ONCE I finish the first draft of a book, and I’ve left it alone for at least a month or two while spending time reminding myself what makes a great plot, there’s no more excuses: it’s time for me to read my own work for the first time.
I take great comfort and inspiration from writers like Virginia Woolf, who edited and published most of her idiosyncratic and enduring novels independently.
Embarking on the first edit of a manuscript could be seen as an insurmountable problem, or it could be seen as an inspiring fact-finding mission.
Read your manuscript like a reader would
I sit and read my work as though it was created by someone else. If I’m bored with the writing, I’ll acknowledge it, and find out why. This is crucial in the first twenty pages or so. If I’m engaged, I’ll analyse what sparked my interest.
Don’t over-read just yet
I’m going to be working on this manuscript for months to come, so I don’t want to get bored with it too soon. I’ll leave some of the alterations until another edit and just enjoy the fruits of my labour. I’ll also seek to understand the structure of my work before I decide anything needs fundamental alteration.
Keep tabs on your characters
Have I been consistent? Did I just use inserted names, like “A Policeman” when I didn’t want to upset my writing flow by looking-up the name I’d given this character earlier in the book? Have my characters evolved across my first draft so that certain things need to be altered? I jot these issues down in another place for addressing later, or adjust them as I read through.
How is the plotting?
This is the big one at this early stage. Usually, I’m afraid to embark on my first edit because I am worried I may have either stuck too closely to ‘the rules’ or lost touch with them altogether. What I am looking for is whether I’ve got a decent exposition that will benefit from some cutting down the track, several serviceable and intriguing rising actions, a great climax, and a battle between my protagonist and antagonist. I also looking to see if I’ve bent the plotting ‘rules’ in ways that stand to make my work different to others.
Rewrite when it’s easy to do so
I resist getting bogged down in major structural changes – I don’t know my work well enough yet to make those kinds of calls. However, when something quick and obvious comes up, such as a small set of paragraphs that can successfully bridge a missing plot point, I just write them in and will polish during another draft.
Check the blows are landing
When things happen to my characters, do they express the impact to other characters, or to me, the reader? This is a big one for scriptwriting especially. The blows must land, be felt, and registered, otherwise it’s like nothing’s really happening.
The final act is the hardest to get right
Just about every piece of writing advice I have come across maintains that most writers can write great set-ups and climaxes, but our plotting often falls over in the third act. I recognise this and will always read my dénouement anyway, right through, before I decide if I’ve got it wrong.
Practice good housekeeping
I never delete original work, or rewrite over my original computer files. Sometimes things need only be moved, not cut. Design yourself a filing system for all your subsequent drafts, archive them, and back them up onto a memory stick. I’ve done this ever since I wrote an entire film script and accidentally deleted the only copy!
An extract from Write, regardless!
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.