Revisions: The First Read-Through

In a recent post, I wrote that the essential initial step to revise a first draft is to read through the entire manuscript with a hyper-critical eye. During this read-through, resist the urge to make changes on the fly. Look at the overall story. Take notes on individual scenes. Strive to take a global view. What you are looking at is the story as a whole and how it hangs together. Or not.

The first key question you want to ask yourself is: what is the essence of the story? What is the story really about? What is the (dare I say it?) theme of the story? We’re not talking plot here. We’re talking about the main character’s internal challenge. That’s what drives the story. Once you know what your story is about, the next key question is: does your first draft pay off the theme? Is it clear to the reader what the story is about? Does the main character’s internal struggle shine through to the reader?

Revisions are on my mind these days. I am going through the first draft of my work-in-progress, tentatively titled, A Prayer for Maura. This was a National Novel Writing Month project from 2012. I really liked this story when I wrote it. I believed then, and still do, that it is a story that plays to my strengths as a writer and has loads of potential. Re-reading it for the first time, though, I realize it needs a lot of work.

I won’t go chapter by chapter, but I am four chapters into it and some of the scenes are good, while others just don’t work. Some need more setting and details, while others just don’t sing. Some of the writing is decent and some of it is, well, let’s say it is in need of some sharpening.

So far, I have resisted the urge to go in and start re-writing. I want to evaluate the first draft as a reader, but with the advantage of knowing where the story is going to go and how it is going to end.

At this stage, it is crucial to resist the urge to write or even edit. This is the thinking stage. The rewriting will come later.

What about you? How do you go about editing your first draft?






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4 responses to “Revisions: The First Read-Through

  1. I love that you were honest enough about the read-through to acknowledge there are multiple reasons to review and revise a draft. It’s not just spelling and punctuation we’re looking for, but also the flow of the words, the consistency of how a character might talk, or the continuity of the scene. Too often writers find themselves getting excited and quicken the pace of revisions (edits) to get the story done sooner rather than later. In truth the goal is to improve the writing, to hone it to its best form – then let the story go for good.

    Admittedly, I sound like I’m lecturing when I’m as guilty as anyone of rushing to a conclusion. My best defense has been to add a level of complexity to the process. After I’m done with my re-reads and my edits and my review of the piece – I give it to a writer whom I trust implicitly to do the same. She concludes the final edit, not me. She’s the one who puts the finishing touches in place, points out my flawed work, and challenges me to fix what needs to be repaired and leave the rest alone lest I ruin it in a flurry of activity that’s more based on my own need to tinker than any legitimate effort to improve the work.

    As always, find insights, Mr. Blake. You know how to write – and the number of people who can do that is significantly smaller than the number who think they can.

    • Jamie, you are too kind. You raise a good point. I always show my work to other reviewers. You can never spot all the flaws in your own work. And I would say using an experienced book editor is always a good practice. Thanks for your insightful comments.

  2. Jim Snell

    I find as I write that I hate the same things I hated in literature classes in junior high and high school. Yeah, I’m talking about outlining … and “theme.”
    OK, maybe it was grade school with the outlining. So it’s good to hear that incredibly successful writers such as Wally Lamb (and James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly) never outline.
    And as far as theme goes … well, I still don’t really get it. I’m not sure I could tell you the “theme” of anything I’ve written. And I kinda feel that if I started a story thinking “I’ll write it about this theme” then it would turn out pedantic. And boring.
    I remember hearing a screenwriter talk about adapting the novel Single White Female for the movie. He said he read through the book and realized the theme was “who are you if you don’t have your own identity?” So in adapting it, he did something with each character so they had to face that question. Then when he discussed it with the author of the book, the author said: No, I really didn’t think of a theme at all when I wrote it.
    To me, that’s kind of the essence of theme. I always thought it was a bit crazy when my teachers were saying: theme is what the story is *really* about, not what it seems to be about. ‘Cause my thought was: maybe the book is really about what the writer wrote about, and you’re just reading stuff into it.

    • Thanks for these comments, Jim. With regard to outlining, I am a pantser. I start out with about a dozen milestone events. I usually have worked out the ending before I begin. This approach has generally worked well for me, but lately I have come to the conclusion that I need to do more outlining. By really thinking the story through in all its dimensions, , I can avoid a lot of rewriting later on. As for theme, I wrote an entire first draft of my first novel before I discovered the theme. In my current WIP I knew the theme before I put a word on the page. I do believe a story needs to be about bigger things than what happens. Theme is what gives a story greater meaning, but I don’t believe writers should obsess over it. Write the story you want to write and the theme will emerge.

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