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.

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