Okay, I’m lying.
It’s not exactly fun, but taking a mess of a first draft to the next level—a not so messy, more coherent second draft—can be somewhat painless. The trick is to keep your eye on the big picture. This means not bothering with line edits and stray typos, but really looking at your manuscript as a whole and stepping back to see what you have. Carolyn See says in her helpful book on writing, Making a Literary Life:
Revision is when you first get to recognize the distance between what you wanted to write, what you thought you were writing, and what you actually did write. That recognition often makes you want to throw up.
The old me would’ve stopped at that point and wallowed in nausea. I didn’t know what to do next and basically I’d just go through the manuscript once more and check the spelling then start sending it out. Needless to say, I wasn’t very successful. I kept hoping a kindly editor would pluck me out of the slush pile, fall in love with my flawed manuscript and tell me what to do. TELL ME WHAT TO DO. That was my motto. But really I didn’t think there was anything that needed to be done. And in any case, I didn’t feel like doing it. But there must have been a part of me that knew I still had a lot to learn. I kept writing and reading and going to conferences and talking to other writers about how they wrote.
Over the years I’ve cobbled together a process that seems to work for me (in the absence of that kindly editor. Whom I fear does not exist. Sigh.) What I figured out is that if I want my book to be better, I’m the one who’s going to have to make it that way. So for what it’s worth, here are some helpful tidbits I’ve picked up along the way, the things I wish I’d known ten years ago:
1. When you finish your first draft, print it off in a different font from the one you wrote it in, then put it away and don’t look at it or think about it for at least six weeks. Your mind needs a break and some distance from the made-up world it’s been living in for the last few months. Rest. Clean your house. Watch crappy TV. You earned it. Then write something else.
2. Read your book, looking for the BIG PICTURE. What is your story about? Someone said once that all stories come down to one thing: a character wants something and he can’t have it. Your main character goes somewhere, learns something, faces some challenge. What’s his conflict? Who is his adversary? The amazing editor Patti Gauch says that every book should have a driving question that will keep the reader turning the pages. Will Dorothy get home? Will Stanley in Louis Sachar’s novel Holes have to keep digging holes? Will Jaws eat the sheriff? Etc. You may have had an idea of your question, your big picture, when you started writing your book. Then again, maybe not. Or it may have shifted along the way. Here is the point where you need to find out if what you’ve written all hangs together. If it doesn’t, don’t despair. See number 3.
3. Number 3. Outline your book. (Yes, some writers do this before they start writing. I am not one of them.) But now is my time to outline, so I gather up a set of index cards and record one scene per card. I want to be able to see my entire book at a glance and not have to continually shuffle through 250+ pages. Then I lay the cards out in order on the floor. There. My book. (You still may want to vomit at this point, but resist the urge.)
4. Look at those scenes. Here is where you realize the strands that worked and the ones that didn’t, the bits that started off and petered out, the cool things that popped up at the end but were never properly introduced and developed. What is your book’s driving question? Does each scene contribute to it? Does each logically follow, one after the next? Or can they be shifted? Combined? Cut? Move the index cards around. Staple several together. Leave blank spaces where scenes are missing.
5. Make a new outline. I title mine (with a huge nod to Carolyn See): What I Have and What I Need. As I type a short description of each scene, I add the elements that need to be deleted and those that need to be added to contribute to the overall arc of the story. Now I’m ready to go back into my manuscript and scene by scene, make my changes.
6. Do that, and wah lah! You’ve got a not so messy, more coherent second draft. Congratulations. This is a good time to send your manuscript out to a few trusted first readers, good friends who won’t be afraid to tell you, kindly and lovingly, what’s working and what’s not. Their comments should give you the little push you need to make it through Draft Number Three.
7. Finally, it's out into the publishing world, and you can start the process all over again by writing another first draft.