From First Draft to Last in One Cycle
2002, By Holly Lisle
The first draft of your novel is finished. Now, according to the recommendations of any number of
writing books, pundits, and writers who go through this themselves, you’re in
for five or ten or more rounds of revision, in which you’ll polish your work
until it is a gleaming, perfect pearl ... and in which process you’ll dither
for months or years.
You can do that if you want. But
you don’t have to. It isn’t the
way I work. I find a lot of truth
in the adage, “If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, how are
you ever going to find time to fix it later?”
Which is not to say that my first drafts are perfect – far from it.
My first drafts suffer from the same little shop of horrors as everyone
else’s: poor plotting, crappy characterization, logic leaps, redundancy,
aimless wandering, bad writing, worse writing, and utterly execrable writing.
But my first revision is my last revision. If you’d like to cut years off the process of revising,
I’ll be happy to show you how.
For the process of One-Pass Revision, you’ll need the following
A printed copy of your manuscript
(Do NOT attempt to do this while working from your word processor and screen.
It simply won’t work.)
A cheap spiral-bound 8½” by
A couple of smooth-writing pens.
Don’t waste time with pencils – erasers are not your friend when
you’re doing this
A table where you have room to
stack your manuscript into three piles and have the spiral-bound notebook open
at the same time
Nerves Of Steel™ (available from
Walgreen’s, Target, and other national chains)
(Yes, that’s a joke)
This first part can be as grueling as the whole rest of the revision if
you haven’t already thought about it, but it’s essential.
(I do it before I start writing the book, so all I have to do is copy it
over from previous notes – for your next novel, you might want to consider
this approach if you haven’t already.)
THE PROCESS, PART ONE -- DISCOVERY
Start with the spiral-bound notebook.
down your theme in fifteen words or less. Some
of my regular themes are Love Conquers Evil, God Is A Good Guy with Bad PR,
Self-Sacrifice Is the Highest Form of Love, and The Individual Can Change the
World. (If you’re still not sure
what a theme is, here’s an article to help sort things out: Finding Your Theme
you have sub-themes and know what they are, write them down too.
I usually have one theme and from three to six sub-themes, depending on
the length and complexity of the project. You
may have more or less.
down what the book is about in twenty-five words or less.
This is not as impossible as it sounds – the micro-summary for the
375,000 word Secret Text Trilogy was “Werewolf Romeo and Juliet versus
Renaissance Godfather in the jungle, with magic.”
down a one-line story arc for the book’s main character.
The story arc for Kait
Galweigh in the Secret Text Trilogy is “Kait battles her own nature, magic,
her family’s enemies, and resurrected wizards from her world’s past, finds
unlikely love, and at terrible cost, saves her world.
down the main characters, and a paragraph of no more than about 250 words
describing the story, sort of like the blurb on the back of a paperback.
This is not the easiest process to go through, but if you’re going to
nail the revision in one shot, you have to have each of these bits of
information clearly in mind going in. If
you don’t know where you’re going and what you hope to accomplish by the
time you’re done, how will you know what you need to fix?
Nothing will guarantee that you’ll wander aimlessly in revision hell
faster than this.
And let’s debunk one bit of writer myth while we’re here:
Doing a seventeenth revision on a project does not make a writer an
artist or move him above the writer hoi polloi any more than
dressing entirely in black or wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches
or big, black drover coats. These
are all affectations, and smack of dilettantism.
Real writers, and real artists, finish books and move on to the next
THE PROCESS – PART TWO: THE MANUSCRIPT
Okay, the stuff above was tough if you hadn’t thought about it before.
But this next bit is rugged no matter how much thought you’ve given it.
We’re going to pull out your manuscript and make it bleed.
So where do you start? You
start with a mandatory scene check. Is
your manuscript written in scenes?
A scene is a cohesive block without which the novel will not stand,
encompassing everything that a novel has to have, but in miniature.
A scene has a start and a finish, characters and dialogue, engages at
least one and sometimes all five senses, and offers conflict and change.
It takes place in one time and in one place.
If the time or the place changes, you’re in a new scene.
A scene is usually written from only one point of view.
(If you’re still not sure what a scene is or if your novel is divided
into scenes, check out Scene-Creation
Workshop: Writing Scenes that Move Your Story Forward – http://www.hollylisle.com/FM/Workshops/scene-workshop.html)
You may have done one scene per chapter, which I have done on occasion.
You may have several scenes per chapter.
Your scenes may be as short as a paragraph, or as long as twenty or
thirty pages. However, time and
place will not change within the scene.
