\As I jump back and forth between freelance articles and the edits for my next novel, The Weary God of Ancient Travelers, which are due at the end of this month, I’m realizing just how precarious a draft is.
I wrote this novel about five years ago. I’ve done about 12 or so extensive drafts. I’ve worked on the story at workshops and done a novel-in-progress swap with other writer friends. Then, at the 11th of 11th hours, I decided that something major to both plot and character arc – something I loved when I wrote my first draft of this novel – just wasn’t working. Now, I’m forced to go through the painstaking process of adjusting this aspect of the larger story and filling in the cracks left behind in a novel when something big is changed. This filling in of the cracks can be the most daunting part of the revision process. Plenty of information abounds regarding how to draft a novel, but not nearly as much is written on how to make your draft make sense and feel cohesive after you’ve gone through so many revisions.
The first thing I notice when I teach any novel-writing workshop is just how chewed-on (that’s always been the description I use) the first sentence of so many later drafts of first novels sound. Chewed-on – you know, like a glob of tasteless, used gum. (Not every first sentence to every first novel sounds this way; some first sentences are great. But many need a lot of work.)
Some first sentences aren’t first sentences at all but rather a placeholder for that great first sentence that is to come – and that’s fine, when you’re still in the drafting process. But it’s the chewed-on sentences that worry me the most: Something that feels as if it has been mulled over, written, then rewritten, then mulled over again, then erased, then rewritten, then maybe draft one gets merged with draft 27 of that same first sentence. Just as there is such a thing as over-writing, the notion of over-rewriting can be equally problematic, especially when you’re on draft six or seven (or 27) of a work, which is why it’s very important to fill in all those aforementioned cracks. Perhaps, for example, the sentence starts off with a serious tone, but the middle feels more casual, and then the writer either makes a joke or returns to serious at the end. These sentences are usually long, with plenty of information packed into them. But if those writers had gone more with the flow, and let the sentence flow, the tone, and therefore the sentences, would not be so inconsistent.
The goal of any longer work is to make it feel whole, like it came out of the ether that is the author’s mind fully formed – sans cracks, sans seams. What I want to explore here is what it’s like to synthesize these many drafts, so that the finished product – despite all of its major shifts and changes – feels like it came from your pen in one perfect piece instead of feeling “chewed-on.” How do you deal with a character you’ve changed? What’s to be done with that plotline you’ve altered? How do you incorporate that theme you didn’t see coming until the last chapter into the beginning and middle of the story? Sometimes when I get a draft of a novel to edit, I can see all the cracks and seams – the character discontinuity, the ways in which a plot changes without explanation, or how a character’s backstory just doesn’t add up. But what I’ve also learned about filling in those cracks is that while there are not always easy fixes, there are many ways to cover those seams before a more final draft emerges.
My father-in-law penned a couple of unpublished novels in the late ’60s. He said that the hardest part about rewriting at that time was that whenever he made a mistake or really wanted to change something, he’d have to rewrite an entire page. Without a word processor, when he wanted to make a significant change, he had to retype – yes, retype – an entire section or chapter. So, a true start-to-finish rewrite meant just that – retyping an entire manuscript with whatever changes were made. He believes that meant authors were much more decisive about when to rewrite, or retype, and when a change, small or large, was really and truly warranted.
(I by no means want to go back to those days of manual typewriters, but I do wonder if my writing, and especially my rewriting, would be different if I didn’t have my trusty word processor, the “Save As” function, and the always-reliable cut and paste to fall back on. For example, I just got off the phone with my editor a few hours before writing this. I told her I wanted to make a significant change to the novel we’re working on, and she said, “No, don’t do that, don’t even.” “What if I just did it and went back and compared?” I asked. “Why do you want to do that to yourself?” she answered. Sometimes I need to heed my own advice.)
Going back to those chewed-on sentences, the ones that just feel like they don’t make any sense, as if they’re trying to fit three or four ideas, or three or four drafts of sentences, into a single space, they certainly wouldn’t feel so chewed-on, so over-re-written, if the writer had to seriously wonder if they wanted to retype yet another page again. But what can you do about those? How do you fix something that has already been written and rewritten? Or, better yet, how can you write and rewrite so that you don’t have to do that much fixing in the first place? At the end of the day, it’s about continuity, and one change needs to make sense in the context of the page or chapter that has been altered and make sense to the whole.
The most interesting thing about writing longform fiction is that no matter how well you know your character in draft one, you will know them infinitely better by draft five. As you start to learn more about your character, sometimes things you did in chapter three of draft one seem uncharacteristic in chapter three of draft five. That’s not only because you’ve seen your character through to the end of the longer story but also because you’ve learned things about this character the longer you work on the story. When you mull over a scene in your head, when you turn it around and around and watch it from various angles, you start to see more, and you start to see things differently. There are instances when a character you thought was just a big jerk (and not much more) on paper turns out to have a pretty sympathetic side. Sometimes we just don’t know who our characters are when we begin our drafts, and therefore don’t know what we need to go back and foreshadow or fill in, until we’ve finished a draft. What do you do then?
Characters can and should change during the normal arc of any story, but those changes cannot feel random, and they cannot feel uncharacteristic. So that hint of the “good guy” within needs to show up early in the manuscript, even if it’s not until the end of a story that a character is fully realized.
