"Great job finishing your novel! Did you mean to spell your protagonist's name wrong in half of it?"
Behold: A Novel
You’ve finished it. Finally. After countless long nights fretting over your words, manipulating each sentence for maximum effect, and imbuing every paragraph with depth and symbolism, your journey is at last complete. Your novel is done. You set it aside (virtually, if you’ve been working on a word processor) and walk away, content with the knowledge that you’ve brought forth this thing into the world. Where once there was nothing, now there is something, and it’s there because you created it.
In the heady days that follow, you tell everyone you know that you finished your novel. You’re a proud parent, and you don’t even have to get up in the middle of the night or change messy diapers! It’s an amazing thing, really, and one about which many people dream. You want the world to know exactly how great it feels.
Time passes. The days come and go, and you begin to get the itch to take a second look, to bask in the glory of your novel and remember all the good times you had writing it. You yearn to once again be devastated by your dialog, pleased by your pacing, captivated by your characters … awed by your alliteration. Eventually you can’t wait any longer, and you settle in one evening and give it a read.
To your horror, you discover that the unthinkable has happened: while you weren’t looking, someone went and switched your perfect, beautiful baby with some kind of ugly, wart-riddled troglodyte. This isn’t yours! Can’t be. There’s no way you would have ended that sentence with a preposition. No chance you would have missed that obvious fragment. It is utterly inconceivable that you would have completely forgotten one of your characters mid-way through the book.
Yet that’s what you’re seeing now, and the grim realization begins to dawn on you: you’re not finished. You’re not even close. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty again. It’s time to redraft.
Reasons to Redraft
For many authors, redrafting holds neither the mystique nor the excitement that they found in the initial act of creation; it’s just simply not as fun. For others, it’s quite painful to admit to themselves and to others that their perfect baby was never really so perfect to begin with. Some writers go into a permanent state of denial and never touch their first drafts again. If that sounds like you, keep this in mind: few of these writers ever get published.
If you want to be a professional author, you should prepare to write multiple drafts on every project. It’s a necessary step in the process, and once you’ve done it a few times, you may come to enjoy it for its own sake. There are many very good reasons to do it, and here are my top three:
- To clean up obvious structural errors, typos, misspellings, and the like.
- To improve the clarity, readability, and flow of the text.
- To excise things that don’t work, improve things that only kind-of work, and occasionally to add or remove entire sections in the service of making a better book, story, article, or other piece.
Microsoft Word and other text-editors have helped a lot with item number one. Oh, don’t get me wrong — any editor worth his or her salt will tell you that there are still plenty of typos and misspellings left to fix no matter have many drafts an author has done. But spelling and grammar syntax-highlighting, auto-correct features and the like have made it much easier for the author to catch a lot of mistakes as they’re made. Still, every redraft should be done with an eye toward fixing these kind of errors.
Numbers two and three are where it starts to get complicated. Text tweaking and improvement can involve everything from simply switching the order of a couple of words, to making minor tweaks in a sentence, to striking and rewriting entire paragraphs. The goal? Making a better book — not for you, but for the reader. Let’s face it, if you’re writing for you and you alone, then it doesn’t matter so much how ugly your baby is.
Text revisions are often relatively mild. Sometimes a few sentences just need tightening up. Let’s take a look at some text from the first draft of my novel The Broken God Machine, with some anticipated edits marked in red:
There was no time to celebrate this victory. Pehr turned ready to help Josep, only to see the hunter take a slashing hit to his midsection from the Lagos’s metal blade. Josep screamed and stumbled, going to one knee, and Pehr began to run toward the combatants already knowing he was too late. The Lagos, roaring in triumph, raised the blade over his head to swing down, just as Pehr had done to its companion. The blow would surely kill Josep, and Pehr found himself screaming in rage. Not now. Not yet. Not before they saved Nani.
Note: The red text in this instance is used for illustrative purposes. I don’t usually go through and do this with my drafts. I prefer to just keep a copy of the first draft open on one side of my monitor, and re-type the second draft from scratch on the other.
As you can see, a huge chunk of the text is going to get some amount of adjustment. This doesn’t mean it’s all going away or even changing substantially. Here’s how the edit looks:
There was no time to celebrate this victory. Pehr turned to help Josep, only to see the Lagos warrior’s metal blade slash across the hunter’s midsection. Josep screamed and stumbled, falling to one knee. The creature roared in triumph, raising the blade over its head for the killing blow. Pehr found himself running forward, shouting, knowing he was too late. Not now! he thought. Not yet. Not before we save Nani!
These aren’t earth-shattering changes, here. I’ve just gone in and altered the text so it’s a bit shorter, and flows a bit better. This, along with the basic spelling/typo checking mentioned above, is what agents and editors mean when they say they want a manuscript to be “polished” before they receive it. Polish can mean the difference between an accepted manuscript and one that gets rejected, so it’s certainly worth spending your time on!
The Big Changes
When it comes to excising or altering big chunks of text, it’s a lot harder to provide an example within the scope of this blog! I can tell you that in the first draft of Blood Hunt, I was unhappy with the way the relationship between two key characters played out over the course of things. One of my primary goals for the second draft was “get these two people to behave the way I want them to” (it’s funny, sometimes, how little control we have over our characters, especially in early drafts).
I ended up cutting out almost a dozen scenes — more than five thousand words — and creating two entire chapters that never existed in the first draft, in order to achieve what I wanted. It was a time-consuming and at times difficult process, but the end result is definitely superior. Of course, all of that new text now needs its own second draft! Fortunately, most of the rest of the novel has already been through one round of polishing.
If your first draft is a road map, then big changes are like cutting holes out of it. Before you start in on them, you should spend some time considering what it is you’re hoping to accomplish with the redraft, and have a solid idea for your new route in your head. It’s not enough to just start writing and hope for the best (sometimes that’s not even enough for the first draft). Identify your problem areas, and then identify solutions to those problems. Figure out how you’re going to get where you’re going.
Embrace the Process
Redrafting has to happen. No professional author out there, not matter how talented, can consistently produce pieces of any length that don’t need to go through multiple drafts. This very article was redrafted several times, piece by piece, in the hopes of making it clearer and more concise.
The key to preventing the process from becoming a boring slog is to focus on appreciating what you’re doing. After all, part of the joy of writing is finding just the right way to say what you’re trying to say. There is as much craft involved in honing a sentence as there is in coming up with the sentence in the first place.
Think of it as your chance to build the six million-dollar baby. It’s still your creation, still your beautiful child, still the thing to which you gave birth. It’s just bigger, faster, smoother, stronger and better than what was there before.
We redraft because we must, but there’s no reason not to enjoy the process, and there’s no reason to be afraid of it either. Get in there, get your hands dirty, and polish your work. You’ll be glad you did.