With minimal scrolling through search engine results, you can gather an abundance of information on writing stories, but what about the grueling process that follows it? How do you rearrange your mess into an orderly narrative?
For most writers, even plotters, the first draft revolves around discovery. You diverge from your outline, notice that the story is more interesting from a secondary character’s point of view, or an entire subplot ends up being pointless. With so many changes to address, you wonder where to start, or maybe you’re even tempted to scrap your premise.
Fear not. Being overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead or equally underwhelmed by the quality of the creation you’re loosely calling a “novel” is normal. You can make your next draft one that you’re proud of, but you’ll need to cultivate three habits so that you’re feeling refreshed and have a sense of direction when you plunge in.
1. Rest Your Mind
You’ve finished a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Now what? One of the most crucial pieces of advice I’ve received is to distance myself. Immediately starting draft two may sound like a good idea, but it won’t allow you to gain useful objectivity. You’ll risk shredding the bulk of it or overlooking serious shortcomings.
Even if you’re under a tight deadline, I’d recommend a four-week break at minimum. As excited as you may be to return to your characters and setting, scrimping on processing time will do your ideas a disservice. Try focusing on another project during your hiatus, such as a new release from your favorite author or beta reading for a friend. It doesn’t have to be writing related, and the distraction may help you stay disciplined instead of revisiting your fictional world too soon.
2. Review Your Manuscript
Once you and your draft have spent a healthy span of time apart, print it out so you can hold it in your hands (yay, accomplishment!) and aim to read through it in as few sittings as possible. Clear your schedule for a couple days, perhaps over a weekend. When you ingest a story quickly, pacing and character arc issues become more obvious.
Though I don’t always reread my manuscripts twice, I think it’s a smart practice to consider. During your first pass, you can experience the story as a reader. During your second pass, you can evaluate it as an editor. The strategy you choose will depend on your preferences and the needs of your current manuscript. But once you pick up that red pen, don’t hesitate to record your gut impressions as you go: a chapter drags, a character lacks motivation, or the magic system doesn’t make sense. At this stage, you can brainstorm solutions, but don’t pressure yourself to settle on a course of action yet.
3. Relegate Your Revisions
Now you at least know what you’re up against. Some of your panic may be subsiding, but your list of problems is probably intimidating. Take heart! Most successful novels undergo numerous drafts. You don’t have to tackle everything in round two, or even three. Implement as many fixes as you can handle and hit the remainder in a later draft. Organizing your notes according to category will show you which tasks to prioritize. I’ll share the headers I came up with for my latest draft as an example:
- Plot Structure
- Edits by Chapter
- Style and Grammar
- Questions That Never Got Answered But Should Be Answered
- Research/Development Needed
Style and grammar, description, unbelievability, and even placeholders are small-scale tweaks that should be set aside until you’re sure that you don’t need to delete the context. Flag the areas that require significant edits first, like a wobbly plot or missing character arcs. Scrivener and similar programs enable you to color-code your path and track which scenes will be affected. If you don’t have a digital tool, Post-Its can serve the same function. To save yourself time, determine which format you’ll be using before you start marking up your document, though.
Worst-case scenario, if your draft suffers from overall chaos (like mine did before I learned what-in-the-world plotting is), a full rewrite may be necessary. Jot down what aspects you love and want to keep, then comb through your notes to see where you can infuse some story beats.
Go with Confidence
The revision phase distinguishes the hobbyist from the career author. If you’re hoping to be published, you’ll have to train yourself to both draft and redraft effectively. Even professionals cringe at the first iterations of the material that eventually earns awards and rave reviews. A draft is a beast to wrangle down, and each writer must find the methods that bring out their strengths. But once you have a plan, you can fight overwhelm and approach revisions with more gusto. If that can happen for me, it can happen for you.
Rachel Gilson has been writing stories since she found a dusty old typewriter buried in her parent’s basement at the age of nine. What started as a love for writing whodunit shorts (that she never finished before starting new ones) developed into a love for writing fantasy and science fiction.
Currently she’s working on an epic fantasy novel exploring sibling dynamics, free will, and hordes of flying, burrowing, and galloping creatures ready to kill or be killed. With her stories she hopes to glorify her Creator, who definitely holds first place for being the most impressive world builder ever.
When she’s not writing with her golden retriever Nova nestled at her feet, you can find her tabletop gaming with her awesome husband, out in the garden picking berries, or reading fables to her daughter in the hammock. She loves traveling to explore medieval castles and talking all things writing craft.