Something like this happened with Disney’s Frozen. The first draft of Frozen was much more like the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Snow Queen” that the film is based on. In draft one of Frozen, Elsa was a villain who wanted to defeat Anna (who in some later drafts wasn’t even her sister) and rule Arendelle with an iron (and frosty) fist. Anna was always meant to be the heroine, but Prince Hans wasn’t even a part of the original plot. Even Olaf would have been a bad guy in the first-draft version. But once the creators of the film started to consider Elsa’s character and all she had dealt with while growing up with magical powers, Elsa ultimately became not a villain but a complex main character. Hans was added as a villain, and Elsa’s short, choppy black hair was changed to a long, blond braid as her character softened and the story went in another direction.
When a certain element of a character changes in a story, it causes ripples. New characters and elements of a plot might emerge, and other elements might have to be cut. Themes that you didn’t know were in a story might need to be hinted at more strongly. A story is all of a piece and should feel that way, and so when one major part of the story changes, the other pieces need to be altered as well.
Beyond character changes, a draft may also change simply because of something you, the author, might not have seen coming in draft one. I’ve seen the words “do we really need this?” or “can you give me a scene where…?” written on a few drafts of the novels I’ve submitted to my publisher. Sometimes I just didn’t include enough detail while going on and on in another spot. I like to say that plot is like an accordion. In one draft, you might have to stretch it out, and in the next draft, you might have to rein it all in again. And sometimes you’ll end up playing that accordion, in and out, many times before you hit the sweet spot.
So, then the question becomes, how do you synthesize all those various pulls and pushes of the accordion? One thing to remember, corny as I make it sound in my writing classes, is that foreshadowing is your friend. Whenever something changes, especially something big, whether it’s plot-altering or character-changing, you want to post enough road signs for the reader to get there. This will help you synthesize those many twists and turns, from draft one to draft five or six, so that the reader doesn’t feel like you just dumped a random scene with discussion of plot point X in there. This will also help a reader see the story more holistically. The major changes I started making to my novel really don’t materialize until the book is well past the middle, but I still needed to go back and make many changes to the rest for the change to feel organic to the story. Look at your manuscript when you make a big change: Where are there natural places to place “signposts” that will foreshadow the new events to come?
I tell my writing students all the time: Don’t approach a story with a theme; let the theme find you. Stories with built-in themes tend to sound overly preachy, and any good story will find its theme in time. The problem? Once you have found your story’s theme, how do you make sure the entire piece gets the memo about it? While theme can and should be discovered late in the process, it needs to be introduced early in the story. So, once you discover your theme, you should go back and sprinkle it throughout the earlier parts of your work. The first paragraph should echo the hint of your larger idea. Is there an image that pops up over and over again in the story? Maybe see how it can work thematically as well. Sprinkle symbols where there have not been symbols before. In Frozen, for example, filmmakers mention the sisters’ childhood many times and include images, like pictures of the sisters’ parents, to remind audience members of the sisterly bond Elsa and Anna share.
Back to that first sentence
The reason authors write and rewrite their first sentence is because they know that it is going to be the sentence to grab an agent, an editor, and potential readers, and so they want it to be perfect. In that quest for perfection, I can see the (proverbial) eraser marks all over those first sentences: This word isn’t right…no, that’s too deep…now that’s not deep enough. As a writing teacher, I know I put a lot of pressure on my students’ first sentences, and I know that they get better when students work on them. But, again, there is such a thing as too much editing, and what gets me about those chewed-on first sentences is that they feel just that, chewed-on, stale, like they are trying too hard to say the right thing, to be perfect, and so they don’t feel natural; they feel too written. Our goal is to find an organic first sentence, one that did not need to run the factory assembly line for drafts and drafts. A lot of this comes down to tone – when we find a consistent tone for our work, organic first sentences become much easier to write.
A novel or longer story needs to feel like a whole, as if it came out of the primordial ooze fully formed. Even if there were many cracks during the drafting process, you need to smooth those over by the finished project. That means making sure that any change, whether it is character, plot, or theme based, has been foreshadowed. It also means making sure that all the parts of the whole – character, plot, theme, etc. – reflect whatever changes and revisions you have made, so that when the reader puts the story down at the very end, they feel as if it was written in one gulp, even if, in fact, it took many, many drafts and many, many changes.
Ways to tackle our many drafts
- Save each draft separately as a different version.
- Write a list of changes that you make. Do this for each draft and keep your list neat, updated, and streamlined.
- Stay organized. Know where you’ve put your drafts. Label chapter changes. I’ve seen many a writer (including the one in the mirror) make drafting harder by neglecting organization.
- The “put a draft away until you can look at it with fresh eyes” advice is tried and true for a reason. Those fresh eyes will see new flaws and will also and will also see new things to inspire your storytelling.
- Make writer friends, whether it’s through classes, writing groups, or online. Then use their expertise to better your drafts. And definitely try to swap novel drafts, too. I cannot tell you how much I’ve saved on editors for my early drafts by having writer friends and trading favors.
- Never be afraid to change things. Also, never be afraid to change things back if it just doesn’t look right.
- Revision is hard, but knowing when to stop may be harder. It’s OK to celebrate the day you feel like you can leave your novel alone.
—Jessica Stilling is a Hugo-nominated author of young adult and literary fiction. She has published numerous articles in The Writer as well as Ms., Bust, and Tor.com. She has taught creative writing at the State University of New York, The City University of New York, Gotham Writers Workshop, and The New School. She currently lives in southern Vermont with her family. You can see her work at her website: jessicastilling.com.