REWRITING AND EDITING
You’ve finished your first draft. Congratulations!
That’s a significant accomplishment. More manuscripts are abandoned than are actually finished. Some writers can dash off that first draft while others find it more difficult to write than rewrite. I’m in the latter category. Once I have those words on the page I look forward to going back to the beginning and doing whatever needs to be rewritten or edited.
Any way you look at it, the second, third or fourth draft is work, but at least you have something to start with. Before you do a line edit, you need to make sure your plot is solid. I use a list of 23 questions, all of them concerning basic storytelling elements. If I have to answer no to any one of them, I need to rewrite that section.Here is my list with brief descriptions of ingredients that should be in any novel. You’re welcome to it to check your own manuscript.
- Is your story fresh and original? Is it a tale about a cigar-chomping, alcoholic, misogynistic cop who calls women “dames”? I’m sorry but that’s been done—a lot. Try turning that stereotype on its head. Make the sheriff a quiet, intelligent, pregnant woman whose husband is an artist. Or take a story that’s been done many times and change the setting, the time and the characters. It worked for Jane Smiley, whose novel, A Thousand Acres, based on William Shakespeare's King Lear, won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Make a list of what’s unique about your novel. Are there places you could make your plot or your characters more unusual?
- Do you open your novel with a strong hook? All good fiction is about disturbance to a character’s inner and outer life. Do you start out with the protagonist’s predicament? Does your plot have a significant story question on the first or second page? Will your beginning grab the reader?
- What is your inciting incident? The inciting incident is an event that seriously disrupts your protagonist’s life. Does your plot organize your story effectively? Does your protagonist want something, have opposing forces and expect a serious loss if she doesn’t reach her goal? Is the goal clear to the reader? If you’re having trouble organizing your plot, consider using the classic Hero’s Journey narrative (available online at http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero's_journey.htm) as a guide.
- Does your novel have conflict? What or who provides it? Your story must have opposing forces: a protagonist who wants something and an antagonist who wants to stop the protagonist from achieving his goal. The antagonist does not have to be evil but he should be a complex character who has clear motivation for his behavior.
- Does your protagonist take direct action as soon as possible, preferably within the first five pages? It’s okay if your protagonist resists getting involved at first, but when he does, he must drive the action throughout the novel. If he’s passive or weak, the reader will lose interest.
- Does your story have high stakes? A high-stakes situation has important consequences for the protagonist and the antagonist(s). If the character fails in reaching the goal, her life cannot return to the way it was. She will have lost something significant. Danger to someone’s life would be considered the highest stakes.
- Are your characters complex (not necessarily likable but fascinating)? If you’ve watched the TV series, “House of Cards,” you’ll be familiar with the corrupt protagonist and his equally corrupt wife. They’re neither ethical nor pleasant but they’re certainly captivating. For your characters to be complex, they should have good traits as well as flaws.
- Does your protagonist have some sort of special gift or ability? We admire people who are exceptional, especially when they use their talents in a heroic way. Everyone loves an underdog.
- Is your protagonist (and preferably some of your other characters, too) extraordinary? Your protagonist may start out as ordinary, but he quickly should do things ordinary people won’t do. Readers are fascinated with characters that are highly unusual. Examples: Katniss Everdeen, the young, resourceful heroine from The Hunger Games; Edward Cullen, the teenage vampire in Twilight; the eleven-year-old wizard in Harry Potter.
- Will readers connect emotionally with your protagonist? Having your characters act emotionally does not necessarily mean readers will bond with them. A novel is all about emotion, but the author can’t manipulate the reader into feeling something unless the emotion is intrinsic in the story. For example, if the story is about a dying man, a character we have grown to like, you won’t have to tell us how he and the other characters feel. Simply describing the events and the characters’ behavior and dialogue will show us.
- Do you show rather than tell and tell rather than show when it’s appropriate? You can’t show every real-life minute in a novel. It would have a gazillion pages. You show major events in the story and tell unimportant information.
- What is your novel’s central dramatic question? The CDQ is that question that the reader wants answered by the end of the novel. It might be: Will the protagonist be able to fix the spacecraft’s computer failure and land safely? Will the protagonist catch the killer? Will the protagonist win the race? It’s that question that hooks the reader in the beginning and must be answered for a satisfying ending.
- Do you stick to your central dramatic question (no rambling, purposeless tangents), using subplots only when they strengthen and forward the main plot?
- What are your novel’s theme and premise? The theme is the subject of the novel. The premise is the author’s position on that subject. Suppose the theme is racism. The author’s position would likely be racism should not be tolerated.
- Are your characters’ motivations clear? It’s true that real life people often seem to act randomly, but characters in a novel should have a clear reason for behaving the way they do.
- Do you use sensory details to create a reality for the reader? Using color and the five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) bring a scene to life and make the reader feel as though she has stepped into the story. If you’re worried that description will slow down the novel’s pace, put the characters in action. The reader will remember the description better than if the characters are static. Sensory detail is almost as important as emotion and conflict in a novel.
- Do you use figurative language (with caution) to enhance your prose? Metaphors, similes, symbols, literary motifs or similar narrative devices add richness to your scenes and often help the reader visualize an something abstract.
- Do your characters behave like real people? Are they stereotypical, bland, boring, melodramatic? Believable? Do they have flaws as well as good attributes? Do their actions seem predictable? If so, consider adding a twist to your plot.
- Does your dialogue sound believable and further the story? Some writers have difficulty with dialogue. It is not conversation. It should indirectly communicate the speaker’s underlying thoughts and emotions. It should feel natural, reveal character and advance the plot. Study dialogue from various authors to see how it’s done well.
- Do you create tension by:
—Cutting out the boring parts?
—Making the conflict and the stakes high enough to support an entire book?
—Putting your protagonist (or someone she loves) in danger or trouble
and then making the situation worse?
—Having the scenes move toward a climax in which the protagonist
either gets what she wants or doesn’t?
—Using subtext to convey inner conflict, enhance dialogue and
—Maintaining an appropriate pace?
21 Does your protagonist have a character arc? Your protagonist is on
an important journey that will change his life. He should be a different
person at the end of that journey than he was at the beginning. The
experience will reshape him, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
22 Do you give your characters the ending they deserve? A novel is
about struggle.As the writer, you should put pressure on your protagonist
until it seems he may not survive. If your protagonist has done the very
best he can, he deserves to achieve his goal. If he fails, he may still
acquire wisdom, which often is more important than what he
23 Is the manuscript clean, clear and well written? Your novel should be in
the best condition possible. Poor spelling, odd formatting and lack of
clarity are the signs of an amateur. One way to check your own work is
to read it aloud. You may be surprised at the number of awkward
sentences, typos and other problems you’ll find.
No one said writing a novel would be easy, but you can do it with time and a willingness to learn. Use this guide to make sure your manuscript is the best you