Congratulations — if you participated in last month’s National Novel Writing Month challenge (or even if you didn’t), hopefully you’re looking at a finished first draft that’s full of potential.
Don’t make the mistake of the writer who, after one year’s challenge, had his NaNo manuscript uploaded and available on Kindle one week later. Regardless of how good your story may be, in the inimitable words of Ernest Hemingway, “The first draft of anything is sh**.”
Just as a sculptor wouldn’t have the clay delivered and call it art, the raw material of your first draft is unlikely to be publishable (or sometimes even readable). But that’s not to say that you don’t have the makings of an excellent novel on your hands — if you take the time to do the real work of writing: editing and revising.
Evaluating what you have in your manuscript and knowing what to do to make it the best it can be can sometimes be the hardest part of writing — much harder than the initial sexy, satisfying burst of creativity that is a first draft. If first drafts are the heady honeymoon period, revisions are the marriage — when you can’t rely on the excitement of the new anymore and it’s time to put in the work to make sure you’ve created something that can go the distance.
But what do you do first?
Before anything else, step away. Take a break for at least a few days, ideally longer. You’ve been submerged in the manuscript for a month (or more); you need to surface and catch some fresh air before diving back down.
When you do come back to it, start with an objective read: reading your manuscript as you would any other book, without trying to fix anything, just immersing yourself in the story and reading it start to finish.
Now it’s time to ask yourself some questions about the three main tent poles of story: character, plot, and stakes.
Readers care about what happens in your story only insofar as it affects characters you have made us care about, so regardless of how “plot-driven” your story may be, or how exciting its events, we don’t care what happens unless we care about whom it’s happening to.
Begin by asking a few questions about your characters:
· Who is your protagonist(s)? As remedial as it sounds, this isn’t always cut-and-dried. There may be multiple main characters, or the story may be a pastiche of tales knitted together, with no clear “hero” or engine of the story in the first-draft stage. Or the main character(s) may be fuzzy or not well developed, generic “types” rather than three-dimensional characters who pop off the page. Write down your protag(s) and, for each one, a few defining character traits, what makes her/him unique. Do the same with your antagonist(s).
· What do they want? Do all main characters have a strong, clearly defined goal? Is their motive for achieving it strong and evident?
· What keeps them from that goal?
· How are they changed in the process of getting it (or not getting it)?
· Is what happens to the protagonist caused or worsened by the antagonist?
· Is every main character essential? Differentiated?
· Do your protagonists have flaws, and do your antagonists have redeeming qualities? One-dimensional characters make for dull reading.
Before you begin revising the manuscript, I suggest you create what I call an “X-ray” or blueprint for the story — essentially an outline. Basically, make a bulleted or numbered list of the main plot developments — for each one, you will have just a line or two at most. This is just a sketch, an X-ray of sorts of the story so you can see its “bones” more clearly without the “flesh” of the whole narrative covering it. Now it’s time for more questions:
· Are there holes in the plot line? Perhaps you see you need to show how C leads to D, or X leads to Y.
· Does each and every development accomplish something — develop character or further plot — in a way that is tied into the central, overarching plot? (If not, chances are it doesn’t belong in the story.)
· Can you identify the story’s “inciting event” — that thing that sets this entire story in motion? If not, find that event. If you do have it, but it appears well into the outline, consider how to begin the story at that point, rather than before it.
· Can you identify the story’s arc? Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end?
· Examine why each plot event happens. Is it realistic? Believable?
· Is there any easier or better way out of the mess for your characters? (The answer must be no.)
· Are there loose ends? Unanswered questions? Anything unresolved?
· Any unmotivated actions, or deus ex machinas (unsupported resolutions to the plot)?
What separates a compelling book from one readers will put down is keeping the stakes high throughout the story. I used to be an actor, and the best piece of acting advice I ever got was that great actors make the strongest possible choice in every situation, however big or small. If a character leaves the room, is he simply leaving in accordance with the stage directions, or is he furiously retreating? If a man kills his wife’s lover, is it stronger if he does it out of wounded pride alone, or also a desperate, painful unreturned love for her? The latter is stronger, and therefore more dramatic and compelling. The same holds true in fiction. Characters must want something desperately, and there must be consequences — meaningful ones — if they don’t achieve that goal. When looking at your first draft, consider whether you have maximized every motivation, made the strongest possible choice in every moment for every character. That’s what makes for great, memorable fiction.
Now that you have the tools for approaching your edit, it’s time to go back in and start addressing what you’ve discovered in the above “dissection” of your main elements of story — filling in gaps, deepening motivations, raising stakes, building character, etc.
Though you may feel you’re standing at the foot of what can often seem like Revision Mountain, take time to acknowledge your accomplishment so far — writing a full first draft is no small achievement, and you’re well on your way to a finished novel you can be proud of.
Developmental editor Tiffany Yates Martin is privileged to help authors tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. In more than 25 years in the publishing industry she’s worked both with major publishing houses and directly with authors (through her company FoxPrint Editorial), on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestsellers and award winners as well as newer authors. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications. Check out her free 13-page guide here on finding, vetting, and working with the right editor for your story.