Writing Your First Novel: Defeat the First Draft Blues, Part 4


Writingsecrets_c This is Part 4 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. Part 3 teaches you how to take stock of what works (and what doesn't).

Step 4: Put the Vision back in Revision

"Strategic planning is worthless -- unless there is first a strategic vision." -- John Naisbitt, American writer and thinker

If you've followed steps 1-3 of the WEbook Guide to Revising a Novel, you should have a good handle on your book as it exists today -- warts and all. You may be tempted to get right in there and start applying liquid nitrogen to those warts. But then all you'll be left with is a toad with no warts. Why settle for that when you could have -- oh, I don't know -- a griffin, or a jackalope, or an animatronic space monkey?

In other words, they call it revision for a reason. Now that you know what your book is, it's time to create a vision for what your book could be.

There is no simple formula for discovering the greatest potential inherent in your first draft. You cannot plug in character A's strength rating, divide it by subplot B's development score, and multiply the whole thing by the square root of plot twist C. Instead, you must draw on the mysterious forces of inspiration and vision that led you to want to write a book in the first place. Luckily, there are a few signposts that can help you find your way in the dark.

Below, you will find eight questions that will guide you towards your greatest vision. Before you get started on the questions, establish some ground rules to help you get the most out of this process.

Forget what you think you know. Let go of any preconceptions you have about your book. Presumably, you started your first draft with some more or less definite ideas about plot, character, and/or premise. (Even if you started with nothing, you probably developed some ideas along the way.) Throw them all out the window. You may end up back where you started, concluding that yes, in fact, this is a realistic first-person narrative describing a lonely housewife's journey from depression to international pop stardom. But in order to find your vision, you must create space for the possibility that your book could in fact be a third-person narrative exploring the perspectives of twelve different roadies backstage before the once-lonely housewife's final arena concert.

So many possibilites, so few lifetimes. Once you open yourself up to the possibility that your book could be something other than what you originally imagined it to be, you may find yourself overwhelmed by all the somethings other it could be. Don't despair. Focus on finding the most promising path for your novel, and leave the other possibilities for another day -- and another book.

Keep it positive. Remember when you read through your first draft and took stock of what worked well? Let those bright lights guide you to your vision. As you reflect on the questions below, think mainly about the elements of your draft that stand out as great, successful, and/or energetic.

Grab a pen. Carve out some time in your day to sit down with a pen and a notebook. Devote roughly ten minutes to each of the questions below. If you need to, you can come back to some of the questions again -- and again -- until you're satisfied. You can also jot down other questions that occur to you as you answer these. Remember, you should answer these questions not necessarily about your first draft as it is, but about your book as it could be and as you want it to be.

Document your vision. Spend as much time as you want brainstorming about the questions below. When you feel that you have a solid grasp of the greatest possibility for your story, take one piece of paper and collect the downpour from your brainstorm into a single bucket. Write 2-3 sentences summarizing each answer. (If an answer covers more than one character, it's okay to devote 2-3 sentences to each character.) Incorporate your favorite ideas from the final question ("What if...?") into your answer to question # 7.

The questions:

  1. Whose story is it? It's fine if the answer includes more than one person; however, it may be easier if you have one main person to focus on.

  2. Who tells the story? This may or may not be the same person as question # 1. It also may or may not be a person in the story at all -- the person telling the story might be you, the author.

  3. How does the story begin? Pinpoint the chronological beginning of your story -- not necessarily where you begin telling it, but where the story itself is set in motion.

  4. How does the story end? See above, substituting "end" for "begin." Look for the place where the strongest elements of your story resolve themselves.

  5. How do the book's characters change over the course of the story? What transformations occur -- or should occur -- to your characters between the story's beginning and its end?

  6. How does the reader change over the course of the story? In your vision for your book, imagine what you want your reader to think and feel at the beginning of the book, and chart the changes in their perspective that should take place along the way. You may be mainly concerned with your reader's thoughts about people or events within the book; or, you may want your book to have an effect on your reader's larger worldview.

  7. What events or elements of the story are crucial to the changes experienced by your characters and readers? Make a list of things that happen in the story that lead to character or reader transformations and shifts in perspective.

  8. What if...? Finally, take ten or twenty minutes to brainstorm on possible new story elements that could strengthen the transformations you envision for your characters and readers. Repeat as necessary.

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