wonder, is it gonna be, you know, very, very difficult? But I think it's really clicking into place and now I'm getting to the point where I start the scheduling of… How do I find the time to write each day? But I'm just revisiting that again. The last couple of weekends I started looking at how to get this outline into the right shape. And it’s funny, I was tempted to go into it scene by scene without touching the outline. But then I thought, no, there's too many things moving here that I really need to make sure the outline's working. Cause that's what saved me the first time around on this. And so I started there.
SAVANNAH: And just in case listeners aren't sure what you mean… You have a full draft that's done, you've had feedback, and now you’re going back to your original outline that you wrote, and you’re probably updating that to make sure it just all matches your draft. And then you’re saying, what kind of big picture changes do I wanna make? And you're walking yourself through the exercise of, let's say in chapter five, something in the logic of the story changes. So then you're going forward with that logic of, if I change it in five, what would that look like in chapter 6, 7, 8, or 9 (on the outline)?
JAMES: Yeah. There's a piece of really good advice you’d given that is, you know, keeping your outline up to date. Which was essential because I think… The problem is, there's a drift that happens between your outline and what you're writing. And if you don't keep the outline up to date, even though it's a pain and it's not very interesting, you end up with it not being a very accurate representation. And when you want to look at what scenes are affected by various things, it's not gonna help you. So, my outline was up to date when I finished the draft. And I think just keeping it up to date with the new version is critical.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And personally, if I'm looking at my story, I like to update my outline after I finish a scene, or at the end of a week maybe I finished three scenes, whatever, I'll go back and I'll just make sure that, you know, come that next week, no matter if I've done it daily or weekly, that outline matches what I've written. And that helps. Did you do any of that during the writing process? Like let's say you made a change in chapter five when you wrote the scene. Did you change the outline going forward while you were writing?
JAMES: Not originally. And then it was a comment you'd made a few weeks later, just generally to the group that I thought that was interesting. So, I went back and I was really surprised to see how much my work was not reflecting the outline. It just drifted so far. So I then very, I started to be much more rigorous about keeping the outline up to date. But yeah, honestly, it saves you because when you get into the size of these novels and you need to understand what's happening in various places, you can't go through the pages and find things. You've got 30 or 40 files in Word or Google Docs, whatever you're using, and you've lost sight of where everything is at that point. And the outline is a cheat sheet, really. It's impossible otherwise.
SAVANNAH: And I think it's important to highlight what you just said, that what you wrote was not matching your outline, and so you weren't using the outline as a rigid tool of like, “I better get back to this.” You were saying, “Let me update my outline to match my draft and then think through that logic going forward.” Because a lot of people think of outlines and they're like, well what happens if things change? Just change your outline, it’s not a big deal.
JAMES: And that's actually the trick, isn't it? Because most scenes, when you start writing them, don't follow the outline. There's something that happens, the characters that aren't gonna be forced through the hoops that you were trying to make them do and something else surprising happened and so that's fine. You know, I really learned to embrace that. But you do have to bring it back to the structure of the story. The two things have to really be hand in glove all the way through.
SAVANNAH: Right. And the only thing that happens if you don't do that is you're gonna need more editing on the back end. So, the cool thing that I love about your story is that you did the hard work throughout the process of updating the outline, really making sure, like even when you were outlining first, making sure that cause and effect was there, making sure the logic was there. Then when you started writing, you were diligent about updating it and look at how fast you've been able to move through the process. You know? Like, people think it slows them down, but it saves you so much time in the long run.
JAMES: I couldn't have done it otherwise. I mean, I really think had I not gone through this process with you, I would be still staring at a black screen. I really think this roadmap is the way to do this. And I know many people will say, well, I'm special and I'm different. But I do think everybody actually does need to break the work in some way into bite size chunks. And decide how to deliver the 500 words at a time, a thousand words at a time. I think this process does work in that as well as also making sure that you're on track with something that makes sense and is logical and tells a story.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, I think it's that, and it's also the mindset of being flexible, you know, understanding it's not gonna be perfect, understanding that you're not gonna have all the answers right away. You know, just going into it, not expecting yourself to have everything figured out or to be a great writer right away.
