After the First Draft

So you’ve finished the first draft for your novel. You’ve worked evening after evening (assuming, like most writers, you have a day job as opposed to being a poverty-ridden Bohemian living on friends’ couches and writing on soiled paper with a stubby pencil) for a year, or two years, or more. Your friends have stopped inviting you to parties because they know you’re going to say something absurd like, “Sorry, gotta write.” Your significant other has long been someone else’s other and you can’t even remember their name. At work, people talk about television shows that you’ve never heard of, excluding you from the circle of those in the know. You’ve become a coffee-addicted outsider.

But that’s alright; you have the first draft for a novel and now you can have a life again. For a while.

What you have now is several hundred pages of really bad writing. That is, if you’ve been doing the right thing…writing as quickly as possible (saving revisions and rewriting till the first draft is finished) so that you don’t lose the story and your enthusiasm for it. Now it’s time to let go for a few months. Just put the manuscript aside and forget about it. This is going to be difficult. I mean, the sooner you send it off to a publisher, the sooner you’ll see it on the best-seller lists, sell the movie rights and move into that 50 bedroom mansion in Tuscany you’ve always wanted, right?

Right. So, you don’t have to read the posting any further. Just call someone at Random House and tell them you’ve finished your novel and you’re ready to talk advances,

On the other hand, you might want to improve your chances of an agent talking to someone at Random House (they don’t talk to writers, just agents). Before you send off that novel (to an agent if you’re aiming for the Big Six publishers, or an editor if you’re scaling down to indie publishers), you need to look at it objectively. You need to rise above the mire of details and “known truths” in which you’ve been immersed for so long that you’re the last person on earth who can really judge the quality of what you’ve written.

In short, your first draft is something you shouldn’t even let your friends (if you still have any) see. You’re going to have spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, incoherent descriptions, inconsistent information, poorly constructed sentences, indecipherable paragraphs, boringly long dialog that goes nowhere, adverbs and adjectives that are the exact opposite of what they supposedly describe. What you have is what you’re supposed to have…dough, ready for the oven. But you need to get away from it for a while before you’re ready to see it for what it is: just…dough.

Besides, you need a break from the writing regimen, some time to read a book or two, call the former significant other and wish him or her all the best in their new relationship, or just say, “I wrote a novel. What’ve you done lately?” You need time to drink beer, catch up on television, spend some time in the shower, do that laundry you’ve been putting off since last Spring.

I generally take three to six months. I try not to think about the manuscript calling out from my computer and Google Mail (Yep, Google Mail. Each night, after I’ve finished writing, I mail the manuscript to myself. This gives me a daily update stored outside my computer…a handy thing for someone whose computers crash as often as mine do…and also gives you proof of copyright, dated on a daily basis by a third party.) If I come up with ideas that I’d like to incorporate, or suddenly realize that I wrote something the wrong way, or re-consider the role of a character, I make notes in a document called “Revisions,” but I don’t touch the manuscript. Instead, I drink beer (or wine), play some pool, go canoeing with Nanook of the Nashwaak, relax. Sometimes, just to keep the flow of words in my life going, I work on a short story or two, but not intensively…more like some gentle stretching or a leisurely run.

It seems strange at first…suddenly having time to do things, fun things, things without schedule. But I get used to it. And then, of course, by the time I get used to it, it’s time to dig back in and start the real work of writing: re-writing.

I tell my students in my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop that no novel is ever written; novels are re-written. And then re-written again. And again. Until they’re finished. This process could take a few weeks. It could take a few months. It could take a year or more. I know writers who came close to having nervous breakdowns during the re-writing process (and a couple who nearly lost it after their books were accepted for publication and they had to do yet another re-write under the yoke of merciless editors). No book is finished until it’s on a bookstore shelf or posted on Amazon or another online bookseller.

For the most part, writing the first draft isn’t all that stressful. In fact, it should be relaxing. Your mind should be open to new directions, tapped into the subconscious and excited about the work. Getting to your place of writing (coffee shops for me) should be something to which you look forward, eager to push the story just a little further towards the end, eager to see how that argument between Tina and Turner is going to transpire before Tina stabs Turner, eager to find out exactly how Ray gets out of the burning factory (where you left him tied up in chains in the basement yesterday). Each time you sit down to write, you have a rough idea where you’re going next, but it’s when you do the actual writing that you find out how to get there. It should be relaxing, exploratory, fun.

Not so with re-writing. The fun part is over. The work part begins: thinking with your left brain, making hard decisions, deciding what stays and what goes, what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s like going to classes and taking notes…and then writing the exam. This is where everything you do counts because it’s time to commit. You can change your mind off the cuff while you’re writing because you’re still in the process of creation, of filling the unknown void with the suddenly known. But in re-writing, you have to take the already known and make it convincing, accurate, readable, satisfying and publishable.

Yes, publishable. When you’re writing the first draft, you’re writing for yourself. It’s your story and you’re telling it. In the re-writing, you’re writing for an editor who’s going to look at it through the eyes of people who are going to buy (or not buy) your story. Loose, open-ended writing has no place in re-writing. Everything now comes under scrutiny, judgement, evaluation, second thoughts, the guillotine of the Delete button.

