Writing the first draft of a novel is exciting. Your plot, characters and themes are fresh, and anything is possible. Better yet, you’re finally setting down that story you’ve been carrying around in your head. You reach the end, and you’re elated: you have a book! Except, of course, that you don’t. Because when you read back over your work, what you’ve written is not the groundbreaking masterwork you envisioned, but rather a semi-coherent jumble of flat characters, stagey dialogue, plot holes and cliches.
I know from experience how soul-crushingly awful that realisation is. The amount of work necessary to transform what you have into a workable story is, frankly, overwhelming. Cue a negative self-talk spiral and before you know it, you’re sitting on the couch—blanket around your shoulders, empty ice cream bucket in hand—having somehow watched all four seasons of the new Battlestar Galactica, because there is no crisis too great for Bill Adama and his glorious hair. Meanwhile, the voice in your head is telling you that you’ll never be a good writer and that you should give up and focus on your other dream of becoming a millionaire by making your dog instafamous. I realise that’s quite specific. As I said, I’ve been there.
The good news for you and Stumpy both is that there’s hope for your novel yet. For many writers, The Shitty First Draft is part of the creative process. And with National Novel Writing Month having just wrapped up, I thought I’d share my strategy for transforming an unwieldy beast of a manuscript into a story ready for fine-tuning and polishing.
Give it space
No doubt you’ve been working intensively on your manuscript to get it to this point, especially if you’ve just done NaNoWriMo. So the first thing you need to do is to back the hell away from it. Enjoy the holidays and return to it in the new year. There’re two reasons to do this. First, to give yourself a moment to celebrate the fact that YOU WROTE A FRACKING BOOK!!! Regardless of the quality of the writing, pour yourself a cocktail; it’s a huge achievement!
Second, getting some distance puts you in a better position to critically assess your work. While you’re away, your brain, being the marvel that it is, will keep working on your story. You’ll return to it fresh and ready to start muscling it into shape.
Now that you’ve got some distance, it’s time to revaluate the big picture and consider: what is your story really about and how do you communicate that? I’m talking key themes and ideas and how you explore them in your story—through plot, characterisation, setting, narrative voice, etc. Have new themes emerged? Are others no longer relevant? And how do these ideas and themes relate to each other? In short: what do you want your reader to take away from this story?
Read it through
Don’t jump straight into editing. Instead, read through your manuscript and make a list dot pointing all the things that need work. They can be small things: maybe a character needs to discover a certain piece of information a few scenes earlier, or there’s that one chapter where your antagonist’s dialogue is really arch, or your protagonist is strangely obsessed with Bill Adama’s luscious locks and you realise it’s out of character and doesn’t add anything to the story. But they can also be larger problems. For example, in the manuscript I’m currently working on, my narrator’s voice is inconsistent—in some scenes he’s fully realised, in others, it could be anyone speaking. Maybe you need to move scenes around or rewrite entire chapters because the story is taking a different direction. Perhaps the tone is off. I often find at this point that I have too many characters—maybe there’s someone I like who, if I’m honest, plays no part in progressing the story, or maybe I’ve created two characters where one will do. Hard as it is, it’s time to kill your darlings.
By creating your checklist, you’re breaking down The Problem of Your Manuscript into manageable parts. You can then begin working through each dot point and crossing them off the list. It’s incredibly satisfying and allows you to see your progress.
To complete the checklist, some or all of the following will help.
Side note: Doing a read-through of your manuscript will also give you a sense of pace, flow and tension, which can be difficult to gauge while you’re writing.
Storyboard your plot
If you’re a planner, you probably did this before you started your manuscript, but it’s likely that your plot has evolved. I find it helpful to revisit my storyboard between each draft.
If you didn’t have a storyboard going into the first draft, now is the time to make one. A storyboard helps you keep sight of the ‘big picture’, track the action and avoid inconsistencies.
Make your storyboard digital so that you can easily add, cut and move things around. There’s plenty of software to help with this; I just use a good ol’ Google Docs spreadsheet. I devote a column to each chapter, with scene breakdowns underneath—the more detailed, the better. To keep the story focused, I also list the purpose of each chapter, scene and piece of action, i.e. how does it progress the story? If you can’t answer this, then you need to make a cut.
Revisit your characters
People change. By the end of the first draft, your characters, along with your plot, have likely evolved. Revise your character profiles by asking some basic questions: what do they want? (Driving desire) Why do they want it? (Motivation) What’s stopping them from getting it? (Conflict)
Look at each character’s (in particular the protagonist’s) arc and consider the turning points necessary for them to transform from who they are at the start of the story to who they become by the end.
Also, think about your characters’ relationships with each other and how these relationships necessarily change throughout the story.
If your characters read flat, now is the time to further develop their backstories—what significant life events do they experience before your story starts and how does their past shape their actions in the narrative proper? You need to know these guys better than you know your best friend.
Rebuild your world: the devil is in the details
It’s your job as a writer to draw your reader into a state of suspended disbelief, and insufficient and inconsistent world building are two of the easiest ways to break the spell. Once you’ve got a rough draft, interrogate your world and see if it holds up under scrutiny.
World building isn’t just for fantasy writers. Even if your story is set in real locations, you need to create a detailed picture not only of each setting but your story’s geography as a whole. This involves asking practical questions: what’s the layout of each building, room, etc.? Where are your settings in relation to each other? Can characters realistically move from A to B in the time you’ve allowed? And then taking this a step further: how do your settings progress the story? What do they reveal about the characters who inhabit them? How do they support the story’s key themes? Contribute to mood, etc.?
If your story is set in a world other than our own, how does that world work? For example, if your characters are on a forty-year space mission, where do they get their food, water and oxygen? How are they refuelling their ship? What fabric do they use to make their clothes? If you have a character who can read minds but fails to foresee their best friend is plotting to kill them—why is that? How does your world shape your story’s language? Colloquialisms and slang are culturally and/or historically specific and you need to be sure that your characters aren’t speaking in a way that’s inconsistent with their world. The classic example of this is characters saying ‘Oh my God!’ when there is no god or there’s a whole pantheon of gods in their world.
A lot of this sounds like nit-picking, but figuring out the details and checking them for consistency will help you build a richer, more believable story.
Do your research
Much of what I’ve written so far ties into research. You might have set out on an extensive fact-finding mission before you started writing, but chances are it’s not enough. Maybe your story has ventured places you didn’t expect, or perhaps once you started writing you realised you didn’t know as much as you thought you did.
If a scene feels patchy, there’s a good chance you don’t yet have all the information you need to write it convincingly. When doing the read-through of your manuscript, make a separate list of things you still need to learn in order to make your story work.
Every writer has their own process and not all of these steps will be useful for every story. I get that. So if you only take away one thing from this post, make it this: writing a novel is a BIG project and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Break down the work into manageable chunks and focus on one problem at a time. Stop. Rest. Repeat—through as many drafts as you need to make your story the best it can be. Because here’s the thing: everybody’s first draft sucks. No one makes the first jump.
Good luck. Work hard. Keep going.
Margot McGovern holds a creative writing PhD from Flinders University, South Australia. Her YA manuscript, Neverland, was shortlisted for the 2015 Text Prize. For more about Margot and her work, see Lectito’s About page.
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