So you’ve just finished your first draft of a manuscript. Congratulations! That’s quite an accomplishment, and you should feel proud of yourself! Time to head to the local print shop and start mailing out unsolicited copies to every publisher you can google. Right?
Now is the time to take at least a few weeks off, if you can, so you can distance yourself from your work. Do as many things that allow your brain to decompress and think differently about the work you’ve just penned. Take plenty of walks, shower for extended periods of time, read some books you have been putting off getting to, but then get ready, because soon you’re going to have to start all over again. Why? Because you owe it to yourself and to your work to do so.
Chances are you had a good idea of who your characters were when you started writing, but by the end your understanding of the characters was much greater than when you started. Time to revisit your character profiles. How do your characters compare now to how you had profiled them? Do you like how they ultimately turned out? Maybe you feel underwhelmed by their existence in the story. Maybe somewhere during writing you added depth to the character to make them not so flat.
My suggestion: Upgrade your character profiles to character bibles. Having a handy document for each major character to refer to from time to time will help you keep track of what each character’s motivations are, and that will help you understand the decisions they would come to, the actions they would take in any given scenario, and how they would feel about the different things that happen in your plot.
Having a character bible handy helps you create meaningful dialogue between characters, allows you to go crazy with subtext, and helps keep each character interesting. If you want readers to be heavily invested in your characters, then make them real, and make them consistent throughout the book. Even when a character grows and changes, there should still be things about them that are always true. Think of people in your own life who have made major changes, yet still seem like the same people you have always known. Just like the cross-section of a tree, you should be able to count the rings on a well-developed character.
The best litmus test for consistent character composition throughout the story is simply to re-read the entire manuscript. You may find that there are things about your characters when you first started writing that are vastly different from where they ended up. Re-writing gives you the chance to address these issues and make all of the major characters worth reading.
Plot Holes, Confusion and Inconsistencies
Now that you’ve taken on the daunting task of reading your manuscript, you may realize that there are things that aren’t clear, are inconsistently referenced throughout the story, or, God forbid, you find a plot hole that throws the story off the rails for half of the book. How do you handle this?
Simply put, not all revisions are total re-writes, but some have to be in order to do justice to your story and your characters, and to keep the confidence of your readers. If the first draft of your manuscript has these things, that’s 100% fine and acceptable. If your final draft has these things, something is horribly awry in the process you’re using to write the book. You really need to continuously work toward making a bullet-proof draft, especially if you are an unpublished writer.
Here’s another tip: Don’t let anyone read your first draft. You should be the only reader for this draft. The second draft is the soonest you should ever consider letting someone else read your story, because you will always catch things that do not pass your mark of quality in your first writing. And then you’ve spoiled the experience for whoever it is that was nice enough to read your first draft. Do yourself and them a favor and resist the temptation to share, even if they are really insistent on reading it as soon as possible. There will be confusion. There will be character, writing tone and reference inconsistencies. There might even be plot holes. You, as the first reader, must find these things and address them before anyone else has the chance to do so.
Cutting the Fat
Even the most excellent adventure can meander off in a direction that kills the whole flow of the story. Perhaps there’s a scene in the book that you were in love with in draft one, but by draft three, it just seems odd and not pertinent to the main story. Here’s a quick and easy guide to determining whether you should keep a scene:
- Does the scene move the plot forward? or…
- Does the scene give us a deeper understanding of a character’s personality and motivations in a way that will be important to the plot?
If the scene in question doesn’t do one or both of these things, you should really consider re-working it or cutting it completely.
Example: In a story you are writing, you have a scene where describe a marketplace. Here, we are introduced to this place with a great deal of visual descriptions, understandings of the inner-workings of the place, the daily life of the inhabitants. There’s an incredible amount of world building involved: there’s magic a-plenty, there’s floating objects that seem to have minds of their own, there’s all sorts of things that would make a reader interested in going to that place – but it’s not until we understand why this place is important to the story that it has really earned a spot in your manuscript.
Picture the same scene, but now we see it from the perspective of a character at the beginning of the book. How do they react to seeing this place? Is it the first time? Are they filled with wonder at seeing the place, or are they jaded in their perception, in contrast to how the reader should feel?
If you really want to drive home the importance of this scene, you can revisit the same location later in the book and either have a change in the character perceiving the place to show what has changed about them, or have the place itself change, to show how the events of the book have directly affected a place we have come to know. Maybe it’s destroyed as collateral damage of a war. Maybe it’s under lockdown. Maybe the magic has gone out of it and it’s a normal, boring market now. Or maybe it’s a happier place as a result of the hero’s brave endeavors. At any rate, it’s through our characters’ eyes that give meaning to the places, and that makes the scenes earn spots in your final draft. And that brings me to my final point…
Yes, you will likely be making changes both small and large, but that’s not actually the change I’m talking about here. I’m specifically referring to the changes to the characters and to their world in your story. If there is not a significant amount of change, and you find the story isn’t all that compelling to read, this could definitely be the culprit.
What makes some of the most popular stories so compelling is that we see not only the characters undergo serious change, we see the world around them react to that change.
In Star Wars, we see a young man go from impoverished moisture farmer to galactic knight, and in the process he frees the galaxy from the grasp of a terrible tyrant. In other examples of the Hero’s Journey, we see similar arcs – Neo in The Matrix, Bilbo/Frodo (and others) in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Odysseus in The Odyssey.
In other stories such as tragedies like Breaking Bad, we see changes just as compelling, but in the opposite direction. The writers on Breaking Bad are so aware of the need for changes in storytelling, that they deliberately tell us this through Walter White at the beginning of the story in front of a class:
Then, throughout the story we see the sometimes drastic, sometimes gradual changes for Walter White and all of the other characters who come into contact with him. Every single one of them is affected by changes of their own, and that is what makes the show so gripping and highly praised by critics and viewers alike.
Not every story has to be as extreme in the changes that occur, but you never, ever want to leave readers feeling like they wasted their time reading it. Even if the ending is not a happy one, it still beats a story that doesn’t go anywhere with characters who are just as awful or good at the end as they were in the beginning.
If you’re having trouble thinking of ways to incorporate change into your story, go back and refer to your character bibles. What are the worst things you can imagine happening to your characters, based on their profile? Why not make that happen, and see how they react to it?
It’s a strategy that George R. R. Martin employs all the time, and it typically pays off with characters that are significantly changed, but also that much more compelling to follow. Look at Jaime Lannister, for example. At the beginning of the series, he’s pretty much irredeemable. Then, through the events in his life, we slowly start to empathize with him, leading him to be some people’s favorite character by the end of the series. That’s good storytelling, right there.
You, too, can employ strategies like this if you’re struggling with showing enough change in your stories. You’ll just have to make some changes…
And that’s why the re-write is absolutely non-negotiable if you want to do the best you can do in your storytelling. Don’t sell yourself short. Take a break, but don’t think for a second you’re all done – you’ve just begun the writing process. Might as well buckle in and enjoy the ride.