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Making Sense of First Draft Mess

This last week I dove back into the novel I worked on during National Novel Writing Month. While I had a successful NaNoWriMo in 2017, I also took a helter-skelter approach to putting words on the page. I jumped around in my outline when I ran out of steam. I allowed new, unplanned characters to appear and take my attention. I discovered solutions to plot problems and simply picked up the threads as if I had already written the scenes—or I wrote a divergent scene that covered those solutions, while still leaving the first scene in place (essentially writing an alternative universe, if you’re playing along from a sci-fi angle). All of that is great for writing 50,000 words, but not as good for writing a cohesive novel.

After a comfortable break—and wrapping another project—I’m ready to tackle this mess, and thought it was a good time to talk about how I start a revision.

Make a Schedule

The first task is to assess how much I have to read, and then make a schedule. While I’d like to finish the assessment pass in two weeks, I have a lot to read and some other obligations this month, so I’ve stretched my schedule to finish by the end of February.

I considered dividing the number of scenes or number of words by the number of days, but that can lead to some awkward splits and I’d rather make sure I’m comparing multiple options for the same scene on the same day. Any scenes not divided into chapters (which is most of them), I grouped by related content and then divided those into reasonable chunks. I also took my work and social calendar into account, so I wasn’t scheduling too much on a day when I was otherwise busy. At the end of this process I had a calendar and knew exactly what I should be working on each day.

Read the Draft

Once I’m ready to start reading, I gather my materials:

  • My manuscript (on the computer, currently)
  • A notebook
  • A pen
  • Highlighters

I set up my notebook with the working title of the manuscript, date, and the title of the first scene. Each new section of my notes starts with the title of the scene. Right now the scene titles are a letter for the first name of the POV character and a few words describing what happens. My first scene is “A: Boarding” because it’s when Alex boards the pirate ship.

This assessment pass is strictly to review ideas, figure out what’s missing from the plot, and choose which of those divergent paths I like best, so a lot of my notes are questions. Sometimes those questions are about when information is revealed (and I may find the answer in a later scene). Sometimes those questions are about research or world building that I need to develop. Generally most of my notes center around the plot and character relationships. I also jot down the existing character, setting, and world details, so I can start refining those aspects to later create consistency.

Within each section I take notes roughly in chronological order. I try to group character and setting details together, which may mean that I leave a few blank lines after a character introduction or when we enter a new setting, just in case I wrote some other pertinent details later in the scene.

At the end of each scene I write a one or two sentence summary. This summary should include the most important thing about the scene (from a plot and/or character standpoint) and will later act as a guide to help me figure out if the scene is important enough to make it to the next draft and if it’s in the correct place.

As a final step, I highlight headings so I can reference information later—characters are pink, world building and setting is blue, and plot is yellow. I use green to mark scenes I want to keep or elements in scrapped scenes I want to include in the next draft.

Assess the Draft

After I’ve finished the entire manuscript, I review my notes on what I’ve already written to figure out what adjustments need to be made to my outline, what scenes still need to be written, and what scenes belong in the trash file (I never delete my work while I’m drafting—I never know when I might want to return to an idea or description). By the time I’ve done that review of my notes, I should be ready to start writing again! We’ll find out at the end of February.

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