JAMES: Yeah. So, I mean, another one, another golden piece with Savannah advice is the TK trick. So this one absolutely is, is worth its weight in gold—when you don’t know something, and you’re writing something like, “I can't believe you did that,” she said, because of TK. You simply put in TK and move on. You keep writing. And this was an amazingly powerful trick because otherwise you sit there for ages wondering like, what is the TK? When you really should be writing.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And then if you don't figure it out, then you're like, what's wrong with me? I should just stop today and then you get all frustrated. But yeah—it’s TK because the letters T and K are not found together in any word in the English language. So, it's really easy to find and replace. And actually, someone told me the other day, there is a word with TK, I can't remember what it is, but it's probably one we're not going to ever use in our books. So, it still works. But I thought that was funny. She's like, actually there is one… So, I'm wrong. But anyway, all that's great. And then, so, what do you think is next? Like what are your publishing plans?
JAMES: That's a million dollar question, I think. You have a really good part of the course where you talk about the different options, and I think it surprises a lot of people that, you know, people not been in the industry don't realize how it works and what the trade off is between the two. For me, I suspect the self-publishing route might well be the one to go for. I think many of my audience read things on Kindle, like, you know, it gives you that immediacy of getting out there, doing what you need to do. At the same time, I've struggled with it. I thought, you know, maybe it's worth at least querying agents and seeing where it goes, but I still veer towards probably self-publishing. When I get to the final part, whether I've got a draft that's good enough, I might just change my mind. The great thing is, of course, nothing's set in stone at this point, right?
SAVANNAH: I always like a hybrid approach where it's like, you know, give yourself three, six, whatever months and try querying, see what happens. You never know. And after that period, there's absolutely nothing wrong with self-publishing. I think that's a great route to go. You get so much more control that way. It's so much quicker to market and all that fun stuff. So, you'll have to keep us posted. Do you have plans for a book two?
JAMES: I do actually. So, when I was taking my month off break on this one, I started outlining a second book, which is not related to the first book at all. And I found that as a result of doing all this, I had lots of ideas that are worth fleshing out and seeing where they go. It's like the opposite of writer's block. It's just more of just, well, which idea do you wanna do next? Because I figure this is something I'd like to do for the long term. And if it takes a year to write a book more or less, or 18 months or so, there's a sort of que of things coming up and, you know, what's the idea that will, will most hold your interest? What could really be most entertaining over that period? There's definitely no shortage of ideas.
SAVANNAH: And that's so cool because I think it's like now that you've been through the experience so you have a level of confidence that you can do it, but also I'm sure there's fear there. I talked to a lot of people writing book two, where they're like, yeah, it might be a little harder mentally, but I have all the tools I need to write book two. It's just like, how do I compare to book one? You know, now that I've become a better writer, what's gonna be the next issue? And I always like to say, when you hit a new level, there's a new devil. So, book two has its own new devil, but… Do you think that after this experience of writing book one and taking the course and all this stuff that you have a toolbox full of tools?
JAMES: Oh, for sure. Yeah. Without a doubt. I really don't think it would've been possible without doing the course. And I have read a lot of books on how to do stuff. My go-to approach to everything in life is to read a book on how to do stuff. I think what was in the course enabled me to complete this, and the great thing is, you know, if you've done it once, you can do it twice.
JAMES: I think the key thing is to make sure you keep using the tools and not to assume it doesn't apply to you anymore. So, I've taken the approach of just doing exactly the same thing again, of stepping through the same rigmarole. I've reread, you know, the courses again and gone through and just make sure I don't miss things. But it's, it's a process, you know. If I keep doing this and, you know, a few years from now, I'll get good at it, hopefully, you know, but I, I still feel that the fundamentals won't change. These are the building blocks. You need to put the stories together properly
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And that’s so cool because, when you’re sitting down to write, it must be nice, in a way… Like, I have this experience, too, where I’m like, “Okay, I know what goes into a scene now, and it’s not scary anymore because I know the tools I need to pick up and put down.” And now, it’s like, I just filter my ideas through that. And it doesn't necessarily mean that it's gonna be smooth sailing every day I sit down to write, but at least it's not nebulous and overwhelming anymore.
