Creative Writing Advice # 15: Defeat the First Draft Blues, Part 3


Writingsecrets_c This is Part 3 of a series on revising the first draft of a novel. Read Part 1 to find out why it's important to take a break from your first draft before you revise it. Read Part 2 to discover why a messy first draft is a good thing.

Step 3: Survey the Damage

So you've taken a nice, long break from your novel, and you've made peace with its imperfections. Now it's time to survey the damage -- but don't worry. You won't be making a list of all the things you did wrong. Instead, you'll be looking at what you did right, and asking yourself some very important questions.

Find What Works

When you come back to your novel after a break, the first thing you need to do is read it. That may seem obvious, but it's important that you set some guidelines for how you will read the first draft.

  • DON'T change a word. That's right, not a single word. Don't add a comma, don't remove a quotation mark. Don't make any changes at all to your manuscript.

  • DO read in big, uninterrupted chunks. If you can manage it, set aside a few consecutive days to get through the book. You may not be able to do it all in one sitting, but the last thing you want is a two-week break between page 100 and page 101.

  • DO print your manuscript. Working from a hard copy instead of a computer screen has many advantages. It will make it easier to resist the temptation to start "fixing" things. (See above.) And, you can scribble all over a piece of paper. (See below.) That doesn't work so well on a monitor.

  • DO break out the highlighters and colored markers. How you choose to mark up your manuscript is up to you, but it pays to get creative.

  • DO look for what works. Underline or highlight any passages that are particularly resonant, well-written, and effective. Write notes in the margin, pointing out sections of strong characterization, setting, action, etc. 

  • DO ask questions. As you read, leave yourself memos asking what, where, how, who, and, most importantly, why

  • DON'T get too focused on flaws. You could agonize over why a scene doesn't work, only to decide later that the entire sub-plot it belongs to needs to go. For now, think of yourself as a doctor treating a patient with an exotic, unknown disease. You can't make a diagnosis, much less prescribe a treatment, until you take the patient's history and make a list of all the symptoms. As you're reading, jot down a note if a scene moves too quickly or slowly; if dialogue is stilted; if a character does something implausible; or if something just plain doesn't make sense. Then let it go, and move on to the next page.

Ask for Help

Feedback can be a great help to a writer -- but it's important to get the right kind of feedback for whatever stage you're at with your novel. When you're planning a revision of a first draft, ask your readers to follow the above guidelines, with one modification: tell them not to focus on the flaws at all. Let your readers know that the manuscript is very rough, and you'll be working out the kinks soon. For now, you're interested in hearing what elements of the book your readers like the most.

Coming Soon: Defeat the First Draft Blues, Part 4: Find your Vision

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Got a secret I don’t know about? Share it with the world in WEbook Writing Secrets. To submit a secret, email me or visit my profile and send me a message with the subject line: Writing Secrets. The best secrets will be published here and in the WEbook Toolbox. Authors will be credited with a byline and a bio.

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-- Melissa

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