Photo by Alexander Filonchik
1. Reward Yourself: 50,000 words in a month is a tremendous accomplishment! It’s time to celebrate.
2. Give Your Manuscript Time to Rest: As soon as you finished the first draft of your manuscript, you might have been eager to start editing. Perhaps you are already well on your way toward finishing the second draft. If so…kudos! Edit away. 🙂
But if you’re like most of us, you probably find it difficult to look objectively and critically at your “baby.” It’s just too soon. And making drastic edits, particularly if it involves paring down that hard-won word count, might be painful.
This oft-given recommendation is solid advice: put it away for two weeks, a month, maybe longer. Take a break from fiction writing or plunge into another project. Then come back and re-read your work with fresh eyes.
3. Read it Aloud: Reading a manuscript aloud to yourself or, better yet, to an attentive audience usually provides clarity on what’s working and what isn’t. At this point a writer’s group, workshop, critique partner, or writing buddy can be invaluable. My immediate family, including The Hubby and three adolescent kids, has helped me enormously by listening to my early drafts. (Out of respect for my audience, I skip the racy parts. 😉 Would you want to listen to your mom read a sex scene?)
If you solicit feedback, I suggest that you invite your audience to respond as readers rather than taking an editorial role. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t seek their help with editing, when the time is right, if it makes sense to do so. But right now descriptive feedback is likely to be more useful than prescriptive feedback. For example, instead of saying, “You need to trim out the first chapter to get rid of the info dumping,” they might say, “I like this premise, but I got kind of bored during the first chapter. I kept wondering, ‘When is something going to happen?'”
4. Celebrate Your Successes! When I was a child, I was passionate about art, but I usually became frustrated to the point of tears whenever I created a drawing or painting. The contrast between my work and the picture I had in my head broke my heart.
This is a common problem with authors when analyzing a first draft. First drafts always have major problems, and they tend to look very different from the story we’d envisioned. Sometimes it all seems like a hot mess.
Don’t be harsh with yourself (yet). Take some time to focus on what you’ve done really well. Maybe your writing style isn’t yet shining through, because it still needs a lot of polishing, but you have some lovely imagery and other descriptive detail. Maybe the plot doesn’t quite work–you’ve just discovered a couple of major plot holes–but the character development is exceptionally rich. Or the characters and dialogue are a bit flat, but the plot–including that killer twist at the end–is terrific. Pay attention to what works and revel in it!
5. Focus on the Big Picture Issues: When you’re ready to edit, as a general rule, resist the temptation to plunge into correcting spelling and punctuation errors. First look at the big picture issues; then gradually focus on the smaller pieces.
POINT OF VIEW: I mention this first because, regardless of the type of novel you write, characters are the heart of the story, and many problems with character development stem from issues with point of view.
Point of view is basically about what a character knows. When J.K. Rowling writes from Harry’s point of view (3rd person limited), we aren’t aware of anything that happens when he isn’t in the room, or of what anyone else is thinking, unless they tell him.
Look at your use of point of view. Did you write in 1st person point of view (“I”), where the narrator tells the story? Is it 3rd person limited point of view (“he” or “she”) where the story is being told through one character’s eyes at a time? Whatever it is, see if you used it consistently
Be wary of contemporary omniscient point of view, in which the narrator knows everything that’s happening in the story and can read the thoughts of all the characters. This can be done effectively, but it’s difficult to pull off. As a writing coach and editor, I find that when the characters aren’t fully developed, issues with omniscient point of view are often at the root of the problem. The author hops from one character’s mind to another, trying to convey the thoughts and reactions of everyone in the room. The reader is unable to stick with any character long enough to get to know and care about that person.
If you’re narrating from various points of view throughout your story, it may help to go through and highlight the sections that reflect a particular character’s thoughts and experiences, using a different color for each character. Is there is a great deal of jumping around? Does it fluctuate between 1st person and 3rd person or between 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient? Consider tackling this first.
CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: Does your main character seem like a real person, with both strengths and flaws? Is she likable? Interesting? Will readers sympathize with him and care what happens to him?
Not all protagonists have to be likable, of course, and some seem to lack redeeming qualities altogether. Maybe you have a colorful, hilarious antihero or you’re going to take readers on a memorable journey through the mind of a psychopath. Something needs to compel readers to keep reading.
In the same vein, the antagonist needs to be well developed and interesting, and you don’t want the secondary characters to seem like cardboard cutouts.
Characters are usually brought to life through their actions, thoughts, and dialogue. If they haven’t yet come to life in your manuscript, it could be that certain scenes were written when you didn’t yet know the character well enough to make this happen. This might be because–like me–you’re a “pantser,” or discovery writer, and these characters were blossoming in your mind as you wrote. On the other hand, if you’re a “plotter,” or a planner, you might have been focused on the plot rather than fleshing out the characters.
If they have become real living, breathing people for you now, as you revise you can flesh out their thoughts and dialogue and make changes to ensure their actions are consistent with who they are.
If you would like to get to know your characters better, this is a good time to dive in. Consider freewriting a monologue from a particular character’s perspective. Let the character tell you where he was born, what his childhood was like, the most important events in his life, and what he most wants out of life. Let her explain why she made the choices she made. This activity can be very revealing and a lot of fun.
There are also many worksheets available for free online, prompting you to fill in important facts and revealing details about your character. I have one I created through trial and error. If you didn’t use one early in the writing process, and you feel your characters aren’t fully coming to life on the page, this might be a useful tool.
PLOT AND PACING: When you re-read your manuscript, you will see places where the plot works and areas where there may be plot holes. A common problem with first drafts is ineffective pacing. There is no magic formula for pacing. It depends, in part, on the type of story. Some start with a bang and some benefit from more patient pacing. However, in general, if no important action unfolds until a third of the way through the book, you are likely to lose your readers. Where does your story actually start?
If you didn’t consciously use story structure in developing your first draft, this can be exceptionally helpful now. I recommend K.M. Weiland‘s books for writers and her blog. If you write romance, Gwen Hayes is a great resource. If you write fantasy, including urban fantasy or paranormal romance, The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester might be helpful. (Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files series, swears by it.) 🙂
One thing I always do when providing developmental editing to a client is to write a one- to two-sentence summary of what happens in each chapter, focusing on what’s important to the story. You might find this tool very useful. If the answer to “what happens in this chapter that’s essential to my story” is “nothing much” through the first quarter of the book, you might have an issue with pacing. Figure out where the story starts, and consider cutting or combining earlier scenes. What’s important in terms of plot, character development, and establishing the setting? What can be trimmed out?
At this stage of the process, it might be helpful to have a critique partner, a writing group, a helpful and honest friend, or a writing coach. Or you might want to consider developmental editing to help you tackle some of these big-picture issues. Or you might prefer to continue working alone. Whatever works for you.
Revision is tough, but it is arguably the most important–and most rewarding–part of the writing process. In the end you can have a polished novel that will keep readers up at night, absorbed in your fictional characters and world and eager to see what happens next.