How to rewrite a first draft

Sorry, it’s a ridiculously long post this week. It’s a remodel of a post I did for good author friend Emma Baird back in August of 2017:

I love rewriting.

There, I’ve said it. I think I could be the only person in the history of the world who actually enjoys rewriting. In fact, I like it a lot more than writing the first draft. I hate that bit. Okay, maybe not hate. I love the thrill of writing the first 50 pages or so, when it’s all fresh and exciting, and the story begins to unfold on the page. I love, love love that.

But… sooner or later I always hit the first-draft wall. I know it’s partly because I don’t plot, so I get suddenly overwhelmed with two issues: ‘This is rubbish’ and ‘I’m lost and don’t know where I’m going’. I’m a pantser, so sue me, I hate to plot. But it makes the initial experience of writing a draft rather an emotional, rivers-deep-mountains-high kind of affair. But… rewriting, oh that is a whole new thing. I LOVE rewriting. You are free from the ‘burden’ of creating and, you can step back from your work, examine it carefully, and then you can begin to polish and tidy.

This is my favourite quote by any writer. It inspired me so much in the 80s and 90s when I knew I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know how to be a writer. Mary Wibberley was a writer for Mills and Boon, so her book was aimed at writers of romance, and that’s why she was setting that word count of 56,000 words as an aim. For many years, as I tried to learn how to write, I would not relax and have confidence in myself until I had reached that 56,000 word point: when I reached that, I knew I could finish the book, even if it ended up being twice that length.

The point Mary was making was this: Don’t try to revise as you go. I know there are always a few people that system works for, but trust me, it’s not for most people. You get so bogged down in the detail that you never progress. You can spend your whole life perfecting chapter one and never move on.

Write the whole book, from beginning to end, always looking forwards, pressing on till you reach that glorious, astounding moment when you type: ‘The End’. If you can’t remember the names and places mentioned earlier in the story, just do what I do and put a massive X in its place. Or a note to yourself highlighted in bright yellow, so you can’t miss it as you scroll down the page. Or refer to a list of names and places you create as you go along.

It’s so much easier to revise a whole book. Like creating a sculpture, you’ve got that solid block to chip away at. You know where the story is going. You know the shape of it.

After finishing your first draft, don’t immediately start revisions. Unless you are on the clock and the deadline is almost on you, put the book away for as long as you can. This is the perfect time to write another book. Yes, really! Especially if you intend to write a series. Leave your first draft for at least a few weeks, ideally a few months, or even a year. You will need to approach it next time around with a degree of detachment to get out of writer mode and into rewriter or editor mode.

So you’re ready to start.

Read it. Don’t write anything. Don’t type, don’t tweak, fiddle, twiddle or jiggle. Just read the whole story through from beginning to end. You are trying to get an overview. Become a reader.

Then, later, go through it again but read it – as much as possible – out loud. I know that can be difficult to manage but it really will help you find some problems you otherwise will not notice. This time, make notes on how you feel about the book. Does the plot progress logically? (unless an illogical plot is essential to your story!) Do you have that sensation of tripping up as you read—a bit like when you miss a stair and think you’re falling—that’s when there’s a problem, usually a plot problem. Your spidey-senses will show it to you. Try to pinpoint what it was that made you feel like that. Put a sticky note on the page, or if you’re reading a computer file, highlight the section, or bookmark it, or make a new note in the Track Changes section.

If you’re frustrated by not being able to make changes as you spot them, or worried you might forget, again, make notes in the Track Changes feature of Word, or pencil notes in the margin, or use sticky notes if working with a paper copy. Just don’t change the body of the book yet. Hopefully after rereading the whole book, you will be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of your draft. You will see what needs to go. If not, give it to a trusted friend or writing pal to read. Ask them to be honest and not just pat you on the back. Rewriting can feel very much like ‘fixing problems’ or putting right things that are wrong. This can be quite demoralising. Don’t get into this mind set of ‘It’s no good, I’m no good’. Everyone has –or should have–a terrible first draft. Remember, you’re polishing, refining. Think of rough diamonds compared with the final polished article. You’re putting flesh on a flexible framework. It’s all good.

Save your file in its original state, then copy it and rename it. Rename as ‘final version’ or ‘second draft’ or something like that. If it goes to pot, you’ve still got your original first draft if you need it. (You won’t… but it’s like a security blanket.) Start tinkering.

Start with the easy stuff like typos, clarity, and grammar.

Then check consistency of character description and behaviour; the names and personal details of all characters; check place-names are correct and consistent throughout. Work with your timeline – is it clear when the events of the book take place. Is it dark at the right time, or have you got someone outside and seeing perfectly clearly at ten o’clock at night in winter? Weekends, summer-time, these can give characters different routines to the one for weekdays.

