I just finished the first draft of a new 47000-word middle grade fantasy. “Tada!” I thought triumphantly as I tapped out the last line. Now I can relax and celebrate go back and read it and discover just how crappy it is.
I re-read Chapter 1 in growing disbelief. My word, I have a LOT of work to do! Correcting the POV issues and grammar is just a tenth of it. It’s not even ready for my sister, who has bravely volunteered to be a beta reader (ok, I ‘volunteered’ her. Same difference).
I should not have been surprised at the general suckiness of the writing. The function of a first draft is not to be great literature. Unless you’re Dean Koontz who edits every page to his complete satisfaction before moving on to the next – sometimes even 30 times – you’re going to need to read, revise, repeat. Several times. I learned this the hard way with my first manuscript, which was speedily rejected by the dozen or so agents I sent it to. It’s taken me two years to revise it to a (more or less) publishable state. With the help of editor Marie-Lynn, and the advice of my lovely crit group. (Defogging! Author intrusion! Show vs. Tell! They cheerfully point out the flaws in my magnum opus. Thanks Val, Deb, LA, Vicki and Mel. You rock!)
So what are some of the things that need fixing? And how do you go about fixing them? Easy to say, difficult to do. Every writer has a different process that makes sense to him / her. Some will edit feverishly as they write. Others will vomit out a first draft and then (like me) need to go back and clean up the mess. Here’s my two cents:
1. Finish the first draft. Really. Doesn’t matter how bad it is or how difficult. Yeah, the words should be simply flowing out like a golden river of meaning, but even if they stink like a sludge of industrial waste, make them damn well come out!
2. Do. Not. Submit. Above. Sucky. Draft. Save it and forget it. Go for a week-long walk. Lavish attention on neglected friends, family, cats. Whatever.
3. Write something else. A short story perhaps. You don’t want to get too attached to any one particular manuscript. You might end up throwing half of it out the window. Or at least rewriting half of it. You need distance to see it for what it really is, to get the gold from the dross. (And do avoid cliches like that one!)
4. Read other books. Read a lot, in fact. And not just in your genre.
5. When you do return to your manuscript, give it a quick read to spot the bigger issues – plot problems, pacing and character inconsistencies:
- Are the first two chapters nothing but boring exposition or narrative summary? Yawn. Cut them. Be totally heartless about it.
- Did you leave John stuck on a branch with wolves howling the base of the tree? Resolve the scene. He’s dinner.
- Are Buzz, Al and Dino extras with too little story to flesh them out? Kill em off, and no regrets.
6. Once the big issues are resolved, go over the manuscript line by line with a scalpel. Check for over-used words, phrases, events and cliches. Is her “heart beating fast” twice on the same page? Man, she’s going to have a heart attack. Remove or rephrase.
7. Check grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Stick to one kind of spelling – no bouncing between Canadian, US and British.
8. Now that you have a decent second draft – and it hasn’t come easy, has it? – it’s ready for your beta readers. By this point, you probably can’t ‘see’ your manuscript any more. It needs a fresh pair of eyes. Crit groups are great. Look for one in your local community. Find fellow writers at a workshop. Attend a conference. You’ll always learn something.
Now, if only I’d known all this when I first started my great work of genius, I probably would not have taken five years to finish it. More or less finish it. It’s never really ‘finished’ – but at some point, like any mother, you have to let it go.
What’s your editing style? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way? I’d love to hear from you.