Despite the fact that it’s March, I’ve just completed another month of intensive novel writing (which you will all know by now I like to call Project October). I mentioned last year that I would put together some tips for Project November, which is what to do once you’ve finished the first draft of a novel that results from a successful Project October.
There are many writers who bemoan contemplating the blank page as the hardest part of the writing process but I think the challenge of reviewing, reshaping and rewriting can be just as difficult, especially if you are so blinded by the achievement of finishing a first draft that making changes seems almost sacrilegious.
So here are a few suggestions for turning a raw first draft into a polished gem.
Accept That Change Is Required
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an experienced writer with multiple publications behind you or an unpublished author trying to rectify that fact, all first drafts require change. With the average novel between 80,000 and 120,000 words and most encompassing at least a certain level of complexity, it’s a lot of information. I challenge anyone to be able to remember the entirety of their own novel, let alone anyone else’s.
What this means is that your first draft will contain inconsistencies. It will contain plot holes. It will contain dodgy dialogue and descriptions that try too hard to be clever but instead end up looking stupid. It will contain mistakes.
I once read a first draft that had the same piece of description – a whole paragraph of it, in fact – in three separate places in the same novel. The first time I read it, I thought it was flowery. The second time I read it, I thought it sounded familiar. The third time I read it, I was sure I’d read it before.
Writing a novel is hard. And nobody gets it right first time. The need for change is not a commentary on you as a writer. Because there is no such thing as a bad writer, only bad writing. And change is the chance for it to get better.
Ask For Beta Feedback
Once you’ve accepted that change is inevitable, assemble a small group of readers – usually this will be comprised of family and friends or if you’re really lucky you’ll be part of a writers’ group where reading first drafts is a benefit. I think it’s nice if you print out hard copies for them. Surely it’s the least you can do considering you’re going to ask them to read your first draft – this can be hard work, depending on the quality of it – and provide feedback. It also gives them something to make notes on in the exact place that inspired the thought.
I recommend at least three beta readers and no more than six. Too few and you won’t get a wide enough range of views. Too many and you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how to please everybody.
The last time I sent out first drafts for feedback, I also prepared a prompt sheet with a list of questions and concerns I was having about the book. This meant the questions I wanted answered were answered as well as getting feedback about things I hadn’t even thought of.
This next step is absolutely crucial. You must walk away from your first draft. You must put it aside and not look at it. Not even when you are so tempted that you think you might burst if you don’t. Walk away and don’t even think about it for a month. If ideas pop into your head about changes, write it down on a piece of notepaper (or if you’ve followed any of my other advice, on your ideas whiteboard) and file it until the month is up.
Getting some distance from your first draft gives you a break, which if you’ve finished writing an entire novel, you definitely deserve. It also gives your beta readers at least a month in which you aren’t pestering them about how much longer it will be until they finish reading it.
But, most importantly, it will give you fresh eyes when you eventually go back and read it yourself.
Read It Yourself
Once the month is up, read the first draft. Print out a paper copy, sit down somewhere away from a computer and read your novel just like any other reader would. See if you laugh where it’s supposed to be funny, see if you cry where it’s supposed to be sad, see if you sigh where it’s supposed to romantic. If you do, great. If you don’t, make a note on the manuscript of that fact.
This way, you become your own final beta reader.
Give Careful Consideration to All the Feedback
Once you receive the feedback from all your beta readers, look at it all together. If more than one person has made the same comment, consider it a given that it has to be addressed (i.e. changed).
Pay particular attention to suggested changes that you immediately hate the sound of. Go back to the beta reader who made the suggestion and ask them why they think it’s necessary. If you can’t convince them that it shouldn’t be changed, again consider it a given that it has to be. If they have a moment of “Oh, right I get it now”, it probably still needs to be changed because you can’t go around to all your readers and explain it to them personally.
One of the best pieces of feedback I received was to find and eliminate “Louise” words because the character narrating the story the feedback was related to was an eighteen-year-old girl who lived a sheltered life on a farm, not a thirty-eight-year old woman with two writing degrees who had lived in the city most of her life.
Cut, Cut, Cut
It’s now time to cut. While Project October is all about getting that word count up, up, up, Project November inevitably results in the word count going back down, down, down. Cut the waffle. Cut the unnecessary dialogue that we use out of politeness in the real world but that prevents novels from being punchy. Cut scenes that slow the pace of the story, especially if they add nothing to moving it forward. Cut characters that are unnecessary. Cut plot points that make no sense.
In the very first draft of Black Spot, I was determined that it would include a little bit of realism. It’s two characters, a man and a woman, camping in the mountains for a week and no one can hold it for that long. At some point, they would have to go pee behind a tree. So I wrote a short scene where they separated and relieved their bladders before retiring to their sleeping bags for the evening.
It was universally panned by my beta readers who asked why this needed to be included. And when I thought about it, I realised it really didn’t. Fiction is all about skipping the boring bits in life and if going to the toilet doesn’t qualify, then I don’t know what does. The peeing scene was deleted and I have never regretted it.
Add, Add, Add
I always end up adding additional chapters, not a lot but a couple at least because sometimes the instinct to get to certain moments in the story leads me to jump ahead and not set up properly.
Look at the last paragraph of a chapter and the first paragraph of the next chapter, look at the blank spaces between your chapters and see if anything is missing. This can be hard, deciphering what isn’t there, so much harder than looking at something that is there and knowing it shouldn’t be.
Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
This will be the longest and hardest part. Chapters will be moved. Chapters you’ve already written you will write again from scratch. You will agonise over individual words. You will rewrite the same sentence over and over. You will delete paragraphs, then reinstate them, delete them again and finally use a version that is half old and half new. You will change the plot. You will change the motivations of your characters. You will change the start. You will change the ending. You will change the middle.
And when you’re done, the second draft will be substantially different from the first. And substantially better. If it isn’t, you probably haven’t changed enough. If the second draft is still suffering from the same problems as the first draft, you probably haven’t changed enough. If you ask for feedback again and it’s much the same, then you probably haven’t changed enough.
The most important thing is to be honest (with yourself as much as anyone else), be open-minded and be willing to make hard decisions. If you are, then the second draft might be something very close to good enough to start thinking about looking for a publisher or considering self-publishing.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing