11 Tips for Redrafting Your Novel
11 Tips for Redrafting Your Novel
Chapter 7 “Editing” – Section 6 “Drafting”
“I write a ridiculous number of drafts. The characters change and grow through the drafting, and my understanding of them deepens. Creating characters in a novel is like shooting at clay pigeons and missing, and then missing more productively as the narrative continues.” -Robert Boswell
Now that we have made it through the delightful playground of thought that is English grammar and punctuation, we are going to look at the skill of drafting. (Please stop throwing popcorn at the screen, the “delightful playground” joke was in good fun, honest!) Often, drafting and editing are conflated so that people use them interchangeably. However, these two skills are very different and can be done most optimally when a writer knows the difference between them. First, we will talk about drafting, where the writer is trying to radically alter and improve the overall story with entirely new chapters, paragraphs and sentences. The next tutorial will be focused on editing.
Tip 1: Understand the difference between editing and drafting.
The purpose of drafting is a complete and large-scale rewrite of your story. It's sort of like if we were building our very own Frankenstein's monster. Drafting is finding, creating, and starting to place a skeleton, the tendons, the blood, the muscles, and the internal organs. The first time you attempt this (as a first time surgeon with no prior experience) your draft will look a lot like you just had a bag of story ideas and just dumped them on the table (and it will work about as well as dumping bones, blood, and organs on a table in order to create a living creature would). In your second draft, you may begin putting a few of the bones in the right places and tossing the third lung you accidentally added into the waste bin. Your subsequent drafts will continue to become significantly better and closer to a functioning novel (monster) as you finish them, one at a time. During these drafts you will carry over the good elements of your previous draft, and in an improved way, while leaving out or fixing anything that didn't work; and other plot elements will become stronger and easier to perfect as the core of your story becomes stronger. This will serve to layer the internal structure, just like having a complete skeleton will help you better be able to fit the muscles and tendons where they belong. The most important goal of drafting is not making an awesome final product on your first try; the most important goal is making definite improvement to your novel and to your own writing skills.
Editing, on the other hand, is the stage at which most of the content is complete and semi-professional. During this stage, you are trying to make your style more clear, technically perfect, and concise for publication. In essence, it's what we do when all of the bones, tendons, muscles, and organs are in place and functioning well, and the writer has just managed to get the monster's skin on. At that point, the writer's focus changes to cleaning up the messy stitch-work so that the monster will be pretty and presentable at the evil scientist academy awards. The reason that we need to know the difference between editing and drafting, is so that we do each with deliberation and do not create extra work for ourselves. For example, if you are working on the second draft of your first novel, you really don't need to waste you time on making every paragraph perfect before you move on, because most of the actual text will be completely rewritten in the third draft.
Tip 2: Be purposeful in how you layer your story.
So we understand drafting as a principle, it's like making a monster out of parts. But what are those metaphors supposed to represent? The bare skeleton of your story is your plot and the plot-points within, just like we talked about in past tutorials. That doesn't mean that it's the most important part of the story (any more than bones are more important than blood for living), but it is the frame we will will use to fit everything else into. The world and the setting can be seen as the tendons, keeping all the body parts together. The characters might be the organs—each serving a different and specific function for keeping the story alive. And all of these working together in synchronized harmony is the story's lifeblood. These are the sorts of parts that you are attempting to radically fix in every draft. And though you don't have to work on them in a strict order, note that fixing one might require alterations on the others (sort of liker you would need to find a bigger rib cage if you wanted to fit bigger organs), so they'll be optimized through planning and forethought. Once you have that in mind, you want to find and remedy all of your monster's missing toes, organs, broken bones, and extra parts that you didn't really need.
Tip 3: Look at the story more in terms of concepts than details.
When you are drafting, your focus should be on the big picture and big ideas, not the tiny technical details. At this stage, you don't need to focus on the blemishes in the monster's skin. (Before you ask, yes, it is a general requirement that you wear a lab-coat while you draft.)You need to make sure that the skeleton and every body part functions efficiently. Make sure that your characters have chemistry, that each of of their story-arcs are interesting, that your plot isn't being advanced by silly contrivances, and that each plot point achieves its function. Make sure that the story, as a concept, functions smoothly and with grace. You can check to see if you are doing this efficiently by writing down the plot and character-arc outlines for each draft, showing it to someone, and seeing if they think that it's both interesting and that it makes sense.
