Friday, August 8, 2014

How to Edit As You Write Your First Draft

Roseanna M. White pens her novels under the Betsy Ross flag hanging above her desk, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When she isn’t homeschooling her small kids and writing fiction, she’s editing it for WhiteFire Publishing or reviewing it for the Christian Review of Books, both of which she co-founded with her husband.

~*~

Many many moons ago, Stephanie asked me to guest post on Go Teen Writers to talk about something she knows nothing about: editing as you go, rather than doing it in drafts. You can view the original post here, but as it's been three years since I wrote that one, Stephanie thought we might be due for another dose of Those Who Can't Write in Drafts.

I'm not sure what the percentage is of people who write multiple drafts versus people who edit as they go, but I always felt like I was in the minority, doing it as I do it. That somehow I wasn't doing it right by not writing a rough first draft and then doing serious revising and editing. But over the years, I've come to understand that, as with most things in writing, there isn't right and wrong, just what works for each writer. 

For me, writing rough first drafts doesn't work. My brain is wired in a very linear way, and my stories evolve in a very linear fashion. The next scene always builds on what just came before it. I am constantly referencing earlier lines and phrases, weaving in those little threads, and that's what gives me the impetus to keep going. In Circle of Spies, for instance, in the first scene, there's an emphasis on color versus black and gray--something that comes up a lot in the book, and which even, coincidentally, worked its way into the cover.

I almost always reread what I wrote the day before when I sit down to start a new day--especially when I begin at 5:30 in the morning and need fifteen or twenty minutes to let my brain warm up before those creative juices will flow. This help me remember all those little pieces I want to keep working in, keeps it all fresh. That's crucial for me.

My writing process goes something like this:

I know when I sit down to write a book what the main plot points will be, but it takes me a few chapters to really get to know my characters and hit upon their voice. Once I do that, I inevitably go back and tweak those first chapters to reflect what I've arrived at by chapter four or five. It only takes a few minutes, usually, but it helps me to know that I'm square. And it gives me those phrases and details to keep weaving in.

As I write, I go with the groove of it until I hit a snag, and then I stop. I need to let the knot untangle--I know a lot of people leave their computers then, get up for a walk, do the dishes, feed the dog, whatever. I sometimes resort to that, but not always, especially if I'm just searching for the right way to say something. In those times, I switch my brain to second gear--editing gear.

According to the fantabulous Karen Ball (editor who discovered Francine Rivers and Karen Kingsbury--and now my agent), editing and writing use two completely different parts of the brain. I wasn't so sure at first, but I decided that makes a lot of sense when I view my gear-shifting. When I'm stuck in the creative process, I turn to editing. By rereading the pages or paragraphs I just wrote, the creative part gets to take a break. It gets to rest. And often that's all it takes for the right words to filter in.

When I reach bigger snags in the story, plot snags, I again take a break. I rarely try to force the words, unless I'm under a tight deadline. Instead, I'll go back and do a complete reread. For me, this involves editing. Fiddling. Perfecting phrases, catching inconsistencies. And almost always, it involves remembering where I was going with certain plot threads, which gives me the direction I need to keep writing.

Occasionally I realize as I write that changes will have to be made, but I don't want to lose the steam I've got going. In those cases, I make a note of what I want to do and save it for the end. Sometimes it's changing a character's name or adding in motivation, sometimes it's deleting a POV that ended up superfluous. 

After I finish a manuscript, I usually let it sit for a few days and just simmer. I debate my ending--I used to always rush my endings and would have to rewrite them a time or three. These days, I've gotten better at that, but there are still many times when I've forgotten an element or not quite drawn it together like I need to. The missing parts usually surface in a day or two, so I go back and plug those in.

At that point, I do a complete, quick reread. Again, this will involve catching errors and smoothing phrases. I've learned over the years to not be lazy when it comes to those niggles of uncertainty--if a phrase or sentence or paragraph feels a little weird, I used to just ignore it. But then critique partners or edits would always ding me for those, so I decided I should trust my instincts. I rework anything that doesn't feel right.

Especially when in costume at a creepy castle ruin
with suspicious birds flocking above your head.
You may also want to consider removing blindfolds...
After that, I take time off from the manuscript. Sometimes I'll be sending chunks to my critique partners as I write, but if not, then this is where I send it off for critique. Once I get that feedback from my awesome friends, I'll input all the changes I agree with, which sometimes involves more revisions and the occasional rewrite of certain parts. I also often must, at this stage, cut words. I tend toward long-winded, and my target word count often gets left in the dust--and my publishers can't always be lenient about that. So if I have to trim, I do it at this stage. Sometimes I can just cut a few scenes, but often it's a line-by-line, excruciating process.

Once that's done, I need to do one more final read-through before I turn it in. Usually this is just typo-catching, but when I'm reading more slowly, I tend to note smaller inconsistencies that I take care of. I might tweak early motivation again, or adjust how something in the second half jives with the first. Basically, I'm making sure it's as squeaky-clean as I can get it. Then I turn it in to my editor.

