“Hurray – I have finally finished the first draft of my first novel”. When I posted this update on Facebook a few months ago, I was overwhelmed with the number of friends that congratulated me on my achievement. I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself as you can imagine. All previous attempts to write a novel seem to fall by the wayside at around 30,000 words, so all things considered 120,000 words was impressive.
A few days later I felt a complete fraud. It was quite apt that I stumbled across this quote.
“I think it’s fairly common for writers to be afflicted with two simultaneous yet contradictory delusions – the burning certainty that we’re unique geniuses, and the constant fear that we’re witless frauds who are speeding towards epic failure.” I concur with that statement wholeheartedly. You see the first draft is not the end of the story. Far from it.
First drafts embody effort and hopes – dreams and potentials that could be realised – if you’re willing to put the hard work in. The cold, hard reality is the First Draft never gets published.
So what now? Well in simple terms it’s all about making your novel as good as it can possibly be. You’ll notice how easy it was to say “as good as it can possibly be”. Well, I’m here to tell you – particularly if you have just discovered this post after writing your first draft – it is a long road ahead. And I mean a long road.
Even assuming you polish your novel until it is positively gleaming, I was reliably informed by a Literary Agent in London that the average novel may be edited up to 12 times.
If you haven’t realised it by now, I’m not trying to pour cold water on the project – merely setting expectations. If you’re serious about getting published, you can’t send your baby out into the world half dressed.
Infinity and Beyond…
Once I committed to the editing process, I was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed it. It’s early days but here is my advice based on my experiences so far.
1. Hold it … hold it
Initially, I was raring to get my book progressed to the next stage but it is useful to have some breathing space (typos, spelling and punctuation pick-ups aside). Aim to give yourself a week between the end of the first draft and the beginning of the next phase.
2. Time to wear your editor’s hat
There are those that just like being writers, but even on the most basic level you need to edit your work before it is sent out into the world. Now is the time to start thinking like an editor – not a writer.
3. Print out hard copy
Do a fly through to pick up obvious typos, gaps or weakness in the content. Scribble away in the margins. You might have more ideas, or change your mind, continuity issues, timelines to check– that’s OK just right it all down.
4. Taming the beast
I realised very quickly that while 120,000 had an impressive ring to it, publishers aren’t necessarily looking for a novel with such a long word count. From all my research, I deduced that either 80,000 or 100,000 was the word count I should be aiming for. That means I need to cull at least 10% content. Now here’s the thing. What do you cull? Have you ever heard the expression “Kill your darlings”? Yup. Every bit as painful as it sounds. But if you want to be a published author and taken seriously – needs must!
What to Cull?
- There are a number of places writers waste words and I’m no different. I have discovered frequently overuse the following words – ‘of course’, ‘realised’ ‘had’ and ‘that’. Those four words/phrases cropped up time and time again throughout the pages. Every writer has certain words they are fond of using. Once you have identified yours you will know what to look out for. Rather than loathing the process I began to enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to say same things. As an exercise, I recommend searching your document for the word ‘THAT’. I guarantee 90% of the time this word is superfluous and should be cut. You will notice your writing is improved with this one simple change.
- Dialogue attribution. “He says/she says” clogs up your narrative and word count. It is extremely boring to read he says/she says line after line. Create believable characters with strong dialogue and attribution can be reduced to a minimum.
- Adjectives. Because we LOVE words, writers often string together more adjectives than necessary to describe someone or something. One powerful adjective will do.
- Adverbs. 90% of the time adverbs are superfluous. Adverbs are used to modify verbs. They tell us when, where, how, in what manner or to what extent an action is performed. Go through your copy and eliminate words like ‘very’, ‘quickly’, ‘soon’, ‘kindly’, ‘calmly’, ‘carefully’ and so on.
- Be concise. If there is a way of saying something in fewer words – do it. With creative consideration and a good vocabulary, it is possible.
- Consider the merit of every sentence. In the first draft, you have spilled your guts, but now is the time to tidy up. Each sentence must progress the story and be relevant. Sometimes what goes down ends up irrelevant to the story – action, dialogue, emphasis on a certain character? If it isn’t essential for the growth, development and understanding of your story ditch it – or at the very least, cut it down.
Every stage of the writing process is an opportunity for growth. As I’ve said before tackling a novel is very different from any other writing you may have done, professional or otherwise. I’ve realised through hard work just how rewarding life can be after the ‘First Draft’ but you have to be willing to roll your sleeves up and do the hard graft. There – not feeling so much like a fraud now – until next week. Bye for now.