Tip 4: Use your draft to improve your writing style.
While you are not going to go through every sentence in a draft, and not move on until all the commas are perfectly placed, you will be implementing everything you learn about writing in every new draft. If you find a sentence that is ugly, you rewrite it. If you find an unorganized chapter, work on giving it flow. This way, you will learn to master these skills, including punctuation, flow, grammar, and sentence composition. The difference between this is drafting and editing is that you are not yet going to stop your progress in order make sure that everything is flawless, because your primary goals are the completion of a new draft and personal improvement. It seems like a lot of work, and it is. But this is the process by which we learn to be better writers. Hard work is the requirement for making a novel that is truly beautiful. However, be aware that this long process will be shortened with each new novel that you write. Even your first drafts will become infinitely better as your hard work causes your skills as a writer and a drafter to grow.
Tip 5: Don't be afraid of the delete button.
Everything you write is essential to your story. Every crappy sentence, every terrible character, and every clunky exposition is something meaningful that helps you, the writer, personally understand your story, world, and characters better. However, that does not mean that it needs to be in the final draft that your readers will see. When drafting, do not be afraid to completely erase entire paragraphs, pages, and chapters away from your manuscript, while you find better and more subtle ways to advance your plot. For example, you may write your villain's entire backstory as a chapter, but find that it doesn't flow well with the rest of the novel. Cut it, and find a way to subtly give the exact same information through hints and clues throughout the course of the novel. By the end of the construction of your monster, you don't want to see any of the bones, blood, or organs sticking out of the skin. They're all essential to your story, but that doesn't mean that they should be exposed. Drafting is rewriting. I've talked before about how the process of creating a novel requires that you write thousands of pages that will never see the light of day, and this is where that process begins.
Tip 6: Mark what works, what doesn't, and what you have learned.
As you read over your drafts to figure out what needs improvement for the next one, mark what worked in the story, what did not, and what you learned in every chapter. This way you can more effectively clean the rest of the chapters, firmly establish what you learned from the previous draft, and have a copy to help teach other writers the techniques you learned early on. You will also have your very own checklist of things you can fix with your next draft. In case you were wondering, this is the strategy that inspires my personal research and meditation into better ways of writing a novel, which it what you are currently reading.
Know that there will eventually come a temptation to abandon your first novel, as you realize that it is more difficult to fix it than it would be to write something new and inherently better. Know that this feeling is correct, it absolutely would be easier to do that. But our goal is not just writing a single publishable novel, but to grow as writers. And the way that we can best grow is to learn to take a draft that is terrible and completely rework it into something amazing. (Of course, if you are picking up a terrible first draft from five years ago, for a story which you have no love for, you have my blessing in starting something new.)
Tip 7: Focus on the three worst flaws in your draft.
When you first begin drafting, the number of problems that you will need to fix will very often seem too overwhelming. When I started on my first five drafts, they were so bad that I didn't eve know where to begin making any sort of improvement. Because of this, I sort of meandered in my very light improvements, not making any sort of real progress. A strategy for dealing with this feeling of being overwhelmed is to pick out the three greatest weaknesses in the draft. Write these three flaws down, and then write down a battle plan for how you plan to resolve that problem in each and every chapter. Then, go through the entire manuscript with those three flaws as a sort of checklist. By using this system, you isolate a set of given problems and make three aspects of your draft much better than they were before. This method will change your improvements from being vague and perhaps unnoticeable, into concrete and visible progress. (Of course, you can do more or less than three areas of focus as you find best suits you, but three is a good number for your first attempt.)
Tip 8: Keep all of your old drafts.
After I wrote my first draft of my first novel (oh what a terrible little thing that was), I found myself afraid to really dig deep and edit it. I was afraid that some of the ideas that I considered to be good, at the time, would be lost if my revisions and drafts were significant. On top of that, I was deathly afraid of cutting any sentence, paragraph, or scene that I might come to regret. So I came up with an idea. Every time I finished a draft, I would save it exactly like it was and never touch it again. Then, I would make an exact copy of the document and only edit the copy. By doing this, I felt free to change, cut, and revise in as drastic ways as I wanted, because if I ever came to regret a change I could always go back and find the original version. To this day, I have never needed to use my older drafts for that purpose, but I still do it for the feeling of complete freedom in my editing. I highly recommend this strategy to other writers for the same purpose.
