You’ve finished your first draft and typed ‘The End’. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel a massive sense of achievement, along with relief. But then you start to read it over, and with a sinking heart you realise it’s utter rubbish.
You force yourself to stop panicking. Of course it’s rubbish – that’s what first drafts are meant to be. So now you start thinking about how to knock the book into shape, but tackling an entire book at once seems a monumental task. Looking at the bigger picture is just too difficult, and the temptation to hone in on individual paragraphs and ‘fiddle’ is strong.
When fiddling is wrong
‘I before E except after C’; ‘don’t overdo the local dialect in your writing – just give the readers a flavour’; ‘show, don’t tell’. I expect every writer has heard these rules, but when you’re tackling your first draft, concentrating on the particulars isn’t always the way to go.
In any case, rules are made to be broken.
The hilarious Down with Skool!, by Willans and Searle, is misspelt throughout, and they couldn’t give a fig about i’s and e’s. Trainspotting is written entirely in Edinburgh (‘Embra’) dialect. Pride and Prejudice‘s opening line, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’, is Jane Austen telling us something, not showing, and it’s brilliant.
There is one rule, though, that I have yet to see successfully broken in fiction, and that is that your book has to be about something. It can’t just be a meandering set of scenes. As a fiction editor, the first question I ask myself when I open a new manuscript is ‘what is this book about?‘
Down with Skool is about schoolboy Nigel Molesworth’s naive yet wise comments on his terrible boarding school. Trainspotting is about heroin addict Mark Renton’s shambolic life with his addict friends. And Pride and Prejudice – well, we all know what that’s about.
Writers often have a clear idea of the story they want to write, but after months of writing, they find the draft has circled for a while before running away in various directions and becoming shapeless.
Here’s an example of a set of scenes from a first draft. This isn’t an actual book – I’ve just made all these up on the spur of the moment :) Now imagine I’m editing them.
My Excellent Book
Eve’s mother has recently died and bequeathed a house to her. Eve puts yellow curtains in the windows and paints the door blue, because they were her mum’s favourite colours. (OK, so this is a book about Eve dealing with her grief for her mother. This works and I’m interested.)
There’s a sad scene where Eve adds a conservatory with orange trees, but the trees die. (Hmm, OK, maybe it’s a book about the heroine’s grief and how she keeps losing things/people she loves.)
And the garden is enormous, with a vast lake and a boat on it. The boat is a mini steamboat. (How does this fit?)
There’s a marquee on the lawn, all laid out for Eve’s sister’s birthday party (hang on, where did the sister come from?), and a band is playing (are they important?), but the sister isn’t listening because she’s getting on the boat, which – did I tell you? – isn’t seaworthy (Is she going to drown? Are we back with the book about the heroine losing everyone she loves?)
Oh, and round the front there’s a long gravel drive and a Bentley. The man who owns the Bentley is Adam, a bank robber the heroine got to know (why has he only appeared now?), and he rescues the sister from drowning. The bank robber and the heroine live happily ever after. (But how can this be?)
OK, I’m exaggerating the random shambles in this example, but my point is this: a writer could write this up and have readers interested up to a certain point. I’d like to know if the buzzard will scare all the other birds. And will the boat really sink? The Bentley-driving bank robber sounds interesting too, and we all love a happy ending, but ultimately, no matter how well written the individual scenes, this would be an unsatisfying and unmemorable read because it doesn’t appear to be about any one central thing. This draft is a mess, and if you’d written it, you might well think you couldn’t do a single thing with it. If you’re like me, you could even read it back and be close to tears at this point.
Don’t give up on your writing too soon
First of all, ask yourself the same simple question again: ‘What is my book about?’ Don’t be tempted to give a rambling answer to this. Just sum it up in two or three lines, and focus, focus, focus as you read your book back to yourself.
When you’re self-editing your own draft, how do you work out what is a great scene and relevant and what is a great scene but heading off in the wrong direction and needing to be cut altogether?
Here’s an excellent trick: every time you reach a new scene or introduce a new character as you read through your draft, write down a one line summary of that scene/character on a card, or on a Post-It note, or just a plain old slip of paper.
When you’ve finished, spread all the cards/scenes out in order somewhere you can look at them – on your desk, or on the carpet, or on a pinboard. How does each scene fit in with the premise of your book? What does the scene add? Does the scene move the story along? Do we find out more about a character? What would happen if you took this scene out? Would it matter? Do you need to write new scenes to have the story make sense or to reinforce the basic premise?
I’m going to take all the elements of my made-up story above, write new scenes and rearrange them so they make a workable manuscript. Well, it won’t win the Booker Prize, but it will do as an example :)
Let’s say that this book is about two people finding an unlikely love together as they come to terms with loss.
Second Draft of My Excellent Book
The heroine’s mother has recently died and bequeathed her a house. Stricken by grief, Eve redecorates the house in her mother’s favourite colours.
Adam – a mysterious guy with a Bentley – comes to call. (Note: Adam has to be dropped in sooner than in the first draft, but don’t reveal he’s a bankrobber yet.) Due to a mix up, the heroine assumes Adam must have known her mother, and she asks him in.
Eve shows Adam her beloved mother’s orangery where the trees are dying. (I would leave out the aviary and the buzzard, which confuse the issue. The trees are enough to symbolise death and loss.)
Adam has a musician brother who has recently died. He’s also grieving. (This addition shows Adam has a heart.) Adam finds a connection with Eve’s sadness. He knows about plants and he shows her how to bring her orange trees back to life. (Note: have the trees live, rather than die. This symbolises hope and that Adam is a positive character. )
Eve begins to have feelings for Adam. She invites him to the welcome home party she’s throwing for her sister, Jane. (‘Welcome home’ rather than ‘birthday’. This will give a convenient reason why Jane hasn’t appeared yet. Plus, keeping her away for most of the book stops her character from taking up too much of the limelight.)
Eve hires a band because, even though she’s grieving, she’s beginning to live again with Adam’s help, plus she wants to make it a nice day for Jane. (This shows progress in her arc of healing and also her thoughtful character).
One of the musicians was a friend of Adam’s musician brother (the brother Adam is still grieving). He tells Eve Adam is a bankrobber, and that Adam came to her house planning to scope it for a robbery. Now Eve’s discovered the truth. Big shock! She tells Adam to leave. She’s lost a person she loves again. (Black point.)
Adam sees Jane get in the boat as he drives off down the gravel drive. (Make this a small sail boat rather than a steam boat.) He sees the boat is listing. He turns back as the boat starts sinking. Eve can’t swim and she’s distraught. Is she about to lose another person she loves?
Adam swims out and saves Jane’s life. Now he’s a hero!
After the drama, Adam tells Eve he’s become a new character because of her. He plans to give up the bank robbery and, given his skill with the orange trees, he’ll devote himself to gardening.
There is a reconciliation, and love declared. A happy ending. (My favourite type of ending!)
This might not be the best story you ever read, but I invented it to show that by focusing on what your story is about, and by examining each scene one by one to make sure it’s relevant and coherent, you can turn a rubbish first draft into a workable second draft. It just takes some thought. Your draft is a jigsaw full of individual pieces. You can sort through them and put them together one by one.
So now you have your second draft – and you can start rewriting again!
Have you ever struggled with a first draft? Do you have a draft in a folder on your laptop that you think is completely unworkable? How do you approach editing your first draft?
If you have any comments or suggestions at all, I’d love to hear from you!