You’re going to run through your novel scene by scene and ask yourself
the following questions:
this scene belong in the book?
That is, does it address your theme or one of your sub-themes, contain
action, conflict, and change, develop one or more of your characters, and move
your story forward?
If the scene just tells the reader about your world or its history, or lacks
characters, conflict, and change, put a note in your spiral-bound notebook
telling yourself which important points of worldbuilding you’re cutting, and
draw a big X through the entire scene.
If the scene involves characters who have nothing to do with the main story of
the book (walk-on characters who got carried away and grabbed lines, and who are
never seen again, for example), draw a big X across the entire scene.
Even if the scene involves your two main characters, but they’re carrying out
action that has nothing to do with what your story is about, does not develop
them as characters, and does not move the main story conflict or address any of
the sub-themes, cross the whole thing out.
Does this seem brutal? It is.
But the biggest thing you can do to help your story is to make sure each
scene is involved in telling your story.
So you’ve decided the scene belongs in the book.
What do you look for next?
the scene a story in miniature?
Does it contain characters, conflict, action, change, dialogue, setting,
and involvement of the reader’s senses? Does
it have a beginning, a point where things change, and a clear ending?
Is it interesting and entertaining?
Does it move the story forward? It
must do and be all of these things. If
it’s missing elements (like dialogue, or setting, or tastes, smells, sights,
sounds, and textures), figure out how you can add them.
Start writing in changes in the margins.
Carry them around to the back of the page, and onto additional pages if
is the conflict of the scene? Is
it the argument between lovers, where one discovers the other has been cheating?
Is it the discovery of the body in the garden and the realization that
one of the other Queens is a murderer? Whatever
the conflict in the scene, make sure you develop it well.
Weed out things that don’t relate to it, or that weaken its impact.
End the scene at the point where the conflict is either made worse, or
resolved in some fashion. Cut any material that goes on after this point -- save
it to insert in a later if it's truly important.
the scene contain elements that no longer fit the story?
This happens to me all the
time. I think I’m writing one
kind of book when I start, but find that it has become something completely
different by the time I finish it. I’ll
have characters and story lines at the beginning that just flat vanish by the
end – and things at the end that I promised myself I’d make fit in the
beginning. Time to fix all of
Go over to your spiral-bound notebook, and write
in details about threads you’ve killed.
Just a line to remind yourself, like: “Cut all references to the Houbar
Council – eliminate Houbar Council scenes.”
Make notes to yourself about new
directions you took. Like:
“Find places early on to mention King Purdue and his Queenly Harem. Add a complete scene where Queen Hotibel is murdered.
Make notes about characters you’ve
condensed or eliminated. Like:
“The Blue Guy, Fred the Barber, and Hangin’ John have all become
Hangin’ John. Combine them, and
correct all references.”
Offer yourself suggestions about the
evolution of your story and theme. It’s entirely possible to discover at
the end of the book that it isn’t about what you thought it was about when you
started it. So when you realize
this, give yourself a couple of notes to remind you of what your early scenes
are going to need. Like:
“Introduce the first potential for a romance when Hangin’ John and Queen
Bridget meet at the scene of the murder.”
Or, “Add spiritual elements and internal conflict regarding his faith
each time Hangin’ John is forced to consider his vows of celibacy.”
the scene well-written?
Can you find words that repeat, grammatical and spelling errors, clichés,
stilted dialogue, endless description? At
any point do you get drowsy reading what you’ve written?
Are you ever tempted to skim?
the scene fit logically in time and space?
That is, if the previous scene takes place on Thursday at noon, and the
following scene takes place on Friday at noon, and all three scenes involve the
same character, does your current scene take place at some time between Thursday
noon and Friday noon and in a location your character could logically inhabit in
the time available?
And just a note for those of you writing books from multiple points of view.
You’re not immune from this time-and-place hunt.
You just have a harder job – you have to track all of your characters
from each scene they occupy to the next, and make sure they aren’t in two
places at the same time, or in two places they couldn’t get from and to in two
sequential scenes, and that scenes that take place in one location are in synch
with scenes that take place in another location.
You can make yourself really crazy with this.
All I can suggest, after more than twenty books and a whole lot of
character tracking, is this: Take good notes in your spiral-bound notebook, and
hope for the best.
your scene full of weak words?
How many times have you used is,
was, or were?
How many times have you used very?
How many times have you fallen prey to passive voice?
How many adjectives and adverbs can you find?
