Your draft is covered in lines, highlights and lots of great big ticks. What happens next?
Have you ever thought of sending your novel to a script agency or editor*? That can be a useful step, but writers are sometimes disappointed by the feedback because the agency or editor seems to have misunderstood the book. Script advisors try to find the heart of your story, your main narrative drive. First novels in particular can have everything in them including several kitchen sinks, so the advisor recommends the strongest line that they think will sell. The trouble is, it may not be what the writer had in mind, at all, leaving them confused and upset. Some writers then lose faith in critiques and even, sad to say, have a sense that their critiqued story is worthless. Writers get a better return on their money if they work first on bringing out the essence of what they and their characters want to say.
In other words, your second draft will be much better. Whose first drafts are perfect? Hemmingway knew the answer.
The place to start is your through-line.
1st TRICK – PLOT CLINIC
Summarise your plot roughly and quickly. Approach this like an exercise; there’s no need to be self-conscious or to trim as you go, no-one will see it but you. If you can, do it without looking at the draft itself or your notes. You are after the excitement you get in a writing exercise where the thing takes off and is carried along by the power of its own adventure.
By Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)
One or two thousand words should be enough. If your summary wants to go in a new direction, something you haven’t thought of or written yet, that’s fine. Write it anyway. If you end up somewhere you do not want your story to go, never mind. Save it and have another go.
If this exercise does not come to you easily, try this shorter approach:
Summarise your plot in 10 words, then 20, then 50, then 100.
These little summaries are more difficult than they look but you will need them later:
- When someone introduces you to a literary agent at a party, you will have about ten seconds to grab her attention – that’s where your 10 words summary comes in handy.
- If she hasn’t looked behind you for someone more saleable after ten seconds, it’s time to expand into your 20 words.
- Your 50 words summary can go into your submission to an agent or publisher when the time is right. (Not yet.)
- Your 100 words summary can be the basis of publicity like the blurb on your book’s jacket.
Doing these little outlines at this stage concentrates you on your story’s gist. Keep them in a file, together with other versions you doodle and rewrite from time to time in idle moments.
WHAT IS YOUR THROUGH-LINE?
Let’s remind ourselves about through-line: the spine of your story, the string that holds your chapter pearls together, the engine of it all. Its elements are these:
- A question
- that is specific, emotional and urgent (will Odysseus find home, how does Rose survive the Titanic’s sinking, what will become of Lizzie Bennet)
- about a particular character or characters (will the Watership Down rabbits find somewhere safe to live),
- that should, one way or another, be answered by the story.
Toy with discovering and refining your through-line for as long as it takes. Just keep thinking and summarising and scribbling until, click, there it is. The clearer you are about your through-line, the more successful your story will be.
2nd TRICK – CHARACTERS
Now is the time to have another good old chat with your main characters too, so back to the character questionnaire
Some characters arrive fully formed and change very little while you are writing your draft. Others morph as your story develops. In both cases it can be a good idea to revisit your character questionnaire to see what comes forward. If nothing else, it will free up any writing muscles that might have got sluggish during your rest.
If it feels like too much of a chore, so be it. Let’s sit on the sofa with the red pen and read that first draft through again, this time more specifically.
Take one of your main characters at a time, and reread your draft as if you are that character:
- Summarise that character’s storyline as you go. Is it consistent?
- Does that single strand feel true in itself? Does it feel true for that character?
- Are there gaps or jumps, anything that could do with explanation? Any plot holes where for example your character knows something he or she hasn’t been told yet? Be hard on yourself because your readers will be.
- Is your character’s voice consistent in the dialogue, not only the accent and content (both important) but also the world view, age, ethnicity etc. Does the voice reflect the character’s growth through the story?
By now, you may feel like doing a bit more of the character questionnaire. Time spent that way is never wasted.
3rd TRICK – SLEEPING
Being with your draft every day is crucial now or your energy will drop. My favourite trick is this.
Before you go to sleep, read over what you’ve done with your draft that day. You’re just reading, no need for this to feel like a chore, and make a few short notes for attention next day. Then sleep.
This does something inexplicably marvellous: it bakes everything together in your brain (or little devils whisper in your sleeping ears, like these around Botticelli’s Mars) so that next day you will go happily to your writing again and it will be more alive. If a thought or two wakes you in the night, note it down and go back to sleep. Some of those notes will be great. Not all of them.
Revising your draft can take a while but somehow it can be exhilarating and less exhausting than producing your first draft because the road map is there in front of you.
Next week we’ll look at your plot arc.
*I do not offer a script reading service, by the way.