In Part Six we're starting to think about revising your writing. Each post in Write Your First Novel is a series of short(ish) prompts and exercises which are designed to lead, step by small step, towards the first draft of a novel. It doesn't assume you already know the technical vocabulary that writers use, and the full series to date is collected together here.
One more thing before we start. Everything on This Itch of Writing is free; I don't monetise it through advertising or clicks or affiliations or anything else, but simply put it out under a Creative Commons Licence (and if you'd like to re-use any anything on This Itch of Writing, please check that link for how the Licence works). But, for the first time I'm going to ask that if you find the series useful, you pay it forward by donating to the UK National Emergencies Trust Corona Virus Appeal, to Unicef, or to your local foodbank or other charity working to help cope with this unprecedented crisis.
Over the (real or imagined) weekend you've been reading like a writer to help you to write for your readers. How was it, to start thinking not just about the story, but about how the writer got you to enjoy the story - or what they did which didn't actually work for you? Did reading like that energise you? Inspire you? Daunt you?
Or did it annoy you, because you had to resist the joy of being swept away by the book? That reaction isn't uncommon, at least for a while: once you start reading like this, it's hard to read completely innocently any more. It is always possible to turn your geiger-counter's sensitivity up or down, depending on what you're reading and why: a rattling good read or a thoughtful story set in a world that fascinates you can have lots of not-perfect things about them, and still be more than worth reading. And in the end, I promise you, it's a bit like growing up: not only is this kind of reading necessary if you want to write, but you will find more joys, and more interesting joys, awaiting you.
I was asked once on Twitter for my top tip for writers, and the only one I could think of which is truly universal for everyone from novelists to scientists, journalists to bloggers, poets to historians, is this:
Write your first draft for yourself,
your second draft for your reader,
and your third draft for the person you want to persuade.
By "the person you want to persuade" I mean someone you want to "buy into" the piece you're writing - go with it, believe in it, be convinced by it. If you want to dig into this further, then I blogged about it, but when you're only just starting out a full-dress Itch blog-post on a topic can be a bit overwhelming, so feel free not to go there. For now, what you need to get your head round is simply that very few writers - least of all beginners - can work in all those three modes at once and so write only one draft. The few who can either a) have a powerful sense of what they're aiming for before they even start and the skill to shape each page to match that, or b) are very experienced and not writing beyond their comfort zone, or c) are very bad.
In writing your first draft, Part Four, "for yourself", you found out the basics of this little story: who's in the scene, what they're trying for, what actually happens - which perhaps surprised you - and so on. You gave it a once-over to pick up any obvious slips, and then set it aside.
Now you're going to write the second draft, "for your reader".
1) The first stage is to read it like that reader: as if you hadn't written it, as if you're seeing it for the first time. That's why after that First Draft post my next post was about remembering and noticing what it feels like to read.
a) If at all possible, double-space the text, give it nice big margins - 2.5cm or more, and print the scene out. I know it's expensive, but the nastiest recycled paper, and draftiest-possible ink is fine: even if you never do it again, it's really worth doing it this time. If that's not possible, then the next-best thing is to double space it on screen, click "Track Changes" and set things so changes are visible, and remind yourself how to do comment-balloons. If your tablet lets you do handwritten comments on the screen image of the text, that can be great, though in some programmes if you then go back to typing and change the text, it and the handwriting no longer align.
b) Settle somewhere comfortable, ideally the sort of place you'd read, rather than write, as long as you can still use a pen on the paper, or have your fingers on the keyboard.
c) Read through your scene, paying attention as you would to someone else's, but as you go note your reactions on the page - which is why you need generous margins and line-spacing. Don't be shy about noting things which you like and work well, because you need to develop your sense of what works in your writing just as much as your sense of what doesn't. But the core purpose for all writers of this stage is problem finding; find but don't stop to solve the problems, because then you lose touch with your normal readerly mode.
d) Remember that problem solving comes later. If you recognise a mispelling, you might as well correct it, but if you're not sure what it should be, don't stop to fiddle with that, let alone anything which takes more time still. Readers don't look up spellings, so you shouldn't. Just make a note and keep reading. At the end, scribble down anything that occurs to you about your overall sense of the story, while your thoughts and feelings are still fresh.
At the end of this reading-and-problem-finding stage, my manuscript will be full of all sorts of notes, such as:
- a bit slow
- she must be standing to do this, but when did she get up?
- not right for his voice
- sp? for a spelling I'm not sure about
- would he be wearing a jacket?
- a bit sketchy
- they'd be more upset than this, & so prob. take longer to work out what to do next
- it's raining - his hair would be wet
- a repeat
- she sounds too young
- scene peters out
- awk meaning an awkward-reading sentence to wrangle later
- PL for period language which doesn't feel right
- geog? it'll need a sketch-map, floor-plan or some google-map-work
- PoV? is suggesting that how the point-of-view is(n't) working needs some attention.
In time you will evolve your own equivalents.
2) The second stage is to solve all those problems "for your reader"
Before you start, do a "save as" and rename the new file something comprehensible, so if it all goes wrong you can go back to the original. Version control is a good habit to get into early, so if your first draft's filename is Middlemarch 1stDraft, then this could be Middlemarch 1stDraft Revision 1, or (whatever will still make sense to you in three years' time when you realise that Middlemarch story you wrote is the seed of a whole project.)
a) Work your way through, sorting out each problem or query as you come to it. If there's anything that would take you away for hours or days from the main forward-reading-and-problem-solving, just make a note that it's not dealt with yet, and move on: they might include more substantial bits of research; a note that how a character acts isn't convincing, which makes you realise you don't know them well enough yet; a piece of grammar you know you're really rocky on.
b) Tackle those postponed things
3) Tidying up. Finally, because revising things always results in loose ends, slightly messed-up sentences, missing bits of punctuation and the like, you need to give it a last read-through to pick these up. It can be hard to see these, because after several passes you're likely to read what you "know" is there - what you expect to see - rather than what's actually on the page.
The best way to do this is to read aloud, because in order to speak the words with normal intonation and inflection, your mind has to understand them, so it will immediately flag up if there are any typos or sentences that have got scrambled. You don't have to perform it, just read it aloud as you would if a teacher asked you to at school. Print out again if you like and mark up; if you read on screen and correct as you go, I'd suggest putting Track Changes on again. Finally, input your last tweaks, or review your decisions, and save (yet) again.
You now have a second draft of your scene: one you've reason to hope will work for your reader. We'll tackle the third draft soon, but not quite yet. As before, you want to come back to it having lost touch as much as possible with what you "know" is on the page, so you can can get a sense of whether as a reader you would buy into it. So for now, put it away. Tomorrow we'll be exploring a different aspect of writing fiction.
Emma’s memoir, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, (currently on Amazon at 99p on Kindle and only just over half-price in hardback) was published in 2019; the Daily Mail described her account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family as ‘a fascinating journey…a masterclass’. Her debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, is probably the only novel ever nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year Awards; her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was a Sunday Times bestseller as well as earning her a PhD. This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction which publisher Scott Pack describes as ‘essential reading’. She has taught for the Open University, is a regular guest lecturer and workshop leader, and mentors and tutors individual writers. For more about Emma, click through to her main website.