You spend years pouring out heart and soul and the first bit of advice many new writers hear is: “don’t worry about it, your first draft is always crap.” I strongly disagree. The mere fact you have completed the first draft should let you know you’re a winner. I’ve heard it said that 80% of people living in America want to write a book. That means 260 million people who want the same thing you do. But how many people follow through? Not many. How many people start their book but never finish? Too many. So, if you have a rough draft, take a moment and celebrate… you’ve done something millions of people have never done.
A first draft is exactly what it sounds like, the FIRST step, not the last. If you are 200 pounds overweight, you don’t expect to walk into a gym and come out healthy the next day. Congratulations, you’ve walked in the front door. Now what? Below are five basic steps to help you tighten that novel and get it into shape.
Step 1 – Cut the fat. The whole point of a rough draft is to get all your ideas out, so you can make the best story possible. If I write 70,000 words on the first draft I expect to lose 10,000 words in the editing process. Your results may vary, but the point to remember is never to use six words when three words will do.
Step 2 – Watch your grammar. Very few people can write like Mark Twain or William Shakespeare. Maybe after you have two or three hundred stories under your belt you can ignore the rules… but I doubt it. Yes, this means more work, but it’s not something you can skip just because it’s not fun anymore. Check spelling, punctuation, run on sentences, word tense and then do it again.
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Step 3 – Show don’t tell. Why does everybody keep saying show don’t tell? Maybe because we keep telling the story. You are not a reporter, you are not a teller of tales… you are a creator of worlds. As Anton Chekhov once said:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
But remember, don’t throw in fancy phrases and pretend you are showing the reader something new.
Step 4 – Strong dialogue. Not every piece of dialogue must have a dialogue tag. By the time you repeat “He said” or “She said” ten times on the page, the reader gets bored. On the other hand, if you use too many different tags, you start to forget step 3 (show don’t tell.) My solution is simple, whenever possible DON’T use a tag. Sure, if you have multiple characters you don’t always have that choice, but the least amount of tags used, the better. Give your character a personality so the reader never has to guess who said what.
Step 5 – Keep it simple. The first time I tried NaNoWriMo (writing 50,000 words in 30 days) I failed miserably. I was overwhelmed, it was more than I could process. Many first-time writers do the same thing to their readers. They get on a role, and a few hours later, they have ten pages of grandma going to the store. This applies to backstories, secondary characters, and overly elaborate descriptions. When in doubt, cut it out. If it doesn’t move the story forward, it brings it down. You must decide which words are the most important.
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If you’ve never been in a gym before you don’t start by doing 200-pound leg squats and getting on a treadmill for five miles a day. Just like your writing, you start at the beginning and work your way up. The steps above are not going to make your work look like Mr. Universe overnight, but this is where you start to make a difference. Repetition is key. You keep writing, keep editing, and practice. Do this, and one day… you’re no longer dreaming about writing that great American novel… you’re finishing it.