Writing Workshop V

Editing the First Draft

Congratulations! You made it! You battled the writing slumps, the self-doubts, the roadblocks, and now, at long last, you can proudly say you have completed a whole first draft of a book. Can we just pause for a minute and revel in this amazing accomplishment? Because it is HUGE. Seriously, I really hope you treat yourself to some kind of reward. In fact, I INSIST on it. Why? Because writing – especially if you plan to tackle the beast that is getting published – is full of disappointment, rejection, criticism, and defeat. It can be excruciating. You have to have a will of iron to face it without flinching, and to get through, sometimes you need to be your own crazed cheerleader waving your pompoms (or baseball bat…).

Okay, but then what? You might be feeling ecstatic and ready to send out queries to agents right away. Trust me, I’ve been there. After eating half a chocolate cake, I’ve wanted to send my darling out into the world while drunk on excitement and unhealthy sugar levels. However, while it’s fun to ride the high of a job well done, you really don’t want to jump the gun right now. In fact, now is the time to slam on the breaks, and if you can, put your draft away. Your brain has been laser-focused on this story for months, maybe years. You’ve read and re-read it so many times, you can recite chapters in your sleep, and it is therefore impossible to look at the book with any degree of objectivity. Ever heard of semantic satiation? This is a phenomenon that occurs when you repeat a word so many times, it loses its meaning and just starts to sound like jibberjabber. This is kind of what happens when you’ve been slaving over a piece of writing, and it makes it difficult, if not nigh on impossible, to edit it effectively. Ergo, step one is to give you and your book some space. Take a break. See other books. Try not to stalk your book by sneaking peeks of it on your phone late at night. No, really, avoid it at all possible costs, for a month or longer.

Step two, after you come back to your first draft is to read through it not as a writer or editor, but as a READER. Take note of plot inconsistencies, but don’t get bogged down in trying to fine tune anything right away. During this initial read-through, you are simply trying to catch the flow of the story. It’s like stepping back to admire the whole of a painting when all you’ve ever see of it is the few inches of canvas you’ve worked on at a time. You need to see the big picture. Keep a notepad beside you while you read, and just jot down your impressions. Here is a list of things to keep an eye out for:

  1. Missing scenes – did you forget to relay any important information to the reader? Are you missing any crucial interactions that help the rest of the story make sense? Did you fail to tie up any loose ends, or find a story arc that left you feeling somewhat unsatisfied, like it didn’t quite reach its full potential?
  2. Pace – did you find any parts that lagged? Were there passages where you focused too much on info-dumping backstory or world-building? Were there any page-long descriptions that you instinctively skimmed over, or skipped completely? If you think that’s just because you’re the writer and you know it all already, think again. Readers who know nothing about your story will likely do the same thing.
  3. Extraneous scenes – the opposite of missing scenes, these passages are the meaningless fluff that we often get distracted by in the writing process. It might be beautifully written. You might have described the most beautiful sunset the world has ever seen, but did it really contribute anything to the story? To the character arcs? If not, painful as it may be, it has to go.
  4. Character arcs – did your character grow over the course of the book? Are their goals and desires clear? Did they learn anything, or did they just waffle about? Powerful stories are about the character’s journey, and if they didn’t go anywhere (metaphorically), then your story didn’t go anywhere neither.
  5. Point of View – is the point of view consistent? Did you start in first person, and then switch to third half way through? Did you head-hop from character to character? Be careful when doing this, because it can be very disorienting to a reader and kick them out of a story with the literary version of motion sickness.

It’s easy to feel overwhelming when faced with the task of editing your first draft. Worse than that, you might read it over and think it’s best suited as kindling for a fire (cue pulling out a blow torch and cracking open a bottle of whiskey). But don’t get disheartened. This is just a stepping stone to something better. Have faith in yourself. If tackling all five of the issues above seems impossible, just focus on one and go from there. Deep breaths. You’ve got this.

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