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.
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
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
- 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
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
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!