I don’t believe in writing absolute garbage just to have words on the page, but I also don’t believe in editing while writing a first draft. I’ll write, “Ian smelled great” in the first draft, and by the final draft it’ll be, “I closed my eyes and breathed in Ian’s scent of fabric softener and lumber. Only the wife of a carpenter would find the smell of wood sexy.” The short version is fine for a first draft, and it avoids me sitting there staring at the screen or page trying to find the perfect words. The first draft isn’t about perfect words. It’s about words that do the job.
So how do you get from “Ian smelled great” to the more detailed lines? Here’s how I do it.
This picture shows a page from one of my current projects, which I plan to release in early 2011. The main character, Mary, has just been turned down for her dream chef job and is now camping out on the restaurant’s doorstep until the owner Kegan agrees to hire her. On this particular page, Mary goes to a nearby coffee shop and is then confronted by one of Kegan’s staff members.
Note that I am working on a print-out, double-spaced and single-sided, of the manuscript. It might seem like a waste of paper, but take a look at how many notes I’ve added (and this is an average page, not one with unusually high changes). Trying to squish those into tiny margins would make the process impossible.
I use my own code to mark up the pages. There’s a “No P” scrawled about halfway down, which means that I don’t want a new paragraph there, and “New P” in the second last paragraph where I do want one. There are official proofreading markings out there, but I find them too hard to remember. These are just for me so I can use whatever I want.
Before going through the book scene-by-scene, I like to read the entire book top to bottom. I do my best not to fiddle with or peek at the manuscript between revisions, so this read brings it back to my mind and also lets me get an overview of what’s really on the page instead of what I think I’ve written. It’s amazing how different those two can be.
After that, I start with the first scene and read it sentence by sentence. At least, I try to. In practice I bounce around the page, making a correction in sentence five and then going back to change the change when I hit sentence eight. But I do give each sentence my full attention at least once.
I’m watching for emotions and physical sensations and people’s movement in space. I’m making sure that I haven’t over-complicated a situation. (In the first draft I had Mary carrying a cushion around so she didn’t have to sit on the cold concrete in the rain. I removed it because it didn’t add anything but an unnecessary prop.)
I’m also analyzing how I’ve put the words together: if I repeat words or re-use a structure, I want to be sure I’ve done it intentionally. (I learned so much about this from Margie Lawson’s “Deep EDITS” online course; while I don’t use her actual editing technique I still refer to my notes for the rhetorical devices that can add such depth and interest to writing.)
Be especially vigilant in the early scenes. Finding a character’s voice can take a while, and I for one tend to do the written equivalent of running around in circles yelling, “Hey, where are you?” at the beginning of a book, which results in a lot of unnecessary elements.
When I’ve finished a scene, I type it in right away. (Take another look at the notes above. If I left it until I’d finished the whole book, I’d have no idea what I was trying to do!) I don’t type mindlessly, though. I read as I go and pay careful attention, and often change a word here or there as I enter the corrections.
After the typing, I re-read the scene, out loud if I can and in my head if I can’t, to make sure it all flows, and then it’s on to the next.
I won’t bore you with the second draft of the entire page shown above, but I will give you the before-and-after versions of the last few paragraphs.
“He’s said it himself and it didn’t make any difference.”
She squatted down in front of me. “I’ve worked for Kegan since he opened Steel, longer than anyone else here. So listen up. What you’re doing is pointless. If you think he’s going to feel bad because you look so pathetic–”
“I don’t think that.”
I wouldn’t have expected him to do such a thing. “He’s said it himself and it didn’t make any difference. Why does he think sending you would work better?”
She didn’t bother answering. “I’ve worked for Kegan since he opened Steel, longer than anyone else here. So listen up. What you’re doing is pointless. He’ll never hire you. He said as much yesterday when we asked why you were out here.”
My stomach twisted at this revelation. He really didn’t plan to hire me if he’d told his staff. But she’d probably pass along whatever response I gave, so I made myself smile and say, “We’ll see.”
She rolled her eyes. “If you think he’s going to feel bad because you look so pathetic–”
“I don’t think that.”
You can see that I did make additional changes as I typed in the corrections, adding a few short sentences and reorganizing some words. I view the typing stage as one more chance to make the book shine.
This book’s edit took me about seven weeks (I work Monday-Friday) and I did about ten pages a day. It’s tiring, and occasionally frustrating when the right word just won’t come to mind, but it’s important. This is a tough industry, and you don’t want to send out your book with any rough edges that might bother agents and editors. If you choose to self-publish instead, you still need a thoroughly edited book written to the highest standard you can reach, because readers deserve that. Put in the time and you’ll be amazed at how wonderful your book can be!