Your first attempt at writing a novel is called your first draft. First drafts are easy really; that is if you take the idea that a first draft is where you just write the story using your creative mind and leave your critical mind out of it. The idea of a first draft is to get it all down, all your ideas, and not worry about details. The details will be sorted out during later drafts.
The best and the worst thing about a first draft is getting it all down. But if you manage to do that, then you deserve some congratulations, because no matter how much of a mess it is, to complete a first draft of a whole novel is a big accomplishment.
After that comes the hard bit, because now you have use your critical mind to evaluate what you’ve written and make changes to prepare it for reading by someone else. This is where your study of your writing craft comes in. Anyone can write a first draft, but not so many can revise and self-edit a novel to the point where it can be called a good book. The more study of writing a novel you’ve done the better.
NB: Don’t show your first draft to anyone. A first draft is like creative vomit: it comes out in an inspired gush and no one wants to look at it until it’s cleaned up.
During the second draft, you take a step back from your story, and you try to see what it actually is that you’re trying to write. In order to take a step back, you need space between finishing the first draft and looking at it again, so I suggest that you don’t look at your manuscript for at least 3 weeks, and during that time, read other books in the genre – good books and ones that sell well. That will give you something to compare your book to when you return to it.
When you’re ready to look at it again, your task is twofold. You have to:
- Decide on the themes of the story and strengthen them. Make sure that they come through in the writing, and that you’ve followed them through to their logical conclusion (if there is one.) This is an important point because it’s the reason you’re writing the book. What is it that you’re actually trying to say with the story? You may not know, but if you pay attention to what you’ve written, you’ll discover it. You may even find that once you’re clear about this, the second draft comes out looking quite different.
- Check the story elements and improve them:
- Is the plot strong? Do you have a protagonist with an aim or a task and an antagonist that gets in the way of the protagonist achieving their aim or completing their task? If not, you don’t have a story.
- Do your plot points come at the right time to keep the reader interested? Check it with a novel structure template such as The 6 points of story structure by Michael Hauge and make changes in the order of events or the time given to some events so that the major changes, challenges and opportunities fall at the best place. I use a time line for this. I have the structure laid out on a large piece of paper, and I use sticky notes to lay out the main scenes on it. Then I can move them around easily.
- Do your characters have an inner journey as well as an outer journey? Emotional development arcs need to be mapped out along with the plot points of the outer journey.
- Does the pacing keep the story moving? Are there any points where the plot is lost behind scenes and paragraphs that don’t move the story forward? Everything should move the story forward. If it doesn’t, then cut it – no matter how much you love it.
- Is your characterisation complex and deep? Do your characters have issues, or are flawed in some way? Perfect characters are boring. Make sure you can see them and their background clearly. Though you shouldn’t tell your readers every single detail about them, it’s good that you know them. Use description written as they would see it and describe it to deepen the characterisation.
- Does the dialogue sound natural, as in it’s how the characters would actually speak? The way to know it it sounds right or not is to read it aloud. Make sure your characters don’t all sound the same. If you’re writing fantasy, give different races different speech patterns to reflect their culture. If you have a character that is Australian, they should sound like an Australian – without being stereotypical please.
- Is your world building clear and consistent? Think your world through in detail. Be clear on the parameters, especially such things as magic, and relgious and cultural beliefs. World building isn’t just for fantasy and science fiction, every book has a world into which you need to invite the reader.
- Is your point of view clear? Are you writing in omniscient, intimate third person or first person? Whatever it is, make sure that it is consistent throughout, and if you have changes in point of view make sure that they are clearly flagged so you aren’t head hopping.
NB: Be prepared to completely rewrite the book in the second draft. Step outside your ego as much as you can manage and evaluate without attachment what you’ve already written.
Follow the blog for a post on what you do at the third and fourth draft stage, because there is more, much more work to do. And take a look at my book on writing, The Elements of Active Prose: WritingTips to Make Your Prose Shine.
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