Greetings, novelists! I hope you’ve had productive weeks.
As February comes to an end, we find ourselves three months out from the conclusion of NaNoWriMo. Now, it’s quite possible that you’re still working on your NaNo project–November 30 was simply a milestone for you and nothing more. Or, wherever you were in your manuscript when December rolled around, you decided to take a hiatus. You might still be on that hiatus.
After all, going back to a draft is something of a strange process. And it’s something we all have to in the course of writing novels. Effective revision is incredibly difficult without some distance from your work and the best way to create that distance is simply to put it away and think about something else for a while. Eventually, however, you’ll need to open that drawer again.
Rereading your draft
In On Writing, Stephen King remarks that a first draft should feel alien when you come back to it. Yes, you’ll remember writing some parts but it’s also amazing how much you’ll have forgotten and rediscover. In a way, it can be quite exciting. It’s tempting to go through this process with another person, but I’d argue that this first read-through is between you and your novel. If you can read it all in one afternoon or evening, do. If you’ve written the next Infinite Jest, don’t sweat it. The point is to read thoughtfully rather than quickly. King recommends that you go through your draft with a notepad at your elbow, but I’d just as happily recommend a blank word document or maybe your tablet if you’re a tablet kind of person. Don’t, however, make any corrections directly to the document, even for typographical errors. Treat your novel the way you would a friend’s–with compassion. Make notes via any of the above mediums, or one of your own devising.
This is a different kind of reading. If you’ve done workshops, it would be more akin to that. Be ready to be moved, but also be ready to be confused and occasionally frustrated. Not everything is going to make sense the first time around, especially if you finished your draft in November. Remember those late nights at the keyboard when you wrote anything just to get enough words on the page? Remember the conflicts and characters you added last minute? That is all in there for you to consider now. Some of your improvisations are likely rather wonderful. Others, less so. The idea is to get a sense of what might work in draft two and what might not.
And remember: you don’t have to make all of your decisions during this first reread. Record your impressions. Don’t overthink it. Above all: do not despair–your novel can be a good one. It’s just going to take time and work.
And now? Revision
Now that you’ve reread your novel, you probably feel energized to get back in there and start making changes. But the point of this reread isn’t, as I said, to begin revisions right this minute. Rather, it’s the beginning of the process. Revision, in its way, requires as much or more creativity than writing. It also requires a fair amount of meditation. Reexamine your notes and see what’s jumped out at you as a reader. Very likely, you’ve written yourself into some corners. You’ve recognized significant plot holes. That is great — seeing the plot holes is the first step in fixing them.
Probably you’re going to be thinking hard about character motivations. Maybe a scene or action occurred to you in the middle of the writing process. It’s a good scene, but now you have to justify it. Consider what you know about your characters. Does this make sense for them? If it goes against type, imagine why that might be a plausible choice.
If you decide to address some of these points, still don’t tamper with your original document. Start writing the scene fresh on another page. And aside from checking details, see what happens when you don’t refer back to your first draft for every passage. You might be surprised at how your work transforms.
Do you have rituals for rereading your drafts? What are they? How long do you wait before beginning revisions?
About the Author: Julia Patt
Julia Patt, Contributing Editor, from Chestertown, MD, is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she was a fiction editor for The Greensboro Review. Her young adult novels—i was a fourth grade zombie slayer and Through Waterless Places—were both shortlisted for Mslexia’s 2012 Children’s Novel Competition, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Surreal South ’11, Stymie, and PANK.