It’s a big, long process and it can be done the right way or the wrong way. The worst way is to just start at page one and make micro changes to spelling and sentence structure and all the other little revisions to make the writing perfect page after page.

Here’s my process:

Step 1 (Relax): Drink beer and party my ass off for three to six months.

Step 2 (Refresher): Read through the whole manuscript, but don’t make any changes, just make notes in the margins (if you’re reading a printed copy) or notes in the text, highlighted in yellow (if you’re using a computer) or use Word’s track changes feature. This isn’t the time to get caught up in details. You’re looking at the big picture. How does the story flow? Does it slow down where it should speed up or vise versa? Are all the characters really essential? Is this scene essential to the story, or does it just confuse things or draw the story out in a boring manner? Big things.

You’re going to notice things like spelling errors, clumsy sentences, paragraphs that should be cut in half or reversed, repetition, inaccuracies…and on into the wee hours of the night. But you have to resist making changes. The idea is to read at close to the same pace as you would a published novel. You’ve been away from it for several months and now it’s time to get back into it with fresh eyes and a bit more objectivity. Maybe that paragraph about the cat in the graveyard isn’t quite as mesmerizing as you thought it was while you were writing it. Cooling your creative heels for a while takes some of the fog off your eyes.

Step 3 (Second Draft): So…ready to make changes to spelling and grammar? Good. But not yet. This is where you make the big changes. Remember in Step 2 where we mentioned non-essential scenes? This is where you look at the note for Scene 3, Chapter 4 that says: Is this really necessary? Consider dropping this. Can you imagine how heart-wrenching this would be if you’d spent, say, an entire evening or two re-writing this scene to make it perfect and then realize that it just slows the story down and doesn’t do anything to advance the plot? Now’s the time to drop it, before you’ve wasted any more energy and time on it.

In my last novel, The Reality Wars, Notice how I put in a plug for my book? We’ll get into this when I do a posting sometime in the future about how to market your book after you find a publisher.) I had over 180,000 words in the first draft. In the second draft, I cut over 35,000, mostly because I dropped two characters who didn’t do anything to advance the plot and may even have caused some reader confusion. This meant tracking down every passage where they were mentioned and any passages that may have been affected by them, and deleting or re-writing those passages so that the characters were gone, but everything still made sense.

In this draft, you’ll also be looking for things like scene juxtaposition. You may have a scene in which Jake is wondering why his father killed himself, but it comes before the scene in which his father actually commits suicide, and the reader’s wondering what the hell’s going on. It’s not hard to make mistakes like this in the first draft because you’re focussing so much on the just getting the story out of your head.

You might find inconsistencies, like Cassie wearing a blue coat while she’s talking to her mother, but you come back to this scene later and she’s suddenly wearing a red coat. Or Dave might have blue eyes in Chapter 1, but have green eyes in Chapter 3. These things happen. There may be inconsistencies in timelines.

I posted a novella at the Zoetrope Writer’s Community several years ago. (It was a community of fiction writers who read and critiqued each other’s work. I think it’s defunct now, and replaced by the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, devoted to filmmakers.) The story took place over a period of several thousand years. One of the community members sent me a two page list of timelines that were skewed, inaccurate and otherwise just plain wrong. I spent a week implementing his changes. But this is the kind of thing that happens in the first draft.

Another thing to look for is modulation…the rhythm of your story. This is something you might have in mind when you’re writing your first draft. You might have short scenes for fast action and long scenes for slow action, but you’re unlikely to have a sense of how those really work until you’ve finished your novel. When you read over the first draft, you might find that you have one slow scene in a section of the story that just doesn’t’ fit; it slows things down where the action should be continuous. This is the time to decide whether the scene gets dropped or relocated.

Mood and atmosphere can be so easily buggered up in the first draft. For instance, you have a section in an old house where people are disappearing and the remaining people who were stupid enough to go into the house with the curse on it in the first place are seriously creeped out. But you get into the thoughts of one of the characters as she thinks about the pool party she attended few days earlier and this scene goes on for a page or two…and totally breaks the mood of fear and eeriness you’ve been building for the last fifty pages. If you’ve been away from the manuscript for a few months, this disruption of mood with blare out. Now’s the time to delete or relocate.

Look for things like conversations that drag on and on and on…and go nowhere. I’ve noticed this in a lot of novice writers. They get some pretty cool dialog going and the accents are perfect, the tones are right on, the language flows beautifully and the diction fits the character to a tee. But the conversation goes on for three pages and does nothing to advance the plot or reveal parts of the characters that haven’t already been revealed. This is what I call elevator talk, and it should be enthusiastically slashed and burned. Ask yourself: Would the whole meaning and usefulness of this conversation be improved if it were just a page or less? Put all your conversations under the microscope.