Then move on to point of view. With POV, consistency is everything. If you’re writing anything other than an omniscient third person viewpoint, then there will be things your characters cannot know until it is revealed to them. Make sure you’ve nailed that.

Next, check for all those words you overuse. For me, that’s words like So, And and Also. A friend of mine uses Thus in almost every paragraph… it’s really annoying. Check how often your characters do the same thing: mine are always gasping, sighing, biting their lips or tossing back their hair. They also glare a good deal. I’m rationing myself with all these overused expressions.

If you use unusual words to describe something, don’t repeat them more than once because unusual words stick in the reader’s mind and break the spell: the worst possible offence you can commit as a writer of fiction is to pull your reader out of the book and into the real world where they are a reader, not a character in your story. You want them to read your book, not remember they have laundry to do. Make less use of unusual words such as coterie or Schadenfreude, words that really stand out from the page. Find synonyms for words you need to repeat, so they seem less noticeably repeaty. (I know that’s a word, don’t nag me about it.) If you use cliches—please don’t—but if you absolutely must, do it just once, don’t repeat them.

Check hyphenation, apostrophe use, adverbs and speech tags. I don’t agree with the ‘never use adverbs, they’re evil’ approach, but do use them sparingly. (See what I did there?) Keep metaphors and especially similes to a minimum, unless writing poetry, they are also irritating, and often amount to little more than another cliche. Don’t use fussy speech tags: he responded, she retorted, they exclaimed, etc. Once in a while is fine, but to begin with, you don’t need to tag every speech, just enough so the reader can keep track of who said what. The word ‘said’, 90% of the time, is the best speech tag there is, it’s invisible, the reader ignores it.

Never, ever use the word ejaculate to mean exclaim. We don’t live in the world of the Famous Five anymore, if indeed we ever did. You just can’t do it without making your reader burst out laughing or become highly offended.

Check your tense scenes or action scenes for long, meandering sentences that slow the reader down and take forever to read, or have to be reread to try to figure out the meaning. Check slow, reflective, emotional or romantic scenes for accidentally humorous clangers, or break-neck short sentences that rush the reader too quickly through the text.

Read it again. And again. Tweak as you go, now, but remember some changes will have a knock-on effect and need to be addressed multiple times throughout the book, so don’t forget to change every instance of a word throughout the book, not just once. Be cautious with using find/replace as some words will be a syllable in a longer word. If you change his to hers, for example, using ‘replace all’, you will end up with words like machersmo instead of machismo and other similarly hilarious but disastrous typos. Now pass the draft to your close friends/beta-readers/book group, for your first round of feedback.

Then—I hate to say it—you need to do it all again. I read somewhere that if you don’t hate your book by the time it is published, you haven’t done enough work on it, and believe me I’ve come so, so close to hating a couple of my books. Your book is not ready for your editor or proofreader until you are absolutely convinced that it’s perfect. Trust me, it won’t be. But it’ll be pretty close. As an editor, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than getting a script that is little more than a first draft. It’s like seeing a neglected, unloved child. So show your baby some love.

When you make your first sale, it will feel like it was worth every minute.


Going Indie – part two

As I said last week, I’m a self-published—or Indie—author. This means I do all my own writing stunts, publish my own books and reap the rewards every month from Amazon and, via Draft2Digital, from Nook, Kobo, Apple, etc. But it’s only been the last few months that my rewards have been noteworthy. Before that I used to dream of selling 200 books a month, or in my craziest, most optimistic moments, 500 books!!! Now I am comfortably selling several hundred books a week. Yes, I know, it’s still not megabucks, but give it time. It’s more than I’ve ever earned in my life. If I’ve learned anything as an Indie author, it’s patience! And persistence. And optimism. (This could turn into one of those ‘What did the Romans do for us?’ discussions…)

I also sell paperbacks online from Amazon in the UK and the rest of the world, and in the US, from Barnes and Noble online as well as Amazon. And they do sell, many people (I’m secretly one of them; my age, I suppose) still prefer to hold a paper book in their hands and turn actual not virtual pages. I’d love to sell paperbacks from high street stores, but it’s not happening at the moment. I could go to a printing firm and get hundreds printed up, but I just don’t want boxes upon boxes of books around my home, and I don’t want to be stuffing jiffy bags all day when I could be writing, or drinking coffee. Nor could I match the price the paperbacks sell at on the Interweb. The postage cost alone makes that a non-starter.

One huge difference to my ‘wildest dreams writer scenario’ is that I pictured myself as (a much younger, obviously, and cool and OBVIOUSLY gorgeous) a kind of Jessica Fletcher character, pottering about in sensible cardigans and pearls, and solving real-life (non-dangerous) crimes, whilst fitting in the odd bit of typing on a vintage, collectible typewriter.

