The “Alien Relic” That’s Your First Draft
~by Christine Brodien-Jones, author of THE OWL KEEPER
I remember being handed back a short story in high school with a B scrawled in red ink across the top of the page and the words: “Needs more work.” What was that supposed to mean? I was baffled. I’d spent at least two or three weeks working on it! I had no idea, back then, that writers revised. For me revision was a foreign concept. You wrote a story and presto! there it was, for people to read and admire. Besides, I was way too busy with other things to go back and rewrite a story I’d written for English class.
Years later, I’ve become one of those writers who looks forward to editing and revising. I love this process! In fact I have to resist the urge to rewrite every page of my novel as I’m writing it. That’s what Kurt Vonnegut used to do. His method was to revise every page until he got it exactly right and the book was a polished gem. (Somehow I don’t envision that happening with my books!)
After finishing your first draft, the smartest thing you can do is take time off. Your mind and imagination, argues Stephen King in ON WRITING, have to recycle themselves—at least in regard to what you’ve just written. Put the draft away for at least six weeks and write something else. When you finally open the drawer and see your manuscript looking like “an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping,” you’re ready to tackle it again. Read through the manuscript in one sitting, if possible. This can be a “strange, often exhilarating experience, “ because it will be like reading someone else’s work: “This is the way it should be, the reason you waited,” King explains. “It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”
While reading over the manuscript, ask yourself these questions: Do the first few pages pull the reader in? Does the action flow smoothly from one chapter to the next? Is the plot compelling? What about the overarching story: have you left out important details that the reader needs? Does the ending make sense? Will it satisfy the reader? Go back and revise these major structural points.
Once the main elements of the book are established, it’s time to eliminate unnecessary details and keep the action moving. Avoid overlong descriptions, but don’t skimp on interesting details. Make the dialogue snappy. As you go through the book, paragraph by paragraph, find ways to improve your prose. Polish your sentences. Find just the right words to create strong visual images. What I’ve learned over the years is this: believe it or not, even in a novel, every word counts.
Finally, ask yourself: Do the lead characters jump off the page? Are the stakes high enough? Check the beginnings of each chapter for “hooks” and the endings for “cliffhangers.” Get rid of unnecessary scenes that don’t move the story forward. Look for inconsistencies, and words repeated too often or appearing too close to each other. Get rid of all typos and grammatical errors. Beware of overusing vague adjectives and adverbs; instead use specific terms.
Outside readers, such as trusted friends or members of a writers’ group, can be extremely valuable, offering objective viewpoints and suggestions for improvement you may not have considered.
One of most thorough revision checklists I’ve ever seen was written by author/literary agent/blogger Nathan Bransford. You can find it at: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/06/revision-checklist.html. For those of you with a first draft sitting in a drawer, waiting for it to morph into an “alien relic,” I highly recommend consulting this list.
Thanks for the essay, C!