Tuesday, 19 April 2016

After the First Draft – Ten Steps to Improve your Novel!

So – you’ve finally finished the first draft of your novel. Congratulations! You’re ecstatic, dazed - and just a teeny bit knackered. What do you do next (after flopping in a heap)?

I’ve just finished a first draft and thought I’d share the process of what I did next – nothing definitive, just ideas – on that crucial stage. If anyone’s counting, the first draft took me three months, the first revision, a month.

I know a lot of people leave their first draft in a drawer for a few weeks/months once its ready, but I like to do a round of editing first, just so I have the peace of mind that at least the story works, before I hide it away. If I take it out later and it simply doesn’t hang together, I’m going to be very demoralised!

After the First Draft - First Revision

1. Firstly, I do a continuity check. I go through each chapter and mark down details about people and places. Facts, backstory, everything - so, say, when I get to Dan's broken leg in chapter 28, I don’t forget it's the fibula, not the tibia, he broke - and it's the left leg, not the right, etc. I also write down everyone’s names (to avoid duplication across my other books, too). Tip: In the first draft, I put in the exact time and day at the start of each scene, so it’s easy to spot jumps in time when I move chunks around.

2. At the end of each chapter, I jot down a resume of ‘what we know’ at that stage, to make sure the order of events is exactly right.

3. I also check what the key themes are… do these get followed through properly?

4. I mark, in general, where scenes take place – are there too many scenes in one place? Do people always seem to meet in the park or someone’s sitting room? I remember one writer saying all her characters seemed to be leaning against doorframes...

5. Can anything be pared down to make it less complicated? Must your lead character be a drug-addict, have OCD, anacrophobia and dyslexia - might the plot be clearer, if you use just two of those issues?

6. I find the slowest scenes and chapters – mark particularly good ones. Why are the good ones better? I think about what can be cut.

7. Is there enough Dialogue? Is all the dialogue in pairs or are there ensemble pieces?

8. Are there too many characters and do we get to know any of them well enough? Too few?

9. I also get down to the nitty-gritty of looking for duplicate words – I had twenty-five instances of ‘slip’ and fourteen of ‘buzzing’ in my latest one! Breath, breathe, much, such are also culprits (for me).

10. I make sure there are crisp openings and cliff-hanger endings to every chapter.

During this time I also do the:
  1. Elevator Pitch - This might sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many people can’t describe, in a nutshell, what the central drama in their novel actually is. I play around with: This novel is about… and try to find only one sentence to sum it up.
  2. Synopsis – (Tip: having highlighted plot points in my chapter list beforehand, helps).
  3. Jacket Blurb.
  4. Taglines – bite-sized tasters that could go on the front cover - this helps me tighten up exactly what the story is about.
  5. Title - I check these on Amazon to make sure a book with the same title doesn't already exist. I check ‘coming soon’ titles, too. (See the 'mix-up' that ensued with one of my earlier titles, here!)
After that, I leave it on a low heat to simmer for two weeks/months/whatever…before reading again and checking for pace, quality of writing, clunky sentences etc, etc. Only then, will I dare to share it with my first beta-reader... Major structural and copy editing with a professional editor, comes later.

I'd love to hear how other writers approach their first draft.

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-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------              AJ Waines’ novels are Standalones and can be read in any order:

  •  Over 180,000 books sold worldwide
  • Girl on a Train  a Number One Bestseller on Kindle in UK and Australia (2015)
  • The Evil Beneath Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' (UK Kindle charts)
  • No Longer Safe went straight to Number One 'Crime Noir' (US & UK Kindle charts)
  • Awarded Kindle KDP Top 10 'most-read Author' in UK (2015)
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