Previously, I have written about 1st drafts, and I shared my best suggestions for finishing draft 1 of your novel within 3 to 6 months (without losing your mind). Your 1st draft is the one Anne Lamott aptly dubs the “shitty first draft.” Give yourself permission to work quickly with forward momentum.
When your 1st draft is complete:
Set it aside for days, weeks, maybe even a month or more. Give yourself time to let it go and separate yourself. When you come back to the story you will see with fresh eyes. Step away from your novel and your unconscious keeps busy percolating, playing, and working the story without detectable effort. (Note: You never truly stop writing your story but at some point you write “finis” on your current novel and you declare yourself finished because you’ve done your job fully.)
Now that you’ve let your manuscript rest (like bread dough between risings), see if you are ready to begin a quick read through. You should be able to view your story from a (somewhat) neutral vantage point—clearly seeing both strong and weak points.
Internal gremlins 911:
If you start reading and hate every word, are filled with disgust, and feel like throwing up, put your pages down and step away from the manuscript! This means it is too early for you to read. Your internal saboteurs have started a negative propaganda loop—do not believe what you hear! Your internal gremlins and harpies have one agenda and that is to STOP YOU FROM WRITING! Don’t let them. Take more time, try reading again, and/or seek constructive support from your fellow writers, your writing coach, your therapist.
Jot your thoughts:
Let’s say you’re able to read this draft of your novel constructively (without drinking heavily, hooray!). This means over a period of a day or two or three, without editing, and taking only limited notes to keep you in reading mode and out of analytical editorial mode. Now that you’ve finished, write down your thoughts about this draft. What’s missing? What moves you? Can you add and make stronger? Can you cut and/or replace?
Make a quick, new outline of your novel:
Okay. Whew. So far, so good. Now it’s time to make a new outline of your story—keep it short, to the basics. Look for your character’s dilemma—the impossibility of her getting both what she wants and what she needs. You will be gently searching for this thematic story core and heart throughout the revision process just as you did while writing your shitty 1st draft. Review your new outline and make a new document file for what will be your revision draft. (*911: Always keep a clean, untouched copy of draft 1. You may decide you prefer your first draft version of your “battle scene” to your revised draft. Fine, no sweat, no nervous breakdown, you’ve got a copy.)
I like to revise a few chapters at a time, usually consecutively, but I almost always begin to jump back and forth within the manuscript when a scene in act one suggests changes in a scene in act three. I’m happy to cut expository ‘info dumps’, jettison a scene that reads ‘flat’, and insert a brand new, absolutely necessary, scene.
Look for meaning:
Write aiming to let your reader fully experience your characters’ journey, and never forget that you are searching for the most dramatic way to reveal meaning to your reader. In order for your reader to care about what is happening in your story, you must convey what events mean to your characters, especially your protagonist.
Step by step:
Think of your revision in stages: a) stage 1, how is the overall story flowing, is the story dilemma clear, is the tension nonstop, does your protagonist undergo a true transformation, is she facing worthy antagonists, and have you given your readers what they need to experience the journey? b) stage 2, are all your characters necessary, are they dimensional, are you considering your readers by including some comic relief on your protagonist’s darkest days, are you showing what you can show and telling what you need to tell, and not telling and then showing what you told, etc.?
Aerial view vs. microscope:
Address big picture questions first. Don’t confuse fine-tuning prose, moving words around, tweaking and twiddling with revision. Yes, of course you will attend to your prose and aim for your best writing (line edits), but don’t get stuck in act 1 with a microscope. First, go up in a bi-plane and view your story landscape and scope.
These are my suggestions, but remember, there are no absolutes, no rules, so choose what works for you.
Sarah Lovett is a best-selling novelist and the author of the award-winning “Extremely Weird” natural history series for kids. Blowback, co-authored with former CIA covert officer Valerie Plame Wilson is currently under film option. Sarah’s at work on her latest novel, The Book of Riddles. For more, please visit, SarahLovett.com and WritingCoachSarah.comand find her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.