You finished your first draft. Hurray! You’ve set it aside for a period of time to gain distance and perspective. It’s time to dive back in for that first round of revisions. Not so fast.
Getting those initial revisions right is crucial to your success. How well you do may make the difference between a publishable manuscript and a deeply flawed work.
Picture that first draft as a mound of clay. There is a shape to it, but it needs definition. Maybe it’s a pyramid, but you picture a house surrounded by a picket fence, or a high-tech spaceship. The first revision is your best opportunity to shape the manuscript as you work toward the final draft.
You may have the urge to plunge in and start re-writing scenes, reinventing characters, and adding new dimensions to the story. That’s only natural, but first you should put on your reader’s glasses and go through the entire draft. Make notes in the margin or use the Comment feature of your software program. Circle typos and grammatical mistakes, but don’t get hung up on grammar or spelling. Focus on the big three: story, character, theme.
Some helpful questions as you read through your draft are:
- What is the story really about?
- What does the main character want, fear? What is the main character’s goal? Is it clear to the reader?
- What is standing in the main character’s way of achieving the goal?
- Is the central conflict evident to the reader?
- Is there enough tension and uncertainty?
- Does the main character engage the reader?
- Why should the reader care?
- Is the story plausible (note I didn’t write ‘believable’)?
- Are there any scenes that can be cut?
- Is there a theme? Is it apparent to the reader? How well-developed is the theme?
Don’t make any revisions until you’ve read the entire first draft. Then go back and read your notes or comments. A couple of things should become clear: where the holes in the story exist and where the theme needs to be embellished.
James Scott Bell, in his book, Plot & Structure, urged writers to get through the reading of the first draft as quickly as possible. “Do not get bogged down in details at this point,” he wrote. “What you want is the big picture, the overall impression. You can take very brief notes if you wish, but try not to slow down for any considerable period.
“You should work from the big issues down through the small ones,” he wrote.
When I reviewed the first draft of my novel, Small Change, I discovered I had started the story in the wrong place. It wasn’t a simple fix, either. I made the agonizing decision to eliminate the first four chapters, which, among other benefits, trimmed down an unwieldy manuscript.
Once you’ve reviewed your notes and comments, it’s time to go to work. Take on the big changes first, as Bell advised. Fix the story. This will involve changes to the characters. Pay attention to the way the story flows as you work. Mold that piece of clay.
The second draft is where you discover your story, hone it, strengthen your characters, shore up the weak spots, trim the fat. In most instances, you won’t have your final draft, but you’ll be a lot closer.
How do you tackle that first revision? Do you dive right in or read the manuscript?