Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Onward...No? Write to the End or Go Back and Edit?
At some point during your first draft, you're bound to ask yourself if you should keep going or start editing. I've talked about this some, but that was for a specific "do I edit for X reason" type revisions, and I'm talking more general here.
Chances are this urge to edit will be prompted by reading a good article or finding some great writing advice, or even getting a super idea for the story. A light bulb might go off and you'll understand something you didn't before and want to go back and put that into practice.
But should you?
If this is your first book, you might be better off just pushing ahead and getting your first draft done. You learn a lot by completing a novel, and for many, until you actually do it, there's often that nagging doubt that you even can. Going through the process once will not only prove that you can do it, but can give you much better insights on what needs to be done overall with the story.
And, (perish the thought) if you reach the end and realize the story doesn't really work all that well, you haven't spent a lot of time revising it and can start something new that might work out better for you. This happens more than you'd think on first novels.
First drafts are usually messy, so don't stress if yours is a bit of a wreck. Sometimes we need to write a lot of bad (or so-so) to find the good stuff, while other times we know just what to say the first time out. It varies per book. If revising is going to keep you from moving forward, then maybe wait until you're done. Having five perfectly polished chapters isn't going to do you any good if you never get to chapter six. (One note here, if your goal is to perfect an opening to learn to do them well, then by all means go for it)
If you have a novel or two (or six) under your belt, or you know how you work and what will slow you down and what will save you editing time in the long run, then revising as you go can work well.
Some very common reasons to want to edit...
1. You want to cut the beginning, because you realize it actually starts on chapter two or three
Revise, Yay or Nay?: You already wrote it, so you might as well leave it and not worry about it for now. Once you're done you can go back and cut whatever doesn't need to be there without interrupting your momentum. And you'll know how it ends, so you can edit the beginning to make it resonate better.
2. The story just isn't working
Revise, Yay or Nay?: I think we've all had stories we knew deep down weren't going anywhere, but tried to rationalize why we should keep working on them. We already put so much work into it, and we feel that if we just keep tweaking we'll get it right. But if your instincts say nay and you know it's a waste of time to continue, then trust them and revise. One caveat here... If you want to revise just because you feel it "can be better," then you're probably better off pushing forward. First drafts can always be better. Heck, final drafts can even be better. That's just how writing is.
3. You realize what the real story is, and it wasn't what you started writing
Revise, Yay or Nay?: This one can go both ways. If you're still in discovery mode, then pushing ahead can help you learn more about the story and characters. (You see this a lot with premise novels, where you haven't solidified the story yet) You might need to write more to find the critical aspects of your story. But if you suddenly realize the protagonist's real motivation, or find the perfect piece of backstory that puts the entitle story in a new (and better) light, then revising can put you on the right path and save you time in the long run. It might be worth going back for that.
4. You realize you have the wrong protagonist
Revise, Yay or Nay?: You see this most often in epic tales where the core conflict isn't as personal. The wrong protagonist does kinda mean you have to start over, but at least you'll have a good sense of how things are going so the rewrite should go quickly.
5. You learned something about the writing process and want to fix the mistakes you already made
Revise, Yay or Nay?: This is probably the hardest thing to avoid doing. I can't tell you how many times I rewrote stuff to use something I'd learned. But there comes a point when you start revising just to revise, and the story isn't really improving. You're usually better off just putting the new skills into practice from that point on and revising after the draft is done. Odds are you'll learn even more before you're finished, and then you can fix everything at once.
Everyone has their own process, so you should always do what works for you. But on those days when you just aren't sure, taking a minute to objectively look at what you're doing can save you time and hassles later.
What about you? Do you push forward or do you go back?