I have a motto I often share with new writers: Real writers are rewriters. Real writers know that first drafts are just that – drafts. They are brain dumps, capturing all kinds of ideas, plot devices, images, and lots and lots and lots of words. They are the lump of clay out of which you will fashion your work of art. There’s still a lot of molding, shaping, smoothing and polishing to be done before your work is ready to be read by an editor – who will then, if she likes it enough to consider buying it, have lots of additional work she wants you to do on it!
Over my next few Mentor Monday posts we’ll look at this Revision process, which breaks down into Rewriting, Editing and finally Proofreading or Copy-editing. Although in reality you will automatically do a little bit of the later steps at the same time as the earlier ones, it is helpful to think about each distinct piece of the process.
Of these, rewriting is the most dramatic. Remember that the word “Revision” means “seeing again.” This is when you massage and reshape the lump of clay that is your first draft. Don’t be afraid to consider major changes at this point. (If it helps you to be fearless, save a copy of your original in another folder.) If your story is told in the first person, try re-writing part of it in the third person, or vice versa. What would happen if your main character were a boy instead of a girl? If your story took place in the 1950s instead of the 1970s? (If your setting doesn’t really matter at all to the story, this may be a flag indicating a problem!)
Think about your story the way a teacher preparing a lesson plan would. What is the theme? (Please be sure your story has a theme but not a “lesson.”) Who are the main characters and what are their motivations? What is the conflict, and how is it resolved? (Make sure your protagonist solves the problem!) What are the relationships between the different characters? A common problem is having too many minor characters – considering combining some of the roles.
Keep in mind that although I’m referring to “story,” “plot” and “character,” the techniques of the revising process apply to non-fiction as well. You won’t be free to manipulate the chronology or the genders of the people, but you still shape the narrative, choosing what details to include, and managing the flow of your work.
Map the plot and subplots, and examine them carefully. Is the story balanced? Does the action rise and fall, gradually reaching a peak, or are there long flat places that need breaking up? Watch out for extended passages of narrative without dialogue – or pages of dialogue with no action. If your work is a picture book, be sure you can identify enough different “scenes” for an illustrator, and see how the text breaks out over them: you don’t want to create a few text-heavy pages while the rest of the book flips past quickly.
Keep an eye out for missing pieces and loose ends. Remember the old bit about if there is a gun on the table in the first act, it had better be fired before the play is over? The opposite is also true: if you need a gun in your climactic scene, you have to introduce it early, and make sure we know that the character who is going to fire it actually knows how. Often we don’t know in the beginning all the details that are going to develop as the story progresses, so it is very common in later drafts to go back and insert objects, skill sets and even whole characters into appropriate places (sometimes this means writing a new chapter to create the place).
Think about the structure and flow of your story. How much time passes between the opening and the conclusion? Are there markers entwined in the narrative that show this to the reader? These can be as straightforward as “On Tuesday, Janie overslept” or as subtle as “his boot crunched through the ice on the puddle.” Is the length of time covered by the story appropriate and necessary? Should you start the narrative closer to the climax? Or, if you do need some bits that occur a long time before the climax should you build in some “jump forward” transitions to get you more quickly toward the point? Don’t forget that it’s important to wrap up and get out quickly after the climax, or you’ll leave your readers feeling let down.
Consider the possibility of “re-stringing” your story. Think of each scene as a bead which you have strung together along your plot. Would things flow better if some of the beads were in a different order? Might you put a “brightly colored” or “loud” scene next to a quieter one, to heighten the effect of each? Or do you need to move a goofy scene to a different location so it doesn’t alter the somber mood of a particular passage?
Don’t overlook the value of distance in this process. Put the whole manuscript into a drawer and don’t look at it for a week. When you read it again you’ll notice all kinds of things that you skimmed over before, when it was all so fresh in your mind. Distance also makes it easier to identify (and eliminate) those precious but unhelpful words, phrases and scenes that all of us seem to create and cling to in our early drafts. But that’s a subject for another post.