Questionable: Evaluating the First Draft

Jilly asked:

I’d love to know how you evaluate your story once you reach the end of your first draft – how do you decide what to keep and what to change?

Short answer: Keep whatever’s working and tells your story, cut or revise whatever’s not working, cut anything that gets in the way of your story even if it’s working.

Long answer: The great thing about finishing a first draft (besides just finishing the damn thing) is that I now have my entire story before me. So after struggling with separate narrative units, looking at beats and scenes alone, I can sit down, read the entire thing at once, and see what the story really is about. At that point it’s a lot easier to find the parts that slow down or repeat, the parts that feel like they’re missing something important, the parts that don’t belong in the book at all. (In every book, I have a stretch that I read and think, “WTF?” and have no idea what I was going for when I wrote it.) Because I write books in small parts over a long period of time, I really can’t know what the story I’m writing is about until it’s finished and I read it as a whole, so the finished first draft is really the first time I meet the story I’ve written.

In that first read-through, I find the scenes that were fine when I wrote them but now are scenes that I skim as I read the whole thing, trying to get to a good part, and I figure out why I’m skimming them, and then I either rewrite them to make them unskimmable good parts or I cut them. I look at my character arcs and find the places where my people suddenly lurch from one kind of character to another, and I either rewrite the lurch so the evolution is smooth or I add in the missing scene to change the lurch to an arc. I find the plot holes and plug them up; I trim the chat so it becomes conflict, and I cut like crazy for clarity, especially adverbs and adjectives which almost always make the narrative sluggish (strong nouns and verbs, people). I do one run through where I just search for “ly” words. Amazing how much you can cut doing that.

Then I get into serious rewriting. The key is understanding the difference between the first draft and the next drafts. The first draft is the place where I swing wide. It’s the place where I go over the top, write all the stuff I want to write, explore any byway that seems attractive. I do not censor or edit myself in the first draft because that shuts down the Girls. So writing a first draft is Anything Goes, but rewriting the first draft is A Lot of This Is Going To Go. That’s because the rewrite of the first draft changes the writer-based, don’t-look-down draft to a reader-based, communication draft. The first draft is an exploration of creativity, the second draft is making that creativity organized and understandable, streamlining it so that my reader can find and follow my story easily. The first draft is for me; everything after that is for her. So my goal for the second draft is clarity: cut or rewrite anything that doesn’t make sense or that obscures the through line for my story.

After that, once I have the big kinks worked out, I break it into acts and see where the turning points/big character shifts happen and how they’re spaced, rejiggering things so that they come closer and closer together, fixing the pacing so the reader gets the sense that book speeds up as she gets closer to the end.

Then I print it all out and do a paper edit. It’s amazing what I find when I shift from the screen to paper.

Then I key in those changes, print it out again, and read it out loud, doing a second paper edit. It’s amazing what I find when I hear the story instead of reading it in my head. And I key in those changes.

And then I turn it over to the betas because I’ve been working on it for so long I can’t see it anymore. And they tell me things and I think, “Oh, hell, why didn’t I see that?” but I couldn’t because I’ve been looking at it for so long I can’t see anything.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually, it’s still not done, but I am, I just can’t work on it anymore and I send it wherever it’s going to go, agent or editor or whatever, and then I take their feedback and do another edit.

Then it goes to copy edit and I get my pages back. My editor is great about telling copy editors not to change anything and to put notes in the margin instead, so that makes things faster because I can just cross out the notes that are insane and fix the rest. I’m allowed to rewrite on the copy edit and I always do, but if I change more than 10%, I have to pay to get the thing re-keyed or whatever they do; by that time, though, I’ve got it close enough that I never get near 10%. Usually it’s just one or two scenes that need significant work.

And then I send it back and that’s it, the next I see it, it’ll be published and unchangeable.

And then I start the next one.

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

29 thoughts on “Questionable: Evaluating the First Draft

  1. This is absolutely fascinating, and so different from what I do it’s from another planet. I am loving all these technical posts.

    On changing things in the copyedit — I am also published by a Macmillan imprint, though a different one, and I heard this story. The story I heard was that somebody did change more than 10%, and the copyeditor asked the editor how they billed them for it, and the editor didn’t know because it had never happened, and asked up the chain, and up and down they asked everyone and nobody knew and in the end nobody billed the author because nobody knew how. And this may just be a legend, but I have always felt kind of reassured that it would be OK if ever I did need to change a lot.