Eliminate forms of the verb “to be” wherever you find them, rewriting
the sentence with a stronger verb. “It
was raining,” becomes “The rain slashed down, tearing up the gardens and
ripping leaves from the trees.” “He
was tall,” becomes “She looked up at him.
And up. And up.”
the word-count right?
Currently, the most salable length for non-series genre novels for adults
is between 90,000 and 120,000 words. Novels
written for specific lines (e.g., Harlequin Presents, Silhouette Intimate
Moments, Star Trek, Star Wars, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer) have exacting word
length requirements that absolutely must be met in order for you to make the
sale. If your novel is outside of
salable limits by being too short, look for ways to add conflict, to introduce
secondary characters and an additional story line, or to deepen characters’
relationships with each other. Don’t
try to pad a story out with description!
Padding reads like padding, and will be the kiss of death for any
hoped-for sale. You have to add
real story to make the book worth the extra pages and the reader’s money.
If your book is too long, don’t try to convince yourself that yours is
the one 450,000 word monster that will knock publishers or agents on their
asses. First, look for things to
cut. Use look for ways to condense.
Cut hard. When it’s a
tight as you can make it, give it a rest, and then come back and cut some more.
Go through every page and every scene in the manuscript with this same
bloody pen. Refer to your notebook
constantly, making sure that you correct your mistakes, add in all the cool
things the book needs to make it great, tie up all your lose ends, and add
conflict to every single page.
You can safely eliminate almost all greetings and goodbyes in
conversation, every instance where the character is driving and thinking, or
sipping tea and thinking, or taking a shower in thinking.
You can skip the parts where characters are getting from point A to point
B if they aren’t engaged in pitched battle or serious trouble of some sort at
the same time. Mostly you can
eliminate waking-up and going to bed routines.
You want to give the impression of reality and of a life without actually
showing the whole thing. Think of
your novel as “A Life: The Good Parts Version.” All the sex and violence, passion and struggle.
None of the teeth-brushing.
Work the manuscript in three piles.
The pile you’re reading, the pile with pages that have writing on them,
and the pile with pages that don’t.
THE PROCESS – PART THREE: TYPE-IN
And then ....
From front to back, your manuscript looks like it’s been savaged by
rutting weasels. You’ve ripped
out old scenes, hand-written new scenes on the back of the dead scenes, crammed
dialogue in between scratched out lines of description, written little notes to
yourself about changes you still want to make when you type everything in.
Your final clean pages to scribbled on pages ratio is probably 1:2 or
1:3, or even 1:4.
Start with the first page that bears your scribbles, start with the first
line of corrections, open up your document, and start typing.
You aren’t going to look at the clean pages again -- if you’d like to
make a bit of space on your desk, you can throw them away.
(If you’re thinking, “But what if those pages still need work?” you
weren’t hard enough on yourself first time through. Stop! Don’t
type a letter until you’re confident that your clean pages are. Go back through the book and give it what it really needs. Being
gentle with yourself the first time through just means there’ll be a second
time. And a third. And who needs that?)
As you type in your corrections, you may have improved wording ideas.
Go with them. You may think
of wittier, more perfect dialogue. Swap
it out. You may finally hit the
perfect description of the character, the locale, or some other goodie. Terrific. Use
You will probably also have completely new plot ideas, have great ideas
for new characters who could really shine, and complications that could just
change everything. Don’t indulge
yourself by putting them in this book. Write
them down on a separate piece of paper and save them for the next book.
The point of a novel revision is to finish
this book. I guarantee you that
as long as you’re willing to keep piddling around with the same manuscript,
you’ll find ways to make it different. You
don’t want to make it different. You
just want to make it as good as it can possibly be, and then get it out the
Why? Because the definition
of a writing career is: Write a book. Write
another book. Write another book.
Nowhere in that description is included: Take one story and make it a
monument to every idea you ever had or ever will.
AND A SUM-UP
Does one-pass revision sound like a huge amount of work?
It is. Does it sound
frustrating? It can be.
It can also be exciting, and a lot of fun, and you can walk away from it
with some very good books. It’s
the only revision method I use. Using
this method, I can revise a 125,000 word novel in about two weeks.
I’ve never done more than one pre-submission revision, and usually only
one, and never more than two, post-editor revisions.
My post-editing revisions are
Go into the process with the determination to make the book really good
-- as good as it can be. Give it
your all, get it done, and then move on, secure in the knowledge that you have
made it the best it can be. And
that your next book will be even better. Your
career lies in writing a book, and writing another book, and writing a book