A Soft Breath of Windcoming November 2014 -
the one set in A.D. 58, not the one
with hollandaise sauce ;-)

I'll have done most of my research either before I begin or in the first few weeks of writing, so I don't have to stop to do major searching. There are always small questions to look up, most of which I'll check on as I'm writing so I can plug in the answers and keep steaming ahead. Occasionally I'll just insert a # and look it up later. In my last MS, I had a French chef blustering, "You interrupt me for coffee, when I am making #, the most temperamental sauce there is?" I knew there had to be a temperamental sauce, but I also knew I didn't have to stop then and there to find it, because it wasn't going to effect what came next. [And it's hollandaise, by the way. ;-)] Other times I really do have to stop and see whether scissors existed in A.D. 58, because it will effect how my physician character performs his tasks throughout the scene. So I'll stop then to look it up.

In general, I write a clean first draft, so I don't have to spend a ton of time on revisions. But I write a clean first draft because I pay a lot of attention to what I just wrote and go back for frequent rereads. For me, this is what works. It's what allows me to keep the creative juices flowing. I don't agonize over every phrase and scene--if I did, then a draft system would probably be necessary to get me over it. 

For some, like Stephanie, it's liberating to write a rough first draft, knowing you can fix it. For some, like me, you just can't keep writing until you feel pretty happy with what you've already put down. Both are great, so long as you figure out what allows you to get to The End...and so long as you know where and when you need to work. No matter which method you use, you're going to be putting out the same amount of effort--it's just a matter of whether you do it all at once or in stages. Don't ever think you have to do it like someone else does! 
photo credit: AlicePopkorn via photopin cc

40 comments:

  1. This is me! I can't go on until what's behind is fixed. Often, it is one sentence that could be tweaked to foreshadow, or reveal something deep about a character. Often, I write a sentence, then decide I have to plant that idea back at page fifteen.
    Hollandaise sauce--my mum messed it up just this Tuesday. It thickened too much.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL on the sauce. And yes, exactly! In my last MS I had to go back and insert a ring (as in, jewelry) into a bunch of different scenes so that I could use it in the end. =)

      Delete
  2. I usually write full steam ahead without looking back at what I wrote before. However, now that you explain that you edit your draft when you get stuck in your writing, I think I just might try this method out. Editing when you're stuck writing wise is a great idea because at least you're still making your story better, even if you can't figure out what to write next. Thanks so much for this post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad I could give you an idea! For some, this method will hang them up, but if it can help...why not? =)

      Delete
  3. I'm the complete opposite. If I see that the sentence I just wrote is terrible, I'm like, "Oh whatever, it will still be there when I come back to it a couple weeks later." If there was something really big I forgot that I realize later I just write it down in a notebook or put a comment in my document to look at later.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This was super helpful. For me, there is such a weaving process from beginning to end of the story that finishing the draft and then changing something near the beginning of the book means EVERYTHING after that needs to be tweaked accordingly, which is frustrating. Also I appreciate the encouragement to change or at least make a note when I see something that seems awkward to me (so I can come back to it). Thank you for posting!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's always nice to know you're not alone, isn't it? ;-) And yes, that's how it is for me too!

      Delete
  5. I really enjoyed this post, thank you for stopping by! :) The last draft I wrote, I tried to just write it messily because I knew I could come back to it, but it turned out such a mess I don't feel like working on it. I think I must at least be partly like you. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL--yeah, I often feel the same way. The very idea of rewriting makes me groan and think, "But I've got this shiny new idea over HERE..." ;-)

      Delete
  6. Thank you so much for the post! I really enjoyed it. :) This is very similar to what I do with my first draft! My brain - or editing mode or something ;) - doesn't let me write rough first drafts. :) I'm always going back and tweaking things, changing a sentence here and there, etc., etc. And I tend to be very long-winded too! I'm in the third draft of edits for my novel, and I've been having to cut a lot of words - so yeah, I love description a little too much. ;)
    Thanks again for the post!! Oh, and I LOVE your covers!! :) I think they're so beautiful. :D

    Best wishes for your writing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And that's so neat and awesome that Karen Ball's your agent! :D

      Delete
    2. I somehow missed your comment yesterday, sorry. But thank you on the covers! And it sounds like we're very similar in our methodology. =)

      And yes, Karen's really awesome. Also very well known in the industry--it's always good when editors and industry pros gasp in awe at your agent's name, LOL.

