Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beyond the First Draft

I'm giving up on adjusting my body clock to Pacific time because staying up later and sleeping later left me groggy all day, and I ended up going to bed even earlier the next night. I think the hotel has an indoor pool, so maybe I'll do my "vacation" stuff in the mornings before the convention starts.

One of the most important parts of the writing process is rewriting. In fact, I'd say that rewriting and/or revision is what separates aspiring authors from published authors and the unsuccessful self-published authors from the successful ones. There may be some authors who can write one draft and be done, but generally those authors do a lot of revising and tinkering as they write, so that one draft is actually more like three, and/or their plotting process is so extensive that it counts as a draft.

The first draft is usually the stuff that initially comes to mind -- the easy ideas. In revision you can add complexity and raise the stakes by delving beyond the initial idea. The first draft may include some of what I call "plotting on paper," where I work out what needs to happen in the story by having the characters talk or think about what they should do, or where I develop characters' backstories by having them ask each other personal questions. I usually end up incorporating that information into the story in another way, so I don't need those talking or thinking scenes in the book. On the other hand, sometimes there are new scenes that may be needed to set up additional plot points or do the stake-raising. I often find that I don't see the patterns in some of my plots until I've written the first draft. I think it's a subconscious thing going on, where I have events, characters or subplots that come up for no obvious reason at the time, but when I look at the draft as a whole, I can see how they actually play into the bigger picture, and it takes some rewriting to tie it all into the pattern. There's what my mom calls "Bill and Tedding," which is when you have to make changes to the earlier part of the book to properly set up ideas that come to you later in the book. You'll also need to check on continuity -- do descriptions, events and names remain consistent? You'll need to keep an eye on continuity in each draft, to make sure any changes are carried throughout the rest of the book or that you don't have mentions to events or characters you've cut.

The first draft is also usually more cursory, getting the plot down. After fixing the plot, it's time to make the writing better. Dialogue in a first draft tends to be rather "on the nose," with people asking direct questions and giving direct answers. In a later draft, you can add tension and subtext to conversations by making them more oblique. Most people who aren't cops or reporters don't ask direct questions about personal matters. They hint or talk around the subject. The closer the question comes to hitting home, the less likely someone is to give a direct answer. They'll make a joke, deflect the question or answer only part of it. You can also look for places where action or body language can replace thoughts or dialogue. You may need to work in emotions (or actions that show emotions) and description.

And then there's all the word work. Have you used the perfect word in each situation? Have you repeated a particular word too frequently? Are there any unnecessary words, phrases or sentences that you can cut without changing the meaning? Is there one vivid word you could use to replace a phrase? Are your sentences clearly structured? Do you have a variety of sentence structures? What about grammar, spelling and punctuation? This is when I usually read the book out loud to myself because it forces me to look at each word instead of skimming, and it means I hear rhythms and repetitions.

The book isn't done until you've dealt with all these things, and sometimes this is more difficult than writing the initial story. There have been times when I've written the first draft in six weeks, then spent four months on the revisions. You may need outside help seeing the things that need to be fixed, like with a critique partner or group. The people who never achieve their publication dreams are often the ones who won't do the rewriting. They insist that their first draft is the way they want the book to be and refuse to listen to criticism that requires them to make changes, or else they're too impatient to get it out there and skip a step or two.

No comments: