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.
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?
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?