First drafts are ugly.
They’re supposed to be ugly. The function of the first draft is just to get the words down. Much of the first draft will not even appear in the final copy.
But how do you get from the first draft to something that is publish-worthy?
Disclaimer: As an as-yet unpublished novelist, I don’t have the credentials to say I’ve found the definitive process that will guarantee a best-seller. However, I’ve spent many years rewriting, revising, and editing my work, and I know the strategies that follow can help you improve your manuscript.
When you finish that first draft, put it in a drawer and don’t look at it for at least six weeks. Fall out of love with that beautiful baby. Work on other projects in the meantime.
After six weeks, read the manuscript from beginning to end with a notebook at your side (preferably the one you started with your planning notes for this book). Don’t worry if some parts of that baby aren’t as beautiful as you originally thought. Write down everything you see that needs re-thinking.
Consider the big picture. If you outlined your book during your pre-writing process, check it to see if you adequately addressed every section of the outline. If you think of addition points not included, write them down in your notebook. Maybe even rewrite your outline.
If you didn’t outline your book already, do it now. Outlining at this late date may reveal plot holes. If you hate outlines, at least make a list of every scene. Some authors like to do this on index cards, so they can change the order of scenes easily. (The Scrivener software has a virtual index card function.) Note the characters who appear, the setting, the action, and the purpose of each scene.
Write a summary of your story—the one you are trying to tell. Reread your manuscript and see if it does, in fact, tell your story, in the clearest way possible, with the greatest potential impact. Does the way you’ve structured your story make sense? Does your plot include complications and twists? Did you leave anything out? Could a change in the order or length of your chapters improve the novel’s readability? Keep your mind open, and write down any possible changes that occur to you. (Writing them down doesn’t obligate you to make the changes, it just saves your ideas for future reference, so you can remember and ponder them.)
Read through the manuscript again, this time looking for two things: plot holes in the main plot, and any inconsistencies. As you read, write down any plot questions that come to mind, such as, what would have happened if your character had chosen a different path at a pivotal moment? Look for solutions that come too easily, or events that are too implausible. Does the plot have a full arc, with a set-up, an inciting event, action rising to a climax, action leading to resolution?
Also, hunt out details that contradict each other. Did the grandmother have salt-and-pepper hair in chapter one and platinum hair in chapter two? Was the antagonist writing with his left hand at one moment and firing a gun with his right hand later on? Either fix these inconsistencies as you find them, or make a note so you don’t forget to rectify them soon.
Reread the story again, examining each event. Is everything predictable? If so, rethink each scene, and look for places your characters (or external forces) can do something unforeseen (but plausible). Changes might require major rewriting of large sections of your manuscript, but if it makes your book stronger, it’s well worth the effort.
Reread all your notes and give them serious consideration. Simmer them while you walk the dog, fold the laundry, wash the dishes. Go for a few long walks with notebook and pen in hand. (I know it sounds counterintuitive, but some of my best ideas come to me while my body is in motion.)
Go through your manuscript with your notebook open, and implement as many improvements as you can, while noting new ideas. This is ROUND ONE of your revising (or, if you’re making truly big changes, rewriting). If you’re uncomfortable with the thought of making changes, save the original draft, make a copy, rename it Your Novel’s Name 2.0, and make your changes in this new document, knowing you can always go back to the original. (In my experience, after I’ve spent several weeks in my latest draft, I go back and delete my previous version. I never regret the changes.)
You’re not done yet. But don’t worry; I’ll post the rest of the process this Saturday and next Tuesday. See you then. If you found this post useful, please click the “like” button below, and share on your favorite social media.