Polishing The First Draft

Finishing the first draft of your novel is quite an accomplishment. You've managed to do what thousands of people only dream of doing. You have written a book! Congratulations! Enjoy the moment, because your real work is about to begin . . . .
Polishing the draft.

Bernard Malamud, Pulitzer Prize winning author of THE NATURAL says he writes each of his books at least three times: "Once to understand it, a second time to improve the prose, and a third time to compel it to say what it still must say."

Depending on the way that you work, you may do some of this polishing as you are writing the first draft - the polish-as-you-go method. Perhaps you prefer to "puke it all out and clean it up later" as someone (Jennifer Crusie?) has been known to say. If you're the type of writer who can produce a flawless draft without a speck of polish time, you'd better not say anything. The rest of us mere mortals may be tempted to stone you with our red editing pens. *G*

First, I think we should differentiate between polishing and revising. Polishing is, to me, those steps we take to make our manuscript tighter, clearer, and as close as we can get it to "production-ready" when we submit it to an editor or an agent (or a contest judge).

Polishing is removing the clutter of clumsy prose and passive voice, and making sure we have used strong images and effective sensory descriptions to put the reader firmly into the story. Check each page and scene for repetitive word usages and the dreaded "telling, not showing" adverbs. Make sure you've used multiple, vivid sensory descriptions to bring each scene to life.

Polishing is making continuity checks of each scene and chapter to make sure you haven't changed a character's eye or hair color (or name!) in mid-story, or that you haven't changed the weather or time of day without realizing it. Take inventory of your characters' world and make sure it's clearly and consistently conveyed to the reader through language, setting, and emotion.

Same goes for point of view. Whether you subscribe to the "one POV per scene/chapter" style or prefer to hop between heads at will, make sure your characters' motivations, actions, and reactions are consistent and believable. Make sure you are relaying their emotions truthfully according to their character, and not manipulating them to your author's will. The last thing you want is to turn otherwise engaging and sympathetic characters into case studies of multiple personality disorder. *G*

Polishing is also making sure each scene and/or chapter ends in a way that compels the reader to keep turning pages. Be relentless with your pacing! Don't allow any lazy text to remain in your final draft. If it doesn't move the plot forward or add to the conflict and/or sexual tension between your hero and heroine, cut it and don't look back.

Here are a few quick tips for good pacing:

  • Never end a chapter with someone going to sleep -- you may inadvertently invite your reader to do the same thing!
  • Make sure you have sexual tension in every chapter and/or scene. I don't mean to suggest that your hero should walk around in a constant state of arousal, but there should always be an undercurrent of awareness between your hero and heroine. When they are together, the sparks between them should practically ignite the page, and when they are apart, there should be a hum of anticipation in the air, a sense of longing or wanting. Wring the emotion out of every scene.
  • Be aware of the speed of your prose and adjust it according to the focus of the scene. If you have a tense action scene where you are building suspense or creating an air of danger, use shorter sentences to convey urgency. If you're trying to set a romantic mood, use longer, more descriptive phrases and allow your reader to slip, nice and easy, into the smoothness of the scene.
  • Make every word and paragraph and scene count. If it's just there as filler, if it doesn't pull its own weight, cut it. Remember the words of Elmore Leonard, writer of bullet-speed fiction like GET SHORTY. According to Leonard, he "tries to leave out the parts that people skip." Do that, and you'll have your reader spellbound from beginning to end.

Now, revision is something bigger than simple polish. Revision is about firming up characterization and making sure the plot makes sense all the way through, with no gaping holes or loose threads. It's about making sure the conflict between the hero and heroine ascends and tightens with every turning point in the relationship and/or the plot progression. You want your conflict to compound and get worse as the story unfolds; you don't want it to spiral out on a repetitive, single issue.

Revision also gives you the opportunity to ensure that your reader will care about your characters and want to spend several hours (or days) getting to know them and following them on their journey toward happy-ever-after. To do this, your characters have to become real to the reader. They have to live and breathe on the page, and that is probably one of the trickiest parts of writing compelling fiction.

One of the most effective ways of creating "real" characters is to show those characters' flaws and weaknesses as the story begins. Illustrate in bite-sized portions, through dialogue, behavior, action, or flashback (this last in moderation) how the character acquired those flaws and weaknesses. (Don't dump a truckload of backstory or introspection into a scene unless you want the pacing to grind to a halt. Dole it out easily, raising as many questions about your character in your reader's mind as you provide answers.) Establish his/her "imperfections," if you will, then show, through your story and the way your characters' move through it, how s/he will overcome those fears and weaknesses and flaws to earn true love and a happy ending. You can make heroes of the most damaged and flawed people, so long as the reader understands who that character is and how s/he got there. It's what that character does from page one forward that will win him/her a place in your reader's (or an editor's) heart.

I find that the best way to revise and/or polish is to set aside a day when I can sit down and read the entire manuscript all the way through without any lengthy interruptions. I like to save this read-through until the manuscript has cooled a while and I've forgotten most of the sweat and stress that went into creating it. Then I print out and read the entire thing, making notes in the margins and correcting minor things as I go, but I don't go back to the computer to revise until I've read all of it. This way, I can see pacing problems and catch a lot of the repetition in everything from prose, to conflict and characterization. I can also tell if I need additional scenes to explore character motivations or address areas where the story has blown off course.

Once those changes are made, I repeat the read-through process again, making any final tweaks or changes. Revision and polishing is actually my favorite part of the creative process because it's here that the story really comes into its own. Once that's done, it's off to my editor, and, hopefully, soon on its way to you!