JAMES: And I think it helps pressure test the concepts to make sure that they're good enough to, more than anything, to hold your interest. Because if it's not good enough for you to write about and spend a year of your life on, find another concept, there's a lot of things out there, you'll be miserable.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. Don't be miserable.
JAMES: But I do think that approach lets you see, you know, shake out the idea and make sure there's enough meat on the bone for it to be a worthwhile story to invest your time in. Then once you get to the point where you're at the scene level, I think that's the exciting part in many regards, because the thing starts to come to life more, but just getting to that point—You need to be sure that the idea has merit, and I think the tools really help with that.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. It's just like a nice backup to have. You have the idea, you have the creativity, and now you have the confidence because you've written a book. And now you have the tools in your backpack that just make it all possible. The last question I have for you is… What would your advice be to someone that's scared to take the next steps forward? Or to someone who isn’t really sure they can write a book? What would you say?
JAMES: Yeah, I mean, absolutely sign up for the course because, fundamentally you have to invest in your skills to do these things—and this will upscale you dramatically and probably get you through most of the self doubt humps. But I think, ultimately, you know, we're not doing this stuff to be P.D. James or Shakespeare or Agatha Christie. You're doing it for yourself. And you're comparing yourself to yourself. Am I a better writer today than I was in December? And the answer to that is, undoubtedly yes, for sure. 10 times better. There's no question. So I would say to anyone who's on the fence to take the jump, it's really more than anything, the investment in your time and yourself to be able to turn this idea in your head into something that's on paper. And I think this gives you the best possibility of getting that done.
SAVANNAH: Would you say that anyone's capable of writing a book?
JAMES: Absolutely. Yeah. I really think that's true. I know it's been a very sort of gatekeeper environment for many years, but everybody in the world has a story they want to tell. People love telling stories to each other. It's kind of the currency of humans. I travel all over my job and people tell stories all over the world. It's definitely a thing people like to do. But I do think you just need to have the confidence that you can do it and give it a try. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? Really, there’s no real downside.
SAVANNAH: Yeah. And speaking of confidence, I always say that it's not just about having confidence. Sometimes it's just having courage. Because if you step out of your comfort zone, the confidence will come the more times you step out. So, for me, when I do something scary, I always think about, like, what fictional character can I tap into and borrow their courage for a day? You know? I'm an introvert, and some things are pretty scary for introverts. But anyway, James… It has been super fun talking to you and hearing all about your writing journey. And I know that I got a front seat to it, but it was really fun to zoom out and recap all the awesome things that you've done over the last nine months.
SAVANNAH: I mean, nine months. That's crazy!
JAMES: It's been extraordinary. And if I rewind, it's just been… It's been a lot of work, but it's been without doubt, one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. And I found that it's something I'd really like to keep doing. You know, I have my job, my personal life and that's all good. I feel that this is a separate thing that I really connect with, I enjoy doing. So to me, having the book is great, but actually finding the fact that I enjoy doing it has been even better in many regards.
SAVANNAH: Yeah, that's so cool. And I know that people are going to want to see what you're all about and follow along on your journey, so where can people go to find you, learn more about you and all that fun stuff?
JAMES: The best place is Twitter for me. My Twitter handle is @jbesw. My name is James Beswick. And I respond to people who contact me, but I'm also on LinkedIn and every other platform.
SAVANNAH: Cool. And we'll link to some of that in the show notes. Do you have a website?
JAMES: I don't yet.
SAVANNAH: Okay, no problem. We'll link to James’s Twitter profile in the show notes so you guys can get in touch with James if you want. But thank you James so much for spending time with me and I can't wait to see what's next for book two. I can't wait to have you back to talk about book two because… I mean, maybe, I don't know, another six to nine months there will be a book two? That’s very exciting! So, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story.
JAMES: Thanks so much for inviting me, Savannah. It's great to be here!
I hope my conversation with James has inspired you to keep going even if your outline or first draft isn’t perfect. That was my favorite take away from my discussion with James—that he knew there were things he wanted to fix in his draft, but he just kept going until the very end. And then, his revisions were so much easier because he could see the big picture of his story from start to finish. So, keep going–even if it’s messy! If you want to learn more about James, follow him on Twitter @jbesw!
If you want to learn more about my Notes to Novel course—and how it can help you finish your first draft—you can click here to get all the details!