Tips on how to wrestle your draft into shape

writing
Photo by Rae Grimm (bloodylery)

Okay, you’ve finished your first draft and you’ve done your happy dance (that’s obligatory, BTW). Congratulations!

You take the advised week or two away from your draft and then come back to it and do a quick read through. And it sinks in. You have a pile of *%&^# on your hands and you’re overwhelmed on how and where to start.  (Wait, you didn’t feel that way?) Here’s what I did because that’s exactly how I felt. I’d written my first draft in the 30 days of NaNoWriMo and it wasn’t pretty, folks.
 
First off, take a deep breath. You Are Not Alone. I think it was Stephen King that said his first drafts were stinking piles of you-know-what. Take that to heart. No one will see your first draft. It’s OKAY. That’s where revision comes in.
 
So, now you’re staring at the big stack of paper (you did print it out, right?) and panic starts to seize you. It’s too much! I can’t fix this whole thing!
 
Relax. Don’t look at it that way. See it as fixing it piece by piece.
 
1. Hopefully when you did that first read-through you wrote done your gaps in logic, things to fix, plot holes and the like.
 
2. Now go through and for each scene (not each chapter, each scene) and write it on an index card. I like colored ones where each color represents the POV character. On that card write a sentence or two about what happens and the main conflict (here’s where you find out if you didn’t have any conflict!).
 
3. Lay these cards out on the floor, or a huge table if you have one. Try to find a place where this can stay in place for a while, because this is your big picture and boy does it help.
 
4. Now take your revision notes and write out new cards for scenes that need to be added and put them in where you think they should go. Mark them so you know they still need to be written.
 
5. Take a look at your cards and see if the order really works. Do you have too many slow parts next to each other? Too many high action scenes next to each other?
 
6. I also now print out a blank calendar for the time period of my novel and write in the action that takes place each day so then I can see if I’ve got things happening logically. This will really help you see if you have time lines skewed. Or that you have things happening on s Sunday that wouldn’t work, etc.
 
7. Do anything else that makes sense to help you see the big picture. Make maps of places and settings that you use, that kind of thing. The point is to take a step back and see the big holes so that you can fix them at this stage.
 
8. Also take a look at some of those cards. Especially the ones that had no conflict. Can you add some tension or conflict? No? Can it be tossed?
 
9. Now take those new cards and write those scenes. Rearrange on the computer the scenes you shuffled around. Now print it out again and go through marking that sucker up with all the changes you marked on your notes. Don’t worry about making this the final draft. It’s just this draft.
 
10. Type all these changes in. Now, here’s where I deviate a little from what I’ve read about this stage. I found I was still overwhelmed and so what I did was buy a 3-ring binder (it eventually grew to 4 total) and some numbered tabs (plain white for me) and then I printed out my draft in segments: each scene separate. Then I placed each scene inside its own numbered tab. Not each chapter, each scene.
 
 
11.In the front of each scene I put a printout I’d made to give me an overview of that scene (weather, POV, day/time, etc) and of things I wanted to check for in that scene (goal, conflict, disaster, mood, inciting event, hook-prompt, what’s changed, what’s new, did I use all 5 senses, etc). Believe me, putting this in place helped me see right away when I sat down with that one scene (this is important, you are deciding to spend time with just that one scene. Put away all thoughts of the rest as far as work you have to do) what needed to be fixed. If I couldn’t fill some of it out, I knew I needed to work on that. It helped me make sure my scene beginning and end was interesting.
 
12. Mark up that scene with all your changes and then print out that one scene and place it in front of the old version.
 
13. Keep going with that one scene if you want, or move to the next. What I liked about this method was that it allowed me to have clean copies to work on for a scene without having to reprint out the whole draft. Or feeling like I had to get through the whole thing marked up before I could see a clean copy. There are some scenes in my notebook that have way more versions than some others.
 
14. Eventually I also made tabs for chapters and put them in.
 
 I’m about done with my third draft, and I’m now feeling like I have things too segmented. So I think I’ll now collapse to having it separated in my notebooks by chapter and make a new checklist for the chapter. And here I think I’ll add a polishing checklist to it, using some tips from 6 Steps for Your Final Edit. Will let you know how it works.
 
Anyway, this might not be for everyone. I thought I’d share in case my method might help someone else. For me it helped break things down into manageable chunks. I could sink my teeth into one scene and really get it tight. It prevented me from feeling overwhelmed. What happened too, for me, was to see it as a work in progress, like a sculpture. I knew I couldn’t chip things away in a first go and have it come out perfect. Or on the second go, or third. But I started seeing a shape emerge and that was exciting. Allow your second and third drafts to be stages, or like stepping-stones. A place you arrive at and can breathe and go okay, I’ve now gotten to this stage, now let’s see if I can take it further. It doesn’t have to be perfect right away! You don’t have to try to leap all the way at once. Take it in stages.
 
Anyone else have a trick to keep from being overwhelmed?
 
 
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3 Comments

  1. Angela, this is a great list. I love it! Very useful.

    Reply
  2. Great list! Thanks for the mention. Good luck with NaNoWriMo. Working on a WIP right now, but did sign up last year. Hope to next year.
    Lisa Hall-Wilson

    Reply
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