Monday, May 03, 2010

The Writer's Peak: Coming Down After a First Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Finishing a novel feels a bit like standing at the top of Everest, cheering your ability to reach the summit, then realizing you have to climb down.

Don't get me wrong, completing a first draft of a novel is a huge achievement and it shouldn't be under appreciated in any way. It's just not the end of the journey. Revisions come next, and they can be just as challenging as the first draft sometimes.

Since many of you have or are getting close to completing your own first drafts, (and we've been talking a lot about process and what writers do) I thought I'd share my plan for the "trip down."

Oh, it's probably important to note what shape my first drafts are usually in so we have some context here. By the time I write "the end," I've gone over every chapter at least twice. Once when I wrote it, then again on a second pass look as I re-read what I wrote the day before. If there was a chapter that had extensive tweaks in the rough draft stage, then it may have been revised more than twice. The manuscript will have spots that are really awful, and chapters that are pretty clean. In this particular manuscript, there are also a ton of notes to remind myself to go back and add something. I put those in parentheses, because I don't want to slow myself to color the text as I'm writing. This is a new things for me, and it developed because I'd remember something from an earlier book that had to be addressed and just add it in. Or I'd think of something cool and make notes, pretending as if I'd written the ground work for it already.

So anyway...

The first thing I'll do is go back and make all the edits from my in-progress crit group. I've been working on them the last few weeks as I finished the book, but I still have about eight chapters to go (especially since five of them I gave to my group Sunday afternoon).

When I go through WIP crits, I do a combination of fixes and notes. I make any changes that are a no-brainer. Typos, unclear anything, quick edits to tighten or smooth over language. Unless I disagree with what's being suggested, I listen to the advice. (One note here: I have a terrific crit group I can trust who knows their stuff. You never want to blindly accept advice or edit based on things you don't agree with).

Once I've done the easy fixes, I'll look at the harder stuff. These usually involve motive or characterization. A character not acting plausibly in a scene, or a plot thread that's not coming across clearly. Sometimes I can tweak a few things here and there and fix these, other times I know I need to do some major overhauling.

If it's a major overhaul, I'll make notes in that scene. NEEDS TO FEEL MORE EMOTIONAL or whatever the issue is. I usually make them in all caps and red so they stand out. If I have any ideas, I note them there as well.

Next, I'll go back and do a find for ( so I can easily get to all my notes. Then I'll take them one by one, and either make the addition, or make note of what needs to go where. I'll have to let you know how this turns out, but I imagine it'll be similar to my crit notes.

When all that is finished, I'll start from page one and look for the notes. Then I'll do whatever needs to be done.

I know after this pass I'll most likely have redundant info and stuff that just plain feels out of whack. I don't worry about any of that as I edit here. That's where the full read through comes in.

After all the edits are made, I'll go back to page one and read the entire manuscript, looking for anything that pops out at me. Sometimes it'll be little tweaks, other times I'll see a whole scene that just feels long and needs to be cut back. I like to do this in big chunks, because I can get a better sense of the flow that way, and I remember what I just read, so the redundancies stand out better. Ideally, I like to do half one day and half the next.

When done, it goes off to my "finished draft" crit group and they read through it with very critical eyes. And when they're done, I go through the whole process again.

Unless they tell me I need serious overhauling (which happens), I'll make those edits, and then send it off to my editor. If I'm not on deadline, then I'll let the manuscript sit for a few weeks, then I'll give it one final read before I send it off.

Then I can breathe and admire the view.


  1. It's a phenomenon I've noticed in myself, and in other writers I know -- that diminishing excitement about the first draft the more times you complete one. Not because a full first draft isn't a big deal, but because, the more you do of them, you more you realize it's only the first step down and a long way from the goal post.

    On the last project, I distinctly remember staring at the final words of the last chapter and thinking how now the real work started.

  2. I hope to finish my first draft by the end of May (fingers crossed). However, there are some great editing tips in here (some of which I even use). Thanks for sharing.

  3. I have one last chapter of my WIP to draft, and like Barbara commented, my anxiety for the revision process is increasing the closer I get to the end of the first draft. It's a good feeling overall when you think of what you have accomplished, but now the real work begins and all those loose ends, underdeveloped concepts, and for me, names of ancillary characters, are lying in wait.

