So you did Nanowrimo! Huzzah!! Or maybe you didn’t, but whether you did it through Nanowrimo or not, you now have a rough draft—maybe a very, very, very rough draft— of your book or script. Huzzah!!
So now what?
First of all, I hope you’ve had a good long break. If at all possible, when you’ve finished a first draft – Take a break. As long a break as possible.
You should keep to a writing schedule, start brainstorming the next project, maybe do some random collaging to see what images come up that might lead to something fantastic – but if you have a completed draft, then what you need most of all is SPACE from it. You are going to need fresh eyes to do the read-through that is going to take you to the next level, and the only way for you to get those fresh eyes is to leave the story alone for a while.
And if you’re here in this New Year and you still haven’t gotten through to “The End” then my advice is always – Keep going. You must get through to The End, no matter how rough it is (rough meaning the process AND the pages…). You can slow down your schedule, set a lower per-day word or page count, but do not stop. Write every day, or every other day if that’s your schedule, but get the sucker done.
You may end up throwing away most of what you write, but it is a really, really, really bad idea not to get all the way through a story. That is how most books, scripts and probably most all other things in life worth doing are abandoned.
But once you have bashed through to the end of your opus, and have that dreaded first draft done…
Ah, now comes the fun part. At least, I think so! No matter how hard the subsequent drafts may be, nothing is ever as hard as that sucky first draft.
But whoever said “Writing is rewriting” was oh-so-right.
While I almost never print out anything anymore, I still recommend printing out your book or script to do your read through.
Don’t get hung up on trying to rewrite. In your first read you are reading all the way through to get a sense of the book overall. You might want to do it in 50-100 page sessions at a time— it’s useful to read through one Act at a time so you can absorb each Act before you move on to the next reading session and the next Act.
Have a pencil or pen to scribble a quick note or slash out something that very obviously isn’t working, but then put the pencil downand keep reading. Again, you’re not rewriting yet, you’re getting a sense of your book.
And this is key: What you wrote is NOT what you thought you were going to write. It never is! So you need to see what you actually did write. And then approach the story that you have, as your own editor.
Once you’ve done your read through, I suggest you sit in a quiet and comfortable place for several hours and make all the notes you can without looking at your pages at all. Just download all your impressions of the book. Make sure you’re making notes on all the good stuff as well as bad! This step might take several sessions, and it’s worth it.
To help you launch into the rewriting process, here are some next steps that can be taken in whatever order is useful to you.
Top Ten Things I Know About Editing
1. Cut, cut, cut.
When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.
Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will. It’s okay if you bitch about it all the way to the trash file, too – I always do.
2. Figure out your SETPIECES, and start to shape those.
This is such a hugely important part of rewriting that I’ve done a dedicated post about it this week. But as you’re looking to cut and combine, you’re also looking for those genre-specific, thematic, climactic scenes that will sell your book or film and make it come alive and live on in every reader/audience’s imagination. Stay tuned for more!
3. Find a great critique group.
This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of beta readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. They may not admit it, but most editors and publishing houses expect their authors to find trusted readers and colleagues to give them that initial intensive feedback. Really.
4. Do several passes.
Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is, and give yourself a break. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.
5. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on Genre.
For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.
I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story just focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.
6. Know your Three Act Structure.
If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your Final Battle at the end. Each of those scenes are SETPIECES: they should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.
7.Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE passin which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing them in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”
8.Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass, in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene: What do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?
9.Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.
10.Read your book aloud.All of it. Cover to cover.
I wouldn’t recommend doing this with a first draft unless you feel it’s very close to the final product, but when you’re further along, the best thing I know to do to edit a book or script is to read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.
And all the way along –
Use the essential elements of story structure to pull your story into dramatic line.
In the Stealing Hollywood workbooks I’ve compiled a extensive checklist of essential story elements, Act by Act (with plenty of examples of each element) that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story with index cards and a story structure grid, and I use the index cards, structure grid, and story elements checklist again when I’m starting to revise, to make sure I’m hitting all of these points. In the online workshopI help writers work through those elements Act by Act.
So this is a big, big topic, that will take a lot more posts. Or you can get the books and get started.
STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print $15.99
WRITING LOVEebook $2.99 (A shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy)