After writing four complete manuscripts and several manuscript fragments, I can tell you with reasonable confidence that this is my drafting process: whatever works. Outline, no outline, partial outline, writing at home, writing away from home, writing in the morning, writing at night, having people read as I go, refusing to let people read as I go, I have done them all, and when I find The Thing That Works, I do it until it stops working and find something else.
Despite the wild variations in my drafting process, however, my revising process is always the same. I thought it might be interesting to share it with you in the next few weeks as I experience it with my initial Book 3 revisions (to be followed by several other rounds of revisions). I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating a particular system of doing things— every writer is different and is allowed to be different. But, every writer is also welcome to try new things to see if they work, and it is in the interest of providing hopefully-interesting insights and also suggestions that I will write these posts. (Also, if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, and you’re not sure how to revise once you’re done, you can consult these posts later for ideas!)
Approaching revisions, especially the first round, can be pretty daunting. (Although perhaps not if you are DAUNTLESS, eh? Eh?) If your rough drafts are anything like mine, they are a “festival of crap,” as I described it to a friend earlier. There are a few parts that are well-thought-out and put together, but far more parts that are poorly written or lacking in focus or just plain wrong for the story. There are also missing pieces— scenes you didn’t write but should, or characters you left out, or plot elements that require more development. There may be extraneous scenes, characters, or whole plot movements.
At this point the first thing I can usually coax myself into doing is a read-through. It may have been several months since I last read the first scenes I wrote, so it’s a good idea to get a sense of what’s actually there. Plus, while I read, I’ll be able to jot down problems and possible solutions to those problems.
(That there on the screen? It’s a draft of Insurgent open in Scrivener. Just so you know.)
I usually write a hasty list of issues right when I finish a draft, because I don’t let myself edit as I go and I don’t want to forget the problems I already know about. So for Book 3, I already have seven or eight large issues in my “problems” column. Some problems to watch for:
-Do all the characters, major and minor, have some kind of arc or clear, defined presence in the story? If they are supposed to be missing, is this something that is explained or wondered about by the main character? This is one of the problems I always have, because when I draft I focus very much on the major characters and forget that there is a large cast of minor characters waiting in the wings. In the rough draft of Insurgent, Christina disappeared for over 100 pages. Not good.
-Have you built to the ending effectively? Most of the time I discover the ending of a book when I’m right in the middle of it, so the first half of the book may be building toward a completely different ending.
-How is the pacing? Are there places where it is too fast or too slow?
-Are there any sections with “infodump”? (Meaning, sections in which information is unloaded on the reader all at once instead of revealed slowly and through plot movement.)
-Are there any extraneous characters, scenes, or plot elements? You can identify these by asking yourself (honestly) “if I removed this event or character, would I still be able to build to the end of the book without losing too much?”
-Are there any characters, scenes, or plot elements that you must add for the book to be rich enough or to make sense?
-Are there any logical issues or inconsistencies with the world-building or plot?
-And the lesson I learned from Insurgent: are there any inconsistencies that resulted from writing scenes out of order or from author confusion? (Like magically disappearing guns, characters who are in places they shouldn’t be, characters with two different names, etc.)
With those questions in mind (and more of your own, I’m sure), I read through my draft quickly. I say “quickly” because it’s not useful, at this stage, for me to address sentence issues or take notes about sentence or paragraph-level problems— this is just the first read-through. What I want to notice are BIG things, and a quick read-through is good for letting me do that while helping me to set aside smaller concerns.
While I’m reading, I’m looking for both problems and opportunities. When I notice a problem (“Christina disappears after page 30”), I jot it down in the left column in my notebook, along with page numbers or other references. When I notice a place in which a problem can probably be addressed (like: “Christina could be present in this scene on page X, and this one on page Y”), I write it in the right column with page numbers or other references.
When I’m finished, I make sure that I have a solution planned for each problem I’ve recognized. If not, I brainstorm them. Then I arrange my solutions into a big long list, and…well, I’ll save the next step for another day.
So there you have it: the “ah crap, this draft is le terrible” revision read-through.