Wednesday, April 18, 2012

First Look at a First Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

You've just finished your first draft, and now it's time to polish. It's not a bad idea to stick the manuscript in a drawer (real or metaphorical) and walk away for two or three weeks, or even a month before you go back to it.

Now, I know this is sometimes hard because you're excited to have finished and you want to dive back in, but don't. To edit well you need distance, and to get distance, you need time away from your book. You want to see what's on the page, not what you remember writing. Approach the text with fresh eyes and you'll catch a lot more.

Once you've let your mind relax and recharge, it's time to yank that book out and take a looksie. I like to start with the macro structural issues first, because if they aren't working, no amount of polishing the text is going to help. So analyze your goal structure to make sure your story has something driving the plot, and that you keep building your stakes to the end.

Why is this important?

Because readers won't stay with you long if the story isn't going somewhere. (Think about all those books you set down after a chapter or two, or movies you turned off after twenty minutes) This doesn't apply just to boring scenes or slow scenes, you can actually have action-packed scenes that still bore readers, because the plot isn't advancing and nothing new is being revealed. Readers want to see the story progressing. They want to see things getting worse and the stakes getting higher.

For every scene, ask yourself four questions:
  • What are they (the point of view character) trying to do?
  • What goes wrong?
  • What do they do about it?
  • Why does this matter?
These questions capture the basic goal-journey-disaster structure of a scene.

In The Shifter, my opening scene looks like this:

What are they trying to do? Steal eggs for breakfast.
What goes wrong? She gets caught.
What do they do about it? She uses her shifting ability to get away.
Why does this matter? Someone sees her do it, and now her secret is out.

The "Why does this matter" is a key component of building a strong story. Plenty of things can always go wrong, but not all of them will move your story along toward the climax. (Even if that climax is still 70,000 words away). Knowing why it matters not only clarifies the character's motivation, it clarifies plot and stakes.

You can either mentally check this, or write it down. I like writing it down because it forces me to pinpoint the major plot points of the book. I can easily see which scenes are moving the story and which aren't. Some folks like using flash cards for this, so they can shuffle them around or take them out to see how the book flows when they cut or move scenes.

There are bound to be some scenes where you find you can't answer one or more of these questions very well. Usually the "what are they trying to do" and "why does it matter" ones. This is a good indicator that this scene might not be needed, or it's missing the goals and narrative drive to advance the story. These are scenes you might want to focus on first. Either cut them, or find a way to make them work.

Once you have all your scenes down, read through your list and see how the story flows. You should be able to see plot progression from opening scene to resolution. Everything marching toward that end climax. You should see your stakes escalating, where things keep getting worse and worse. And usually more personal to your protagonist. They want this bad, or else. If they can just walk away without any repercussions, chances are your stakes aren't personal (or high) enough.

Take note of anything that feels repetitious. Are the characters being put in the same situation too many times? Do they do the same thing to resolve the issue too often? Are there slow areas where nothing really happens? Scenes where it's all explanation? Are there chains of scenes that don't raise the stakes?

This list is also good for checking chapter breaks. Does every chapter end on something that leaves the reader hanging and wanting to know what happens next? Do the chapters clearly build toward your climax?

Lastly, look at your overall character motivations. Do all those "reasons why" work to answer the story question? (What the book is about. You one-line sentence that sums up the book). Is the character acting in a way that makes sense given their personality and that situation, or are they acting just because plot tells them to? Do the motivation get more desperate as the story progresses? (a good indicator of rising stakes) Does the resolution fulfill the motivations and the reasons for acting?

Getting a look at the big picture goes a long way toward polishing the details. Because by the time you get to those, you'll know your story is solid and all you have to worry about is making the text sing.

What do you look for in a first draft? 


  1. Great post!

    The "why does this matter" question is really important...I think action without a purpose is referred to as "ninjas", right? Throwing in a catalyst just for the heck of it, without it really be pertinent to the story. :)

  2. Yeppers. :) It probably has a few other names too, but the concept in the same. Stuff for the sake of stuff.

  3. As always, another great post and something new for us aspiring writers learn :)

  4. Just wanted to de-lurk and say I've really been enjoying your blog. It's great that you offer advice about the writing process! The detailed examples are a big help.

  5. Just about to jump into this whole revision thing. Thanks so much for this post!

  6. This is what I've had to learn over the last year. There's so much more to that second draft than continuity or spelling checks.

  7. Thanks for the reminder to check the macro as well as the micro! :)

  8. This is exactly where I'm at in my WiP, so this was a very timely post. Thanks for the tips! I'll definitely be using them. :)

  9. Short and sweet checklist - perfect!

  10. All the perfect questions for revision. Thanks!

  11. I've gone back to a story after about eighteen months. I wrote it in a burst of inspiration, and loved the way the story unfolded and told itself.

    It was my first, and I had been so proud when I had finished it, I sent it off straight away to a publisher which had been open to unsolicited mss for a narrow window of time.


    Now upon re-reading it, I cringe!
    Sure, the grammar and punctuation are passable, and I still believe the story is worthwhile, but - gosh! It needs one heckuvalot of work. I fell into the trap of including entire passages for the sake of a punch-line. Your checklist is very timely, and I will use it as I apply the editing scythe.

  12. This will be very useful when I have a first draft to look at!

  13. Great post. Of all the books and articles I've read this article has summed everything up in simple steps. This is convenient because I just finished a first draft to a novel. I want to link this article back to my writing blog and use your suggestions but twist them a little if you don't mind. I will put your website and credit all over the post. Great post again!

  14. Great advice! I'm just beginning my first edits on my first completed draft of a novel -- this is just want I needed! :)

  15. Anaele-Ihuoma-ImminentRiverApr 20, 2012, 10:00:00 PM

    My novel Imminent River was surging happy-go-lucky towards a publishing house until it encountered your damming restraint. Like a snail, it has withdrawn to its shell, WiP all over again! When it re-emerges,permit me to say it could cause a stir, not just with redolent reeds along it banks.Now how's that for impact?

  16. Thanks. This will greatly help me in editing my Nano novel.

  17. Thank you for a clear and precise post. I am reviewing my first draft and this by far the best resource I have found.

  18. Thanks! Always nice to hear the blog is helping folks.

  19. I did that very thing. As soon as my MS was finished, I whipped it off to a publisher. Now I keep it as a reminder, "don't do that ever again!."
    The publisher I sent it to was very kind, I'll always reminder that. :-)

    Thanks for a great post!


  20. Mary, I think that's a writer rite of passage :) I'm not sure I've ever met a writer who hasn't done that. That's nice that the publisher was kind, too.

  21. The first thing I start with is a very fast edit. I actually got this idea from the book Write Your Way, where the author differentiates between outliners and organics (he calls them plungers). A lot of junk can come into an organic writer's story, like tangents, or even just a paragraph of something that didn't go any further. With a fast edit, I can clean these out first so that I don't have them in the way. When I took Holly Lisle's How to Revise Your Novel, she advocated not doing any editing whatsoever until all the problems had been identified. I ran into so much trouble with this because there was so much junk that had wandered in and could have been deleted. I actually had trouble figuring out what was wrong with the story because I was mining through so much of this stuff!