Tag Archives: first drafts

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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Word Counts for Revisions?

Writers know all about word counts. It’s drilled into us—1,000 words a day. Write for three hours, four hours. Achieve that daily word count. Writers get that. The only way to finish the first draft of a novel is to place the old “butt in chair” and write. The daily habit. Do what it takes to churn out a draft of 80,000 to 100,000 words in less than six months.

Simple enough, right? Okay, but what happens when the writer gets to the revision process? What’s the word count when revising a first draft? What is a writer’s daily production goal? What’s the benchmark? If a writer’s goal in producing a first draft is 1,000 words per day, shouldn’t our goal in revising a first draft be to review at least triple or quadruple that number? After all, we’ve already put all those words on the page. This may seem logical, but the hard part has only begun.

I’ve spent the last two weeks revising the first chapter of my work-in-progress. Heck, I’ve spend the last week on the first page of my draft. I’ve completely rewritten the opening scene twice now and it’s still not where I want it to be. There’s a valuable lesson here. When it comes to the revision process, there are no word counts. There are no benchmarks. The key is this: do whatever it takes. The opening line, page, and chapter must sing, or, better yet, must belt it out like an opera singer.

Once a writer gets the opening chapter right, the rest falls into place. It makes revising the entire work a whole lot easier. Well, not always. Sometimes the rest of the draft is just as much work.

So this begs the question: if there are no word counts for the revision process, how does the writer ensure the whole project doesn’t fall way off track? There may be no word counts, but discipline still counts. Revising is not fun—certainly not as much fun as writing. Ever spend an hour struggling to come up with just the right word or the right sentence? Your brain generates cliché after cliché. You know what you need to say. You just can’t conjure up the right word to say it.

It’s different when writing a first draft. If the wording isn’t perfect, move onto the next scene. You can fix it later. The revision process is when the later comes due. A writer can’t merely move on, unless he wants to go back and revise again and again. No, the writer has to get it right, word by word, page by page.

This is one of those posts where I can’t summon up a simple bullet point list, but I’ll give it a try:

  • Revisions are hard.
  • Revisions require supreme patience.
  • There is no word count.
  • It’s not fun, but
  • A writer must do it every day, just like writing.

And that is the hardest part: returning to the work-in-progress each day, knowing it’s far from perfect. The satisfaction of molding that imperfect first draft into a work of art must drive the writer forward. That is the only benchmark.

Do you set goals for the revision process? What sort of metrics do you use, if any?

 

 

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First Revisions: Shaping the Mound of Clay

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?

 

 

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You’ve Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

I finally finished the first draft of my novella, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media. This one took only seven months, but it was a novella.

A writer who finishes a first draft may experience a giddy desire to dive right in and begin revising the manuscript. After all, the writer should keep the momentum going, right? No. Writers must resist this urge. Take a break from your first draft. Walk away. Really. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Stephen King advised in his classic craft book, On Writing:

“How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneading—is entirely up to you,” King wrote, “but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.” The layoff gives the writer distance and perspective.

“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development…It’s amazing how some of these things can elude the writer while he or she is occupied with the daily work of composition.” For King, the most glaring errors have to do with character motivation. For every writer it will be different.

Here’s what James Scott Bell wrote about first drafts in his classic craft book, Plot & Structure: “Your first draft needs a cooling-off period. So forget all about your novel and do something else…All the while, your first draft is cooling in the recesses of your brain, where a lot of good stuff happens, unnoticed.”

When a writer finishes a first draft, it’s a cause for celebration. It’s a milestone. The writer should give himself a round of applause. Have some chocolate or a glass of your favorite beverage. There’s no empirical data to support this, but I would assert that most novice writers never get through the first draft. It’s an achievement.

Here’s what I do after finishing a first draft:

  • Do something nice. Give yourself a reward. Buy a new book or a CD.
  • Work on something completely different for the next four to six weeks. Try a short story. Try something in a different genre. Consult your ideas folder.
  • Read that bestseller you’ve been meaning to check out. Read it again with an attention to how the author told the story.

When the writer comes back to the first draft after an extended break, she will see the work in a new light. The writer will instantly spot all the flaws and the brilliant passages. The writer will see elements of the story that don’t work, scenes that don’t sing, or perhaps characters that don’t come alive. The writer may well discover the story starts in the wrong place. That dramatic scene on page 75 is the real beginning. The stuff that came before is just back story. The writer may see a character she loved when she created her, but after review, this character just gets in the way of the core story.

The good news is that in most cases, a writer will finish the first draft of her next book sooner than the first. Here’s how long it has taken me to finish my first drafts:

First novel: Small Change, 12 months, 126,000 words (final draft was 103,000 words)

Second novel: Color Him Father, 8 months, 117,000 words (still in draft)

Third novel: Bonus Baby (National Novel Writing Month novel), 30 days, 53,000 words (still in draft).

Fourth novel, Life of the Party, 7 months, 56,300 words.

How long does it take you to finish a first draft? Do you gain speed with each novel?

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Bad First Drafts-Not Just for Beginners

In her classic craft of fiction book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devoted an entire chapter to bad first drafts. She used a more colorful term, but her overriding message was almost all first drafts are bad. This reminded me of a quote I came across on Karen Miller’s blog from Terry Pratchett that was so on target I wrote it down: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Whether new or experienced, most writers find the first draft a daunting task. Writers are still discovering their story and yet they expect too much from the first draft. When the story isn’t flowing the way it should, writers get discouraged. Experienced writers work through this, but novice writers should mind Anne Lamott’s advice. The truth is first drafts don’t have to be great, or even good. First drafts just have to be finished. Even if the writer believes his first draft is the worst piece of fiction ever written, there’s a story somewhere amid those 80,000 words. There are characters waiting to be filled out and completed. The writer’s job is to find the story and the characters, polish them and refine them.

The first draft is easier when the writer approaches it with an uninhibited mindset. As Lamott put it, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Like many writers, I constantly fight the urge to edit my first draft. I’m one of those writers who has to read what he wrote in the previous session before continuing with the first draft. This does two things: it gets me into the flow of the story and I also discover some glaring error that I correct. However, we must recognize that too much editing and obsessing over scenes already written can derail the writer.

Here’s another quote from Lamott that I should tape to my laptop: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

When you finish your first draft, put it aside for at least four weeks. When you return to it, some of the questions to ask are:

  • What is the essence of the story? Is the premise fully developed? Is the theme evident?
  • What is the main character’s strongest trait? Biggest weakness? Is it evident to the reader? Does the main character grow or change?
  • What is the central conflict in the story and has the writer maximized it to its full potential?
  • Is there enough tension throughout to sustain interest in the story?
  • What is the best scene? What is the worst scene? Can it be cut?
  • Who is the weakest character? Can this character be cut without harming the story?

Here are some other perspectives on first drafts:

Karen Miller

Harriet Smart

Learn to Write Fiction

Writer Unboxed-Anne Greenwood Brown

Write to Done

Writer’s Digest

What’s your view on first drafts? Do you labor over them or rush to get them done?

 

 

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