You’ve finally arrived at the point where all the magic happens! You’ve learned how to craft sentences, paragraphs and chapters, and now we will take a look at your book or story as a whole.
It’s often said that rewriting is just as important as the writing itself. The first time you sit down to write, you’ll write whatever comes to mind and continue to do so for a few weeks until the basic story is finished. Then you reread it, and rewrite where necessary. Then you reread again. This process continues until you read your story without marking anything or doubting whether something should be in there or not.
Some people write for only a week, and then spend months on rewriting. Some do it the other way around. That decision is completely up to personal preference, but I strongly recommend you use this draft and revision system. This chapter discusses some tips and tricks.
Stephen King once said that ‘a first draft – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season.’ I think that is a good guideline, but if you’re writing part time or as a hobby, this might be quick. Don’t rush yourself, put quality over quantity.
Read a lot, write a lot: Every book has a lesson to teach. The bad ones show what not to do, what lies dead on the page, while the good ones teach about style, narration, elegance – all elements that create a compelling story. Reading a lot helps create an ease and intimacy with writing, which allows us to dip into our creativity and write without being self-conscious.
Focus: Don’t look at a reference book while doing a first draft. Don’t look up the correct spelling for certain words, or the name of that famous singer you need. When you sit down to write, write. There’s enough knowledge in your head to write a basic storytelling, and snapping out of it to use stuff you don’t need or aren’t familiar with is a bad idea.
Only after the first draft is done, is the chance to add grace-notes and ornamental touches. Only then get out your thesaurus and replace some words for ones that fit better.
As Stephen King said: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
Self-criticism: Limit self-criticism at the beginning (first draft), turn it loose during revision.
If you haven’t marked up your manuscript a lot the first time, you didn’t do your job. Nobody gets things right the first time.
Tune your Voice: Try out different styles and find your own authentic way of storytelling.
Write what you like, then imbue it with life. Make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge about life, friendship, work, etc. You have your own thoughts, interest, concerns from your experiences – use them in your work.
The only thing that matters is how your prose rings on the page and in the ear. If you expect it to ring true, you must talk to yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk.
Don’t turn away from what you know and like in favour of things you believe will impress friends, relatives, or anyone else.
Dig for the Concrete and Specific: Always mention specific aspects if they have a meaning in the story. You can describe a man wearing a green T-shirt – but if the colour green or that T-shirt doesn’t have any meaning in the story, why should you ever include it? On the other hand, you could regularly make the character cough or clear his throat to signal he has been smoking a lot, to already subtly reveal to the reader he will die of lung cancer halfway through the story.
Subtle Revealing: Reward the reader by subtly revealing bits of information throughout the story. Not only is it better for the flow of the story to not throw all information in one chapter, it also makes the reader continue and keeps them interested.
Reveal character traits through scenes, details and dialogue. Not using description.
Place interesting, mysterious, shocking, unfinished bits every now and then to connect the story together. Don’t reveal too much – you stand the chance of giving away important plot points very early on.
Cut Big, then Small: First lift whole paragraphs, parts or even chapters of the story. Only then start fine-tuning the details.
Some tips on what big parts to cut:
- Cut any passage that does not support the focus of the story
- Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes or scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
Some targets for small cuts:
- Adverbs that intensify rather than modify: just, certainly, entirely, completely, exactly.
- Prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious: in the story, in the article, in the movie, in the city.
- Phrases that grow on verbs: seems to, tends to, should have to, tries to
- Abstract nouns that contain active verbs: consideration becomes considers, judgment becomes judges, observation becomes observes.
- Restatements: a sultry, humid afternoon
Remember: lots of small cuts make more of a difference than one big one, but are harder to perform. Removing a scene simply takes one not-so-important block out of the story. Improving fifty sentences makes a whole chapter a hundred times better.
The six-week layoff: After your first (or second) draft is done, go do something else. After six weeks, pick up your story again and read it all the way. You’ll recognize it as being yours, but it will also feel like reading somebody else’s work. This way it is easier to spot your mistakes and kill what is bad, to make your good passages even stronger.