Tip 9: Let the story sit.
I have heard that C. S. Lewis let his stories sit an entire year, before he redrafted them. There is a two-fold wisdom in this. First, time gives you a chance to detach from the story you are so emotionally invested in, and forces you to take a step back. From a more detached perspective, you will be able to alter your work subjectively and not so emotionally. Second, letting a story rest gives you time to forget it. This is important because when authors read their own work, they tend to fill in the gaps of information with what is in their own imagination. In other words, writers can't initially see what is missing or wrong with a story because their brain already sees the story vividly, even without the written words that would be required for other readers to see it. A year may be a bit much, but I advise writing a draft for a new novel or writing a short-story before ever returning to your previous work. And no, a one-week or one-month vacation from writing does not count because your brain will be processing it and thinking about it the entire time. You need to actively set your brain to work on a different story, so that there is a period of complete psychological detachment.
Tip 10: Be deliberate in your transition from drafting to editing.
Eventually, you will reach a point when you begin to see that there is some skin on your monster. In other words, though parts of your story may still be rough or nonfunctional, you will begin to notice that 70-90% of the text is just about publishable. At this point, you will want to begin a deliberate transition from drafting to editing. Of course, you can do a little of both. In my current novel, for example, I am transitioning from the drafting stage to the editing stage; but I had to add a few extra drafting chapters in order to fix some problems in the plot. As for the content that I have revised ten times, a lot of it is very close to publishable. So for those chapters I switch from my drafting mindset to my editing mindset, and focus on trying to make them perfect. The point is simply that you (along with a harsh but reasonable critic) should recognize when the parts of your story attain the level of quality that they no longer need drastic rewrites, only polishing. Once you recognize these parts of your story, begin to adapt the way that you improve them. (Again, the next tutorial will cover the topic of editing.)
Tip 11: Celebrate the completion of every draft.
Completing a draft is a major accomplishment, and one that you should feel proud of. In fact, completing a 90% complete revision of a first draft is as significant an accomplishment as writing a completely new work. Recognize it as such, celebrate your hard work, and be proud of what you have accomplished. It may seem silly and self-congratulatory, but doing so will encourage you and help you through those times when writing becomes difficult. When you hit those times, the memory of those feelings when you celebrated the completion of your task will remind you that you have gotten through it before, and that you will again. So go out, get a cake, catch a movie, or get up and do a dance, because you've earned it.
Write-a-Novel Exercise 7.6
Choose a single chapter in Act I of your novel which best exemplifies the pace and tone of the rest of the story. Keep in mind when choosing this chapter, that it will be the one critiqued by the group, the one you will use in all of these exercises, as well as the one you will use to cross reference with the rest of your novel when you work on your next draft (in order to transfer the same types of edits to those chapters as you have done to this one). Once you have chosen a chapter, use the tips listed above to redraft it.
Please do not participate in this exercise until you have a complete first draft of your novel. Criticism, given before a first draft is completed, has a powerful discouraging effect for the writer. Also, please abstain from making other sorts of edits to your chapter, as we want to make our focus as specific and precise as possible with each exercise.
For those critiquing, please make you suggestions only relevant to the topic at hand. We will be going through a large variety of editing exercises, and your critiques will serve best when given at the appropriate time. As always, please make your critiques honest and hold nothing back, while remaining polite and uplifting. We want to encourage one another to succeed by telling them the truth about their flaws while uplifting their strengths and potential.
Writers, I advise you to always keep a copy of every draft you've ever written, no matter how bad. The contrast is important for seeing your own abilities grow, as well as for teaching others later down the road. Additionally, having a backup copy of the original file will make you subconsciously feel free to redraft, cut, and change the text, as the original will always be there if you decide you liked it or some element of it better. So keep a record of all of the many drafts you will create.
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1) Think out plot, dialogue, and narrative scenarios in my head. Do three or four mental rewrites. When there is no change in the mental story telling, then I know its going to be as good as it gets. Then I write/type it out. This a chapter by chapter process.
2) Pray I don't mess up the grammar/spell check.