Related to superfluous dialog is superfluous description. A writer friend of mine, Beth Powning, spent years and much traveling researching her novel, The Sea Captain’s Wife. Her descriptions of clothing in the 19th Century were accurate and absorbing. However, she had to cut over a hundred pages of description from the first draft. This especially happens when you’ve done a lot research and you want to use as much of it as possible. You might over-describe a house, someone’s facial features, a setting, a legal procedure or a character’s feelings about someone they love or hate. Modern audiences seem to respond to writing that goes light on description and lets the reader fill in most of the details. Ask yourself, “Does this two page description of the meadow behind the house really need the part about the robin feeding worms to her young in the nest clinging to the large branch with veins like those of a champion weight lifter after a three hour workout in a hot gym with…?”

Probably not. Minimalist is the way to go, unless details in the description advance the plot or will be needed as clues to solve a crime if you’re writing a mystery.

Step 4 (Third Draft): OK…you’ve re-structured, ruthlessly deleted superfluous material, relocated scenes, corrected inconsistencies and done some re-writing. Now you have things pretty much the way they’re going to stay for the duration. You have a stable script and unless you get a mind-altering brainstorm that causes your head to melt, what you have is ready for the small stuff, the micro editing.

This is the fine tuning part, where you correct spelling and grammar. (Although you might have already corrected the spelling in the previous draft since it’s not really that big a deal when you have things like spell check.)

This is where you look at each sentence, paragraph and page and make some really serious decisions. That sentence you thought was so beautifully worded in the first draft and maybe even through the following drafts is suddenly under a microscope with a scalpel attached to the lens. Here’s an example:

Ted thought that he was the only one in the group of young men, who were all members of the same soccer team, who had any really realistic ideas about where their little enterprise was going and what they should be doing, as a team, to make some lasting changes at the outset of their venture, rather than wait until their mistakes were so entrenched as to be impossible, or unnecessarily difficult, to change way down the road.

According to the MS word count, that’s 78 words. That’s a lot of words for one sentence, especially when this is part of a scene that’s packed with fast action and intense thrills (You did get that, didn’t you?). But, when I wrote this, I was almost in tears at the majesty of the diction, the depth of thought, the magical flow of images spilling across the screen, and I’m sure that you share these feelings. But…maybe we can improve on this perfection. How about this?

Ted felt alienated from the others by his insistence on proceeding cautiously with their venture so that mistakes made now wouldn’t be compounded in the future.

Twenty-six words. And it says pretty much the same thing, except it gives a more precise insight into how Ted feels: alienated. And this sentence could have been re-written thousands of ways…all of them better.

Most of your re-writing won’t be this drastic though. Mostly it’ll be dropping a word or two. For instance, the “pretty much” in the last paragraph could be dropped and have no effect on the meaning of the sentence. I`m leaving it in because it`s the way I talk. Editors, though, want `tight` writing. They want the writing pared down to the essentials. Anything that doesn`t reveal character, advance the plot or compel the reader to keep reading gets tossed.

Before you begin this step, may I suggest that you read The Elements of Style from cover to cover. You only have to do this for your first novel. After that, use the online version for specific edits and things you might have forgotten.

Step 5 (More Relaxation): After that last draft, you can relax for a few weeks. But that’s all. Any more than three weeks and you will disintegrate. You need this time to get away from the details. I mean, you did some pretty close editing. So now…drink some more beer. Call friends who may have forgotten your name. Call the ex. Tell her or him that you’re OK with their choices, like, if you’d rather have hamburger than steak…I’m OK with that. This is the time to have some fun.

But just for a few weeks.

Step 6 (Fifth Draft): This one’s not so bad. You just read through the entire manuscript and make notes where you might have missed something. When you’ve finished reading, make the changes in the notes. By this time, it shouldn’t be a lot. If it is, you might want to considerea career in busking. The good thing now is that you’re ready to share your manuscript.

Stop 7 (Feedback): If you have any friends left (or relations who still speak to you), give them a copy of the manuscript and ask them what they think about it. You’ll likely get just two or three who’ll give you feedback, but that’s OK. They’re the ones you want the feedback from. Their feedback will likely lead to a few more changes.

Sometimes, getting feedback on just a few things is helpful across the whole book. When I was doing the editorial changes for my third novel, The War Bug, the editor told me to delete every instance of “And then.”. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I used it and how distracting and unnecessary it was

Step 8 (One Last Read Through): By now, probably the last thing you want to do is read this manuscript that’s sucked the life out of you for so long, but you should., because now you’re going to send your manuscript (well, the first thirty or so pages) to a publisher or agent, or maybe you’re going to self-publish.

I always do one last read-through…just for peace of mind. And generally, I’ll find some stupid little error here, another there, spelling mistakes, places where I’ve accidentally deleted half a sentence. It happens.

After that last read, you’re ready for the riches, adulation, fame and glory that I know you’re going to receive because, after all this, you deserve it. And please don’t forget us little people.

(If the comment box isn’t showing, click the balloon dialog box at the top right of this posting. That is, if you want to leave a comment.)

1 thought on “After the First Draft

  1. The advice and 8 steps are deep in method and psychology. These are tricks I see myself using in the future. I am hoping to write a novel one day, and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m new at writing or because this is just great advice, I feel great about the prospect of using this method when it all comes true.

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