If you’ve yet to finish your first draft you should start here.
There are two phases and five steps to an effective and professional redraft, but before you get even that far there’s one thing that you must do. Well, actually a plethora of things you could do and one thing you shouldn’t; you need to do something other than work on your novel.
The perks of being a couch potato
For a good month or two after you finish your first draft you need to get involved in day to day (read hear non-writerly) life. Socialise, read, walk, explore, and otherwise get away from that thick wad of paper in your proverbial desk drawer.
The aim here is to cleanse your mental palette so that you can come back to your novel unclouded and ready to see what you actually wrote, as opposed to what you thought you wrote. Not only will you be able to redraft more easily, but in the interim you’ll likely get more sleep, eat better, make up for the vitamin D deficiency you’re working on, and maybe even lose some of that writers butt that’s been forming (trust me it comes to us all).
Phase One; before the red pen comes out
- Read it like you bought it; before you can even think about getting that red pen out you need to get into a consumer mind-set. Going on the assumption that you fixed the main issues with your manuscript before letting it rest the time has now come to think about its appeal, rather than structural integrity (though you should keep an eye out for any plot holes). Ask yourself some very basic questions as you go: if you had bought this would you feel you got your monies worth? Is it easy to read? Does the concept appeal to you overall? If the answer to any of these is no then you’ve got a fair amount of work on your hands, but you should be glad you caught the issues now. Make a note of any issues you feel need resolution.
- Re-See your Novel; when it comes to redrafting your novel you need to, as Jack Hodgins says, re-see your novel. This is, unlike re-reading, not about seeing your novel as it is now, but about looking at all the elements that make it up, and asking how they work individually. Even a well structured, well written novel will have dead weight in its first form, and this process of “re-seeing” helps to identify them. Break up your key scenes onto index cards (I really like these ones because they’re cost effective and you can colour code scenes) and go through them all asking three simple questions. 1) does the scene contribute to the novel? 2) Does the scene contribute positively (does it help or hurt the atmosphere/theme you’re going for)?, and 3) could the scene be summed up in less than three sentences. The third point in particular is important; if you could sum up the scene with some dialogue or quick description then it should probably be dropped because it’s not working hard enough for its page space. The overall aim should be to make your novel lean.
Phase Two; editing and rewriting
- Experiment; very often something can feel ‘off’ about the first draft of a novel, and there are very few ways to reliably figure out what or why. One method that I find works very well, however, is to experiment with the progression. Much like re-seeing this is about what your novel could be rather than what it is. You can use documents on something like Scrivener, or notepads, but I personally used giant post-it pads to note key scenes and progression notes on (I use these ones because they use environmentally friendly glue, but there are a few options). Shift them around to see how different progressions could change the flow and impact of your story.
- Make the changes; i’d recommend that you keep a document with the original draft and make changes in a new version. Take the time to implement the changes properly; it might seem like a lot of work for something that might not stick, but the process of changing the manuscript will often throw up new ideas, too.
- Evaluate; re-reading the manuscript after you make such changes should wait for at least a few days, but not much longer; you want to remember the way it was before well enough to decide which version is better. In all likelihood you will keep some changes and scrap others.
Post-Script; rinse, repeat, and know when to stop.
The most obvious next step is to repeat the overall process once, or maybe even twice, but the real trick is in knowing when to stop rewriting because there’s only so much you can edit before it’s a whole new novel.
Worse still over-editing (yes this is possible) can erase your unique voice, make you doubt what you originally thought was fine, and stagnate your progress. There is no hard and fast rule as to how many times this should or can be done, but first and foremost I’d say stop when you stop finding structural problems and plot holes. After your novel is structurally sound and ideologically consistent just start proofreading, because there has to come a time when you have faith in your work.