Advice from the Archives–The First Draft: Just Scratching the Surface

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You’ve completed a manuscript. Hooray! Bust out the champagne, pat yourself on the back, share the happy news with your best friend, parents, mailman, dog, fourth-grade teacher…

Then get back to work. That’s right, back to work. Because you’re not actually finished. Not even close. Writing a book is hard enough, but there’s more to come with the dreaded R word: REVISIONS! Just as nothing in life is perfect, no first draft is perfect. Surely there was one chapter you worked on after a brutal, brain-cell-stealing shift at your day job, and reading over that part now feels equivalent to the depth of thought put into the personal message in your last birthday card from your four-year-old niece. You can do better! And we, the editors, exist to pull that better material out of you. But first we want you to give it your all and to learn from your revision process.

Yup, editors are sometimes like that annoying college professor who would never give an A+ just because. Well, it’s true—there’s always room for improvement. Writers and editors have the same goal of delivering the highest quality, most thought-provoking books to readers. Bottom line, you want it to be your best. To get there, you have to do more than a first draft. So what comes next? First, put down the manuscript for at least a week. Maybe more. You’ve been a slave to this thing for months, most likely, and you deserve a break from its intense demands. You’ve become too close to it, and you’ve probably lost sight of the meaning of certain scenes, characters, goals at this point. It can be mentally rejuvenating if you step away and come back to it later.

When you’re ready, read over it again with fresh perspective. Pretend you’re reading it for the first time, and try to note scenes and situations from new angles. Pay attention to details and information that you weren’t looking for when you were entrenched in the writing. Read it a couple of times—first for top-line, big-picture stuff: Does Shelly’s goal of making Matthew miss his date with Vivian tonight even make sense? After all, she decided in the previous chapter that his continued disinterest in her is actually her dodging a bullet, due to his unfortunate penchant for corduroys and Zinfandel wines. Also read for more between-the-lines, logistical things. In the first chapter, Shelly’s eyes were blue, but in Chapter 13 they’re green. Whoops! Must’ve Freudian-slipped-that-in as she gets more and more jealous of Matthew’s progressing relationship with Vivian… There’s plenty of time to catch this type of nitpicky stuff down the line, yes, but you still want it to be as strong as possible when you send it to your editor.

There are only a finite number of times you can look at your own work, so another important part of revisions is getting feedback from others. Even before you send it to your editor or agent, I’d encourage you to collect thoughts and suggestions from critique partners. Then consolidate all revision notes, put yourself back in your writing chair, and tackle Round 2. Then repeat ad nauseum until you have a manuscript you feel proud to ship off to the land of the publishing houses.

And that’s more or less how revising works. It’s going to be trial and error in terms of what works best for you. Just as every author has a different writing process (to outline or not to outline…?), so too every writer will handle revisions differently. But no matter how you revise, there is one golden rule: A hot-off-the-presses, just-finished-at-3-am first draft does not a bestseller make. No editor wants to see that. You owe it to yourself as a writer to hand in your best work.

Now go ye forth and revise! 🙂

Happy Writing. –The SYTYCW Team

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  1. Chrissie

    Perfect timing for this advice. I just finished another 50,000 ms. I try to edit and polish as much as possible, but even after several times over it, I’ll find a silly typo or misspelled word. Thanks for all your great tips and advice. It helps me be a better writer.

    • Chrissie

      Right! And it actually does become much easier. My writing improves with each new book I complete. But I find when I go back to read over another book I’ve started or a WIP, I can see things more clearly and it gets easier each time.

  2. “How can I trust you? You spend half your time learning to be a witch, without any kind of supervision!” Shyla threw her hands up in the air in complete exasperation. “It’s irresponsible of you.”

    “How can I trust you? Have the time you’re a seal!” Matt didn’t know why he’d said that. It was a weak argument, even to his own ears, but it was all he could come up with.

    “What’s wrong with being a seal? And it’s selkie, I’m a selkie shapeshifter, not a seal. I can’t believe the alpha hired you as our doctor.” Disgust was evident in her tone.

    “What’s wrong with training to be a witch?” Matt countered.

    “Serious? You know our shared history. Witches and shapeshifter are mortal enemies.”

    “So how does Miss Agnes fit in then? She’s been welcomed into the pack.”

    “Miss Agnes is…she different.” Shyla knew she was floundering.

    “She’s a witch.”

    “Yes, thank you Captain Obvious, I know what Miss Agnes is.”

    “I’m also Matthew’s teacher.” The tall, painfully thin woman, who was standing in the clinic doorway, pinned both people with a black glare.

    “Good morning, Miss Agnes,” Matt greeted the older woman. He still found her intimidating. Maybe it was the long, dark-brown dress, sensible shoes, and steel grey hair, pinned up in a bun so tight, bullets would ricochet off. Maybe it was the way she could creep up behind you without a sound. That was definitely unnerving. Still, she had mentioned being his teacher.
    “Have you changed your mind then?”

    Miss Agnes shifted her complete focus onto the doctor. This time he didn’t flinch.

    “You are old to be taken as an apprentice.”

    Matt held his tongue. It was difficult, he so wanted to ask she could feel the ‘Force’ in him.

    “However, no one else is beating down my door to learn the Craft, so I suppose so.”

    Matt released a smile at the old woman. “Thank you. You won’t regret it.”

    “I’m sure,” the witch said dryly. Then she looked over at Shyla’s expression of disbelief . “Don’t worry Shyla, with my supervision Matthew will be trained properly. He won’t end up as a warlock.”

    “No, he’ll be a witch doctor.”