    1. Ten percent is so huge that I’ve always felt fairly secure that I’d never hit it. It helps that by the time I’m at the copy edit, I’m so tired of the book that I don’t want to work on it that much more.

      1. I feel like this is the place where I should say “Jenny, meet Jo, Jo, this is Jenny” – because I read and love both of you, and because you love many of the same tings. I know Jo reads Jenny, but Jenny – have you tried Jo? I recommend her highly, from reviews (on to comedies of Dragon manners and on through magic and coming of age stories.

        And yet I know you both only through the internet.

        We really do live in the future now.

    2. Speaking as a British copy-editor, I’ve never heard of this! Here, it would apply to corrections made at proof – I’m always telling my authors to take the time they need at the copy-edit stage to be sure they’re happy with the text, in order to avoid potentially expensive corrections at proof.

      Although I remember one author who not only seriously rewrote at the copy-edit stage, but then rewrote the proofs! He was a magazine editor, and was obviously used to rewriting at every stage until the piece was in print: this was his first book. It was a total nightmare – imagine trying to keep track of all the detail in a book that keeps being radically restructured when you’re on a tight schedule. Still, amazingly, it worked in the end. (Would have worked without the rewrites, too, though.)

  2. I love the “print it to paper and read it aloud stage.” You totally hear the awkward sentences, things that are too long, too convoluted, boring(! lol!), and of course find typos, get a sense of rhythm, character voice, tone, etc. It’s weird what you’re eye-brain will miss that you’re ear-brain will instantly snag with a Whoa! That’s not right!

  3. This is my fave bit:

    “… the finished first draft is really the first time I meet the story I’ve written.”

    What a wonderful moment:)

    My process is very similar to yours except I don’t read the whole thing out loud–bits yes, all no. And not only me. But as I said before elsewhere, for areas I’m not quite sure what’s wrong–know something is but can’t see it or the fix clearly–my hubby reads them out loud. This works wonders for me because I can hear what he stresses, if he stumbles, etc. from a reader point of you. A reader who isn’t me, so it’s all feels fresh again & it’s much easier to see the problems. Sometimes, I even get lucky and realize there isn’t a problem and it was just me reading a problem into something–I do that sometimes too and it can be just as tricky as having real problems because it blocks me even in edit stage.

    Interesting question, Jilly. Thanks for asking it. And thanks for giving such a thorough answer, Jenny.

    Small addition: Like Jenny, I get tired of a story at a certain point once it’s done. But like the “first time I meet story” bit above, I also have a moment when I’ve had a break from a book–a long one, like a year–and I go back just to check something and instead find myself caught up & really liking it. Love that too. Except then I think: “Oh no, I’ll never write a line that good again” or whatever other “I’ll never be that good again” thought that pops into my brain. Not so thrilled with those moments–especially when they stretch into hours or days. Still struggle with that side of the experience…

    1. I know. I can go back to a book I wrote ten years ago, read a chunk of it, and think, “Wow, this chick is good.” Now of course, I am not that chick, I’m a hen with writer’s block, but boy back then . . .

      1. So glad to know it’s not just me. Also comforting to know others feel blocked now & then–been working on a plotting issue that’s still not solved to my satisfaction.

        But think “writer head” can be a powerful thing sometimes. The other day, my son showed me a clip of Rowling saying she regretting getting Ron & Hermione together–said it should have been Harry & Hermione. Best bit, though, was when she said Ron & Hermione would have needed couples counselling. Love that even she’s still doing rewrites in her head.

  4. Thank you for posting this question, Jilly, and to Jenny for answering, ’cause this is where I am right now (just finished the first draft of the first book I’ve ever written, and now I’m a bit deer-in-the-headlights).

    Question: has it ever happened that when you’re done your first draft, you’re short of your target word count? What do you do? I’m shooting for a full-length novel, but only have about 60k words. I know there are some subplot things I have to fill in and a handful of scenes to write, but we’re always hearing, “Cut, cut, cut!” How do you “Add, add, add!”?

    1. I’m always so far over that I’ve never had to add, I’ve just had to cut savagely.
      I’m against padding, but I’d look at your subplots to see if they’re developed completely and interwoven with your main plot. Otherwise, I’m pretty much clueless on this one. Sorry.

