If you, dear Writer, like me, have recently found yourself in the possession of a mass of words that reads, front to back, in a way that almost (but not quite) makes complete narrative sense — a.k.a: the first draft of a novel, you may be wondering what you’re actually supposed to do with the thing. Having been in this particular predicament more than once before, I hope that I might be able to provide some helpful advice. The first part of it goes like this:
Step 1: BREATHE
You’ve written more consecutive words on a theme than most people will write in a lifetime. Be proud of that fact, that somehow or other you have created people and places and objects and perhaps even entire universes out of nothing more than blood and sweat and thoughts and tears and digital (or perhaps physical) ink and sore fingers. This is amazing! This is magic at its most pure!
Are you proud? You should be.
Now, for the bad news: you definitely have to edit the damn thing.
Think about what kind of editing you need to do
Every writer’s editing process looks different, but one way to make it somewhat less painful is to think about what you hope to accomplish in your revision. For myself, as an example, I always know I’ll have at least two rounds of major revision with any piece of work that I produce. My rough drafts are not fit for ANY readers’ delicate eyes (beta or, indeed, zeta), and in fact, there have been times when even I myself have struggled to disentangle the web of scribbled, scratched out lines, ad hoc author’s notes, and mad-libs-style fill-in-the-blank placeholder scenes in order to turn the rough composition in my notebook into an actual readable draft.
In the case of that first edit, then, for me, the goal is simply to translate the story from the half-way stage of the composition, into a fully-formed skeleton of a narrative on the digital page.
Think about what you want your story to be
Once you have a full first draft, however, you can start thinking about your goals for the story in a more concrete way. On the most basic level, this means thinking about what you, as a writer, hope to do with the story when it’s finished — are you hoping to get it published by one of the Big Five with the help of a respectable literary agent? Or do you want to keep control of your work and publish it yourself, enlisting the help of a professional designer and editor along the way? Or do you simply want to share your work for free on the web, putting it in front of as many people as possible?
As with all goals, it helps if the targets you set down (and write down!) for yourself are specific, and to some extent, measurable. This is where your critique partners and beta readers are worth their weight in gold. For example, I know that I need to work on the emotional and thematic resonance of my novel in progress. More specifically, I want the ending of my current project, Shape, to be powerfully tragic. Not everyone is going to cry, of course, but if I can get even one of my critique partners to shed a single weak tear, I would at least have an inkling that I’m on the right track.
Break down your goals to make them manageable
It also helps, if you have a full-length novel on your hands, to break down bigger goals into smaller pieces that can be accomplished across multiple editing passes over your work. So, for example, I know, as most writers do, that I want the characters to come alive on the page — for readers to relate to them, and to feel for them, for readers to be totally invested in them.
But this comes down to a few different things: do their actions within the plot make sense, both logically for the character as well as emotionally? Have I made their motivations and goals clear throughout the narrative? Do I describe them in ways that are not just un-cliche, but lively, evocative, and enjoyable to read?
Those are three different facets of the same goal, and I would be likely to focus on the first one during my first pass — strengthening the relationship of the characters to the plot, as it’s easier to add and adjust entire scenes at this stage than it would be after polishing them all to a shine. In my second pass, then, I’d focus more on clarifying the look and feel of them, the little flourishes that make them breathe.
My goals for The Shape of the World
So, here, now, coming back to this mess of a draft after putting it aside for a few weeks to distance my perspective, these are the spoiler-free goals that I’ll be working toward over the coming weeks.
Main Quest: Polish my work in progress, The Shape of the World, so that it’s ready to face agents by the end of April.
- Subquest: Characters – Build the protagonist’s relationships with the other characters more naturally and with a lighter touch throughout the book; make the main character more proactive
- Subquest: Plot – Clarify the stakes for the protagonist; build more ambivalence and mystery around who is a threat and who is not; clarify the thread of cause and effect from scene to scene
- Subquest: Setting – Solidify details of the worldbuilding and speculative elements; cut infodumps
- Subquest: Theme and Tone – Make a beta reader cry (no punching, no onions)
Are you editing your novel?
I’d love to know if anyone else out there is in the same place, and if so, what you’re working on! And if you’d be comfortable sharing your writer’s editing goals, I’d love to see those too. Post them in the comments, or link me to your blog, so I can share the journey with you.