Make it strange – revising my first draft

Or rather, preparing to revise my first draft.

I finished draft 1.0 of my YA alternate earth novel (which followed on from a very detailed draft 0.5) just over a month ago. It came in at the planned 60,000 words, (a zillion and one articles cite anything between 40,000 and 80,000 as the ideal YA length), it had a beginning, a middle and an end and I thought it was clearly the best thing ever written.  At least by me. Ignoring all the received wisdom to put it away for at least a month, I launched straight into draft 2.0.

And stopped dead in my tracks*.

It was impossible. The first sentence alone needed every word changing. And as for the first chapter? Well, I couldn’t get through the first page, let alone the whole book. Clearly I was going about this the wrong way.

Luckily, the feedback for a “highly commended” placing in one of the Winchester Writers Conference competitions showed up at just that moment. It was a highly professional, detailed critique of my first 500 words and it tactfully but thoroughly vivisected them. Clearly the plot wasn’t set up properly, it took too long for anything to actually happen, there was too much detail and yet not enough…

After I stopped crying, I realised that Elizabeth at Fog City Writer was correct and that I was in no position to start work yet. I hadn’t achieved any kind of distance or objectivity. I need to make my book strange, to get myself to the point where I could read my first draft and discover the things I needed to do without my own feelings (or urge to tweak sentence structure to the nth degree) getting in the way. I needed to see my own book through the eyes of a stranger.

So I put it away in a virtual drawer and began to read other YA books. Lots of them. I took Holly Lisle’s invaluable How To Revise A Novel article as a guide and read them as thoroughly and critically as I could. For some of them, I made notes on plot structure, story arc, numbers and POV and the pragmatic logistics of how long particular characters spent doing what. I paid particular attention to age group – was I aiming for 10-12 or 13-14? Or somewhere in the middle? How did novels written targeting girls differ from those targeting boys? (The short answer seemed to be more guns and less kissing. Then I started The Hunger Games and all bets were off).

The best of them made me want to give up. The less good were oddly inspiring – “I can do better than that!” But most of all, I began to understand what at a more visceral level (as opposed to a theoretical level) it was I need to worry about in draft 2:

  • Plot
  • Dynamics
  • Main Character development
  • Overall tone

If I can crack the worst of the many issues I have relating to the above, I’ll have something I can feel is ready to circulate amongst my test readers for critique on the same issues. After that, I’ll probably have to start the whole thing over. There’ll certainly be another draft. And another.

Meanwhile, it’s printed out, my red pencil is sharpened and I don’t really recognise my own prose any more. I’m ready to revise.

* If I ever use that phrase in an actual piece of art, shoot me. Really**.

** Unless I’m clearly doing something clever and witty.


About Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

Writing, reading, listening, parenting... On Twitter as @dadwhowrites. View all posts by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

20 responses to “Make it strange – revising my first draft

  • elizabeth

    Sounds like you’re right on track! Good luck!

  • Kristi

    The Plot Whisperer is running a monthlong series on revising your novel:
    I’ve been sort of half-heartedly following it — I know my YA book needs TONS of work esp. on the plot front…. I am good at sentences, but not so good at plot.

  • dadwhowrites

    I’ll have to check it out! Anything to prevaricate for a few minutes more from the big fat arch lever file waiting for me at home…

  • NikkiiH

    I’ve never fancied The Hunger Games – it pops up in my recommendations all the flipping time too! I take it you enjoyed them? I’ve just finished Exodus and Zenith by Julie Bertagna, fabulous stuff 🙂

  • Pippy

    Why a red pencil? Why not 4 different coloured pencils?

    If you’re set on only having one colour, why not a green one?

    And remember to identify the bits you really like too, perhaps you need silver star stickers for those bits or smiley face stickers.

    • dadwhowrites

      I have four different coloured markers and my red pencil is actually a Lamey cartridge pen. What I really need is a plain white sticker to write down a key as to what each colour means but Dudelet’s used them all up.

      • Pippy

        does it have a left handed nib? Oh & is it red or is the ink red, or better still, is it red with green ink …. (doing a little dance of excitement …. I need to get out more).

        & you know if you don’t have plain white stickers, you do have 4 fingers, each with 3 different sections, about the same size as plain white stickers (well the ones I’m thinking off), use those instead …. they’ll always be to hand ….

  • J

    My daughter tried to read “The Hunger Games” and couldn’t get into it. She’s a huge fan of the Scott Westerfield books, esp. the “Pretties” titles, and now the steam punk “Leviathan” and its sequel. Me? I really like Meg Rosoff’s stuff.

    A list of YA authors I like probably doesn’t do much for you right now one way or the other. But I will say that I really admire the effort that goes into writing, and I hope to buy your book in our local bookstore sometime in the not too distant future.

  • Selina Kingston

    Your passion is evident and your desire to write a “good” book, especially as you know full well what a bad book is now, suggests to me that we could probably see it in the recommended lists one day

    • dadwhowrites

      Aw! But there are so many people writing books in my blogroll etc, never mind on the planet. I’ll start getting anxious about that if this one reaches a submit-able state (and that’s at least a year away – and something ready to submit is probably years away from being publishable. Well, if you’re fitting in work and parenting. And The Apprentice.)

  • Charlotte

    Hooray! Congrats on finishing and good luck for the next stage. Radical things happened to me between the first and second drafts – they were traumatic but ultimately for the best. Keep yourself open to your gut feelings because if you ignore them in draft two, someone will definitely point them out to you in drafts three or four!

  • Michael

    Well done on getting the whole first draft done! I can’t imagine how difficult it would be, as you’re writing the first, to keep track of the plot, not to mention tone and character. For a novel, it’s all too BIG! I hope revising makes it all a lot clearer.

    I’m looking forward to one day having a copy in my hands, opening the front cover for the first time.

  • bsouth

    Crikey. It all sounds very complicated. I’m completely revising my mental image of writers. Not that I had a bad mental image of them, I just didn’t realise how technical it is.

  • Mwa (Lost in Translation)

    I just want to say well done you for getting a draft finished. Coolest thing!

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