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.