Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Stop or Go On? Should You Revise or Keep Writing That First Draft?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Drafting a novel is often a messy process, because there are so many different ways to do it. Do you get it perfect on the first try, or worry about perfection later?

There are a lot of things I don't worry about in a first draft. My characters aren't fully formed yet, I don't always know what world building details matter, and my plot might change, even though I outline in great detail. I write a first draft to get the idea in my head down on paper, and then I figure out the best way to revise it.

Not matter what your process is, sometimes amazing ideas just happen as you write. The characters say or do something you weren't expecting, and you get that happy little buzz of excitement when multiple minor details converge into awesomeness.

And then you realize there's absolutely no groundwork in the novel for that amazing idea.

What should you do? Stop writing, go back, and put in the groundwork for this scene to have its full impact, or keep going and worry about it during revisions?

Consider these things when deciding if it’s better to stop and revise, or keep writing:

1. Is this critical to the core plot?

If knowing how this event unfolds will affect how the story unfolds going forward, it might be worth going back and revising--especially if this event is going to motivate the protagonist to act later.

If the event is more cosmetic, or will deepen something that's already there, it might be better to simply make notes where it should go and move on. Don't risk losing your writing momentum.

(Here's more on Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)

2. Do you know how the characters got to that moment?

If the scene/moment is a great way to use what you've already written and it just needs a tweak to make it fit better--it's probably still better to make notes and move on. Unless that tweak is simple to do and you won't lose momentum by doing it.

If you're not sure how the characters reached this point, but know it happened "somewhere" between X and Y, then maybe go back and figure it out. Odds are you'll need to know that information later, and it might have more impact on the story than just this one moment or scene.

(Here's more on Baby Got Backstory: Dealing With Backstory in Your Novel)

3. Do you even know what happened?

Great ideas do come out of the blue, even when we know in our souls they're the right thing for the story.

Perhaps you've had a fantastic idea but have no clue how it works with the book, and it's going to require some serious thinking (and work) to add it to what's already there. These are often world building epiphanies or backstory ideas that deepen the story, but they could be anything.

Going back and revising is a good idea in these cases, because these types of ideas almost always need a lot of work and surgical editing to add them in. Too much changes in the earlier scenes to move forward without knowing how it changes.

(Here's more on Tab A Into Slot B: Inserting Plot Pieces Into a First Draft)

4. Will this kill your momentum?

When you're on a roll, you're on a roll. If stopping is going to make you stare at the screen when your fingers were ready to type for another three hours, keep moving. Make a few quick notes so you don't forget, then get back and let the muse work. Once done, decide if you need to go back or not.

Moments of genius can rev up your excitement about a project, so don't let the thought of "all that work" get your down. There's nothing that says you have to stop and fix it at that moment. As long as you make a note of it somewhere, you'll be good to go.

(Here's more on Onward...No? Write to the End or Go Back and Edit?)

Do you stop or keep moving? What types of edits or inspiration will make you change your normal routine?

*Originally published February 2010. Last updated February 2020.

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

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  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Excellent tips! Thanks!!! Good Luck going back and setting it all up!

  2. Knowing how thoroughly you structure your novels, this is a great post for those who worry that making an outline will stifle creativity. With or without an outline, "epiphanies" and "moments of genius" never stop.

    I'm going through a different outcome to point 3. While I will often go back and 'add in' (red ink on a hard copy otherwise it ****** up the page numbers and so near impossible to find other sections to check up on) I find myself in the middle of writing a couple of chapters that don't belong in book two (WIP) but - other than a brief mention - book three!I'm sure your advice to make notes and come back to it is right for most people but my dyslexic brain doesn't work that way. If something is in my head then it is in my head until I get it out in full - especially if it is strongly dialogue driven.
    But, as usual, another excellent blog of sound advice.