A large number of new authors have emerged from this manic writing rumble with a finished novel—something they never thought possible. But now, what do they do with it?
NOW is the time to go back and look at what you have written.
First, protect your work.
Create a new file folder in your writing files for all the background documents you will need as you get down to the real work of writing your novel. These include the original manuscript as it emerged from your head and any research. This file is where you will save future versions and also any cut scenes. I title my background file this way: Book_Title_Background
In this background file, save a copy of your original manuscript in its bloody, raw form with a file name that denotes exactly what it is.
- If you are using MS Word, your manuscript title will look like this: Book_Title.docx
Saving the original draft in a separate file on a thumb drive or in a file storage service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive means you have a fallback manuscript in case something happens to your working files.
In the rush of laying down the ideas in the first draft, we will have written some scenes that will need to be moved to a more logical place in the story arc or cut completely. Still others don’t yet exist and will need to be written so that the ultimate outcome makes sense.
This is a good time to draw up a brief outline that shows you at a glance what you have written. The act of writing this outline will take the better part of a day but will speed the revision process up by a month or so.
The outline allows you to cut and paste events, moving and rearranging scenes. Making the decisions first on a small, easily manageable scale rather than the larger manuscript ensures that you don’t get confused when you begin cutting and moving scenes forward or back along the timeline in the second draft.
- Timeline: Make a list of all the decisions your protagonist made on their way to the final scene. Don’t omit any—you need to see her/his actions at a glance.
- Now, if these choices don’t seem to follow a logical path, rearrange the order to ensure these decisions follow a logical connective evolution. Randomness is not good plotting.
- Timeline: List the new order of decisions. Are they all necessary to achieve the final goal? Or are some fluff—scenes you wrote just for wordcount that don’t advance the plot and which the reader won’t care about?
- Consider cutting each fluff scene. Your readers will be grateful.
Now, look at the outline of your story structure again. Ask yourself these questions:
- Who is the story about now? Is the main character still the original protagonist or has a side character stolen the show? If so, you need to choose and expand on the character that best serves the story.
- What is the core conflict? Is it still the same conflict as when you started?
- How high are the stakes if the protagonist fails?
- What does the protagonist want most now?
- Did the protagonist grow and evolve as a person? If not, why not? Or did they devolve, becoming an antihero or an antagonist? Is there a new hero?
- Where are the pivotal places where something important to the logic is missing?
- Again, examine what doesn’t need to be included. Remove all the scenes that impart no important information to the reader and the protagonist.
Ask yourself what would make the ultimate ending feel more logical. Insert the idea for the new scene into the outline and re-examine the logic of the story arc.
Some authors use “flash forwards,” which can easily make the story arc feel clumsy and unbelievable. Inserting a flash forward requires good planning, which is where the brief outline comes in handy. The same goes for daydreams or prophetic dreams a character might have.
Many authors reject the outline process in the first draft because they prefer to “wing it.” When I write the first draft without an outline, my story will have flashes and moments of inspired writing but will wander and skip its way to the conclusion.
For me, a manuscript that I wrote “by the seat of my pants” will always require more work than a piece written to an outline. Taking a day to write a brief summary of the entire first draft in an outline form makes the second version easier for my beta readers to read and follow.
At the end of the second draft, because I have taken the time to examine the logic of my storyline, the plot and my character’s actions will make sense to my beta readers.
They, in turn, will have good suggestions for minor changes that I will consider when I write the final version.
Next up: prose, and how your writing style shapes the narrative in the revision process.