    2. FWIW, I write short first drafts too.

      During revisions, I still do a lot of what Jenny does, in terms of figuring out where turning points are and looking for motifs and subplots, and making sure that they’re distributed among and between the turning points. Then, because I’m really bad with descriptions, I have to add/fix all of those, so the characters have some more meat to them than a name and a manner of speech. And I’ll usually have to expand on what the characters were thinking/feeling, because my first drafts are almost purely talking heads. I write mystery, so I also need to drop some clues that I hadn’t thought of originally in early parts of the book, but in other genres, you might want to add foreshadowing for other aspects of the story instead of clues.

      Just like Jenny goes through and looks for the big picture, so she knows where to cut, I do the same thing for knowing where to add. It’s a matter of seeing the story’s structure: find it’s spine, the turning points, the GMC, whatever other structural descriptions that work for you, and then adjust the scenes accordingly.

      The process is sort of the same, whether it’s filling in the gaps or cutting the excesses. The key, for me anyway, is to focus on the scenes as building blocks in the structure. Adding or cutting them is just two sides of the same coin.

    3. *Holds hands up* Another ‘underwriter’ here. My first drafts are very bare bones. I write out of sequence, just jumping to whatever scene/fragment pops into my head, which means that they are a complete mess and very short (60-70,000 words, usually). By the end of them, I’ve worked out what the story is, though, and then I go back and reorganise the scenes and make it make sense. Then I add description (which tends to be sparse) and stage direction to the dialogue so it’s not just floating heads babbling away. And then I add all the stuff that I *thought* I’d written but I hadn’t actually put on the page. This goes on for several drafts, with my editor saying things like ‘why does she do that?’ and me explaining verbally and her going, ‘yeah, you’ve not put that in’. Blush. It’s not efficient.

  5. One way to lengthen a book is to look at your conflict and ask yourself, “Is this is worst thing that could happen right now?” and also, “am I making it too easy on my characters?” If it is the worst thing (for that moment, the one thing they just really dread), then do they get out of it too easily?

    Like Jenny, I loathe padding, but if you need to hit a longer length, if you look at the actual conflicts and how you resolve them and see if you can make it much more difficult for your characters in each moment (escalating that difficulty to the end, of course), and paint them in corners, requiring them to be much more inventive to get back out, I think you’ll find that naturally adds length to the story, and it’ll be the kind of length that will keep the reader riveted (instead of just padding).

      1. Lee, sadly, I have never managed to write short in my life. My problem is that I overcomplicate the hell out of things. In fiction. (In real life, I am all over the simplification / no drama rule.) I spend more writing time streamlining than anything else. (I know. Anyone who’s read my stuff–your mind just boggled, didn’t it? You’re thinking that’s streamlined? And my poor editor will commiserate with you.)

  6. This is great. I wrote my first novel in linear fashion, pushing to get through it because I had never written anything that long before. Since then it’s been moldering, a printed pile of paper waiting for me to do something with it. Which probably won’t be linear because I’ve only just started to figure out that I need the voices of a couple of other people and some subplots to flesh it out. It’s 100K words, but I know that most of it will change because all my training and experience is with short stories. And technical documents, like white papers and user manuals. So editing in passes makes sense to me: it’s what I do as an editor of anything anyway. (I took one novel writing class when I went back to school and the less said about it the better. *shudder*)

    I’m loving these posts!

  7. What a great post, and what great comments! I’m another short writer (so far) who has only completed very early drafts but . . . it looks like there are a few contests for novellas in my preferred genres, so I may not need padding, and if throwing the worst at them isn’t helping (ie: the characters always wind up dead), then I might be able to use a “short” work anyway. (-: Maybe eventually I can work up to 100,000 words (I made the leap from 5,000 to 40,000, anyway).

    I have a question about details — when you do that first read-through of the first draft, are you making notes as track-changes? Or on a separate notebook? I’m assuming you aren’t stopping in the middle of the read-through and changing things there and then.

    1. I do a save as and make the changes as I go. That way, if I change my mind, I’ve still got the original, but I don’t have to go back and hit “accept change” on everything I’ve done. When I’m reading other people’s stuff, I use notes and track changes. The one exception is when I collaborate. You have to use track changes on a collaboration because the other writer(s) may object or may miss what you’ve done.