Real life usually is more like me struggling to find a reliable internet connection, and trying to remember what I wrote yesterday, or wishing I’d remembered to buy toner for the printer, and wishing I could use my pretty notebook instead of my plain one. Or, as last week, spending seven hours in A & E with my Mum. Obviously (clearly my word of the day) I was glad to do it, she couldn’t have gone alone: she doesn’t know her surname, her date of birth or her address. She certainly doesn’t know her medications and their doses. Actually she doesn’t know me either. But interruptions to routine occur, and last week, I managed very little in the way of new work, which made me depressed. But real life is what gives us our story. Real life is where we fight to get the words down on the page in spite of all the other stuff we have to do. We’re not alone in that. In many ways, as an Indie author we can be more flexible about deadlines and publication dates.

What else do you as a self-published author need to do apart from writing your book and creating your cover?

I said last week I do my own editing and proofreading. I still do. I know you’re not supposed to, but I do. I can’t afford to hire someone to do it for me at the moment. I realise that it’s easy to miss a vital typo, and difficult to pick up on waffle, (always easy to rationalise that away) overused words or phrases, or even to be sure that what is clear to you, the author who knows the whole story, is just as clear to the reader who is learning the story a page at a time. That’s quite a tough one. I do have help with the final proofreading stage, and that is invaluable for picking up little annoying bits and pieces, but overall I trust my own instincts, and try to stay calm and focussed, try not to freak out at the enormity of the task, or the very great possibility of people hating my work. I also try to bear in mind George R R Martins’s comment that ‘writing is not a democracy’. That’s why it’s MY book, not someone else’s.

The editing and proofreading process is far longer and more important than most people realise. I once read that if you don’t hate your book by the time it is published, you haven’t done enough editing. That is so true. By the time I’ve finished everything that needs to be done, part of me dies inside at the thought of reading it once more time. But that’s only temporary. Once your book is genuinely finished, and it’s out there in the big wide world, give yourself a little break, then come back and amaze yourself at how wonderful it is. You will think, wow, is that really my work? Surely I didn’t–couldn’t—write that? It’s a wonderful feeling.

Editing—actual, practical steps:

  1. Read the whole thing through OUT LOUD to check for typos, meandering, unclear nonsense, missed words and phrases and overused words. I am terrible for overusing So and And! If you use an unusual word, for example, coterie—use it once, not many times. Unusual words will stick in the reader’s brain and annoy them!
  2. Check all character names and descriptions are consistent. Double check all relationships and partners.
  3. Check that all technology, science and social interactions are correct for the time period you are setting them in, or if you are inventing these, make sure they are logical and consistent, and properly explained without tedium.
  4. If you use real places, check you are correct in how you’ve used them—can the action take place in the way you described? Was that place in existence when you say it was? Was the technology, science and social stuff as you ‘think’ it was? Don’t say the beach is sandy if it’s not. Don’t assume there is an old church in the middle of the village. Don’t give a tiny little village its own police department. Readers will know.
  5. Be honest. Does it work? Does each step in your plot follow on logically from the previous one? Is there a believable reason—in your mind at least, readers may not always agree—for why a character acts a certain way? Have you over-explained? Have you under-explained? If it’s not working, admit it and correct it. Do it now before anyone sees it.
  6. Get rid of waffle. Shorten long meandering descriptions and overly-complicated sentences. When You read out loud, you will soon discover those sentences that trip up the reader and mess up the smooth flow of your story. Don’t overuse adverbs. Don’t tag all speeches unless you need to make it clear who is talking. In a dialogue between two people, this will only need to be done sparingly. There is nothing worse for the reader than every speech being tagged. What I mean by that is, you always say who is speaking. You don’t need to do this all the time. Read your work out loud and you will see what is superfluous. Also, don’t use a large variety of euphemisms for ‘said’, etc. Said should be your go-to speech tag. Followed by minimal use of replied, responded and similar words. Please do not use chortled, ejaculated, declared or any of the more emphatic words—they are horrid to read in dialogue. More importantly, they stand out like a sore thumb, ruining your lovely little ‘suspension of belief’ state you have lulled your reader into. Said is invisible, declared is not.
  7. Do a final proofread, out loud preferably, and get someone else (who owes you a massive favour or loves you to the point of obsession) to read the entire thing with you. Correct every single thing: missed commas, extra spaces, inconsistent title fonts, everything. Check every spelling, and all your facts. Don’t tell yourself no one will notice—I guarantee they will. And they will mention it in their reviews.


Next week: Part three: what do you do next?