      Delete
  7. Thank you for writing this! I'm currently editing the first draft of one of my first novels, so this is gonna be very helpful! :D

    Those COVERS. They are gorgeous. I just wanna, like, marry them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL. I can take no credit for Circle of Spies (though I adore it! It's my favorite of the whole series!), but I designed the cover for A Soft Breath of Wind, so thanks. =)

      Delete
    2. A Soft Breath of Wind was my favorite. :)

      Delete
  8. Awesome post! This was perfect for me to read today. I'm definitely like you--I do not do well with rough drafts. I'm constantly tweaking sentences I just wrote, which drives my sister insane when she's trying to read as I write. (I just tell her to stop reading over my shoulder and I'll write faster. Which isn't true, but it makes her go away. :P)
    The one difference I have, though, is that Im not wordy. At all. My MS is 35K right now, and I'm not really sure how to make it longer.... *facekeyboard*

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Subplots! =D They always lengthen books. And I also noted that one of the things that started adding lots of words to my manuscripts was when I grasped the showing versus telling thing--A LOT of my scenes were just told to the reader. Once I started showing them what was happening and what my character was feeling, that added quite a few words! (He was afraid. Versus- Chills skittered up his back and his palms went sweaty.)

      Delete
    2. Agreed! Showing instead of telling will make your word count skyrocket! :)

      Delete
    3. *takes notes* Thanks! I'll keep those thing in mind. :)

      Delete
  9. Hmm, I definitely lean in this direction, though I've trained myself to not go back over my writing too terribly much. But, like you, I always start my writing sessions by rereading the last scene or chapter that I wrote. When I hand write my stories, I generally type them up chapter by chapter, and that gives me a chance to tweak phrases and the like. With my current story, I have a deadline (it's for a contest), so I've been typing it instead of handwriting. I think I could easily shift my process to something similar to yours, though. In fact, I'm quite excited at the prospect. You've definitely given me some great ideas, Roseanna! Thanks so much!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I've never been one to write a second draft either, so this is nice to read. Glad to hear you don't always need to completely re-write.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Isn't that a relief? LOL. Go with what works for you. =)

      Delete
  11. Wow! Such an amazing post! This is almost exactly like I have always written. Just recently, however, I have stopped sending out my work for critique while I'm writing because I got so bogged down with what other people wanted me to change, I couldn't function. I got depressed and stopped writing and considered giving up my nine book series that I have spent three years working on. So now, after that, I hold off sending chapters until the rough draft is finished. Then I look for advice from my Q partners. I still go in and constantly tweak it myself, however. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You definitely don't want to do critiques as you write if it halts your writing! Not a good thing. And another case of finding what works for you!

      Delete
  12. Thank you so much for your insight! I tend to prefer editing as I go also, but I always felt I was doing it wrong. Thank you Roseanna for posting this. It was so very helpful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Isn't it nice to know there isn't just one right way? =)

      Delete
  13. It's really interesting to hear about other methods. :) At first I was more this type, but that tended to get me hung up a lot so I tried switching to rough first drafts. I'll probably try this again at some point, though, just to see if anything's changed :)

    Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And if it still hangs you up, you just toss it to the wind. The joys of a solitary pursuit--you have complete freedom to do it your way. =D

      Delete
  14. Hmm I wanna try to do this. I've done NaNoWriMo a lot and I think I've put myself in a mindset that just wants to write a book all at once. I end up with a bunch of unorganized thoughts and then I hate editing. It might be better to try it step-by-step, like you do. :) Thanks for your insight!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When you're writing with a time limit in mind, there's rarely time for editing, it's true. When I'm under tight deadline, I don't do much editing as I go either, LOL. But if you ate the editing afterward, it's certainly worth trying when you have the leisure!

      Delete
  15. Thanks for posting this Roseanna! For a while I thought I HAD to do the draft thing, because that's what most writers do, but then a few friends told me they edited as they went and I tried it and never looked back... I just hate having to go back and reread crappy writing. It helps if I go and fix it the major and save types and grammar and stuff for a smaller edit.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thank you SO, SO, SOOOO much for this post, Roseanna! This was SO helpful to me!

    I am very, very much like you. When I started writing stories at 11, this is how I did it: organically--before I knew anything about novelizing or storytelling at all, this was just 'how I did things'. Then, as I did more researching, I found myself trying to do things the 'right way' (writing in drafts) and it ended up stumping me and halting my creativity....I am totally a perfectionist, and the thought of leaving a whirlwind of messy words behind me is all I can think about, instead of being satisfied with my story and excited about what is to come!

    I feel so liberated, lol! :D

    This was SUCH an encouragement to me, thank you again SO much! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay, glad it was liberating! LOL. In artistic pursuits, never let a method make you grind to a halt. If it does, then it's not the method for you!

      Delete
  17. I love this post! I used to get stuck on always rewriting and never moving forward, then for a short time, NaNoWriMo helped me finish drafts, and I think I'm finally settling on a system similar to yours. It's fantastic!

    ReplyDelete
  18. And this is how I do it, too.
    So freeing to read I'm not the only one, Roseanna! Thanks for this post!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I think you have just described me. Like 99.99%.

    ReplyDelete

Home