  8. My process is so similar to Jenny’s, it’s kinda eerie. I tend to write chronologically; I almost never jump around. The only time I did was in the third book, and a critical scene of conflict came to me in a dream, so clearly, that I got up immediately and wrote it down, and I knew that somehow, I had to get to that scene, because it had all that juicy heartbreak and angst, and it was organic to their particular conflict. Those moments are rare for me, though.

    Mostly, I just write draft after draft after draft after draft…. ad infinitum. In the very first one, and sometimes in the next two or three, I overcomplicate the hell out of things. I always tell myself that “next book, dammit, you’re going to write a simple, straightforward plot,” but I cannot seem to help myself. I pretzel the hell out of everything and everyone in the books. And then I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the main spine of the story is, the main emotional through-point, and I make sure everything hangs off that sort of “clothesline” throughout. If there’s a subplot, it has to interact with the main plot in some surprising way, and spin the story off in a direction that’s surprising-but-organic. If the subplots don’t do that, then they’re just window dressing and have got to go. (This is always the painful part.)

    The book I just finished is much much darker, a gothic suspense, and I wrote it entirely in Scrivener, utilizing so much of that program, I don’t know how I managed to write without it for the previous books. I loved using the organizational features in the left sidebar (where I can put all the characters, their descriptions, etc.).

    After the first very messy draft, I then go back through and make a note as to what happens in the scenes, and why. One sentence. I try to name the key people and what the conflict is. This way I can track if I’ve dropped a character, let up on a pressure point too long, or lost a subplot’s usefulness.


    I used to have several betas read it, but I’ve gotten to the point that I have just about three, now, because they each look for different and very helpful things–they key in on entirely different aspects of the story. (My agent is one of those–she’s pretty damned amazing at note-giving. She used to be an editor, though, and it shows.) Then I gnash my teeth, try to resist beating my head against the wall because I am an idiot and missed so damned much, left off so much, miscommunicated so much that I sometimes feel like I should re-take freshman English. Some days, I’m not entirely sure I know the alphabet. Then I suck it up, dive back in, break it apart where necessary, and rewrite.

    I don’t even want to think about how many drafts there are. Some books are easier, and some it’s like birthing a camel. Breech.

  9. I love hearing how everyone writes differently. It fascinates me. I tend to underwrite my first drafts. I mostly have talking heads in space. There is little setting and little to no emotion. I usually write notes like [add emotion here] or [react] or [insert fight scene] or [insert love scene] or [research this]. My first draft tends to be a lot of telling, for example, “He’s angry.” I don’t worry about showing the anger just yet. That comes in the subsequent drafts and always adds to the word count. I suppose my first draft is more like a very long synopsis. 🙂

    I’ve been using Michael Hauge’s 6 stage plot structure, spending a lot of time getting the plot and the character arcs down before I begin writing the first draft. But things tend to change as I write and I’m okay with that. I use the plot structure as a place to start.

    Does anyone else use Michael Hauge or another method to structure plot?

    1. Michael Hauge has been a huge influence on my craft work. I took his seminar when I was writing Getting Rid of Bradley, and what he taught me pretty much saved that book and all the books that came after it.

  10. Perfect timing. I wrote the final chapters of my WIP yesterday. Wrestled that ornery thing and won. At last. Today I printed it. I think it was Lani who said use a different font, so I did that. Now to read. Revise. Send to critique partner. Revise. Send to Beta readers. Revise. Does it ever end?

  11. As another McD alum, I have to say I found your critiques blunt but not mean. (And sometimes so on-the-mark they were hilarious.) Where I’m struggling is more because of skills-learned-but-not-mastered. I keep holding everything I write up against the now much-higher standard of what it should be–conflict, snappy dialogue, voice, all kinds of stuff–and of course the first draft never meets that standard. So I keep tweaking the first act instead of moving on. The other day you wrote, The first draft is the place where I swing wide. It’s the place where I go over the top, write all the stuff I want to write, explore any byway that seems attractive. I do not censor or edit myself in the first draft because that shuts down the Girls. and that really helped unstick me. I actually added new words to my second act instead of picking at Act 1. I think I may print that out in big letters and hang it above my computer.

    1. Good for you for going on to the second act. It’s incredibly tempting to just keep rewriting the first act, I think it part because once you get it down, you know it, and the next three acts aren’t clear. It’s that Here Be Dragons fear of the unknown.

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