  4. Always fun to read about someone's writing process!

    I'm hoping to finish two novels (1 first draft, 1 third) and a novelette (first draft) this month.

    I'm looking tentatively forward to those 'completions', I guess because I now know from the third drafter how much work is still to come. (Nice to know I'm not the only one!) My gut's actually saying the first draft novel will need the least work, but I'm still anxious.

    (I even have the query letter written! I was having so much trouble getting the parallel-ish plot pared to a sentence, but your tutorials let me do it. ^_^ It's perfect! I get excited just thinking about the query, and I'm eagerly awaiting the day I can try it out and see if it's as perfect as I think it is.)

    The novelette has some odd POV things going on that'll take careful editing, and the many-revisions novel is... *headdesk* That's the one that I've written and now need to do the maps and such. So overall, I guess I have a bit more trepidation then excitement about finishing those drafts, because at least right now I know what I need to do next.

    *rereads above* ...For some reason writing the above made me think I'm depressed, again. (I have a hormone disorder.)

    I prefer square brackets [] for notes, since I wouldn't use those as actual parts of the writing style... except maybe for cyberpunk, if I ever wrote that.

    I've learned that writer's block, for me, means something's wrong. So I've been editing as I go with my two first draft progress--which means that the worldbuilding and plot development are comparable to the other novel's 3rd draft. That 3rd draft was my second novel I ever finished (two I gave up when I could tell it wasn't worth it). It still needs enough work to be daunting. Whenever I start moping and thinking it might be unsalvagable, my friends who've read it start nagging me about it, because they loved it and want it fixed. (My friends are candid, by the way, and will happily slay my darlings for me.)

    Mean friends. ^_^

  5. I want to finish my edits in less than two weeks. Eek. I hope I can do it! Thanks for keeping us up to date on your progress! And I hope you have a fun time admiring the view....

  6. I love when the first is done. It's that "ah" moment when that inking of an idea fleshed out. Edits and revision take a long time, but I'm hoping that each time I start that process I’ve learned from the previous story and my draft is fuller needed less revisions.

  7. What a great system! I need to come up with something similar. My revisions are overwhelming me a bit at the moment. I've been doing chapter by chapter and I've tried to revise everything all at once.

  8. This is a great post, Janice.

    I was wondering: how much on-screen editing do you do versus printing out on paper?

  9. Sierra, I do all my editing on-screen. I do get hard copy edits from my editor, and I'll make paper edits on that since they ask me to unless the edits are more than a few words. (and with my handwriting, it's so much easier on them if I type it out and send in a file)

    Proofing seems to work great when I read the hard copy. Sometimes it's easier to catch things on paper versus the screen.

  10. I am a big fan of hand-writing stuff. It's really the only way I can get the thoughts out of my head right (on a computer I worry too much about misspellings or bad grammar and lose my train of thought). I've a Moleskin for each work (or, when I was writing screenplays, I used a spiral-bound college rule notebook). I spend a few weeks jotting down ideas about the setting, characters, scenes, everything, just to flush out an idea into a story. Once I've got everything I think I need I write "The End", draw a line, turn the page, and start the first draft.

    My first draft is really just a fleshing out and rearranging of my jumbled up outline, but once I finish I write "The End", draw a line, turn the page, and start again. More dialogue crops in, and the scenes are way more formed, formed enough for me to think of them as puzzle pieces and arrange them in the best format for the story.

    It's not until the 3rd draft that I set aside my notebook and turn to the computer. I use the notebook only to refer back to names forgotten or little details like that, but the story is now lodged in my brain. I leave each scene as its own Word doc, then add them together in a single file, and everything gets uploaded as I go into Google Docs.

    All this allows me to proof and edit as I go, over and over again, so by the time I hand something over to be critiqued I'm pretty frakking confident about it.

  11. お疲れ様です。

    It's a very bittersweet feeling, for me. You've written a complete story, but it's usually not a complete book. Like making a fancy dinner, and then having to clean up the mess, I guess.

  12. I've always found XXXXX a great way of marking things I need to go back to. It's easy to search for XXX since you won't hit any false positives on that search.

    I also try and cut 10% from the first draft. That's a crude rule and I don't always hit 10%, but it does cut away a lot of the chaff.

    Finally, I find printing the first draft out and reading it aloud is very helpful. Sometimes that will really show up when a word is being overused - and that's not something you catch on a mental read through all of the time.