You’ve finished the crappy first draft of your book or screenplay. Now what?
First, celebrate. Whooo Hooo! You did it. Do you know how many people start writing projects and don’t finish? You’ve already beaten the odds. Bravo!
Approaching your first read can be an intimidating task. First, accept that some pages are going to really suck. It doesn’t matter. You’re going to fix them. Next, acknowledge that some of the pages are going to be awesome. Congratulate yourself on these and be sure not to throw them away.
There are lots of ways to start and complete your rewrite, and every writer will have his or her own process. I’m going to share my process with you– it’s a good place to start until you find the approach that works best for you.
- Accept that most of your hard labor will come in this rewrite/revision process. You will have to think very hard, be flexible, work your ass off, and let go of things you love. Surrender to the process. See the edited page at the top of this post? It’s from the first draft of John Updike’s novel, Couples. Bummer, John.
- Take time off after you finish the first draft so you can approach it with fresh eyes. Wait a week or two, but not much more than that. You want to maintain the flow you’ve created.
- The first time you read through your book or screenplay, read it fast, taking NO NOTES. This is brutally hard, but you want to take the piece in as a whole. Don’t lose the chance for this first overall emotional read by getting caught up in making smaller notes you can do later.
- After you do this quick read, write down all the global things that work, and all the things that don’t.
- Read it again, and this time make smaller page notes. Ask yourself the following questions… Does my main character have a strong arc– do we see a transformation? Is the main character’s goal clear? Do we see him or her pursuing this goal through action? Does each scene in the book or movie move the story forward? Does the story build to a strong climax where the character has to make a decision and change? Is the structure working? Are the act or chapter breaks effective? Are there things that need to be fleshed out or cut? If you have a problematic element (a character or plot thread) and can’t figure out why it’s not working, try copying every moment this element appears (in chronological order) into a separate document. Read through to see why the element isn’t tracking. Sometimes it’s easier to diagnose a problem when it’s separated from all the narrative stuff around it. Finally, do all your scenes have the four elements necessary to make them great?
- Make a new outline that solves all the problems
- Copy your first draft into a new document, and using the new outline as your guide, rewrite.
Again, this is just my strategy for approaching my first rewrite, but I love that it allows me to take the project in on a global level, then helps me find and create the smaller machinery parts to solve the problems.
Take action! If you’ve completed your first draft, use the above steps to get through the rewrite. Remember to ask yourself whether the larger story elements are working. Does your main character change? Is there cause and effect in the narrative? Does the story build to a climax?
Go through this process repeatedly until you’ve taken the draft as far as you can go. If you want, give it to a couple of trusted writer friends for feedback. If you get consistent notes from these people (they identify the same issues) you know you’ll need to solve these problems.
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